Exit Tower Hill Underground Station, pausing to look left at the sundry buildings that collectively make up the Tower of London.
Founded by William the Conqueror in the 11th century and added to by successive monarchs, the site has been a royal palace, but is best known as a place of imprisonment and execution. The names of those who have been incarcerated behind its grim, grey walls reads like a who’s who of English history. It was here ‘in a dreary room whose thick stone walls, shut out the hum of life and made a stillness which the records left by former prisoners with those silent witnesses seemed to deepen and intensify…’ that Lord George Gordon languished in Barnaby Rudge. And, in David Copperfield (1849–50), whilst managing Clara Peggotty’s affairs, David varied ‘the legal character of these proceedings by going to see… the Tower of London’.
On the evening of 30th October, 1841, calamity almost overtook the ancient fortress when the Bowyer Tower caught fire. The castle’s nine hand-operated fire engines were quickly brought into action, but proved useless since there was only sufficient water to feed one of them. As the flames began to spread, crowds gathered on Tower Hill to watch the conflagration. Anxious to avoid loss of life, Major Elrington, the officer in charge, sent for the assistance of the London Fire Engine Establishment, and gave orders that no one was to be admitted to the Tower. But, as Punch scathingly reported: ‘… military rule knows no exceptions, the orders given were executed to the letter by preventing the ingress of the firemen… leaving the fire to devour at its leisure the enormous meal that fate had prepared for it.’ When the fire fighters were finally admitted they could do little but aim their hoses on those buildings that had not yet caught fire, leaving the rest to be consumed by the flames. The spectators on Tower Hill watched with a horrified fascination. According to one witness, ‘It was a majestic sight, and many around us observed, “I shall not forget this fire even on my death-bed”.’ The appearance of today’s Tower of London as a complex of medieval buildings is largely the result of the restoration that followed this disaster.
Turn immediately left into Trinity Square and keep going ahead, passing Trinity House on your right. Immediately after No 10, go right into Muscovy Street, right again into Seething Lane, and having passed the bust of Samuel Pepys (whose office was situated where the gardens on your right now stand), cross to the left side and pause outside the gate of:-
St Olave’s Church. In his essay ‘The City of the Absent’ in The Uncommercial Traveller, Dickens describes this as ‘One of my best beloved churchyards… I call [it] Saint Ghastly Grim…’ He continued: ‘It is a small churchyard, with a ferocious strong spiked iron gate, like a jail. This gate is ornamented with skulls and cross-bones, larger than life, wrought in stone; but it likewise came into the mind of Saint Ghastly Grim, that to stick iron spikes a-top of the stone skulls, as though they were impaled, would be a pleasant device. Therefore the skulls grin aloft horribly, thrust through and through with iron spears…’ The gate has survived the ravages of time and pollution, and its skulls still leer down from their timeworn perch.
Go left into Hart Street, where a brief history of St Olave’s Church is displayed on the north wall. Continue ahead, admiring the colourful frontage of the Ship Tavern on the left, then go right along Mark Lane, and just after the ancient tower of All Hallows Staining (c.1320), veer left along Star Alley. Follow it as it sweeps right onto Fenchurch Street, where you turn left. Take the first right to pass through Fen Court, an unprepossessing throughway where several gravestones and table-top tombs bring to mind Dickens’s comments on the area in The Uncommercial Traveller: ‘Rot and mildew and dead citizens formed the uppermost scent…’
Turn left onto Fenchurch Avenue, and as the gleaming modernity of the Lloyd’s Building looms over you, go left along Lime Street, then right into Leadenhall Place to keep ahead into the exquisitely ornate:-
Leadenhall Market, which was designed in 1881 by the architect Horace Jones. Dickens mentioned the market’s predecessor in Pickwick Papers, Dombey and Son (1847–48), and also in Nicholas Nickleby when Tim Linkinwater dismisses life in the country with the observation that ‘I can buy new-laid eggs in Leadenhall Market any morning before breakfast’. Despite the presence of numerous modern enterprises found on many a British high street, the market still retains some of its more traditional businesses such as fishmongers and butchers. In recent years the market has featured in the Harry Potter films as Diagon Alley.
Having continued ahead through what is without doubt London’s most beautiful Victorian market, go over Gracechurch Street and keep ahead into St Peter’s Alley. On the right is:-
St Peter’s-upon-Cornhill, the church of the ‘great golden keys’ as Dickens called it in The Uncommercial Traveller. Indeed, those keys still surmount the gateway to the peaceful churchyard in which local office workers while away their weekday lunch hours. The surroundings have changed beyond recognition since Dickens described the churchyard in Our Mutual Friend (1864–65) as having ‘… a paved square court, with a raised bank of earth about breast high, in the middle, enclosed by iron rails. Here, conveniently and healthfully elevated above the level of the living, were the dead, and the tombstones; some of the latter droopingly inclined from the perpendicular, as if they were ashamed of the lies they told… ’
Follow the alley as it bends right and at its end turn left along Cornhill where, in A Christmas Carol, Bob Cratchit ‘went down a slide… twenty times in honour of its being Christmas-eve’. Continue, passing on the left the Church of St Michael, after which take the second left into Ball Court, where the everyday noise of the traffic is reduced to a murmur. Continue, passing the traditional city eatery of Simpson’s, which has been expanding the midriffs of city gentlemen with its mutton chops and roast beef dinners since 1757. Hurry through the gloomy passageway to the left, out of which go left again.
It was within this maze of alleyways that Dickens placed the counting house of A Christmas Carol’s Ebenezer Scrooge. In this quaint, atmospheric backwater of twisting passageways and dark courtyards, time appears to have stood still, and it is not difficult to conjure up images of Scrooge’s neighbours ‘wheezing up and down, beating their hands on their breasts, and stamping their feet upon the pavement stones to warm them’.
Further along the alley on the right you arrive at a ‘very good old fashioned and comfortable quarters, to wit, the George and Vulture’, a true landmark of Dickensian London. This charming old hostelry became Mr Pickwick’s London base following the lawsuit brought against him by his landlady Mrs Bardell. Its main entrance is situated on the next right in St Michael’s Alley. A well-polished brass nameplate, on which you can just about discern the name by which Dickens would have known it, ‘Thomas’s Chop House’, adorns its outside wall. A timeless aura permeates its snug atmospheric interior, where portraits and photographs of Dickens, together with likenesses of many of his characters and scenes from his novels, adorn the walls.
