In Search Of A London Street Pt. 3
I leave Postman’s Park, with the remains of the old White Horse Inn behind it, but I’m still no closer to discovering my mysterious cobbled street. Clearly it’s known to thousands; I’d seen it on a warm Friday night when its corners were overflowing with wine-imbibing city workers. Instead I start stumbling upon a few of the guilds of old London. Having gone to a guild school myself, I think I can bluff my way in. No such luck.
On my second attempt, at the Ironmongers’ Guild, tucked into the base of the Barbican complex, I am confronted by a senior gentleman in a waistcoat and watch-chain, seated behind a rather Victorian desk, who warns me that I can’t just come wandering in for a look-around. Upon hearing my guild school spiel he softens and confides; ‘We used to conduct monthly tours but they don’t let us now.’ He points upstairs conspiratorially, perhaps to Heaven. ‘They’ve monetised it all. Three events a day we do.’
‘What kind of events?’ I ask.
‘Birthdays, anniversaries and office dos but weddings mostly. We get the lot in here, Sikhs, same-sex, you name it. It’s nice, you meet all sorts, but nobody gets to have a look around anymore unless they’re booked in for a bash. It’s all monetised.’ The word seems incongruous in his mouth. He gives a weary sigh and goes back to his Evening Standard. I thank him and head onward.
Now I find yet more 19th century gravestones casually lining another courtyard and start to wonder how many London dead are scattered about here in pub gardens and alleyways. I own a book on the subject, of course, called ‘London Dead’, but that’s a whole other subject to explore and I’m on a time limit, so I press on. It’s now 3:00pm and I have to head back soon to record an interview.
More churches, all empty and kept immaculately, if forlornly, open – I encounter no punters chucking their prayers skywards and consider using these unchanging halls simply as places of contemplation and calm – except that I can’t because my tinnitus springs to life in silence, a permanent road-drill-cum-siren that periodically destroys my inner peace. Or perhaps, Damien-like, I simply react against holy places.
But the more I step inside, the more my respect grows for these oases, run by volunteers who expect nothing in return. Many of the City’s churches are surprisingly plain inside, but what shocks me about all of them is their capacity. Of course there are plenty of small chapels, but the churches rarely seat less than 200. Now they are divided into the superstar churches like the Knights Templar church or St Brides, and the barely registered empty spots like St Andrew-By-The-Wardrobe.
I start to get an idea that I’m approaching the neighbourhood wherein I might find my missing street. Everyone is back in their offices now and the streets are deserted. I pass a few corner pubs – they’re aren’t too many of those left in the Square Mile. City drinking culture, the world of the four hour claret-filled lunch, are long gone. Faced with a 24-hour digital economy, the City’s more languid traditions have dropped away.
A story went around about Baring’s Bank, the oldest and most arrogant bank in Britain (the Queen had an account there), which survived until it was destroyed by the risk-addicted rogue trader Nick Leeson, who now makes his money as an after-dinner speaker on fraud; an American came to see Baring’s on August 12th, and discovered that the entire senior management team had gone off to shoot game for the ‘Glorious Twelfth’. Shocked, he knew that the bank was complacent and could be taken over. But before that could happen, Leeson dismantled it by manipulating its flaws.
A trading jacket assumed to have been worn by Leeson was sold at auction for an absurd amount. Although his book was made into a film starring Ewan McGregor, Leesom comes over as an unpleasant little thief exploiting financial weaknesses. The bank would probably have collapsed anyway, but it took a sociopath to hasten the process; each era gets the icons it deserves.
On to St Dunstan In The East, a unique garden of the City set in the Blitz-bombed ruins of a Wren church. There are still occasional open-air services held at the church. It’s another oasis of calm greenery in a traffic-saturated corner of the city.
I was on the verge of giving up my search. I decided to double-back on myself and return into the backstreets. I reached a narrow crossroads and turned into a street that I instantly recognised. This was the crowded, convivial spot I had discovered years earlier – unchanged. Now it was empty and quiet. It was called Carter Lane, perhaps a little too neat and tidy to be truly Dickensian, but I could imagine it set-dressed for a production of ‘A Christmas Carol’.
I headed back from the Barbican tube station, where there’s an abandoned platform that resembles a remote railway halt in the countryside. I now had enough research notes for another Bryant & May scene. I want to visit the other talking statues, which combine phone technology and theatre as they tell you about their lives. I also want to revisit the Old Bailey as a spectator again. I have about thirty more walking routes planned in my head, for other times, but for now that’s one more off the list.