Symbols & Secrets

Walking the City of London

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Secret & Sacred Rivers

I’m always intrigued by Londoners’ capacity to ignore odd behaviour. For example, I spent a good ten minutes bending over this grating, some of it virtually on my knees, and no one showed the slightest curiosity …

Junction of Greville Street and Saffron Hill (EC1M 3JF)

I was, of course, trying to hear the sound of running water since, directly underneath, runs probably the most famous of London’s ‘lost’ subterranean rivers, the Fleet. Its headwaters are two streams on Hampstead Heath, each of which was dammed into a series of ponds in the 18th century. At the southern edge of the Heath these descend underground as sewers which join in Camden Town. The waters flow four miles from the ponds to the River Thames, just underneath Blackfriars Bridge. Incidentally, it didn’t run down Fleet Street, it merely ran past its eastern, lower end.

This map, showing the route of the Fleet and various other waterways, is on display at the excellent Secret Rivers exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands …

Because of its later reputation, I always had a view that the Fleet where it joined the Thames would be a deeply unpleasant place, so this picture rather surprised me …

This painting (by a follower of Samuel Scott) was obviously influenced by Canaletto, who was based in England until 1755. Looking north across the Thames, it shows the entrance to the Fleet circa 1750 with Bridewell Foot Bridge, the City Wharf and Dock, and Blackfriars Stairs. The Fleet was developed into a canal up to Holborn, lending this view a Venetian appearance. This grand aspect, however, did not last long as the wharves proved unprofitable and Londoners continued to dump their rubbish in the river.

Originally a green river valley, the Fleet River had been gradually transformed into the Fleet Ditch, infamous for being a source of filth, corruption and disease. Observing a flood during a storm in 1710 Jonathan Swift penned the following lines …

Sweepings from Butchers Stalls, Dung, Guts and Blood,
Drown’d Puppies, stinking Sprats, all drench’d in Mud,
Dead Cats and Turnip-Tops come tumbling down the Flood.

Pope made this small literary contribution in 1728 …

To where Fleet Ditch, with disemboguing streams, rolls the large tribute of dead dogs to the Thames.

On display at the exhibition is sad little exhibit. Found during excavations of the old river bed, it’s a dog’s collar with the inscription ‘Tom at Ye Greyhound Bucklersbury’. Poor Tom.

There is a reminder in the exhibition of how muddy and dirty the City’s streets were. This pair of wooden pattens date from the 15th century and were used to protect shoes and raise the wearer above the mud. They have a leather hinge to aid walking …

London’s population grew rapidly through the seventeenth century from about 200,000 to about half a million which resulted in a significant rise in the need for coal. This was brought from the north east of the country in barges which offloaded at wharves in the tidal Fleet. Street names that survive today remind us of this …

And the thoroughfare that ended at the canal, so you couldn’t go any further …

The Fleet Valley from Clerkenwell to the Thames housed many of London’s prisons and all manner of vice was practised in the dingy, stinking claustrophobic rookeries (slums). Nor was there much privacy if you had to go to the loo. This medieval oak three-seater toilet seat was found over cesspit in a yard behind buildings that faced on to modern day Ludgate Hill …

This picture tells a story. It’s an 1841 drawing by Antony Crosby of the Fleet River at Holborn Bridge – note the wooden latrine projecting over the ditch on the left …

Holborn Viaduct was built between 1863 and 1869 in order to span the Fleet and provide level access from east to west – a great improvement in an era of horse-drawn traffic. You can see it reaches over a deep valley …

Looking north whilst standing on what was the bank of the old Fleet canal.

When I climbed the stairs to take a picture from above a curious City dragon popped his head up to see what I was doing …

Gradually the entire river was enclosed in Victorian sewer tunnels and it now flows into the Thames under Blackfriars Bridge (just below where the banker Roberto Calvi was found hanged in 1982) …

Rivers, such as the Thames and the Walbrook, influenced where the Romans founded Londinium and the Museum of London exhibition also illustrates the fact that our connection to water goes beyond the practical, reaching into the spiritual. While most objects found in London’s rivers are lost items, rubbish or remnants of river-related activities, some cannot be explained so easily. These bear witness to the spiritual importance of rivers.