From the George and Vulture, go right along St Michael’s Alley, then right through the arched brick passageway of Bengal Court, pass through an enclosed courtyard and keep ahead, turning right along Birchin Lane. On arriving back on Cornhill, go over the crossing, off which bear left, then first right into Royal Exchange Buildings. Opposite the bust of Paul Julius Reuter (1816–99), ‘founder of the world news organization that bears his name’, go left through the gates and step inside the:-
Royal Exchange. An information board provides a detailed history of the building, which was founded in the 16th century by city Banker Sir Thomas Gresham. Queen Victoria opened the present building in October 1844; it was recently restored to its 19th-century splendour, and now houses exclusive shops.
Once inside, ascend any of the corner stairways and make your way round the walkway to view the canvasses by several Victorian artists, including Lord Leighton, that show the ‘rich and varied history’ of the City of London. References to the Royal Exchange are to be found in many of Dickens’s works, including Sketches by Boz, A Christmas Carol, Little Dorrit and Great Expectations (1860–61).
Having passed through the Royal Exchange, descend the steps of its magnificent portico and pause to look over at the sturdy, grey bulk of the Bank of England, which is mentioned several times in Dickens’s novels. Bear left from the steps, cross Cornhill, and keep ahead through the narrow Pope’s Head Alley to arrive at Lombard Street.
It was here that Dickens’s first great love, Maria Beadnell (1811–86), lived. In those days, the city hereabouts was residential as well as mercantile, and innumerable merchants, bankers, businessmen and their families lived in this bustling quarter. Maria’s father, George, was manager of Smith, Payne and Smith’s Bank at No 1 Lombard Street, and the family lived at No 2. It is not known how the 18-year-old Dickens met the dark-haired, dark-eyed and much admired Maria, but by 1830 he had fallen head over heels in love with her. She was 13 months his senior, capricious by nature, and for four years she toyed with his feelings, even – there is evidence to suggest – agreeing to a clandestine engagement. Maria’s family, whilst welcoming the poor young reporter into their home, never considered him a serious suitor for their daughter – her mother never even managed to learn his proper name and referred to him as ‘Mr Dickin’ – and sent her out of his way to finishing school in France. When Maria returned, her attitude towards him had cooled considerably and, as their relationship entered its final throes, Dickens would walk to Lombard Street in the early hours of the morning just to gaze upon the place where Maria slept.
Continue right over Lombard Street to pass the Church of St Mary Woolnoth.
It was here, in an infamous Friday morning sermon in 1868, Father Ignatius inflamed the sensibilities of the traders on Lombard Street, by declaring them far worse than Jericho. His remarks prompted hundreds of men to yell and hoot him as he left the church. This was followed a week later by the so-called ‘Apple Riot’, when thousands of people armed with apples arrived to pelt Father Ignatius and his congregation. They would have exacted a bruising reprisal had it not been for the timely intervention of the police.
Cross over King William Street, go straight ahead along St Swithin’s Lane, take the first right into Mansion House Place, and go left into St Stephen’s Row.
The towering walls of the Mansion House, home of the Lord Mayor of London rise along the right side. In his essay ‘Gone Astray’, Dickens recalled how, as a young boy, he had passed the kitchen here as dinner was being prepared and peeping ‘in through the kitchen window… my heart began to beat with hope that the Lord Mayor… would look out of an upper apartment and direct me to be taken in… ’
Continue ahead into Walbrook. Where immediately on the left is:-
The Church of St Stephen Walbrook, one of the most beautiful churches in London. The Critical Review of Publick Buildings in London (1734) observed that it was “famous all over Europe and justly reputed the masterpiece of the celebrated Sir Christopher Wren. Perhaps Italy itself itself can produce no modern buildings that can vie with this in taste or proportion.”
The altar at the church’s centre was carved by the sculptor Henry Moore at the request of the rector Chad Varah, the man who founded the Samaritans in the 1950’s. When Chad asked Henry Moore to do the altar, the sculptor at first demurred claiming that he was agnostic. Chad’s response was “Henry, I’m not asking you to take the service, I understand that you’re a bit of a chiseller; just do your job!”
Exit the church and cross over Walbrook, keeping ahead into Bucklesbury. Keep straight ahead to bear left along Queen Victoria Street. A little further along turn left up the steps that lead to the railings which surround:-
The Temple of Mithras. Every day thousands people making their way to and from work in the City of London pass the nondescript set of steps you have ascended. Some of them might glance upwards at a pile of old stones that seem to be laid out in the manner of ruined chapel, but few of them take the time to explore further and so do not realise that on an ugly concrete platform, just a stones throw away from St Paul’s Cathedral, there stands a relic of the very first City of London, a mysterious temple where followers of what was once one of the most popular cults in the Roman Empire once worshipped.
Discovered quite by accident in the aftermath of the Second World War, during building work beside nearby Walbrook to rebuild the bomb shattered heart of the capital, this temple to the Persian god of light and the sun was moved to its present site in Temple Court, Queen Victoria Street, to enable construction to continue uninterrupted. As a result the re-constructed temple is now on an elevated platform some six feet above street level and thus much of the mysticism it would have possessed when it was largely a subterranean place of worship has undoubtedly been lost. Yet the way it has been put back together enables us to gain a remarkable insight into the rights and rituals of the cult of Mithras and to see how it had a definite influence on the development of Christianity, the religion whose ascendancy would ultimately sound the death knell for Mithraism.
The Roman legions first came across the cult of Mithras in Persia (modern day Iran) during the reign of the emperor Nero. It was one of many religious cults that the Romans brought back from the east, and initially it appealed to slaves and freedmen. However, the cult's emphasis on truth, honour and courage, coupled with its demand for discipline soon made its central deity a popular god with soldiers and traders.
