The hills of the City of London

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)

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The History Man

I read this passage from Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man (1975) this morning as the Overground trundled through the new Stratford taking shape for the Olympics.

Howard Kirk is stood at the top of a multistorey carpark above a shopping centre:
“He stares out, over the unwindowed parapet, at the topography of the town. … To one side he can see the blocks of luxury flats, complete but half-empty, with convenience kitchens and wall-to-wall carpeting and balconies pointed at the horizon; to the other side, on the hill, stand the towers of high-rise council flats, superficially similar, stacked, like a social workers’ hand-book, with separated wives, unmarried mothers, latchkey children. It is a topography of the mind; and his mind makes an intellectual contrast out of it, an image of conflict and opposition. He stares down on the town; the keys dangle; he populates chaos, orders disorder, senses strain and change.”

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Poets and topographers

Last night I was reading, well browsing, W.G. Hoskins’ ‘The Making of the English Landscape’ (1955), in the pub and came across his definition of the Walla Brook on Dartmoor as “the stream of the Welsh or Britons” deriving from the original Weala Broc.

A month ago on this blog I quoted a very similar definition from Peter Ackroyd’s ‘London‘ (p.33) but in the context of relating to the Walbrook stream in London, “brook of the Welsh” deriving from the same Weala Broc.

Not sure what I’m saying about this to be perfectly honest – the similarity just struck me.

‘The Making of the English Landscape’ is a book I’ve been meaning to read for a while now – before I really immersed myself in psychogeographical material I saw Hoskins book as a potentially key text that would compliment the topographical books such as Gordon S. Maxwell’s Fringe of London, and films such as Patrick Keiller’s London and Andrew Kotting’s Gallivant.

The book opens, “Despite the multitude of books about English landscape and scenery, and the flood of topographical books in general, there is not one that deals with the historical evolution of the landscape as we know it.”

And so far Hoskins doesn’t disappoint, even declaring that “poets make the best topographers”.
Peter Ackroyd began his literary career as a poet, so again I suppose the two books reinforce each other.

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Walk along the Walbrook

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.

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Suburb-hunting in Modernist Metroland

SPB Mais

“To the believer in the influence of the environment – and I am certainly one – it comes as something of a shock to discover that what we are pleased to call the suburban outlook – that is, the narrow outlook of the stereotyped – is shared by the owners of castles in the Cheviots and studios in Chelsea, and is actually rather rare in the suburbs which are supposed to engender it. The truth, I thought, must be that the suburbs are not quite so uniform in character as they are made out to be.”

This is the opening to a chapter on the London suburbs in England’s Character by SPB Mais (1937). I keep coming back to Mais – I think he is one of the most resonant forebares of this art of wandering around and recording your thoughts about what you have seen. That must have been why I took this book down off the shelf this evening.

Mais’ ‘suburb-hunting’ started out in Harrow with its gasometers and he praises North Harrow for a “surprising moment of courage in building a series of dazzling white flats with green tiles, recessed balconies, multitudinous glass, and terraces fronting a communal public unfenced garden.” Sounds like he’s describing the now Grade-II listed Pinner Court designed by local architect HJ Mark and completed in 1936 at the time Mais would have been writing the book.

Pinner: Pinner Court, Pinner Road (Nigel Cox) / CC BY-SA 2.0

Large chunks of Pinner and Rayners Lane have now been placed in a conservation area to protect its modernist and art deco inspired buildings and streetscapes – and it seems that HJ Mark was at the centre of this suburban Bauhausian outpost, particularly in Eastcote Town Centre.

This makes me wonder whether Mais, a self-professed ‘man of the hills’, was in fact a closet modernist, further evidenced by his belief in the influence of the environment it re-enforces my vision of this tweedy BBC radio presenter of Microphone At Large as a proto-psychogeographer. Was he drawn out to Harrow to discuss the modernist project with Mark and take a topographical ramble through the dreamscape that Marks had created in the Harrows and the Weald.

More modernist wonders of the suburbs can be seen on the brilliant Modernism in Metroland website.

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