On display, for example, is this first or second century AD small representation of a river god, possible Neptune, apparently cast or placed into the Walbrook …

And this piece of a marble offering is particularly fascinating …

The inscription has been translated thus:

To the Divinities of the Emperors (and) to the god Mars Camulus. Tiberinius Celerianus, a citizen of the Bellovaci, moritix, of Londoners the first …

It is the first example from the capital to use the word Londiniensi or ‘Londoners’. The language suggests a man who hailed from northern France and probably traded or travelled regularly within that region but whose home seems to have become London.

If you want to read more about Roman London I have written three earlier blogs on the subject: The Romans in London – Mithras, Walbrook and the Games, The Romans in London … and two Roman ladies and The Roman Wall revisited.

The Museum of London Docklands exhibition runs until 27th October this year. I highly recommend it.

A man in a silk dress and a gallant rescue

There seems to be no end to the wonderful paintings to be found at the Guildhall Art Gallery. This one is a representation of a famous Greek myth – the murder by Clytemnestra of her husband Agamemnon. Here she stands, wild-eyed in the Mediterranean sunlight, outside the room where she has committed the deed. In the background behind her we can just make out the outline of a dimly lit body …

‘Clytemnestra’ by John Collier (1882)

Agamemnon had commanded the Greek forces which besieged Troy during the Trojan Wars. Before setting sail for home, he sacrificed their youngest daughter Iphigenia to ensure a favourable wind for his fleet. To make matters worse, he returned with his lover, the prophetess Cassandra, the captured daughter of King Priam of Troy. Enraged and grieving, Clytemnestra and her son murdered them both in revenge

Collier was famous for his close attention to detail. There is light etching on the axe blade and the blood drips and runs authentically. All the little roundels we can see in the picture are different …

One has to say, however, that the more you study the figure the more it looks like a man. There is a pure physical dominance – and look at the muscular arms and large hands gripping the axe handle and holding back the curtain …

Collier brings extraordinary attention to detail in her blood-spattered garments.

It is now thought that Collier took his inspiration from an 1880 performance of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon at Balliol College, Oxford in which Clytemnestra was played by a male student, one Frank Benison.

On a much lighter note, here is a pretty little girl attending her first sermon …

My First Sermon’ by John Everett Millais

She obviously knows this is an important occasion in her life and sits with her back straight, eyes attentively focused looking ahead. She is the artist’s 5 year old daughter Effie. On seeing it the Archbishop of Canterbury commented …

… our spirits are touched by the playfulness, the innocence, the purity, and … the piety of childhood

In 1864 the artist produced a sequel entitled ‘My Second Sermon’ …

The Archbishop, Charles Longley, was obviously a rather good sport, and when he saw the later picture commented …

… by the eloquence of her silent slumber, (she has) given us a warning of the evil of lengthy sermons and drowsy discourses. Sorry indeed should I be to disturb that sweet and peaceful slumber, but I beg that when she does awake she may be informed who they are who have pointed the moral of her story, have drawn the true inference from the change that has passed over her since she has heard her “first sermon,” and have resolved to profit by the lecture she has thus delivered to them.

I was reminded of this wonderful drawing of a Victorian congregation who are finding the sermon rather heavy going …

At the far end of the gallery, in a space specially designed for it, you look down on the action-packed painting by John Singleton Copley: ‘Defeat of the Floating Batteries at Gibraltar 1782’ …

A Spanish attack on Gibraltar was foiled when the Spanish battering ships, also known as floating batteries, were attacked by the British using shot heated up to red hot temperatures (with wry humour, sailors nicknamed them ‘hot potatoes’). I have written about this picture in more detail in an earlier blog which you can find here.

However, there was a detail I missed and really should have pointed out. Fire spread among the Spanish vessels and, as the battle turned in Britain’s favour, an officer called Roger Curtis set out with gunboats on a brave rescue mission which saved almost 350 people. Here is the gallant officer and his men carrying out the rescue, tucked away at the bottom left of the picture. The British flag billows symbolically behind them …

Undoubtedly a very chivalrous act.

A rather distinguished looking man gazes towards a painting of the Grand Opening of Tower Bridge on 30 June 1894 …

He is the architect, Horace Jones, who designed the bridge but sadly died in 1887 before it was completed.

The painting is by William Lionel Wyllie (1851-1931), the most distinguished marine artist of his day …

My eye was immediately drawn to the lady in the light blue dress and the man who looks like her companion sitting on his collapsible chair …

They were obviously important enough to bag a riverside view along with other folk who seem to have packed a wine-accompanied picnic. I know she’s looking through binoculars but I couldn’t get the idea out of my head that she was taking a picture with her smartphone.

