It was a beautiful summer’s day, in the way that early September often seems like the August we never had, and I set off to buy a tap. As it is, I didn’t get to buy the tap but I did see London burning down instead; it was that kind of day, one where you just keep walking because the sun is out and the streets turn around on themselves and everyone looks like characters from an architectural drawing – happily loitering.
I walked past Mount Pleasant sorting office, which they’re attempting to make look less like a prison, when I remembered that of course it WAS a prison, Cold Bath Fields, and why? Because it’s on the prow of a hill and you can see into it from all around. Geography dictates use.
I didn’t mean to find myself in Finsbury, the odd little area behind Holborn which seems like it would be an ideal place to live, peculiarly rural for being so close to the City of London, like living in a village just behind Wall Street. I certainly didn’t remember seeing this pub The Toffeemakers before, and made a note of it. (As usual, click to enlarge)
But leafy Finsbury certainly is. Sadly the strange old lanes behind it have been transformed in the last five years, and much of their charm has been lost. It’s an area of colleges and student departments now, but there are oddities and part of the area is still called St Luke’s.
Cutting through Smithfield’s meat market to the back of St Bart’s it gets a bit more interesting. I like the little house at the end which bridges the road. Somewhere around here is a confluence of narrow streets that looks Dickensian, but this time I couldn’t find it, a bit like HG Wells and The Door In The Wall.
Nearer St Paul’s I wandered through the ugly dead retail space of Paternoster Square trying to imagine what it must have been like when it was a Row entirely filled with bookshops (bombed flat during WWII). It had been the home to London’s book trade in the 18th century and had been filled with satirists slapping each other – when they restored the area they could at least have put an independent bookshop back.
My NYC friend Michele had recommended an exhibition at the Guildhall, so I headed there. I had attended a Guild school, Colfe’s, the Royal Leathersellers’ college, founded in 1657, and the items on display dated back to the 11th century. They were made for the various guild halls and gave craftsmen a chance to show off their skills.
There was also a case containing three handmade guild gloves, the coronation glove of Elizabeth 1st, the almost identical coronation glove of Elizabeth II, and a spaceman’s glove. How cool is that?
Upstairs a gallery of extraordinary paintings is barely visited. There was no room here to include the gigantic painting of the Sybarites duffing up some Romans, or the delicate Alma-Tademas. I liked these little apocalyptic paintings, an explosion in a Thameside factory and the start of the Great Fire of London (there’s also a huge wooden chest dating from the following year).
Then came a bit of a surprise. The last time I had walked around here there were still lots of run-down old shops, one of which had a sign reading; ‘Visit the Barber in the Basement; Also, Roman Ampitheatre.’ Now the Roman ruins have been restored in a sort of Tron-like presentation that feels a bit shonky for the period. It was built around AD 70 and enlarged in the Second Century to seat about 6,000 people, and was abandoned in the 4th C. At least you can walk around it now instead of having to peer through some dirty glass in a barbershop basement.