There are so many byways winding through the City of London – this is just a sampler. I sometimes imagine disappearing into one of these dark passageways one night to emerge sometime in the 17th Century before returning to a pea-souper circa 1947.
Dragged the family out for a wander around the vicinity of Brick Lane.
The boys weren’t that enthusiastic but I promised them some kind of adventure.
The usual parental instruction to ‘stay close’ and ‘hold my hand’ was loaded with the added tale that these streets were known to consume people, that you could stop to tie your laces, your friend would wander into one of these lanes and alleys never to be seen again.
‘Where do they go?’, the boys asked
‘They’re devoured by the city itself’, I said
‘That’s just nonsense’, the eldest retorted
‘Yeah, just stupid’, added the little one.
We have a set of Bob and Roberta Smith letter blocks at home.
Heidi and the boys admired this mural and concluded that it would have been better if Bob had done it.
There was an absence of graffiti tourists today – no lumbering parties touring early Banksy’s and derivatives.
We had the walls to ourselves.
The C18th Huguenot doorways of Fournier and Princelet Streets kept them occupied.
There was a big bonfire out the back of Christ Church Spitalfields sending great plumes of smoke over the rooftops.
We grab bagels in Brick Lane then walk down Bethnal Green Road under a full moon to the tube station.
Found this brilliant, poignant little book the other day
It contains before and after photos of areas bombed during the Second World War. Like these of Paternoster Row devastated by a bombing raid in December 1940.
The introduction states that the photos “present the aftermath of the new kind of war Hitler thrust upon mankind, the war in which non-combatants were to be killed off like insects, and their homes, hospitals, schools and churches were to be smashed to pieces.”
I’ll place it next to William Kent’s equally haunting Lost Treasures of London, Kent being a great guide to the city dutifully logging the artifacts, and relics, as well as buildings lost in the Blitz.
Thankfully I also have the wartime optimism of the County of London Plan (1943) to perk me up – a reminder that whilst the bombs rained down on London there were a group of people in a nissen hut somewhere planning new open spaces, hospitals, and fly-overs.
People often talk of the Hollywood Hills but it’s rare to hear the City of London talked about in terms of its hills – but a city of two hills it originally was.
I was reading about this in Discovering Roman London (Grace Derwent 1968) just now in the pub, the words somehow reaching my brain through some of the worst karaoke singing I’ve ever been subjected to. You can see the legacy of the London hills recorded in the street names of the City – some of these are in the book and then I’ve sat here looking for more: Cornhill and Ludgate Hill (the twin hills), Bennet’s Hill, Huggin Hill, Garlick Hill, Dowgate Hill, Fish Street Hill, St. Mary at Hill, Dunstan’s Hill, White Lion Hill, Addle Hill, Lambeth Hill, College Hill, and obviously Tower Hill. To the west you find: Saffron Hill, Back Hill, Herbal Hill, Eyre Street Hill, Vine Hill, Snow Hill.
Derwent gives us this guide to the scale of the incline on the western slopes:
“To get an idea of what the slope up from the floor of the valley to the western hill of the twin hills was like, try walking up the steps from Farringdon Road to the top of the Holborn Viaduct, or even look over the viaduct and see how far it is above the traffic beneath.” (p.21)
I was flicking through the pages of Wonderful London (circa 1921) Sunday afternoon and stopped at a photo of some young men on a set of steps by the river.
The caption reads:
“The Walbrook once ran down the gentle slope of Dowgate Hill and barges used to moor there … the Britons may have traded somewhere near this site with the ships from Gaul.”
This was enough to make me head out into the night to follow its course.
Wonderful London has a chapter on Some Lost Rivers of London describing the route the river took through the City before it was buried in the mid-15th Century.
“It rose in Moorfields and went through the City wall, and so got its name, near Moorgate. It flowed under the site of the Bank past the Mansion House, along the street called Walbrook and so by Dowgate into the Thames.”
Ackroyd proposes another explaination of the name – that it is “derived from Weala broc, ‘brook of the Welsh’, which suggests there was still a defined quarter for the ‘old Britons’ in their ancient city”.
It seems that the Walbrook was one of the most signficant rivers in Roman and early medieval London. It ran through the heart of the ancient City dividing it in two. When the Romans arrived they built a temple to Mithras and a port on its east bank. The invading Saxons later used it as the boundary between the east and west of the City – with the invaders on the West bank and the Britons to the East.
I headed to the street named Moorfields to look for where the stream rises, although I have a feeling the whole area once went by that name. When the Walbrook ran freely this was an area of boggy marsh-lands. This may explain the relatively large amount of open space hereabouts, of Finsbury Square (where the Ocuppy protestors camp) and the artillery grounds, in a zone that has some of the most expensive land in the world.
I can’t read a landscape like Nick Papadimitriou, that man can sniff out a buried stream like some kind of urban Navajo, but I’ve done enough river walks with him to pick up a few basics. Moorfields didn’t seem to have a river/stream valley in the area but there was the low lying area just off Finsbury Circus where the Cross Rail works are drilling deep.
When I get home I checked the Cross Rail archaeological reports and indeed they have struck the Walbrook running along the course of Blomfield Street and they are searching for the remains of the Roman bridges that crossed the stream.
I breach London Wall and am drawn into Great Swan Street which curves down to low-lying land – the course of the river? Passing the Chartered Accountants Hall and following the contours of the street I traverse Copthall Avenue and find myself at Angel Court.
