Day 29 – Bunhill Fields – Whitecross Street – Barbican

This walk begins opposite where the last one finished, on the western side of City Road at Bunhill Fields, the last remaining historic burial ground in central London. It then winds its way westwards and southwards, taking in Whitecross Street market before ending up at the behemoth of modernist architecture that is the Barbican Centre and estate.

Day 29 Route

Bunhill Fields is the final resting place for an estimated 120,000 souls, a large proportion of them interred at the time of the great plague of 1665 when the area first came into use as a burial ground. As the ground was never consecrated by the Church of England it became a popular burial site for Nonconformists and Radicals among whose number were  John Bunyan (1628 – 1688), the author of The Pilgrim’s Progress and a Baptist, Daniel Defoe (1660 -1731), writer of Gulliver’s Travels and Moll Flanders and a Presbyterian, and William Blake (1757 – 1827), poet, artist and religious iconoclast.

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Tomb of John Bunyan
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Memorials to Daniel Defoe and William Blake

The last burial here took place in 1854 and the site was configured into its current layout in the 1860’s with a public garden area created alongside a hundred years later. The burial ground now contains 2,333 monuments, mostly simple headstones (of which there are 1,920) arranged in a grid formation. Among the more extravagant memorials is that of Dame Mary Page, wife of Sir Gregory Page, first baronet, wealthy City merchant and East India Company director. As you can see below, the tomb is unusual in bearing an inscription setting out the graphic detail of the disease that brought about the lady’s demise – believed to be what is now known as Meigs’ Syndrome.

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After a circuit of Bunhill Fields we head north up City Road a short distance before turning left into Featherstone Street and proceeding west to Bunhill Row with a brief deviation into Mallow Street. Cross over into Banner Street just off the south side of which sits the Bunhill Fields Quaker Friends House, originally the caretaker’s house of a set of Quaker mission buildings, the rest of which were destroyed in WWII. The surrounding gardens and playground occupy the site of the old ‘Quaker Burying Ground’ where the movement’s founder, George Fox, is buried along with many thousand early adherents.

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At the next intersection with we turn north for the first of several visits to Whitecross Street. This has been home to an eponymous market since the 17th century though by the late 19th century the area had become a by-word for poverty and alcohol, known colloquially as Squalors’ Market. When I used to visit it occasionally ten years or more ago it was very much in the “pile it cheap and high” tradition of street markets with just the odd food stall among the DVDs, kitchen implements and cut-price clothing. Nowadays the “street food” has effectively taken over completely and the market is more-or-less just a lunchtime affair. Naturally (in keeping with established tradition) I got here just as all the stalls were packing up.

We hit Old Street just opposite St Luke’s and resume west as far as Golden Lane where we turn south then east along Garrett Street back to Whitecross Street. The restaurants that line the street have gone pretty upmarket and edged out most of the old-school retailers. The second-hand record store run by a couple of aging Teddy Boys is long gone but one or two of the old guard cling on as you can see.

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Whitecross Street and its offshoots have also succumbed to the encroachment of “street art” (spreading west from its Shoreditch heartland). Topically and appositely, the latest manifestation is an image of someone very cross and very white.

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Next up it’s the western stretch of Banner Street which returns us to Golden Lane where we look in on Nags Head Court before turning back east along Roscoe Street. Loop round Baird Street then continue east along Chequer Street (through another Peabody Trust estate). On the return to Bunhill Row we dip south briefly then make a right into Dufferin Street and complete a circuit of Dufferin Avenue and Cahill Street before crossing Whitecross again, this time into Fortune Street. Where this meets Golden Lane once more we encounter what can only be a sign of things to come.

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Turning south we arrive at no.1 Golden Lane which is now offices of UBS Bank but started life in 1896 as the home of the Cripplegate Institute; a charitable foundation set up by the City of London Parish of the same name. The building, designed by architect Sidney Smith, who was also responsible for what is now known as Tate Britain, incorporated a reference library, news and magazine rooms and classrooms for teaching such subjects as photography, dressmaking and first aid. In 1898 a theatre, staging mainly amateur productions, was opened in the building. The institute left the premises in 1987 and relocated to Chiswick, having sold the building for £4.5m.