The basic tenet of Mithraic belief was that Mithras had been born from a rock, and that his early life was one of extreme hardship and ordeal. Eventually he was forced to pit his wits against the primordial bull, and having dragged the struggling creature to a cave, he slew it. In so doing he released its life force for the benefit of mankind. All valuable plants and herbs on the planet were meant to have grown from its body; from its blood came forth the vine; whilst its semen was the source of all useful animals on earth.
In an attempt to recreate the surroundings of the cave where the slaying of the bull took place, Mithraic temples were always built either partially or totally underground. Worshippers were divided into seven grades, each of them marking a stage of knowledge in the cult's mysteries. An initiate started as Corax (the Raven), then progressed through the stages of Nymphus (bridegroom), Miles (soldier), Leo (lion), Perses (Persian), Heliodromus (Runner of the Sun) before reaching the ultimate grade of Pater (Father). Each rank was denoted by a specific costume and head-mask exclusive to that particular grade and initiation into the various degrees was by way of a series of demanding tests of stamina and courage.
The scores made in the stone by the continual opening of the temple doors to admit worshippers are still evident in this London Temple, as is the nave which led to an apse or altar, traces of which are still visible at the north end of the temple. Followers would have sat on benches on either side of this nave and the bases of the columns between which followers would sit can also still be seen.
Because the slaying of a bull was an integral part of the religions foundation, sacrifices were a common part of Mithraic worship as were shared meals of bread and wine, particularly around the festival that celebrated Mithras’s springing from the rock, traditionally held on 25th December. But when in AD312 Constantine the Great legitimised Christianity in the Roman Empire, Mithraism was seen as a major rival. Consequently pagan temples began to be stamped out and the one in London appears to have been hastily abandoned at some stage in the 4th century. However, early Christianity was not above borrowing certain useful elements of the religion it was attempting to quash, and the design of Mithraic temple’s, such as the one now stranded above the streets of modern London, became the blue print on which Christian chapels were later based.
Return to the top of the steps outside Temple Court; looking to your left you’ll enjoy a fine view of St Paul’s Cathedral. You can see a phone box to your left on the other side of the traffic lights. Make your way over Queen Victoria Street and head towards the phone box. Proceed along Watling Street (passing the statue of the cordwainer, or shoemaker) and on your left you will come to:-
Ye Olde Watling. This rambling old pub was built by Sir Christopher Wren in 1666 and was, reputedly, constructed with wood taken from dismantled ships timbers.
Cross Watling Street and keep ahead along Bow Lane, a charming little pedestrian thoroughfare reminiscent of the medieval age.
Before the 16th century this lane was known as Cordwainers Street, after the shoemakers and leather workers who lived and traded here.
Half way along Bow Lane, turn left into Groveland Court where on the left you will find:-
Williamson’s Tavern. In the 17th century this was the site of the official residence of the Lord Mayor of the City of London. Prior to that it had been the site of the residence of Sir John Oldcastle, upon whom Shakespeare is said to have based the character of Falstaff. The wrought iron gates at the far end of the courtyard were presented to the then Lord Mayor by William 111 (1650-1702) and Mary 11 (1662-94) during a visit they made to the City of London.
Backtrack to Bow lane and turn left along it. When you arrive at the church wall go left along Bow Churchyard, then right into the main churchyard.
To your left you will see a statue to Captain John Smith, a parishioner of St Mary-le-Bow, and one of the first colonists to settle Jamestown Virginia. The early survival of this, the first permanent English settlement in North America owed a lot to Smith’s leadership abilities.
However, Smith is perhaps best known through his involvement with Pocahontas, the daughter of a native American Chieftain.
Matoaka – to give her correct name - was the spirited daughter of the Indian Chieftain, Powhatan, ruler of the land that the English called Virginia. “Pocahontas” was her childhood nickname and translates as either “little wanton” or “the naughty one”. She was around eight years old when her legendary encounter with the English adventurer Captain John Smith took place. According to his account, Smith was captured by a group of Indians in December 1607 and taken before Powhatan. He was forced to lie stretched out on two large flat stones, whilst several warriors stood over him armed with heavy clubs as though about to beat him to death. Suddenly, a little girl hurried over to him and took his “head in her arms and laid her own upon his to save him from death”. The girl was Pocahontas and, thanks to her intervention. Powhatan not only spared Smith’s life, but also made him a subordinate chief.
Pocahontas and Smith soon became friends. She was a regular visitor to the English colony of Jamestown whose residents she helped save from starvation by bringing supplies of food throughout the winter. However, the following year, relations between the Indians and the colonists began to deteriorate and Pocahontas’s visits became less frequent. Then, in October 1609, a gunpowder explosion seriously injured Captain John Smith, and his injuries necessitated his returning to England.
In 1612, Captain Samuel Argall, an English colonist, seeing an opportunity to extort concessions and a hefty ransom from Powhatan, lured Pocahontas onto his ship and took her hostage. He sent word to Powhatan that his daughter would only be released if he returned the English Prisoners he was holding, plus weapons that the Indians had stolen. Powhatan paid enough to keep negotiations open and then asked that the English take good care of his beloved daughter. Meanwhile Pocahontas, whose first reaction to her dilemma was “exceeding pensive and discontented”, had grown “accustomed to her captivity”. In April 1613, Argall returned to Jamestown, bringing Pocahontas with him. Shortly afterwards she was moved to the new settlement at Henrico, where she was educated in the Christian faith and met and fell in love with wealthy widower, John Rolfe
A year later the governor of Henrico, Sir Thomas Dale, gathered a force of one hundred and fifty armed men, and sailed with Pocahontas into Powhatan’s territory, where he demanded that the full ransom be paid immediately. When the Indians attacked, the English retaliated by destroying several villages and killing a number of native’s. But then Pocahontas was allowed to go ashore and meet with two of her brothers. She told them that she was being well treated and that she had fallen in love with, John Rolfe whom she wished to marry. When word reached Powhatan, he consented to the union and the English departed, elated at the prospect of a peacekeeping marriage. Returning to the colony, Pocahontas was Christened Rebecca and, on April 5 1614 she married John Rolfe. As the English had hoped, a general spirit of goodwill between the colonists and the Indians resulted from the marriage.
