The Dragons Of London


The weather is delightful at the moment so I decided to stroll down to Smithfield Meat Market, as you do, in a combination of research and nosiness. After blogging about the place recently I wanted to see if the work on the Museum of London had started. Something big has begun because the entire area was buried under JCBs, traffic cones, barriers, cranes and hoardings.

As a result I ended up not walking around the market at all, but heading for St Paul’s via the backstreets. A stroll to the cathedral is about 25 minutes, not long enough to clear your day’s steps (and I needed to because the previous day’s steps were actually 0). The walk set me thinking about dragons and devils.

St Peter Upon Cornhill is the oldest church site in the City of London’s Square Mile. In the nineteenth century its vicar, clearly a vindictive old sod, noticed that plans for the building next door extended by one foot onto church territory, so he forced the architect to redraw his design and added three leering devils to the building facing Cornhill from the South.

The dragons aren’t strictly such; there are a lot of chimerical beasties on buildings, half-and-half mythical creatures, especially gryphons, which have the body, tail, and back legs of a lion, the head and wings of an eagle and an eagle’s talons for front feet. The lion was traditionally the king of the beasts and the eagle the king of birds, so the griffin was thought to be even more powerful.

I could get close to this one because it’s on Holborn Viaduct (which is once again the the centre of a maelstrom of building works – when is it ever not?), but opposite the viaduct are dragons that cast the shadows of devils. They are, however, impossible to get close to. Does anyone know what this building is?

There are winged lions guarding the bridge, a sort of gryphons in reverse, but frankly their wings don’t seem large enough to get them off the ground. There are plenty of other dragons lurking about, including these on the bases of lamps, painted in their original gaudy colours.

The viaduct is there because there’s actually a steep hill on the west side where the ground was raised to cover the Fleet valley. The bridge contains pipes, cables and a passage. It’s also extremely beautiful, its painted ironwork contrasting with the faceless new boxes being built around it.

The bronze figures atop the viaduct represent Fine Art, the Sciences, Commerce and Agriculture. All are women (Victorians always surprise you like that). There are many other figures dotted around, mostly boring mayoral types. There’s one missing. There have been promises to put it back, and I daresay it will arrive by the time the museum transforms this quiet corner into a tourist hellhole.

Anyone wishing to know more about London’s ridiculous abundance of sculptures should visit Bob Speel’s more detailed area-by-area website here.

At Bank Station I was shocked to see the Bank of England about to be dwarfed by immense new buildings. The Square Mile will look very different soon, with some 500 new towers to be built across the city. I had headed to the Bank of England to find something else – I’ll post what I found later this week.



6 comments on “The Dragons Of London”

  1. Jan says:

    Chris aren’t the dragons, Griffins, gryphons etc used to signify that the City is in some way
    Other and separate from Westminster and the rest of London? They guard the City. They are a sign and show of strength.

    Thinking of when you enter the City on the Thames you pass the Dragon symbol there. The riverbanks are fully of imagery old Father Thames morphed into Neputune or Triton just being one of them.

    Haven’t any ideas about the building sorry.
    It’s within the City isn’t it? Which us a bit of a foreign country to me in lots of ways.

    Doesn’t Holborn Viaduct basically cross the route of the Fleet? The river within its narrow valley dips down beneath it. Holborn viaduct is basically a bridge over a river which has now disappeared from the surface. Dunno so much about ground being raised up towards the West but suppose they must have evened it out to build there.. Could have been given added thick gravel layer as a basis for building work. I walked along the Fleets route a few weeks back from the river up to Kings X. To take pictures for a post I created on “Holy Wells and Sacred Springs of Britain”. (On FB )

    Starting at Blackfriars where the Fleet – now encased in its storm drain enters the Thames as it’s tributary. Blackfriars pub the pub John B. Saved with its internal carvings and statues depicting the friars fishing in the Fleet river.

    Then I went up to St Brides tucked behind Fleet Street. The dried up Brides well being in the basement museum. Do the tour on Tuesday afternoon they will show it to you. I went Thursday a.m. no luck! They reckon there could have been three wells there. Romans had a villa or Temple there. Until the 1500s Kings of England were anointed with water from the Brides well. Very important powerful site. If you can make the journey north on the back roads you feel how steep the real lie of the land is.

    Keep toddling up that slope not far to the E edge of Smithfield the new cross rail Farringdon station being opposite the Met line to your right E of the road. Nearby when the tube was new the ruddy viaduct holding the earth back failed and collapsed causing massive damage and I think loss of life. You pass by Turnmill street site of Fabric night club a place with a long standing reputation for good times drinking and villainy not the club the street!. Gilbeys gin factory was here. The exposed section of rail is the place of the 19C collapse

    Head north and just E of the Betsy Trotwood is the Clerks Well. The Fleet is the river of Wells. Sadlers Wells is a Fleet well. Mount pleasant the P.O. sorting centre is built on site of Coldbath fields prison. Where the prisoners walked a wheel which kept this site free from waters from the powerful well there. Next to the PO us a odd set of shops – department stores more like really -speculative building trying and failing in 19C to create a major shopping destination there.

    As you are approaching the Cross detour into Margery Square. Got no time to write about it here but have written about it on “Holy Wells + Springs” very, very interesting spot.
    One time site of an Anglican convent where William Morris sister lived. God I know some drivel.

  2. Brooke says:

    Interesting… I’ve noticed that Philadelphia is also full of dragons, griffins, etc. Of course, there are numerous dragons in our small Chinatown– two vicious reptiles are so life like that I can’t helping touching them. Another favorite is a super size scaly creature attacking St. George– the metallic pair were a gift of the UK to the city during the 19th century. But dragons and griffins lurk everywhere among the 18-19 c buildings. Wonder what it means.

  3. Jan says:

    That’s not the old register of births and deaths is it? The one that shifted off to Kew?. Don’t reckon it is think that was more Islington way. People used to ask directions there from. Holborn tube.

  4. snowy says:

    It’s a staircase pavilion, [SW corner. statue of the first Lord Mayor of London designed by an artist with a sideline in shadow puppets. What do I win?]

  5. Denise Treadwell says:

    We walked from St . Pauls to St Batholomew the Great , not in 25 mins, we had a 5 year old walking too. l know it was longer, but we were interested in the bombed remains of Churches along the way !

  6. Jan says:

    If you think there’s lots of City churches + church remains now Denise theres a diagram / formula somewhere showing how the church numbers decreased after the Fire of London and WW2.

    Wonder exactly why C of L was so rich in sacred spaces?

    Know the Guilds had their churches but theres more to it than that I reckon.

    Plus there’s at least one Mithraic temple.

    Cos the City has so many churches it’s repurposing of some of the churches has provided a bit of a template for the repurposing of churches which needs to be done all over the UK .

    Was talking to a lady doing the flowers at St Mary’s in the Marshwood Vale yesterday and she was explaining how the church had served as an extra classroom /gym for the primary and junior skool next door when the skool had been short of space.

    Pews are being pretty much replaced.
    in most churches. ( Apart from the ancient miserichord carved ones.)

    Churches are used as coffee shops, cafes + concert halls. May seem bit wrong to us but that is pretty much how they were used in the Middle Ages and beyond.

    St. Paul’s the medieval cathedral. (Actually larger than Wrens version.) Held a horse market WITHIN THE CHURCH each month. No wonder it had a famous rose garden.

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