There are more treasures on display this week including Horace Jones’s original plans (but they don’t photograph very well through glass) …

I really can’t resist views of London that incorporate the river …

The Thames by Moonlight with Southwark Bridge by John Atkinson Grimshaw (1836-1893)

Today Leeds born Grimshaw is considered one of the greatest painters of the Victorian era, as well as one of the best and most accomplished nightscape, and townscape, artists of all time.

And finally, I paid a quick visit to the Roman Amphitheatre in the basement and took this picture of what is believed to be the opening used to allow wild animals to enter the arena. We can see two slots into which a gate may have been raised and lowered …

If you haven’t done so yet I highly recommend the free guided tours that take place on Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays – you can find out more here on their website.

My favourite animals

Every now and then I have been featuring City animals in the blog and I am going to to pick out again some of the ones I like best.

There is the grumpy dolphin from The Ship pub in Hart Street (EC3R 7NB) …

He needn’t look so worried – both he and the pub are Grade II listed

What about this splendid animal standing outside Spitalfields Market with Hawksmoor’s 1714 masterpiece, Christ Church, Spitalfields, in the background …

This goat would have got my vote

Wonderfully entitled I Goat, it was hand sculpted by Kenny Hunter and won the Spitalfields Sculpture Prize in 2010 (E1 6AA). The artist commented …

Goats are associated with non-conformity and being independently-minded. That is also true of London, its people and never more so than in Spitalfields.

This honey bee is, appropriately, a keystone over the entrance to Honey Lane which connects Cheapside with Trump Street (EC2V 6DB).

107 Cheapside – a busy bee buzzes up to some fruit and flowers

It is part of the old headquarters of The Sun Life Assurance Society whose Zodiac covered entrance I wrote about in my earlier blog Looking at the Stars. Although the connection to Honey Lane is obvious, it’s possible the insurance company also liked the reputation bees have for industriousness and providing for the future. The name of the lane comes from the bee-keepers who used to live there and it also once led to All Hallows Honey Lane, a medieval church destroyed in the Great Fire.

This little Scottish terrier is called Chippy. He rests now in All Hallows by the Tower at the feet of his master the Reverend ‘Tubby’ Clayton CH MC who became vicar of the Church in 1922 and remained there until 1963. He is best known for his work initially as an army chaplain during the First World War and in particular the establishment of Talbot House, a unique place of rest and sanctuary for British troops. After the war the spirit and intent of Talbot House became expressed through the Toc H movement.

All Clayton’s Scottish Terriers were called Chippy

A wise owl gazes at the commuters as they trek over London Bridge from his perch on the House of Fraser store opposite the north entrance to the bridge.

The building used to be the offices of the Guardian Royal Exchange Insurance Company

As you approach the Bank junction from Cheapside look up and you will see two young boys at either end of the grand building that was once the City headquarters of Midland Bank (1935). The are both struggling with a rather angry looking Goose …

The sculptor was William Reid Dick

Why a goose? A clue is the ancient name of the street and the goose was a suggestion by the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens to commemorate its original market function. The building is now a private club and restaurant, called The Ned in Sir Edwin’s honour (he would no doubt be chuffed).

This magnificent leaping fox appears on the exquisite Grade II listed Art Deco shopfront of the Fox company, who manufactured and repaired umbrellas. Mr Fox opened his first shop in the City in 1868 but this shop dates from 1935. You can still purchase a classy Fox umbrella if you go to their website, but the shop is now a wine bar.

Fox and Company Limited, ‘Recovers’ and ‘Repairs’, 118 London Wall, EC2Y 5JA

Once surrounded by the throbbing printing presses of Fleet Street newspapers, Gough Square is today a quiet haven off the noisy main road. Now known as Dr Johnson’s House, 17 Gough Square was built by one Richard Gough, a City wool merchant, at the end of the seventeenth century. It is the only survivor from a larger development and Dr Johnson lived here from 1748 to 1759 whilst compiling his famous dictionary …

Nearby, Johnson’s most famous cat, Hodge, is remembered by this attractive bronze by John Bickley which was unveiled by the Lord Mayor, no less, in 1997. Hodge sits atop a copy of the dictionary and alongside a pair of empty oyster shells. Oysters were very affordable then and Johnson would buy them for Hodge himself. James Boswell, in his Life of Johnson, explained why:

I never shall forget the indulgence with which he treated Hodge, his cat: for whom he himself used to go out and buy oysters, lest the servants having that trouble should take a dislike to the poor creature

People occasionally put coins in the shell for luck and every now and then Hodge is given a smart bow tie of pink lawyers’ ribbon.

