In Search Of A London Street Pt. 1
London and the Sahara Desert share a peculiar link; every few years strong winds mean that the desert sand gets lifted, transported and dropped onto our city. Yesterday it turned the sky a deep reddish-brown and brought hot winds, but no rain. Before it hit, I went for a walk to see my chatty friend Niven, who runs a King’s Cross Traiteur, to fortify myself with coffee. Typically, Londoners will happily eat bad fast food if it means they don’t have to walk a few extra metres, when places like Niven’s exist slightly off the beaten track.
I set off toward St Paul’s to do something I haven’t done for a while, to try and find a particular street without using my phone. I couldn’t remember its name, only that it was named after a profession, but I remembered it as being cobbled and winding. Not much to go on. London is changing fast. On my way to Mount Pleasant I pass a familiar corner that gives me the sinking feeling you get in London when you realise that something has vanished. After 200 years the Pakenham Arms, AKA The Postman Pub, has closed down and is being sold as flats by property developers. So it appears that another pleasing old hostelry vanishes, never to return. It was nothing special, just a wood-floored traditional pub, but as I was to see, monetisation of space would become the theme of my walk.
Passing through one of dozens of small green spaces in and around the City (as opposed to ‘the city’, ie. the area boundaries as the City of London), I spot the kind of gravestones that inspired me to write ‘The Bleeding Heart’. These appear to thrust themselves up through the earth of St Andrew’s Gardens. It’s mid-October and few leaves have fallen yet, a sign, together with the disappearance of traditional February snowfalls in London, that the climate is heating up. Today it is an unseemly 24C.
Many of the gravestones are stacked to one side and are abutted to buildings. It’s such a common sight in the City that most of us don’t really notice them. These are the remnants of parish churches that have since disappeared. I’m spoiled for choice in the backstreets of Farringdon, where my parents first met, because there are so many empty byways hiding green spaces, some for private use by employees and residents, others used as short-cuts by office workers.
The walk I’m taking won’t be much longer than about three miles (I’m on a schedule today). Before I reach Gray’s Inn Square I seem to have passed a dozen churches, and resolve to start going into a few. All are open and empty and smell exactly the same – of centuries of polish and damp stone. Naturally, I’m too disorganised to write down their names as I pass. Inside one, a lady sits very upright in the centre on a chair, offering a ‘listening service’ – a wonderful idea, but I can’t imagine how anyone finds her, alone in a hidden backstreet, patiently waiting to give advice.
This almost invisible church is unadorned with gilded fripperies but instead boasts modern paintings of the Stations of the Cross, culminating in a massive sunlit mural. It seems incredible to me that the public never bother to see places like this (instead they flock to the religious spots spuriously mentioned by Mr Dan Brown, the well-known typist). The City churches are an astonishing story of survival against the odds, and the greatest concentration of 17th-century architecture anywhere in Britain. Before the Great Fire, there were roughly 100 churches in the Square Mile. 86 were destroyed and a few more were built, leaving around 40 today.
I reach Gray’s Inn Gardens. These are known as ‘the Walks’ and were laid out by Sir Francis Bacon in 1608. They were the scene of a duel between Captain Greenwood and Mr Ottway, an encounter which resulted in the killing of Mr Ottway and the trial of Captain Greenwood and his conviction for manslaughter. In 1825 Raymond Buildings was completed behind it and provided the solicitor’s office where an articled clerk, one Charles Dickens, first started work at the high desk you can now see in his house in Doughty Street.
There’s always a sense that behind the busy main thoroughfares, old London can still be found. Just one street back from each main road people simply melt away. This is even true of the West End – behind Leicester Square you find yourself in sudden silence. I cut through towards Chancery Lane tube, barely noticing one of its most famous buildings, Staple Inn in High Holborn. It’s a Tudor building that is the last surviving Inn of Chancery, and would be familiar to Arthur Bryant because it appeared on tins and pouches of Old Holborn tobacco.
It didn’t always look like this. The Inn survived the Great Fire but was hit by a German bomb in the Blitz before being restored. For a long time it was barely noticed, being without its striped Tudor plasterwork.
I press on into Holborn, which I can see through sunlit arches of the old insurance buildings of Waterhouse Square (where the only statue of Dickens I can think of sits in a corner, unnoticed). The streets are filling with workers on lunch breaks. I’m still not using Google Maps, and there’s still no sign of my missing street, but I’m about to enter an area that will remove my bearings completely.