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.

7 comments on “London Stories: A London View”

  1. David Ronaldson says:

    It was known as the Ludgate Viaduct or Ludgate Hill Railway bridge and was there until 1990, when they somehow managed to demolish it and replace it with the subterranean Thameslink Line.

  2. snowy says:

    On that particular NYE there were crews all over the country, [the bits that are not ‘That London’], who pausing from from their labours, [mainly nailing explosives to bits of wood]. Fell into conversation and all decided-to a man and woman, that the ‘River of Fire’ was going to be pants. [Even if they got the timing spot on, the only way anybody could have possibly seen the full effect was from a helicopter.]

    But nobody pays attention to the ‘sooty-faced’ ones, [even if we wave our hammers at them.. menacingly.]

    [Particularly Sound crews, we warned them several times that putting their big stacks of speakers, that close – to a bonfire of that size would end very badly. Still the resulting plastic puddle, when it had finally stopped burning and set solid would have made a very nice doily for a helicopter pad*.]

    [* Health Warning: Stories included may contain small traces of exaggeration.]

  3. snowy says:

    For extreme viaduct-ophiles only! [A description of it written in the year 1878, I’m guessing he wasn’t a big fan!]

    “Of all the eyesores of modern London, surely the most hideous is the Ludgate Hill Viaduct— that enormous flat iron that lies across the chest of Ludgate Hill like a bar of metal on the breast of a wretch in a torture-chamber.

    Let us hope that a time will come when all designs for City improvements will be compelled to endure the scrutiny and win the approval of a committee of taste. The useful and the beautiful must not for ever be divorced. The railway bridge lies flat across the street, only eighteen feet above the roadway, and is a miracle of clumsy and stubborn ugliness, entirely spoiling the approach to one of the finest buildings in London.

    The five girders of wrought iron cross the street, here only forty-two feet wide, and the span is sixty feet, in order to allow of future enlargement of the street. Absurd lattice-work, decorative brackets, bronze armorial medallions, and gas lanterns and standards, form a combination that only the unsettled and imitative art of the ruthless nineteenth century could have put together. Think of what the Egyptians in the times of the Pharaohs did with granite! and observe what we Englishmen of the present day do with iron. Observe this vulgar daubing of brown paint and barbaric gilding, and think of what the Moors did with colour in the courts of the Alhambra!

    A viaduct was necessary, we allow, but such a viaduct even the architect of the National Gallery would have shuddered at. The difficulties, we however allow, were great. The London, Chatham, and Dover, eager for dividends, was bent on wedding the Metropolitan Railway near Smithfield; but how could the hands of the affianced couple be joined? If there was no viaduct, there must be a tunnel.

    Now, the bank of the river being a very short distance from Smithfield, a very steep and dangerous gradient would have been required to effect the junction. Moreover, had the line been carried under Ludgate Hill, there must have been a slight detour to ease the ascent, the cost of which detour would have been enormous. The tunnel proposed would have involved the destruction of a few trifles —such, for instance, as Apothecaries’ Hall, the churchyard adjoining, the Times printing office— besides doing injury to the foundations of St. Martin’s Church, the Old Bailey Sessions House, and Newgate.

    Moreover, no station would have been possible between the Thames and Smithfield. The puzzled inhabitants, therefore, ended in despair by giving evidence in favour of the viaduct. The stolid hammermen went to work, and the iron nightmare was set up in all its Babylonian hideousness.”

    Somethings never change.

  4. Ian Luck says:

    I remember that farcical ‘River Of Fire’. It was so pathetic, that, in the scale of moving bodies of water, I’d have hesitated to call it even a ‘Burn’. I was working that night, on an easy job, in a cosy site. The manager of the site instructed me to telephone him the moment that the streetlights started to go out, and ‘planes started to fall from the sky (he was obsessed with the ‘Y2K’ computer virus). I had to sit in his office, which was high up, and looked over the town. There was a kitchen full of good tea and coffee, and tons of nice food, that I could have as much of as I wanted – so long as I gave him a bell to let him know that we were back in the Stone Age. Midnight. A lot of people lit fireworks. Nothing changed. I rang my parents, and dad told me about the much touted ‘River Of Fire’.: “More like a dribble of piss, boy.”, he told me cheerfully.

  5. gkbowood says:

    Regards comment “the frustrating thing about looking at London now; matching the past to the present in anything other than tattered fragments is all but impossible.” I am always trying to do this via Google maps streetview and old photos- such as the two you offer at the start of this. That really is impossible, but the best I can do since I don’t live there. I can still find places I visited in the 70s and in the 90s but it becomes increasingly difficult now as my memories fade and the streets change their visage…

  6. Jan says:

    I spent the moments we passed into the new millennium trying to wake up some drunk in Seven Dials. The whole world seemed to explode in firework lights – pink if I remember rightly. I had to step very lively as this guy heaved just as he awoke and produced a continuous stream of vomit that went on for two or three minutes. A truly spectacular evening was had by all.

    When all the blokes got back from Trafalgar Square they were massively hacked off after 17 hours of projecting goodwill, holding crowds back and realising that everywhere was massively almost dangerously overcrowded.

    The best bit about the whole debacle was the early turn C.A.D. sargeant actually congratulating us at having a handover completely free of outstanding incidents. He thought he would be mopping up grief for at least 8 hours.

    I’m warming to this theme now I can actually remember going into a posh hotel to use the facilities at about 4a.m. as it was impossible to get back to EO. The whole place looked as if some massive party bomb had gone off. Glitter, decorations draped over everything, overturned furniture ripped curtains, drunk staff. It was bizarre the whole evening was bizarre. Massive crowds walking north turned Tottenham Court Road into a pedestrian controlled area. Inner London Tube stations closed the doors just too many folk trying to access the system. Such a strange evening.

    At the end of the shift I dropped my mate at a District Line station over east in the City somewhere we looked along the Embankment shocked at the huge number of champagne bottles amongst the litter. Bottles of champagne strewn all across Blackfriars bridge never saw anything like that before or since. The clean up crews were almost overwhelmed by it all. Just crazy.
    Feels now like it almost happened to someone else who told me about it. Doesn’t feel like my own memories at all. Funny what time does.

  7. Mike Hill says:

    Picking up on the comment in your first sentence – why is it that it is OK to add ‘The’ to road names (The Old Kent Road, The Whitechapel Road) but never to streets (The Oxford Street is just wrong)? Is there some arcane reason?

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