In 1616, hoping to raise further investment in the Virginia Company, Sir Thomas Dale sailed for England. To gain publicity he took with him several Indian’s, including Pocahontas, who was accompanied by her husband and their young son, Thomas. She was presented to King James 1st, lauded by the great and the good of London society and caused a sensation wherever she went.
In March 1617, John Rolfe decided to return with his family to Virginia. But no sooner had they set sail, than it became apparent that Pocahontas, who was seriously ill with either pneumonia or tuberculosis, would not survive the voyage. She was taken ashore at Gravesend and, as she lay dying, comforted her grieving husband with the words “all must die. ‘Tis enough that the child liveth”. She died on March 21st 1617, aged just twenty-two, and was buried in the churchyard of St George’s Gravesend.
At the corner of the church of St Mary-le-Bow you will see some railings and a gate. Go down the steps beyond this gate and descend into the church’s crypt, where you will see the remains of previous buildings on the site, as well as the arches (or Bows) for which Bow Lane and St Mary-le-Bow itself, are both named. Once you have admired these delightful remnants return to the churchyard , go right and in to the main entrance of the church.
St Mary-le-Bow is the church of the ubiquitous ‘Cockney‘. Indeed to be an authentic cockney you must be born within the sound of ‘Bow Bells.’ The term ‘cockney, was originally applied to a small or misshapen egg, which was sometimes referred to as a cock's egg. The Oxford English Dictionary claims that the first use of the word as a reference to native Londoners was in 1521, when it was used by writer Whitinton. In 1617 John Minsheu wrote in his Ductor in Linguas that the word originated thus. 'A cockney or cockny, applied only to one born within the sound of Bow bell, that is in the City of London, a tearme coming first out of this tale. That a citizen's sonne riding with his father in the country, asked when he heard a horse neigh what the horse did; his father answered "neigh." Riding further he heard a cock crow, and said: "Does the cock neigh too?"' Whatever the origin of the term it was intended as a term of flattery for it was applied contemptuously by rural people to native Londoners who lived by their wits as opposed to by their muscle.
Turn right into the Cheapside and cross to its left side keeping ahead past several turns.
Cheapside used to be one of London’s busiest thoroughfares, and from the 13th to the 17th Centuries its was a bustling market place for jewellery, shoes, bread, meat, spices, wine and all kinds of other trinkets and supplies. Its name is derived from the Anglo Saxon word ceap (or chepe) meaning barter.
At the junction with Ironmonger Lane note the plaque commemorating the site of the birthplace of:- This is the origin of the word cheap, and the word shopping evolved from the word cheping, which is why there are so many towns and villages around England with the pre-fix Chipping, as these were the market towns or villages for their region.
At Cheapside’s junction with Ironmonger Lane a wall plaque commemorates:-
St Tomas a Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury who was murdered at a little after 4pm on December 29th 1170, four Norman knights. They were responding to an outburst against Becket, by King Henry 2nd, “What Miserable drones and traitors have I nourished…who allow their lord to be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric.” His murder sparked off one of the greatest saint-hero cults of the Middle Ages and turned the unappealingly arrogant, haughty and self-centred Becket into a posthumous international icon. Within three years the dead arch-bishop had been canonised and the shrine of St Thomas at Canterbury soon became one of the Christian world’s greatest places of pilgrimage, and countless miracles were said to have taken place there.
Take the next turning left into Old Jewry and first left into Frederick’s Place.
This hidden gem of bygone London is surrounded by a huddle of elegant terraced houses that were built by the Adams brothers – John, Robert and James – in 1776. Benjamin Disraeli (1804–81) worked for a firm of solicitors at No 6 in 1821. Destined to become one of the most colourful characters ever to lead a British political party, the young Disraeli’s flamboyant style of dress set him apart from the firm’s other clerks. ‘You have too much genius for Frederick’s Place,’ he was told by one acquaintance, ‘It will never do.’ Leaving his employment here, he sought fame as a writer. But by the time his first novel Vivian Grey was published in 1826, he had run up huge debts, which would dog him until he was elected to Parliament as MP for Folkestone. His finances were further improved in 1839 when he married Mary-Ann Lewis, the wealthy widow of a former colleague. He served as Conservative Prime Minister in 1868 and also from 1874–80.
Exit Frederick’s Place, go left along Old Jewry, left into St Olave’s Court, left again onto Ironmonger Lane, and swing immediately right through the white-tiled Prudent Passage. Turn right onto King Street and keep ahead over Gresham Street to enter the courtyard of the City of London’s Guildhall.
The magnificent frontage that greets you dates from the 18th Century. To its right is the Guildhall Art Gallery, opened in 1999 to display the Corporation of London’s extensive art collection. On show are works by John Everett Millais (1829–1926), Daniel Maclise (1806–70), Lord Leighton (1830–96) and Sir Edwin Landseer (1802–73), to name but a few. Also on display is John Singleton Copley’s Defeat of the Floating Batteries and Gibraltar one of Britain’s largest oil paintings. The collections do rotate, so it is worth phoning ahead if you want to be sure of viewing the works of the aforementioned artists. Be sure to pay a visit to the remains of the Roman Ampitheatre before you leave.
From the Guildhall Art Gallery, go straight across the courtyard, where you will have to clear security checks, before you enter the Guildhall.
Guildhall is the City of London’s City Hall and is the seat of the Lord Mayor and the Court of Aldermen. The present building dates in parts back to 1439, although it was severely damaged in both the Great Fire and World War 11.
Once inside look back above the entrance to gaze up at the two ferocious looking giants that glower down at you from the balcony. In his essay ‘Gone Astray’, Dickens mentions how as a small boy he had made up his ‘little mind’ to seek his fortune. ‘My plans… were first to go and see the Giants in Guildhall… I found it a long journey… and a slow one… Being very tired I got into the corner under Magog, to be out of the way of his eye, and fell asleep.’ Sadly, bombing in World War II destroyed the previous giants, to which Dickens referred. The giants are Gog (on the right) and Magog (on the left). According to legend the two giants depict warriors in the conflict between the ancient inhabitants of Britain - a race of giants - and Trojan invaders. The invading army proved victorious and marked their victory by building New Troy on the site now occupied by London.
