Mr Bell Explores The City of London


One of my favourite places to explore in London is The City, it’s full of history and full of nooks and crannies that can easily be missed, every time I go into the city I discover something new. In this post I explore some hidden treasures and some not so secret parts of the square mile.

Emerging from Tower Hill underground station one of the first things that I see is one of London’s most famous attractions, the Tower of London. Founded by William the Conqueror in the 11th century the site has had various uses, from a fortress to a royal palace but most famously as a prison and a place of execution. Today visitors can see the Crown Jewels and the equally famous Beefeaters.

Next to the underground station is Trinity Square, going past Trinity House and the grand exterior of number 10, now the Four Seasons Hotel, I find Seething Lane. The gardens here contain a bust of Samuel Pepys whose offices used to stand on this spot.

A little further up is St Olave’s Church. Dickens described this as “One of my best beloved churchyards”. The entrance gate to the churchyard is quite gruesome and has skulls and crossbones carved out of stone across the top of it. On Hart Street there is a brief history of the church displayed on the north wall.

Along Hart Street is a colourful old pub called the Ship Tavern. Its wonderfully ornate decoration on the outside of the building is worth a look.

On Mark Lane is the ancient tower of All Hallows Staining which dates from 1320. Passing through Fen Court I can see several gravestones and table top tombs from an era long gone, the area is now mainly used by office workers from the surrounding buildings to have their lunch.

Fen Court brings me into Fenchurch Avenue where the modern Lloyds building looks down bringing me right back into the 21st century.

As I pass the spectacularly modern Lloyds building the equally spectacular Leadenhall Market appears. Designed by architect Horace Jones and opened in 1881 this beautiful covered market is filled with shops and restaurants and even retains some of its more traditional businesses like butchers and fishmongers. The market also featured as Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter films.

Passing through the market I eventually enter St Peter’s Alley where I find St Peter’s upon Cornhill or as Dickens called it, the church of the “great golden keys”. Those same keys still top the gateway into the peaceful churchyard today mainly used by office workers on their lunch breaks.

Following the alley round it pops me out onto Cornhill, I pass the Church of St Michael and then slip into Ball Court, another alleyway. As I get further in the traffic noise of modern London disappears and it feels like I could be back in the Dickensian era.

The traditional city eatery of Simpson’s, open since 1757 and which still serves its roast beef dinners and mutton chops sits in a dark corner. It was within this maze of alleyways that Dickens placed the counting house of Ebenezer Scrooge in his novel A Christmas Carol.

Another true Dickensian landmark of London sits a little further along the alley, the George and Vulture public house. The brass name plate on the main entrance around the corner in St Michael’s Alley shows the establishments original name as Dickens would have known it, Thomas’s Chop House.

As I follow the various alleyways around I eventually find myself back on Cornhill, in front of me are the grand Royal Exchange buildings. Just outside sits the bust of Paul Julius Reuter (1816-99), the founder of the world news organisation that bears his name.

The Royal Exchange was founded in the 16th century by city banker Sir Thomas Gresham. The present building was opened by Queen Victoria in 1844. Inside there are canvasses by several Victorian artists that show the rich and varied history of the City of London. The Royal Exchange now houses many exclusive shops.

Leaving the Royal Exchange from the front entrance I stop to look back at its magnificent portico and also that of the Bank of England which sits to its right.

On Lombard Street is the Church of St Mary Woolnoth. It was here on a Friday morning in 1868 that Father Ignatius angered the traders on Lombard Street by declaring them far worse than Jericho. A week later thousands of people armed with apples arrived to pelt the Father and his congregation, this became known as the “Apple Riot”.

The Church of St Stephen Walbrook has been called one of the most beautiful churches in London, designed by Sir Christopher Wren, its dome was apparently a prototype used as a test before he built the larger dome of St Paul’s Cathedral. The alter inside the church was carved by the sculptor Henry Moore at the request of the rector Chad Varah who founded the Samaritans in the 1950’s.

Walking along Watling Street I pass the small statue of the cordwainer, the old fashioned name for a shoemaker. It was in this area that most of the shoemakers and leather workers lived and traded.

The Ye Old Watling Pub was built by Sir Christopher Wren in 1666 and is supposed to have been constructed with wood taken from old dismantled ships timbers.

In Groveland Court is the Williamson’s Tavern. In the 17th century this was the site of the official residence of the Lord Mayor of the City of London. The wright iron gates at the far end of the courtyard were presented to the then Lord Mayor by William III (1650 – 1702) and Mary II (1662 – 94) during a visit they made to the City of London.

I’m now in Bow Churchyard where there is a statue to Captain John Smith, a parishioner of St Mary le Bow, and one of the first colonists to settle Jamestown Virginia, but it was his involvement with Pocahontas that he is probably most famous for.

Just off Old Jewry is a hidden gem of times gone by. In Frederick’s Place are a collection of elegant terraced houses that were built by the Adams brothers in 1776. In 1821 Benjamin Disraeli worked for a firm of solicitors at number 6, nobody then realised that the young clerk would end up being Prime Minister, twice.