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At its southern end Golden Lane emerges into Beech Street, a lengthy stretch of which forms the Barbican Tunnel. Heading east again we pass the Barbican Cinema which is now housed in a separate building from the rest of the arts complex.

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Passing this we turn back into Whitecross Street where the last vestiges of the old 3-for-a-fiver style street market are huddled in a concrete forecourt to a Waitrose supermarket. I once bought a checkered trilby hat here for £6 and still get occasional use out of it when the sun deigns to make a proper effort.

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Next right is Errol Street which forks right again into Lambs Buildings where you can find the home of the Royal Statistical Society in a converted Victorian Sunday School building. In 1833 the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BA) created a statistical section following a presentation by the Belgian statistician Adolphe Quetelet to its fellows. This proved so popular that, a year later, a Statistical Society was founded by Charles Babbage, Thomas Malthus and Richard Jones with the Marquis of Lansdowne as President. Florence Nightingale became the first female member in 1858. I failed miserably to come up with any interesting actual statistics about the RSS but a mildly interesting fact is that Harold Wilson was its President in 1972-73 whilst leader of the opposition to Ted Heath.

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Just around the corner is St Joseph’s Catholic Church featuring the memorial Cardinal Hume Quiet Garden.

Turning left we’re back on Bunhill Row which was originally called Artillery Walk (as it runs along the western side of the grounds of the Honourable Artillery Company – as featured in the last post). John Milton lived here for a time, during which he completed Paradise Regained.

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We go south from here onto Chiswell Street and then complete a circuit of Lamb’s Passage, Sutton’s Way and Whitecross Street (for one final time) before crossing into Silk Street and entering the Barbican Centre just as the rain starts to fall.

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The Grade II listed Barbican is Europe’s largest multi-arts and conference venue and one of London’s best examples of Brutalist architecture. It was developed from designs by architects Chamberlin, Powell and Bon as part of a utopian vision to transform an area of London left devastated by bombing during the Second World War. Although the first proposals were submitted in 1955 it wasn’t until 1971 that construction started and 1982 when the Queen formally opened the building. For a whistle-stop  history of the Barbican site from medieval times to the present day I would recommend this animated video inspired by an essay from the pen of Peter Ackroyd. The image below shows how things looked in 1955, with only the church of St Giles Cripplegate having miraculously survived the carnage wrought by the German air raids.

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The following selection of images feature :

  • a spatial installation in the foyer (until 10/09/2016), exploring the theme of collision, in which two revolving arms narrowly evade each other in a mobile of light and sound in constant motion.
  • the Barbican Muse – a sculpture, created by artist Matthew Spender, of a woman holding the separate masks of tragedy and comedy.
  • the Guildhall School of Music and Drama – founded in 1880 and taking up residence in the Barbican complex in 1977.
  • the “lakeside” terrace (thronged on this day with graduating students from King’s College)
  • the residential tower blocks (now some of last remaining from their era)

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Nip in to see the latest exhibition in the art gallery which is a retrospective of work by the Icelandic performance artist, Ragnar Kjartansson which you can catch until the first week of September 2016. Centrepiece of the exhibition is a work entitled Take Me Here by the Dishwasher: Memorial for a Marriage (2011) a live performance featuring ten guitar-strumming troubadours singing for up to eight hours a day against a backdrop of a clip from an Icelandic softcore film of the Seventies starring the artist’s parents.

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Leave the Barbican by the Silk Street entrance again, head east and loop round Milton Street and Moor Lane. This area is home to several of the monolithic glass skyscrapers that have come to dominate the City and these days there are as many residential as there are office blocks and I find myself asking if there isn’t perhaps a finite pool of people who can stump up £3.75m plus for an apartment, however stunning the view.

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Moor Lane backs onto another massive instalment of the Crossrail redevelopment.

