London Stories: A London View
The spot where Farringdon Road (one of those routes to which we often attach a definite article) becomes New Bridge Street is not as interesting to look at these days, but it hides a formidable history. And for me, in an odd way, it is one of London’s hearts – one of its key crossing points, from East to West and North to South.
The piece of tarmac between where it starts and Blackfriars Bridge has been dug up more times than I can remember, perhaps because the area surrounding the crossroads of Ludgate Circus is a long-unsettled site, but it offers one of the most iconic images of London. You have the hill leading to St Paul’s, plus Ludgate, the site of the westernmost gate in the wall of the old City of London. I don’t know what happened to the bridge, or what it was called. A little help here?
There was also, not too long ago, the Old King Lud pub (now a Leon’s fast food joint) where prisoners took a beer on their way to either Smithfield to be hanged or Tyburn to be hanged. The latter seems rather a long way to go, so Smithfield seems the likelier option, although the Angel in St Giles (itself now a vanishing neighbourhood) makes the same claim for prisoner refreshment.
Nearby is the church of St Bride’s, which has featured in Bryant & May books, (only its font survived the Great Fire of London) but there’s supposed to be an odd little spot by Farringdon Road that’s kept unbuilt upon because it marks the site of the church’s plague pit.
Ludgate Circus has been so messed around with that I’m not sure what’s left. It’s supposed to have obelisks to two mayors and London’s first pillar-box. Farringdon Street appears to have been move up the road because it used to be where bricks were carried down to wall up the River Fleet, and there should be a memorial hall on the site of the old Fleet Prison. The memorial is to 2,000 parsons who refused to obey the tyrannous Act of Uniformity, which set the order of prayer to be used in the English Book of Common Prayer. All persons had to go to church once a week or be fined 12 pence, a considerable sum for the poor.
At least King Kong scribe Edgar Wallace still has his plaque on Ludgate House. It reads; ‘He knew wealth and poverty, yet had walked with Kings and kept his bearings. Of his talents, he gave lavishly to authorship – but to Fleet Street he gave his heart.’
This had been the site of Thomas Cooke & Sons, the telescope makers, which had a weathervane ship on its roof and reliefs featuring 15 races of mankind – I wonder which ones made the cut? The area is also associated with popinjays, both the parrots and the fops (because of Poppins Court, where popinjay abbots stayed in a hostel), but there are also stone versions of cormorants, swallows and other oddments – hardly any of which I can now spot. Who hives these off and never returns them? I’m convinced there used to be statues all around Unilever House but can’t find any photos.
And this is the frustrating thing about looking at London now; matching the past to the present in anything other than tattered fragments is all but impossible. Only the grandest – and therefore in my mind the least interesting -buildings have survived the centuries. But every step of the way has a story to tell. Most of these tales are not online, although there are a few wonderful bloggers who are determined to dig them out.
Around the corner from Ludgate Circus, though, we have the maze of alleys that hide Samuel Johnson’s house in Gough Square. On the night of the new Millennium I was trapped on Blackfriars bridge waiting for Mayor Ken Livingstone’s computerised display ‘River of Fire‘ spectacle which did not happen. It was mean to look like this…
And looked like this…
Somewhere near me on the bridge, stuck in the heaving crowd, was the person I would later meet and marry. On that night, though, I was out of champagne and unable to move very far in any direction. Then I remembered that an old friend was housesitting nearby. Better still, she was mulling wine, had had no visitors – and the house she was sitting was Dr Johnson’s…so I slipped through the alleyways and that was where I saw in the new century! True story.