Turn right out of Guildhall and then right again to pass under the offices. Go right onto Aldermanbury to cross over Love Lane, where in the garden you will find a:-
Bust of William Shakespeare. It commemorates John Heminge and Henry Condell - fellow actors and personal friends of Shakespeare - who lived in this parish for many years. It was they who collected together all Shakespeare’s known works and subsequently arranged for the publication of the first folio of his plays in 1623. As the inscription on the monument here states: “They thus merited the gratitude of mankind.”
Behind the bust you will find the remains of the church of St. Mary, Aldermanbury, which was built in London in the 1670s after the Great Fire of 1666. The church was gutted by fire in the Blitzkrieg bombing in 1940, and in the 1960’s was moved piece by piece to Fulton, Missouri, where it now stands in the grounds of Westminster College, where Winston Churchill gave his famous "Iron Curtain" speech in 1946.
Exit the garden and bear right along Love lane, which was once a red light district and is named for the services that were once dispensed here! You will pass the grey bulk of Wood Street Police Station. The distinctive smell of horse manure hangs heavy in the air here as the City of London Police stable their horses here, you might well see them setting out on their mounted patrols.
Cross over Wood Street and proceed along the covered passage called St Alban’s Court. Bear left and then right into Oat Lane and keep ahead to turn left along Noble Street. Cross to the railings on the opposite side and look down at:
The Remains of the Roman Fort. Built around AD120, the fort originally covered twelve acres and accommodated the guards of the Roman Governor of Britain. At least 1,000 men were once housed in the barracks here. These surviving walls were part of the curved southwest corner watchtower.
Continue to the end of Noble Street, go right along Gresham Street and at the end turn right onto Aldersgate Street. You might like to make a detour to the Museum of London, which is clearly visible ahead of you.
The Museum of London. ‘When a man is tired of London he is tired of life’, said Dr Johnson, and the same could be said of this magnificent museum, which tells the story of London from pre-Roman times to the present day. The museum has a small Dickensian display on its lower level that includes the chair in which Dickens wrote A Tale of Two Cities (1859). On the same level there is a reconstruction of part of Newgate Prison; the Porter’s Lodge from Furnival’s Inn; and a ‘Victorian Walk’ containing shop fronts, pubs, and other 19th-century businesses. Remains from all phases of London’s past are on display.
Presuming that you haven’t visited the museum cross Aldersgate Street by the crossing and go through the gate to the left of St Botolph’s Church (one of three city churches dedicated to a medieval patron Saint of travellers. All three stand next to the site of a city gate - in this case Aldersgate). The gate admits you to Postman’s park where you should cross over to the small porch with the terra cotta roof that stands opposite. This is:-
The National Memorial to Heroic Men and Women. The idea for such a monument was conceived by the painter and sculptor George Frederick Street in 1887. The wall inside the porch was finally dedicated in 1900, and bears numerous plaques that commemorate selfless acts of heroism by ordinary men and women who gave their lives attempting to save the lives of others. People like ‘Alice Ayres, daughter of a bricklayers labourer, who by intrepid conduct saved three children from a burning house in Union Street, Borough at the cost of her own young life.’ Or even John Cranmer, aged 23,a clerk in the London County Council who was drowned off Ostend whilst saving the life of a stranger and a foreigner.’
Continue through Postman’s park and exit it via the gates opposite those through which you entered. Go over the crossing and turn right. Keep ahead along Little Britain.
It was here in what Pip, in Great Expectations, described as ‘a gloomy street’ that the lawyer Mr Jaggers had his office. The street still warrants this description. It is lined by assorted buildings of St Bartholomew’s Hospital, London’s oldest hospital to still stand on its original site.
Walk all the way to the end of Little Britain where on the right you will find the:-
Gatehouse of St. Bartholomew the Great. Take a step back to fully appreciate this picturesque relic of a bygone age. Above the gate is one of the earliest surviving timber-frame house fronts in London. It was built by William Scudamore in 1595 and restored in the early 20th century following damage to its structure from a Zeppelin bomb in 1916. Parts of the stone gate date from 1240, but most of the stonework was installed during the 1932 restoration.
Beyond the gatehouse is the church of St Bartholomew the Great, London’s oldest parish church, which dates from 1123. It possesses a dark and mysterious interior, the ancient walls of which drip with so much atmosphere that it’s ambience has been described as the “holy gloom.’ It is one of those churches that, the moment you step inside it, you sense that it is a sacred place and it makes the perfect spot in which to spend a few moments, or even a few hours, in peaceful contemplation, oblivious to the bustle and rush of modern London outside. For here, in this little oasis of genuine calm, time well and truly stands still.
The beginnings of this wonderful old church, are tinged with the supernatural. Rahere, a man who, according to legend, was once a jester at the court of King Henry 1st, founded it in 1123. In November 1120, the King’s only son and heir had been drowned when the White Ship was lost in a winter storm off Calais. The court was plunged into despondency, and Rahere opted to become a monk and set off on a Pilgrimage to Rome. Whilst there, he fell dangerously ill with malaria and on his death bed vowed, that if he were cured and allowed to return to his own country, he would ‘erect a hospital for the restoration of poor men.’ Miraculously, Rahere’s prayer was answered, and he duly set off for England. But on the way he had a terrible dream in which he was seized by fearful winged creature and taken up onto a high ledge where he was set down, teetering on the brink of a yawning chasm. Just as he was about to fall, the radiant figure of St Bartholomew appeared at his side, and told Rahere that he had come to save him. In return, said the saint, “in my name thou shalt found a church…in London, at Smedfeld (Smithfield).” Thus the church was founded, and when he died in 1145, Rahere was buried inside, and although now moved from his original location, his tomb can still be viewed to the left of the churches high altar.
If you look up on the wall opposite the tomb you will spy a lovely oriel window called Prior Bolton’s Window. Bolton, who was prior of the monastery from 1506 to 1532, had his quarters behind this window, which he had constructed in order that he might keep a watchful eye on the monks at their service. Beneath the central pane is his rebus - a pictorial representation of his name - dating from an age when few people could read or write. It depicts a crossbow bolt piercing a wine barrel, meaning “Bolt tun.”