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Fore Street takes us round to the southern side of the Barbican complex where we find the aforementioned St Giles Cripplegate church.  It is believed that there has been a church on this site since Saxon times though it was during the Middle Ages that it was dedicated to St Giles. The name “Cripplegate” refers to one of the gates through the old City wall, which had its origins in Roman times as a fortification to protect the Roman city from attackers. There is no definitive explanation of the origin of the word ‘Cripplegate’ but it is thought unlikely that it relates to cripples despite the fact that St Giles is their patron saint (along with beggars and blacksmiths).  It is more likely that the word comes from the Anglo-Saxon “cruplegate” which means a covered way or tunnel, which would have run from the town gate of Cripplegate to the original Barbican, a fortified watchtower on the City wall. Sections of the old wall can still be seen near the church.

The church was designated a Grade I listed building on 4 January 1950 and it was extensively restored in 1966. Against the northern flank of the church is one of 14 artworks located around central London which were organised during Lent 2016 into a trail telling the story of the Passion of Christ under the umbrella title Stations of the Cross. Some of these (like the Jean Cocteau mural reported on a couple of posts back) are longstanding features of the city but the one you can see below, station no.9 by G.Roland Biermann, is one of four freshly commissioned pieces in 2016.

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As you see, after an absence of several weeks, some more of my pigeon friends have managed to inveigle themselves into this final collection of images.

Leaving the many fascinations of the Barbican behind we finish for today by walking down Wood Street to London Wall (which we will return to on other occasion).

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Day 26 – St Giles – Shaftesbury Avenue – Drury Lane – Denmark Street

Another brief one in terms of distance but a lot of stuff to pack in nonetheless. Area covered is split into two main sections; firstly the territory to the north of Covent Garden in between Long Acre and High Holborn and then the streets squeezed into the angle formed by the eastern side of Charing Cross Road and Shaftesbury Avenue. Along the way there is a visit to the Freemasons’ Hall , “Tin Pan Alley” and the church of St-Giles-In-The-Fields, which gives its name to this district.

Day 26 Route

We start on Kingsway and head briefly west along Great Queen Street before turning north up Newton Street. This ends at High Holborn where we turn west again before veering left into Smart’s Place which leads into Stukeley Street. Formerly known as Goldsmith’s Street this was the site of the original permanent residence of the City Lit. , one of five literary institutes set up after WW1 to cater to the need for adult learning provision. City Lit moved in here in the late twenties but had outgrown the original building within a few years so that was demolished and a new purpose built facility constructed. Opened in 1939 by Poet Laureate John Masefield, the new building contained a theatre, concert hall and gym and remained the home of City Lit. until 2005 when they moved to new premises in the Covent Garden area.

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Just round the corner on Smart’s Place is what remains of the almshouses built here by the parishes of St Giles and St George Bloomsbury in 1895.

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Westward again on Macklin Street brings us out onto the northern stretch of Drury Lane. We’re on the fringes of “Theatreland” here and first of the three (current) theatres we pass on our travels today is the New London Theatre. One of the most modern of London’s West End theatres this was built in 1973 on the site of the old Winter Garden Theatre. Probably best known for hosting the original run of Cats from 1981 to 2002 it’s currently playing the critically-lauded revival of Showboat.

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So we turn east down Parker Street and make our way back to Great Queen Street. Heading west again we pass the Grade II listed Grand Connaught Rooms at nos. 61-63. Currently a conference, weddings and events venue owned by a hotel group this retains the façade of the Freemason’s Tavern, Britain’s first Grand Lodge, which originally stood here (until 1905).

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On that façade are two plaques commemorating events which took place at the Freemasons’ Tavern – the creation of the Football Association in 1863 and the first geological society in 1807. It was also where the Anti-Slavery Society was founded apparently. Surely you’d want to make more noise about that than the geological thing (or the FA for that matter).

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Which brings us to the Freemasons’ Hall and to be honest I hadn’t expected any part of this to be accessible but there is a Museum of Freemasonry on the first floor that you can visit free of charge as well as an extensive library both of which are full of some quite remarkable artefacts. The current art-deco behemoth is the third incarnation of the Freemasons’ Hall on the site since 1775 and was built during 1927-32 in honour of the Freemasons who died in the Great War. Its Grand Temple seats up to 1,700 – that’s a lot of aprons.