The City is eerily deserted on a Sunday night – the only other people I see are the lonely figures sat on sentry duty at the front desks of the office blocks. Although I have the streets to myself, there is the ever-present feeling of my every step being picked up on hundreds if not thousands of CCTV cameras.
I have a note from the London Topographical Record of an excavation of Angel Court in 1974 that undercovered a portion of the river, noting that it “dominated the original topography and habitation of the district north of Lothbury and Throgmorton Street”. Remains of a Roman embankment were also discovered along with Roman relics, coins, shoes and painted wall plaster. Hundreds of styli for writing were also discovered where scribes had tossed them from their windows into the water, perhaps in frustration or disgust. In my imagination it is just one particularly bad-tempered Roman clerk who continuosly made mistakes.
Behind the Bank in Lothbury I note a dip in the road that could well indicate the course of the Walbrook. Lothbury is an ancient enclosure, or haga, of the city, a fortified burgh of Lotha’s folk, an early Kentish king.
An excavation of the stream in the 19th century found a large quantity of human skulls in the river bed. One theory is that they were the remains of a Roman legion that surrendered to British tribes following a siege of a city, they were massacred “in ritual Celtic style” and their heads thrown into the Brook.
|Walbrook beside Mansion House|
With the City now dominated by huge blocks of concrete, glass and steel and its workaday streets the parade ground of a besuited army of clerks and accountants it’s easy to forget the more earthy history of this place; when blood was spilt on these very streets in battles to control the City, when the trade was hauled up from wharfs rather than sent down a high-speed connection, when the City was the heart of London life rather than a capitalist encampment staffed by suburban commuters.
Past the Tallow Chandler’s Hall and into the darkness of Cousin Lane I find the set of steps that look like the ones from that beguiling collodion photo in Wonderful London at the top of this post. There isn’t a soul around, it’s low tide so I walk a little along the shore looking for where the Walbrook makes its confluence with the Thames but I find nothing.
But there’s no doubt that the Walbrook still lives – coursing beneath the City streets – waiting to spring back to the surface at the first opportunity – which I imagine will be anytime soon thanks to Cross Rail.
It was my co-host Nick Papadimitriou who introduced me to the expression ‘to do a Clunn’ in an email back in 2006. Nick did a no-show that night as I and three friends (including the redoubtable Peter Knapp) used Harol P. Clunn’s The Face of London (1932) to guide us from the Black Friar pub at one end of the bridge it lent its name to, along Queen Victoria Street finishing in the East End.
Clunn’s weighty tome is an exhaustive survey of London and its environs – probably the most comprehensive compendium of the city covered in this series exploring the world of early C20th topographical walking books. Clunn was a strident spokesman for the pedestrian – chronicling the gradual alienation of the walker from the streets to the designated walkways.
But unlike say SPB Mais or Gordon S Maxwell, Clunn is no poetic quasi-mystic, he is very much a scribe of the capital’s institutions and its worthies; as Nick observed looking down on the shimmering street-lit city, Clunn would have been the ideal guide for visiting dignitaries to London, proudly extolling the greatness of the colonial metropolis.
The walks in this book are epic – particularly for city perambulations which seem to peek at around six miles. Clunn’s measure more in the 10-15 bracket taking unlikely detours to extend what would be an otherwise moderate stroll. We baulked at this and decided to truncated his walk from City Road to Hampstead and back to St.Pancras to take in Highbury to Highgate – justifying it on the grounds that it had better rhythmic qualities for the radio.
I got lost in the graffiti of personal memory that decorates Highbury Fields and Barn for me. I lived here for a couple of years in the late 90’s in a tiny basement flat. Nick kindly indulged this and in return I offered up a few bits of local history that I’d gleaned from a pamphlet about the Highbury Barn pleasure gardens, which up till the mid-C19th had been a choice attraction for city day-trippers to sample operettas, eat cakes dipped in cream, custards, and syllabubs.
reading by Heidi Lapaine from The Northern Heights of London – Hampstead, Highgate, Muswell Hill, Hornsey and Islington by William Howitt, published in 1869
We pushed on and drunk in the view of the geological infrastructure of the northern heights laid bare as we stood on the corner of Aubert Park. For the first time I saw how Holloway sat deep in a river gully between what I think Nick would call the Hampstead masif and hills of Islington.
We achieved Stroud Green Road by dusk and supped tea in a cafe where Nick bemused a music teacher writing his journals with what must have seemed like an impossible knowledge of C20th English classical music. As we got sucked into the psychic vortex of Crouch End the powerful mythology of that place was debated. There are a perculiar amount of references to the undead round this nut-loaf of a separatist suburb – Will Self’s North London Book of the Dead has Crouch End as a place where you go to live after you die, Shaun of the Dead the great British zombie movie was filmed around here, Stephen King was inspired to write a short story called Crouch End after a walk along the old Northern Heights railway line, in the legend of the Highgate Vampire there is the fantastical story that the vampire moved out of Highgate Cemetery when it got too rowdy and shacked up in a large pile on the corner of Crescent and Avenue Roads, and in the real-world, serial killer Denis Nilsen committed some of his murders in a house on Cranley Gardens and allegedly kept the corpses for company.
field recording: Stroud Green Road
By the time we’d got bored mulling this over arguing about whether “murder and the occult was a short-cut to psychogeography”, we had ascended Shepherd’s Hill and were in Highgate. It was deep dark night and cold as a vampire’s kiss so we repaired to the Ye Olde Gatehouse pub, a place that legendary local author David Farrant claims is haunted. Sadly looks as if all the ghosts have re-located to Crouch End.