The City of London’s Guildhall has a beautiful frontage that dates from the 18th century and is the seat of the Lord Mayor and the Court of Aldermen. Parts of the building date back to 1439, although it was badly damaged during the Great Fire and again during World War II. To the right of the Guildhall is the Guildhall Art Gallery which opened in 1999 and displays the Corporation of London’s large art collection.

In a small garden just off Love Lane I find a bust of William Shakespeare, it commemorates John Heminge and Henry Condell, actors and also friends of Shakespeare who lived in the area. They were the ones who collected together all of Shakespeare’s known works and arranged the publication of the first folio of his plays in 1623.

Also in the garden are the remains of the church of St Mary, Aldermanbury which was built in the 1670’s after the Great Fire. Sadly the church was gutted by fire during the Blitz bombings in 1940, and in the 1960’s was moved piece by piece to Fulton, Missouri, where it now stands in the grounds of Westminster College, where Winston Churchill gave his famous “Iron Curtain” speech in 1946.

Surrounded by modern buildings on Noble Street are the remains of a Roman Fort, built around AD120. Originally the fort would have covered 12 acres and accommodated the guards of the Roman Governor of Britain, housing at least 1000 men in the barracks.

On Aldersgate Street I go through the gate to the left of St Botolph’s Church and into Postman’s Park. In front of me is a small shelter with terra cotta roof tiles, this is the National Memorial to Heroic Men & Women. The idea was conceived by the painter and sculptor George Frederick Street in 1887. The wall inside the shelter was finally dedicated in 1900 and has numerous plaques that commemorate selfless acts of heroism by ordinary men and women who gave their lives attempting to save the lives of others.

The Gatehouse of St Bartholomew the Great sits at the end of Little Britain. The gatehouse really is something from a past age, above it is one of the earliest surviving timber framed house fronts in London. It was built by William Scudamore in 1595 with some restoration done in the early 20th century after some bomb damage. Parts of the stone gate date from 1240.

Through the gatehouse is the church of St Bartholomew the Great, the oldest parish church in London dating from 1123. The church was founded by a jester from the court of King Henry I called Rahere. After the king’s only son had been drowned when the White Ship was lost during a storm off Calais, Rahere decided to become a monk and set off on a pilgrimage to Rome. After falling seriously ill he vowed if he returned home he would set up a hospital for the restoration of poor men. Miraculously he was cured and headed home. On the way he had a terrible dream where he was snatched by a winged creature and placed on a high ledge above a chasm, he was about to fall when St Bartholomew appeared at his side. He told Rahere that he was going to save him but in return he said “in my name tho shalt found a church…in London, at Smedfeld (Smithfield)”. The church was founded, and Rahere, when he died in 1145 was buried inside.

Some of the buildings on Cloth Fair date back to 1604 and are a rare example of pre-fire buildings. Most of the buildings on this street did manage to survive the Great Fire and remained standing until the early 20th century when many were destroyed on grounds of hygiene. The buildings that remain today with their gabled overhangs, although much restored, do provide an insight into the living conditions of medieval Londoners.

Cloth Fair was is named after the Bartholomew Fair was held annually from the 12th century until 1855. The main market took place on open ground now covered by West Smithfield was a horse fair, but a fair dealing in English broadcloth also took place. Until the reign of Elizabeth I the Cloth Fair was England’s main cloth fair and merchants came from all over Europe to attend. The street was generally inhabited by drapers and cloth merchants at that time.

West Smithfield was one of London’s execution grounds and there are memorials here to those who were executed. One of the most famous people to be executed here was Sir William Wallace, the Scots patriot who was killed here in 1305 for opposing the English invasion of his country. During the medieval period many people were burned at the stake or even boiled alive here.

The rather austere buildings along West Smithfield belong to St Bartholomew’s Hospital. The Henry VIII Gateway was built in 1702 by the stonemasons who were at the time rebuilding the nearby St Paul’s Cathedral. Sitting above the gate is the only outdoor statue of Henry VIII in London. It commemorates the fact that, following his Dissolution of the Monasteries, he gave the hospital back to the City of London.

Walking through the gate I find the Church of St Bartholomew the Less. In January 1547 the hospital became its own parish, and even today this is the only hospital parish church in existence. St Bartholomew’s is the oldest hospital in London to still stand on its original site, it even has its own fascinating museum. It is said that the painter William Hogarth used patients from the hospital as his models.

The small watch-house on Guiltspur Street was built in the 18th century to guard the freshly buried bodies in the churchyard beyond the gates from the activities of the notorious body snatchers.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre Without Newgate was founded in 1137, just outside the City of London’s New Gate. The church was a departure point for knights setting off for the crusades, it is named after the Holy Sepulchre Church in Jerusalem. Todays building dates from 1450, and it is the bells of this church that feature in the nursery rhyme “Oranges and Lemons” as the bells of Old Bailey that wonder “when will you pay me”.

Opposite the church on the other corner of Guiltspur Street is the Viaduct Tavern, the City’s only surviving Victorian Gin Palace. The pub dates from 1875 and has a very ornate interior which includes a beaten copper ceiling and a series of paintings on canvas representing the commerce and business of the city.

Across the road are the Central Criminal Courts, better known as the Old Bailey. The building dates from the early 20th century and was built on the site of the notorious Newgate Prison.

After all that walking I’m heading off to get myself a well earned drink…maybe at the Viaduct Tavern.

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