‘A very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed’, said Johnson

And finally, from a famous cat to mysterious mice. Nibbling a piece of cheese, they add charm to a building in Philpot Lane off Eastcheap and have been described as London’s smallest sculpture. Even though they have been repainted they are still a bit hard to find – so I am not saying precisely where they are, and hopefully you will enjoy looking for them. One theory is that the builders in 1862 were pestered by mice who persistently ransacked their lunch packs, so they left this little informal tribute. Another is that they commemorate a man who died during the construction of the nearby Monument to the Great Fire. Mice had eaten his lunch, but he accused a fellow worker by mistake, and fell to his death in the fight that followed. As to the true story behind the little rodents, your guess is as good as mine.

The Philpot Lane mice

Broadgate sculptures (Part 2)

I have visited Broadgate and its sculptures in an earlier blog and I went back again last weekend to photograph some more.

First up is Rush Hour, a patinated bronze by George Segal (1982) situated in the Broadgate Circle (EC2M 2QS) …

We’ve all been there, haven’t we, heads down, not exactly rushing to get to the office. Or maybe just starting the long slog home on a rainy day (knowing there are train cancellations on our line).

Segal was renowned for casting his figures directly from life – usually friends and family – using plaster bandages to create human scale moulds from which his bronze sculptures could be cast. As a result, all the figures have their eyes closed …

This is Cascade in Exchange Square (EC2A 2EH). It was created by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (whose Chicago office designed much of Broadgate) and Stephen Cox RA (1991) …

‘Energising and restorative, this water cascade creates a natural oasis within Exchange Square. Calmed within the basin, the water develops circles of stillness around the enduring Indian granite stones, placed at measured intervals as if to signify the passage of time. The perfect place to pause and reflect on the day’s events’. Or maybe a place to chill out after a really horrific commute.

On Finsbury Avenue (EC2M 2PA) you will find Bellerophon Taming Pegasus by Jacques Lipchitz (1966) …

A half-size cast of Lipchitz’s final sculpture (which resides in Columbia University, New York), this is a representation of the epic moment in which Greek hero Bellerophon tames the winged horse Pegasus. This tangle seems to balance rather precariously on its pedestal with hooves, wings and tail radiating in all directions. For Lipchitz, this work demonstrated the ultimate dominance of man over nature, stating ‘You observe nature, make conclusions, and from these you make rules’.

On Broadgate Plaza (EC2M 3AB), Ganapathi and Devi (1988) is another work by Stephen Cox. Apart-yet-together, Ganapathi and Devi alludes to sculptural torsos and ancient themes; Devi refers to the female Hindu goddess, while Ganapathi is the Tamil name for Ganesha, the popular elephant god. Fusing power and sensuality, the stones combine historical and contempoary references, from the quarry to the executed forms …

The stone was sourced from the quarries of Mahabalipuram in Tamil Nadu, India …

Peering through the entrance to 155 Bishopsgate I spotted this spectacular piece of art (EC2M 3YD) …

It’s The Mechanics Institute II (1991) by William Tillyer. The notes say: ‘A carefully balanced composition of architecture, cloud, sky and foliage, Tillyer represents the notion of man’s presence via geometric patterns while the contrasting colours suggest the force of natural elements (flashes of warm sun, rushes of air currents, dappled blue light and gentle sea tides)’. The foyer is marketed to movie makers looking for locations as ‘a New York style atrium space’ and it certainly looks the part.

I wandered away from Broadgate, a hundred yards or so north up Bishopsgate, and came across Principal Place (EC2A 2BA) along with this interesting work entitled In Anticipation by James Burke (2018). Do have a look at the website.

Meanwhile, back in Broadgate, Venus still gazes skywards …

Read more about her and other sculptures here.

Secrets of Old Street – who remembers the Dansette record player?

Old Street really is old – recorded as Ealdestrate in about 1200, and leOldestrete in 1373. I started my walk heading west from Old Street Roundabout (or Silicon Roundabout as it was nicknamed some years ago, due to the nearby cluster of hi-tech businesses).

The Underground Station is now buried beneath the roundabout but was once much more visible …

Old Street station in 1929 (note the tramlines in the foreground). These buildings were demolished in the 1960s. Picture courtesy of the London Transport Museum.

