Day 38 – Fleet Street – Victoria Embankment – St Bride’s

So this walk takes place just a few days after the visit to Middle and Inner Temple and, beginning on the eastern side of the latter, completes the area between Fleet Street and the river.

Day 38 Route

As noted, we start out today from the eastern entrance to the grounds of the Temple Inns, heading south down Temple Avenue. On the way we pass the Temple Chambers building c.1887 with its two splendid warrior king sculptures (artist unknown). Technically these kind of sculptures, in the form of a man and acting as a column or support, are known as atlantes or atlases (after Atlas the Titan responsible for holding up the sky in Greek mythology). The female equivalent are called caryatids (see Day 7 post).

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At the junction with the Embankment stands Hamilton House a.k.a no.1 Temple Avenue. A listed building dating from 1880 this was once home to the Callender Cable and Construction Company.

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Continuing east along the Embankment we arrive next at Sion Hall, an 1886 tour-de-force of the Gothic perpendicular style designed by Sir Arthur Blomfield. This was built as new premises for Sion College, founded by Royal Charter in 1630 as a college, guild of parochial clergy and almshouse, under the will of Thomas White, vicar of St Dunstan’s in the West. In the mid nineties it was sold for redevelopment as offices and is now occupied by a subsidiary of the German insurance behemoth, Allianz.

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Sion Hall sits on the corner of John Carpenter Street, sadly not named after the director of such cinematic classics as Assault on Precinct 13 but after the man tenuously responsible for the next building along to the east, the City of London School (CLS). John Carpenter the younger (about 1372 – 1442), was  elected as Town Clerk to the City of London during the reigns of Henry V and Henry VI. He was also the author of the first book of English common law, known as Liber Albus (the White Book). In his will Carpenter bequeathed a plot of land (not here) “for the finding and bringing up of four poor men’s children with meat, drink, apparel, learning at the schools, in the universities, etc., until they be preferred, and then others in their places for ever.”To cut a very long story short this ultimately led, in 1834, to the founding of the City of London School, which still exists today as an Independent School for Boys. In 1883 the CLS moved into the Victoria Embankment building, designed in a high Victorian style with a steep pitched roof resembling that of a French chateau, by Davis and Emanuel and constructed by John Mowlem & Co at a cost exceeding £100,000. On the front of the building are statues of Shakespeare, Milton, Bacon, Newton and Sir Thomas More. After a hundred years give or take the school moved to a new home in 1987. Investment bank, JP Morgan, are now in residency here.

As we reach the end of Victoria Embankment, joining with the north side of Blackfriars Bridge and the southern end of New Bridge Street we find ourselves in front of no.100, the impressive Unilever House. This was built between 1929 and 1933 in the hybrid Neoclassical Art Deco style and the design was a collaboration between James Lomax-Simpson ( a member of the Unilever board) and architects John James Burnet and Thomas Tait; though the precise apportionment of credit has been somewhat contested. The corners of the building are marked by entrances surmounted by large plinths on which are placed sculptures by Sir William Reid Dick of human figures restraining horses (entitled Controlled Energy) . The merman and mermaid figures elsewhere on the exterior are by Gilbert Ledward. There have been two major refurbishments of the interior, one in 1977-83 and the other from 2004 to 2007 which won an RIBA Award for architects KPF.

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Just around the corner on New Bridge Street is Blackfriars House built 1916 architect F.W Troup. Ten years or so ago this was converted from offices into the Crowne Plaza Hotel which somewhat wince-inducingly boasts a restaurant called the Chinese Cricket Club.

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Skirt round the back of the hotel via Watergate and Kingscote Street and emerge onto Tudor Street. Turning left back down John Carpenter Street we come across the first permanent home of the Guildhall School of Music, opened just seven years after the school was founded in 1880.   Designed by architect Sir Horace Jones, the new building incorporated a Common Room for Professors and 45 studios, each surrounded by a one foot thick layer of concrete to ‘deaden the sound’ and each containing both a grand piano and an upright piano. As you can see in the photo below the facade of the building includes a series of round windows memorialising renowned British composers.

Initially, all tuition was on a part-time basis, but full-time courses were introduced by public request in 1920. Departments of Speech, Voice and Acting were added and by 1935 the School had added “and Drama” to its title. In 1977, as you may recall from one of our earlier posts, the school moved into the Barbican complex.

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Complete a circuit of Tallis Street (named after  one of those composers), Carmelite Street and Temple Avenue again before returning down Tudor Street and then continuing further up New Bridge Street. Next left, Bridewell Place, takes us unremarkably back onto Tudor Street from where we head north next up Dorset Rise. Having dipped very briefly into Dorset Buildings we take the next right down St Bride’s Passage. At the end of this we find the St Bride Institute (as it says on the building) though Foundation is the preferred title nowadays. This was established in 1891 to provide a social, cultural and recreational centre for London’s Fleet Street and its burgeoning print and publishing trade. Today it still acts as a hub for local community events and projects.

