Myths and Legends of London

There was something in Iain Sinclair’s White Chapel Scarlet Tracings that made me push through morning fatigue and head out for a wander. All I knew was that I needed to head east from Holborn. I resist the temptation to visit the Celts exhibition at the British Museum, the pull of the walk was too great, there was something out there for me.

Down through Lincoln’s Inn Fields and onto Fleet Street. At St Dunstan-in-the-West I go and stand by the statues of King Lud and his sons Androgeus (who is possibly Mandubracius king of the Trinovantes in modern day Essex and East London) and Tenvantius (who was king of the Catuvellauni in today’s Herts/Cambs/Beds).

According to a legend set down in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, Lud is credited with building, or at least expanding, a grand citadel on the hill where St. Paul’s Cathedral now stands, a hill that bears his name – Ludgate Hill in the period just preceding Ceasar’s first expeditions to Britain in 54BC. He was buried at the foot of the hill where the Lud Gate stood and the 14th Century statues at St. Dunstan’s used to adorn the gate until it was demolished in 1780. Some legends say that London is named after Lud, one of the many competing foundation myths.

Another can be found high up on the face of the church where the statues of Gog and Magog toll out the half-hour and hour standing camply one hand on the hip the other on their vicious looking clubs. According to myth they were the ancient British giants defeated by Brutus the Trojan who then established the first city of London in 1180BC.

‘In the year 1108 B.C., Brutus, a descendant of Aeneas, who was the son of Venus, came to England with his companions, after the taking of Troy, and founded the City of Troynovant, which is now called London. After a thousand years, during which the city grew and flourished exceedingly, one Lud became its king. He built walls and towers, and, among other things, the famous gate whose name still survives in the street called Ludgate’. This is how Walter Besant recounts Geoffrey’s myth in his History of London published in 1893 before stating that it is if not an invention it’s a mangling together and miss-copying of prior sources to construct a grander yarn.

All-said-and-done it’s a good story and one that should be known by every school child in London even if it doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny. We need our communal myths.
I wonder what it is about this church that makes it such a magnet for mythology.

I wind around the lanes running off Fleet Street into the Thames and come up beneath St. Brides Church. I often find myself seeking sanctuary here. In the crypt I look at the fragments of Roman pottery excavated onsite and a section of stone walling from the original Saxon Church.

Look Mum No Hands Old Street
Up Farringdon Street and into Smithfield passing CrossRail carnage, then St. John Street takes me onto Old Street via Clerkenwell Road.

Second breakfast is taken at a curious trendy coffee shop, Look Mum No Hands, where they repair bikes at one end of the counter. I drink my over-priced flat white watching a man replace the spokes in a wheel. There is something very seductive about cycling culture, even the socks in here look great, the caps, the colours of the racing jerseys that should never been stretched over a beer-gut. It makes me want to buy a bike. But one look at the traffic thundering past outside renders that idea insane. I shall stick to being a pedestrian. Urban walking seems to be utterly resistant to this form of image makeover.

Duck down Helmet Row behind St Luke’s, a scene I’d read in White Chapel this morning took place in this narrow street. That was before gentrification – dodgy book collectors wouldn’t get a look in now. The receptionist at Modern Art jumps out of her skin as a lope past, heaven forbid that someone should want to look at paintings.

Memory draws me up City Road before I detour round a sequence of Victorian streets – Haverstock – Remmington – Quick – and The Charles Lamb pub not far from his house. Over the canal and one final stop on the Sinclair trail to visit Camden Passage where the second-hand book dealers just about still ply their trades. I wander into an antique print shop where there are numerous 19th Century engravings of The White Conduit House on Penton Street where we used to live, and for a while I was obsessed with White Conduit House. There’s a good bit about it in my book.

Whilst the lovely fella behind the counter looks for old pictures of Leytonstone my eyes travel to the tiny stack of Bucks prints. I pick them up and the first image I see is of Wooburn Church, the village where I was raised and where generations of my family were christened, married, and buried. Perhaps that was what was calling me all along.

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