As you leave the present day station you catch a glimpse of the spectacular Leysian Mission building – something for a future blog …

I crossed the road and started my Old Street journey on the south side of the street.

The first building of interest is on the left, what was previously St Luke’s Parochial School …

The foundation stone is now protected behind a perspex sheet (the school moved to new premises in 1972) …

A generous benefactor paid for this extension in 1887 …

‘Erected for 400 children’

Around the door there is some lovely gothic-style woodwork …

Across the road is this striking piece of street art …

‘Stop knife crime’.

It was commissioned by The Flavasum Trust to commemorate the life of a young man, Tom Easton, who died nearby in 2006 as a result of a knife attack. The painter was Ben Eine.

If you are feeling peckish, grab a tasty Turkish Kebab from my pal at number 94 …

Look up for the old Salvation Army Hostel ghost sign …

‘Hostel for working men. Cheap beds and food’.

There is a 19th century pub building on the corner with Whitecross Street. It was once the site of the Jack-a-Newberry Tavern, a notorious brothel …

A plaque on the side commemorates a former resident …

Whitecross Street Market is one of London’s oldest markets, dating back to the 17th century. By the 19th century it was known as the Squalors’ Market, due to associations with poverty and alcohol, but investment in 2008 has made it a thriving daytime street-food market.

I have written about Priss (‘the second best whore in the city’) and Whitecross Street in an earlier blog which you can find here.

On the other side of the road is the now de-consecrated St Luke’s church. It was designed by John James, though the obelisk spire, a most unusual feature for an Anglican church, the west tower and the flanking staircase wings were by Nicholas Hawksmoor

It was built between 1727-1733 to meet St Giles Without Cripplegate’s booming population.

The weathervane is actually a red-eyed dragon but for some reason locals thought it resembled a louse and nicknamed the church Lousy St Luke’s …

The church was closed in 1964 due to subsidence, but the previously derelict building has now been restored by the London Symphony Orchestra as a beautiful space for performances, rehearsals, recording and educational purposes.

William Caslon the Elder is buried in the churchyard. …

Caslon’s family grave. He died in 1766.

A typefounder, the distinction and legibility of his type secured him the patronage of the leading printers of the day in England and on the continent. His typefaces transformed English type design and first established an English national typographic style. Here is a specimen sheet of his typefaces from 1728. In it’s own way I think it is beautiful …

Caslon’s first workshop was in Helmet Row, next to the church. It has some early 19th century terraced houses, a few of which later had their ground floors converted into shops …

There are more 19th century buildings further to the west but I think the property on the right is more recent …

There is what looks like a livery company crest on one of them but I can’t identify which company …

Number 116 used to be the Margolin Gramophone Company factory …

They manufactured the Dansette record player – a name very familiar to us baby-boomers …

You could even buy a portable one!

Dansette production ended in December 1969, following the introduction of relatively cheap and efficient Japanese and other Far Eastern imported Hi-Fi equipment. Margolin went into liquidation.

At 12 Old Street is the building that once housed The Old Rodney’s Head public house …

The building is for sale at the moment – offers in excess of £6.5 million if you’re interested – EC1V 9BE.

George Brydges Rodney, 1st Baron Rodney (1718-1792) was a famous Admiral best known for his victory over the French at the Battle of the Saintes in 1782 which ended the French threat to Jamaica. The building dates from 1876 and Rodney still gazes down on Old Street …

Sadly the Hat and Feathers across the road has not reopened after a short time operating as a restaurant …

2 Clerkenwell Road EC1M 5PQ.

British History Online tells us that the building dates from 1860 and the facade – ‘gay without being crude’ – is decorated with classical statues, urns and richly ornate capitals and consoles. There are quite a few ghost pubs in the City and you can read more about them here.

I love this old photograph of tram lines being laid at the same junction …

There are some interesting things to see just off Old Street.

There is the seven storey, eleven foot wide, award-winning narrow house at 125 Golden Lane (it does come with a lift) …

The architect was Jo Hagan of USE Architects (2004)

Further down Golden Lane, turn left into Garrett Street and admire the old Whitbread Brewery stables. I have written about them in an earlier blog which you can find here

The Gentle Author has also taken a walk down Old Street and some of the pictures here of St Luke’s church are his. He also covers the east end on the other side of the roundabout which I did not. Here is a link.

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