Corners Of London: Blackfriars
When I visit my new publishers, Quercus, at Blackfriars, I find myself in a massively changed landscape, partly because after decades of dithering the road layout has finally been settled, and partly because of the huge tube/train station foyer that now stands opposite the old Blackfriar pub.
Blackfriars was named after the black habits worn by Dominican friars who were once on the site. The historic Art Nouveau Grade II pub that now stands there was built in 1875 and was designed by architect H. Fuller-Clark and artist Henry Poole, both committed to the free-thinking of the Arts and Crafts Movement. Jolly friars appear everywhere in the pub in sculptures, mosaics and reliefs. Like so many other felicitous buildings in London, the pub was saved from demolition by a campaign led by Sir John Betjeman.
All that remains of the infamous Bridewell prison just around its corner is a carved head of Edward VI. The boundary wall once ran along the front of St Bride’s vicarage, so every year the vicar had to pay a guinea to the governors for permission to walk over his own doorstep.
Running underneath Blackfriars, the Fleet River can still be seen at low tide – actually I haven’t checked this in a couple of years, but it enters the Thames under the bridge. There’s also supposed to be an old cornerstone from Ludgate knocking around, left there after the gate was torn down in 1760 and sold for £146, and also a model lighthouse which I’ve never been able to find.
The charming Bridewell theatre seems to be back, with a full roster of productions once more. I once saw an immersive production of ‘Sweeney Todd’ there, where you could hear the bells of St Brides and sounds of Fleet Street incorporated into the production. In 1891, St Bride Foundation was established to provide a social, cultural and recreational centre for Fleet Street and its print and publishing trade. It still houses an unparalleled library of print, media, communications and design, believed to be the largest in the world.
The odd red pillars of the ‘ghost station’ of Blackfriars form part of the original railway bridge built across the Thames in 1864, when the London Chatham Dover Railway was extended across the Thames to what was then St Paul’s Station. Presumably they survive because it was to no-one’s advantage to pull them out! There was a boxing ring here, too – all that remains of it is – of course – a pub commemorating the site, The Ring.
Opposite the Blackfriar stands the curved colonnade of Unilever House. I’m certain there used to be statues in all of the alcoves when I was younger, but after its spruce-up many of them mysteriously vanished. One of the corners here was the last remaining ‘old’ part of the City, and although its buildings were tumbledown, they were very atmospheric. It will be interesting to see what happens to the nearby Smithfield area as the Museum of London gets ready to move in there.