If you cross over to the far aisle (the one behind Rahere’s tomb) and look into the second window recess you will find a wall monument to John and Margaret Whiting, a couple who died within a year of each other. The inscription ends with the poignant lines:-
Shee first deceased, hee for a little Tryd
To live without her, Liked it not and dyd.
Following the priory’s Dissolution by Henry V111 on 25th October 1539, a sudden transformation overtook it. The nave was knocked down and the stone sold; a new west front was built and the monastery’s choir became a parish church. The cloister became a stables, the north transept a cottage, a blacksmith set up business in the north aisle, and a printing press was situated in the Lady Chapel where Benjamin Franklin worked in 1725.
The church is also a star of the silver screen having featured in Shakespeare in Love, Robin Hood Prince of Thieves and Four Weddings and a Funeral.
Exit the church and go out through the main gate ahead. Turn right, then take the first right into:-
Cloth Fair. Named for Bartholomew Fair which was held annually from the 12th Century until 1855. Although the main market took place on open ground now covered by West Smithfield, and was a horse fair, a fair dealing in English broadcloth was held. It was established by the monks of St Bartholomew’s to bring in much needed revenue for their priory, every stallholder having to pay a rental to the monastery. The income from this fair, the largest in London, changed hands several times prior to the Reformation, during which time the reputation of the area seriously declined. The nature of the market is well demonstrated in Ben Jonson’s play Bartholomew Fair, which features strolling players, wrestlers, dwarfs, fire eaters and tightrope walkers. But the fair also attracted unsavoury elements such as cut purses, who could cut money from the purse on a victim’s belt without the loser feeling even the slightest touch.
Until the reign of Elizabeth 1st the fair held in Cloth Fair was England’s main cloth fair, and merchants came from all over Europe to attend. The street was generally inhabited by drapers and cloth merchants. Although the local residents would have been troubled by the fair for only three days a year. It was held on the eve, day and morrow of St Bartholomew’s feast day, and their were many who were against it, although remarkably it survived the regime of the puritans under Cromwell’s Protectorate. In 1688 the fair witnessed a tragic accident when the Lord Mayor of London, Sir John Shorter, came to open it. He was imbibing ‘a cool tankard of wine, nutmeg and sugar’ at the entrance to Cloth Fair, when he slapped the lid of the tankard down so loudly that his horse shied and threw him; he died from his injuries the next day.
Gradually, however, the city authorities came to see the Fair as encouraging public disorder and, having purchased the right to it in 1830, they suppressed it in 1855.
Continue along Cloth Fair and turn left into the alley just after Betjeman’s Wine Bar.
The buildings on your right date back to 1604 and are a rare example of pre- Fire buildings. In fact the buildings of this street did manage to survive the Great Fire of 1666, and remained standing until the early 20th century when, for reasons of hygiene, the City fathers had nearly all the properties destroyed. Photograph’s of what the street was like before this destruction can be seen in the Rising Sun Public House, situated on the next corner along. However, these gabled overhangs, albeit much restored, provide an insight into the living conditions of medieval Londoners who, it was said, could open their bedroom windows in the morning and shake hands with the person who lived opposite them!
A blue plaque on the wall opposite commemorates Sir John Betjeman, Poet Laureate, who lived here until 1971. It is now owned by the landmark Trust and is available for holiday rental.
On the wall to the left of its door, above Betjeman’s wine bar, you can see a false window, with a painting behind it showing the ‘Sailor’s Home Coming.’ The window was added to the wall after the Second World War when the company of architects who owned the property bricked up all its windows on this wall and then decided that it didn’t quite look right without a window. The solution was this dummy window!
Backtrack along Cloth Fair and turn left into West Smithfield. Follow the road as it veers right and pause on the left by the memorials to those who were executed here when this one of London’s execution grounds.
Probably the most famous person to be executed here was Sir William Wallace, the Scots patriot who was executed here in 1305 for opposing the English invasion of his country. A memorial plaque on the wall details his dauntless fight against Edward 1st incursions into his homeland, although diplomatically it never once mentions who it was he was courageously fighting against! Wallace’s story was the subject of Mel Gibson’s epic Braveheart, which has been criticised for several historical inaccuracies. However, Wallace’s true story is certainly no less inspiring and perhaps warrants a re-telling here.
On 10th September 1297, William Wallace stood upon the lofty heights of Abbey Craig - where Scotland’s national memorial to him now stands - and gazed across the River Forth at the English held stronghold of Stirling Castle. The second son of minor Scottish noble Malcolm Wallace, William had grown up against the background of war, intrigue and ruthless oppression that had seen Scotland’s King, John Balliol, stripped of his sovereignty by England’s Edward 1st and his country bowed to English rule, her independence sacrificed to the self serving interests of her bickering and duplicitous nobles.
By his mid twenties William, standing at over six feet tall, was a giant of a man in both stature and reputation. He had avenged the killing of his father by murdering the English Knight responsible, and was living as an outlaw, leading a band of dedicated freedom fighters who waged a ruthlessly effective guerrilla campaign against English occupation from their hideout deep within the impregnable Ettrick forest. He was also betrothed to the beautiful heiress Marion Braidfute, who lived in the town of Lanark on the peripheral of the forest. When the English Sheriff of Lanark, Hazelrig, ordered the execution of Marion’s brother, Wallace and his comrades avenged the killing by stealing into town and putting fifty English soldiers to the sword.
Determined that the action should not go unpunished, but unable to get at Wallace himself, Hazlerig opted instead “to deny Wallace the woman he truly loved” and had Marion executed. It was an ill-conceived act of barbaric injustice and it brought the full wrath of William Wallace crashing into town, where he and his followers murdered the sheriff and slaughtered two hundred and forty English soldiers, merchants and commoners. With Lanark still smouldering from his retribution, Wallace went on the rampage, plundering his way across Scotland, collecting fables and followers as he went. Thousands flocked to his cause, including the Scottish Bishop’s, whose blessing turned the uprising into a moral as well as national crusade. By the time he arrived at Abbey Craig, his army had swollen to over 40,000 men, and William Wallace had become the ultimate cliché of patriotic resistance – a living legend.
