A jaunt around London EC3 North.
I’ve got a great book about the history of London called “I Never Knew That About London” by Christopher Winn, which you can see here on Amazon, if you fancy buying a copy. Inside, there are lots of fascinating facts about London and its history.
The other day, I took myself off to London and decided to explore a small area and find some of the interesting places referred to in the book.
So, what’s included in EC3 North? Well, it’s Aldgate, St Helen’s, Leadenhall, Cornhill and the Royal Exchange.
And what was I looking for? Mainly things of interest in the many strangely-named churches and also the sites of London’s oldest coffee houses. Unfortunately, most of the churches I wanted to visit either had a lunch-time service, a concert or an event going on inside and I wasn’t able to go in. But I did manage to get into St Katherine Cree, in Leadenhall Street. It’s a survivor of the Great Fire of 1666 and is a 17th century rebuild of a 13th century church with a distinctive rose window which was modelled on the one in old St Paul’s Cathedral. It tells the story of St Katherine, an Egyptian princess who was martyred on a wheel at the age of 18. The wheel was destroyed by a bolt of lightning from God and gruesomely, is the origin of the Katherine Wheel firework.
What I liked about St Katherine Cree Church was watching the bellringers who were visible from the street and listening to the cheery peals which could be heard above the traffic.
Leadenhall Market was just a short walk away, so I decided to wander around there. It’s built on the site of the 1st century Roman Basilica which was the largest basilica north of the Alps. Click here to see a plan of Londinium. (The basilica is the large rectangular structure). Leadenhall Market takes its name from the lead-roofed house that belonged to the Neville family who lived there in the 14th century. It’s laid out in the shape of a cross and has narrow, cobbled streets and passageways lined with shops. In 2001, Bull’s Head Passage was transformed into Diagon Alley, where Harry Potter went shopping for his magic wand in the film Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
I managed to go into St Botolph Without Aldgate which is one of the four St Botolph’s churches in the City which are all beside gates (Billingsgate, Aldersgate and Bishopsgate). They were all sited next to gates because St Botolph was regarded as a saint for travellers. Interestingly, Botolph gave his name to Boston in Lincolnshire and therefore, also to Boston, Massachusetts. In St Botolph Without Aldgate, the author Daniel Defoe got married in 1683.
However, St Helen’s was busy, as was St Andrew Undershaft, so called because of the tall maypole put up outside the church in the 15th century. In 1517, on what became known as ‘Evil May Day’, City apprentices rioted and the maypole was taken down and never used again. And St Mary Woolnoth was similarly closed to the casual visitor which was a shame because it sounded quite interesting – “The interior based on the Egyptian hall of Vitruvius is considered to be [Nicholas] Hawksmoor’s finest.” Incidentally, the name ‘Woolnoth’ comes from the church’s Saxon founder, a noble called Wulfnoth. The original church was damaged in the Great Fire of London and was restored in 1727 by Nicholas Hawksmoor.
It wasn’t only the churches which weren’t accessible on my jaunt – I thought I’d visit the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue in Bevis Marks which is the oldest synagogue in Britain, having been built in 1701. However, it was closed.
Undaunted, I carried on my search for evidence of coffee houses between Cornhill and Lombard Street. Cornhill is the highest point in the City of London and in Medieval times was a grain market and then the location of a pillory where Daniel Defoe was placed in 1703 for writing a pamphlet satirising the government (I wonder what his wife who he married in St Botolph Without Aldgate made of that!). Lombard Street was named after the Lombardy merchants who arrived in the 12th and 13th centuries to collect taxes for the Pope, then became bankers. Many banks have their headquarters in Lombard Street. Between Cornhill and Lombard Street is a maze of narrow passageways and alleys which were home in the 17th and 18th centuries to dozens of coffee houses and taverns where merchants, bankers and traders met to exchange news and ideas and to do business.
Today, the coffee houses are all gone although evidence remains, such as the sign on the wall in Change Alley, shown below. Thomas Garraway, who opened Garraway’s Coffee House in 1669, was the first man to import tea into Britain.
St Helen’s Place in Bishopsgate, is somewhere I’d never really noticed before. It was redesigned in the 1920s for the Hudson’s Bay Company who had their offices there. It consists of a short cobbled street, surrounded on three sides by Neo-classical-style buildings. It was built on nunnery land bought by the Leathersellers’ Company in 1543 at the time of Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries. On the right of the photo, you can see the Leathersellers’ Hall. If the Gherkin wasn’t there brooding in the background, it might look as though the photograph below was taken years ago.
My next jaunt? Hmm, who knows! There are certainly lots of things I missed in EC3 but I’ll have to consult my usual jaunting partner, Dave, who was away when I did this one on my own.