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Head down the steps to the left of the entrance and descend on to Bride Lane, the location of the Foundation-supported Bridewell Theatre which, in addition to an evening programme,  puts on 45-minute lunchtime plays for the edification of local office workers.

Loop up round the intersection of New Bridge Street and Ludgate Circus into Fleet Street again, pausing at no.99, the Punch Tavern. This was originally called the Crown and Sugar Loaf but around the middle of the 19th century the landlord changed it in honour of the sadly-departed satirical magazine, founded in 1841, whose staff had begun to frequent the tavern. At the end of the 19th c. it was refitted as a so-called Gin Palace with a requisitely ornate tiled entrance and interior.

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Next turning on the left is Bride Lane which takes us to St Bride’s Church. It is believed that the current church is the eighth to have stood on this site. The seventh rose from the ashes of the Great Fire of 1666 under the guiding hand of Sir Christopher Wren taking nine years to complete. The famous spire was added later in 1701 and it is popularly believed that it inspired (sorry) the apprentice to a local baker, one William Rich, to create the tradition of the tiered wedding cake for the celebration of his marriage to the baker’s daughter. It took nearly twice as long to rebuild again after German bombs had reduced the main building to a burnt-out shell in WW2 though the “wedding cake” steeple survived.  During this period a series of  excavations led by the medieval archaeologist Professor W. F. Grimes uncovered the foundations of all six previous churches on the site together with part of a Roman Road; which if you venture down into the crypt you can see elements of as part of a standing exhibition.

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The church became indelibly associated with  the printing and press industries that took over the surrounding area from the 18th century on – earning such soubriquets as “the Printers’ Cathedral” and “the Journalists’ Church”- but the links went even further back. England’s first printing press was brought to the pre-fire church, in 1500, nine years after the death of William Caxton by his assistant Wynand “Wynkyn” de Worde (how brilliantly apposite a name is that !). In 1702 London’s first regular newspaper, the Daily Courant, began publication nearby. The Guild of St Bride reputedly dates back to 1375 and since its reconstitution in 1953 has comprised one hundred Liverymen representing a cross-section of Fleet Street interests and activities. On the morning of my visit they were out in force in their orange robes officiating at the funeral of one of the old school Fleet Street press photographers.

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Adjacent to the church at no.85 Fleet Street is the 1939 building designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens to be the new home of the Reuters news agency. The building was also the headquarters of the Press Association up until 1995. A decade later Reuters themselves jumped ship.

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As we venture down Salisbury Court we pass a plaque marking no.4 as the place where the first issue of the Sunday Times was produced, on 20 October 1822.

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After a circuit of Salisbury Square we return down Dorset Rise, cut through Hutton Street, do a quick up-and-down of Primrose Hill (not that one obviously) and then find ourselves in Whitefriars Street. Whitefriars Street itself has little to commend it and we quickly find ourselves back on Fleet Street before turning southward again on Bouverie Street. Quickly veer off down Pleydell Street, which turns into Lombard Lane and then joins with Temple Lane which runs down to Tudor Street. Head back up Bouverie Street as far as the Polish Embassy – which is no doubt pretty busy these days.

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Then cross over the road into Magpie Alley which runs round the back of the offices of lawyers, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer at no.65 Fleet Street. As you can see the alley is adorned with tiles illustrating the history of Fleet Street.

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At the end of the alleyway though is something more interesting. Descending some steps you come across the screened off remains of a crypt which is the last surviving vestige of the medieval priory that was home to the Carmelite order known as the White Friars. The order was founded on Mount Carmel (in present day Israel) in 1150 but driven from the Holy Land by the Saracens in 1238. The crypt was unearthed during building works in 1895 and then cleared and restored in the 1920’s when the site was taken over by the News of the World. The NOTW and its sister paper, the Sun, occupied the Whitefriars Building until 1986 and the Wapping exodus. Northcliffe House next door, named after Lord Northcliffe (born Alfred Harmsworth) the creator of the Daily Mail along with his brother Harold (Lord Rothermere), saw a hundred years of publication of the dreaded Mail, up until 1988 when the printing operations moved to Surrey Quays. Northcliffe and Whitefriars are currently both leased to Freshfields

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Continuing onto Ashentree Court we come back to Whitefriars Street and trudge back up to Fleet Street. As this is the final visit to the former “Street of Shame” I guess we can’t leave without a couple of words on its other iniquitous association – that with Sweeney Todd the “Demon Barber”. Sweeney Todd is a fictional character who first appeared as the villain of the Victorian penny dreadful The String of Pearls (1846–47). Numerous claims have been made that he was based on an actual living person but none of these have gained any serious traction. Fascination with the character is enduring however; he has inspired at least five feature films, up to and including Tim Burton’s 2007 effort, plus the Sondheim musical, a 1959 Ballet and several television adaptations (not counting The Sweeney though that of course did get its name from the rhyming slang Sweeney Todd – Flying Squad).

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