From Stirling Castle itself the English commander, William de Warrenne, watched the rebels assemble. With 50,000 seasoned and heavily armed soldiers under him, he was confident that the ill disciplined, lightly armed Scottish force would be no match for his superior army. But, observing battle protocol, he sent two Dominican friars to offer a reprieve for all past misdemeanours if Wallace and his comrades would surrender. “Tell your commander that we are here not to make peace but to do battle, to defend ourselves” was Wallace’s contemptuous reply. “Let them come on and we shall prove this in their very beards.”
On the morning of 12th September 1297, the English cavalry began to file across the narrow, wooden bridge that spanned the River Forth. From their vantage point on Abbey Craig, Wallace and his comrades watched as the superior force began to fan out onto the marshy ground below. At 11am William Wallace raised his battle horn to his lips and, blowing a long loud blast, gave the signal to attack. The English were caught completely off guard as an avalanche of screaming terror came hurtling towards them and plunged into their ranks, swords and spears at the ready. A detachment of rebels broke from the main force and hacked and stabbed their way to the bridgehead determined to secure it. Panic-stricken, the English troops were unable to proceed but found their retreat blocked by their own advancing company. Many fell or jumped into the river where, weighed down by their armour and equipment, they drowned in its deep waters. Others were either cut down by rebel swords, impaled by Scottish spears, or else were crushed to death beneath horses hooves and men’s feet. By afternoon, the greatly outnumbered Scottish force had inflicted a crushing rout on an English army that, until then, had never known defeat. Plundering the bodies of their vanquished enemies, the victorious Scots came across that of the hated English Treasurer, Hugh Cressingham. They promptly flayed the skin from his corpse and fashioned it into a belt for Wallace’s sword.
Wallace was a national hero as he moved on to capture Dundee and drive the English forces further and further south until, by October 1297, not one English soldier remained in Scotland. But as they retreated, the English adopted a scorched earth policy, burning farms, slaughtering livestock and destroying crops. With the onset of winter and the people of Scotland facing famine, Wallace crossed the border and ravaged northern England. It was not all battles, however, he issued a letter to Lubeck and Hamburg declaring that Scotland was free and that trade could resume between the countries. Wallace was knighted and declared the Guardian of the Realm, acting for John Balliol.
But, as is so often the case in Scottish history, victory was short lived. The following year Edward 1st mustered a huge fighting force and, on 12th July 1298, he routed the Scots at Falkirk. The rebellion was over and, although he managed to escape from the battlefield, William Wallace renounced his guardianship of Scotland and faded into obscurity. It is known that he went to France in 1298 or 1299, probably to ask for military or diplomatic help. He may also have gone to Rome for the same reasons. It is highly probable that he returned to his campaign of guerrilla warfare and remained a considerable thorn in England’s side.
But history remains mute about his activities until in 1305, betrayed by one of his own countrymen, he was captured and taken to London. There, in the imposing surrounds of Westminster Hall, he was sat on a bench and laurel crown was placed upon his head. When the Kings Justiciar accused him of treason, Wallace refused to answer the charge, pointing out that since he had never sworn allegiance Edward 1st he couldn’t be guilty of treason against him. The English, however, were not interested in such legal niceties and the result of the trial was a foregone conclusion. Thus it was that on August 23rd 1305, tied to the tails of two horses, William Wallace was dragged through the streets of London to the Smooth Field here and suffered the barbaric punishment of being hanged, drawn and quartered.
Around the anniversary of his death visiting Scots adorn his wall memorial here with Scottish heather and Thistles, offsetting its greyness with a delightful profusion of wild greenery.
However, Wallace was just one of many who were executed here. During the latter medieval period many were burned at the stake here (including the Protestant martyrs detailed on the first plaque you pass on the wall. Less commonly, though equally as horrifying, people were also boiled alive here (giving rise to the nickname William Boilman for the Public Executioner). Burning alive was only on the Statute books for a little over a decade and was the prescribed punishment for prisoners. It was a treat for the victim and spectators alike if the water was boiling before the prisoner was lowered in, otherwise it could take hours before death ensued. It was probably not out of mercy for the victim that the authorities would order that the water be brought to boiling point, but rather to pacify the onlookers who might otherwise become unruly out of boredom while watching the prolonged suffering.
Burning at the stake could also be as emotionally painful to the spectators as it was physically for the victims, as the process could be very slow and protracted and the agonies of the sufferers would of course be readily apparent. Among the methods used to shorten the suffering was the placing of a small barrel of gunpowder on a cord around the victim’s neck. The resultant explosion not only shortened the agonies of death but also produced a spectacular conclusion to the proceeding for the delectation of the spectators.
Burning was usually a punishment reserved for heretics and those found guilty of treason. Witches, who were frequently burned in Europe, were generally hanged in England. It was therefore to the advantage of those accused of heresy to profess allegiance to the Devil, rather than to confess to worshipping God in a manner not approved of my the prevalent religious dogma of the day.
Continue along West Smithfield, noting as you do that the wall to the left is heavily pockmarked. This damage was caused by shrapnel from a Zeppelin raid on this quarter of the City in 1916. The buildings behind the wall are the buildings of St Bartholomew’s Hospital. A little further along on the left pause outside the:-
Henry V111 Gateway, built in 1702 by the stonemasons who were at the time rebuilding nearby St Paul’s Cathedral. Above it is the only outdoor statue of Henry V111 in London, commemorating the fact that, following his Dissolution of the monastery, he gave the hospital back to the City of London.
Go through the gate and on the left a little way along enter:
The Church of St Bartholomew The Less. The hospital became its own parish in January 1547 and this is the only hospital parish church in existence. As you go in notice the two 15th century arches that survive under the tower. Go up the steps immediately on the left as you enter; just in front of the wooden screen, pull back the green carpet to see the wonderful 15th century brass memorial to William and Alice Markeby. When you leave be sure to replace the carpet over the brass.
Exit the church, turn left and pass into the arch. Immediately on the left you will find:-
The Museum of St Bartholomew’s Hospital. St Bartholomew’s (or Barts as it is more widely known) is London’s oldest hospital to still stand on its original site, and the museum contains and intriguing and illuminating display of artefacts that illustrate its colourful and fascinating history. One of the chief glories of Barts is the magnificent staircase to the Great Hall, which can be seen from the museum and where two large paintings by William Hogarth (1697–1764) are hung, The Pool at Bethesda and The Good Samaritan. It is said that Hogarth used patients from the hospital as his models and, such was his attention to detail, that modern doctors can still look at the individual subjects and diagnose the diseases from which they were suffering.
As you leave the museum and turn right to backtrack and exit via the Henry V11 Gateway the buildings of the hospital are all around you. The hospital features in Charles Dickens’s Pickwick Papers when Jack Hopkins, a medical student under the wonderfully named Mr Slasher the Surgeon, astonishes the Pickwickians with his story of the boy who stole his sister’s beads and swallowed them one by one. ‘He’s in hospital now… and he makes such a devil of a noise when he walks about, that they’re obliged to muffle him in a watchman’s coat, for fear he should wake the patients!’
Turn left along Giltspur Street once you have passed through the Henry V111 Gatehouse. Cross to its right side and pause by the first turning on your right, Cock Lane.
Look up on the wall at the cherubic Golden Boy, whose rotund shape marks the spot where the Great Fire of London burnt itself out in 1666. It was commonly believed that the fire was God’s way of punishing the citizens of London for the sin of Gluttony. The fact that it began at Pudding Lane and ended at Pye (or Pie) corner, as this corner was then known, was seen as a clear sign of this divine retribution. Thus the ‘Golden Boy’ or ‘Fat Boy’ was placed here as a reminder that, to quote the inscription beneath him “This Boy is in memory put up for the late Fire of London, occasioned by the sin of gluttony 1666).
Cock Lane today is a relatively unappealing and unattractive modern thoroughfare. Number 33 was long ago demolished, which is a great pity, for in the late 18th century one of London’s most infamous hauntings occurred, at what was then the home of William Parsons.
One morning in 1760, Parsons offered lodgings to a widower named William Kent. Kent gratefully accepted and moved in with his sister-in-law, Miss Fanny, with whom he had become romantically involved. Not long after the two lovers had taken up residence, Parson’s borrowed a considerable sum of money from Kent, and showed a marked reluctance to repay it. With relations strained between the two men, Kent was suddenly called away on business, and Miss Fanny, rather than sleep alone, took Parson eleven –year- old daughter, Elizabeth, into bed with her at night. In the early hours of the morning, they were woken by a mysterious scratching noise, sounding from behind the wainscoting, and Fanny convinced herself that it was the spirit of her dead sister, warning her of her own imminent demise. When Kent returned he found his mistress on the verge of a nervous breakdown and deemed it best that they move out. But no sooner had they found new lodgings than Fanny died of smallpox, and was buried in a vault in the church of St John’s Clerkenwell.
When Kent began to press Parson’s for repayment of the outstanding loan, the former reacted by claiming that the scratching noises had resumed in his house. Furthermore, he insisted that it was the spirit of Miss Fanny that was behind this latest outbreak, and that she had informed him that William Kent had, infact, murdered her. When news spread that a vengeful ghost was making its presence known at 33 Cock Lane, Londoners flocked to make its acquaintance, where they heard the revenant of Miss Fanny - using a sequence of banging, scratching and knocking noises – accuse William Kent of poisoning her with arsenic. The activity appeared to centre on eleven- year-old Elizabeth Parson’s, and her father was only too happy to decipher the messages. He also did a roaring trade, charging an admission fee to those who wanted to hear the ghost!
But then a local clergyman threw a holy spanner into the works by announcing that, since the spirit was apparently accusing Kent of a serious crime, then an investigation should be carried out by a group of eminent men into the veracity of the allegations. The ghost proved more than willing to oblige and informed him, through Parsons, that if he would spend a night by Miss Fanny’s resting place in the crypt of St John’s church, then she would answer any questions by knocking on the lid of her coffin. And so it was that the vicar, accompanied by a group of fearless companions that included the great Dr Samuel Johnson, traipsed down into St John’s crypt at one o’clock one morning. When nothing had occurred by dawn, Johnson declared the ghost a fraud. A secret watch was kept on Elizabeth, who was observed hiding a small wooden board under her stays, and the trick was exposed. Parsons spent two years in the King’s Bench Prison. Elizabeth was exonerated of any crime, it being deemed that she had been an unwitting accomplice. William Kent’s name was cleared. London settled back into the Age of Reason, and the ghost was assigned to the pages of history as, ‘Scratching Fanny of Cock Lane!’
CLICK HERE TO GO TO THE FINAL SECTION OF YOUR SECRET CITY WALK
Continue along Giltspur Street, passing on the right immediately past the iron gates, an 18th century watch-house built to guard the freshly buried bodies in the churchyard beyond the gates from the nefarious activities of the body snatchers.
Continue to the corner and turn right to admire the:
Church of the Holy Sepulchre Without Newgate. Founded in the year 1137 just outside the City of London’s New gate, the church was a departure point for knights setting off for the crusades. It is named for the Holy Sepulchre Church in Jerusalem, the ultimate destination of the Crusaders. The present building dates from 1450, and it is the bells of this church that appear in the rhyme @oranges and Lemons’ as the bells of Old Bailey that wonder “when will you pay me.” If open the church is well worth a visit.
Turn left out of the church and cross to the opposite corner of Giltspur Street to admire:
The Viaduct Tavern, which dates from 1875 (not 1869 as is claimed inside). It is the City’s only surviving Victorian Gin Palace and has a wonderfully ornate interior that includes a beaten copper ceiling and a series of paintings on canvas with depictions of representations of the commerce and business of the city around. The claim that the pubs cellars are the old cells of Newgate Prison (which used to stand on the opposite side of the road) should be taken with a large pinch of salt as they are in fact a combination of Coal cellars and wine vaults!
On the opposite side of the road is the looming bulk of the Central Criminal Courts, or as they are better known throughout the world Old Bailey (Old Bailey is in fact the name of the street in front of them.) The building dates from the early 20th century and was built on the site of Newgate Prison. You might like to end your tour with a visit to one of the criminal trials that are held here, but be warned that cameras are not allowed inside the courts
Exit the Viaduct Tavern and bear left along Newgate Street. Cross to its right side and keep walking until you arrive at St Paul’s Underground Station where the tour ends.