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Now I think it’s fair to say that the Freemasons have enjoyed a somewhat ambivalent reputation throughout their history. I myself have shared some of the prejudices inspired by the whole regalia, funny handshake and initiation ceremony schtick – not to mention the secret brotherhood aspect that (allegedly) wields influence in the upper echelons of the police, the judiciary and certain political institutions. In the interests of balance therefore it needs to be noted that the Masons is a secular (and supposedly non-political) organisation with all members free to practice their own religion; it emphasises personal moral responsibility and does a lot of work for charity. The United Grand Lodge of England (UGLE) is of course exclusively male. There is an Order of Women Freemasons which has been around since the turn of the 20th century but UGLE doesn’t officially recognize it (though they did acknowledge its existence in 1999 which was nice of them). However you wouldn’t necessarily gather that from the materials on display in the museum which include a number of items relating to women freemasons. I haven’t room to go into the history of Freemasonry but you can read up on it here.

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Just a couple of things to note from the slide show above: that chair (Grand Master’s Throne) is one of three commissioned in 1791 to mark the election of the Prince of Wales (later George IV) as Grand Master of the Moderns Lodge, the silver elephant is a cigar lighter made from smelted rupees and one of three gifted by an Indian Maharajah to the Lodge of Humility with Fortitude, the pentagon symbol I can find no information on but I suspect is a stand-in for the sacred pentagram (five pointed star inside a pentagon inside a circle) with its Da Vinci Code associations. You probably also saw today’s reflection of the day (“selfie” has now been retired).

Should you ever seek to become a mason yourself then all the gear can be found in the Central Regalia emporium, conveniently situated just across the road. Special offer on masonic candles at the moment.

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Also opposite is the HQ of the Royal Masonic Trust for Boys and Girls one of the four charitable institutions established by the Freemasons in the 18th century.

We’re back up Drury Lane again next then turning left down Shorts Gardens as far as Endell Street. The Cross Keys pub with its splendidly ornate exterior has occupied no. 31 Endell Street since 1848 and by all accounts is well worth a visit.

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Another place worth trying is the Poetry Place (aka the Poetry Café) on Betterton Street which runs back to Drury Lane.

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A circuit of Dryden Street, Arne Street and Shelton Street finds us back on Endell Street at the northern end of which resides the Swiss Church (or Eglise Suisse if you prefer). Just about every major European nationality seems to have established its own ecclesiastical home here in London. This one dates from 1762 and has occupied this site since 1855 though has undergone major rebuilding after WWII and between 2008 and 2011 when the architects, appropriately enough, were the practice of Christ and Gantenbein. True to national form the all-white interior is the epitome of calm reflection (though I believe they will be showing Switzerlands Euro 2016 fixtures live in here.)

Next door, on the corner with High Holborn, is the former St Giles National School built in 1859 to the design of Edward Middleton Barry.

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Across the other side of High Holborn is our second theatre of the day, the Shaftesbury, which opened in 1911 as the New Prince’s Theatre. Longest run here seems to have been the musical Hair which started in 1968 and was curtailed in 1973 (two short of its 2,000th performance) when part of the ceiling fell in. Despite the threat of redevelopment in the immediate aftermath of this the theatre survived and was granted listed status a year later. It is currently host to yet another jukebox musical in the form of Motown though perhaps one with a classier songbook to draw on than most.

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Head past the theatre eastward along High Holborn before turning left up Museum Street and taking a dog-leg round West Central Street which is a cherishably rare corner of scruffiness in the heart of town.

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Having emerged onto New Oxford Street we cut back down the first few yards of Shaftesbury Avenue before skirting round the back of the theatre along Grape Street, apparently so-named because it once ran alongside the vineyard belonging to St Giles Hospital.

Leave the theatre behind and make our way west via Bloomsbury Street, Dyott Street, Bucknall Street and Earnshaw Street bypassing the Crossrail mayhem and the redevelopment of Centrepoint.

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This brings us to Denmark Street which, as noted in the intro, was colloquially known as the UK’s “Tin Pan Alley” for much of the twentieth century. The first music publisher set up home here in 1911. That was Lawrence Wright who founded the Melody Maker in 1926. In 1952 the New Musical Express was also started from an office here and during that same decade music publishers and songwriters took over most of the street.

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In the sixties groups who began to pen their own material and the predominance of recorded music helped to bring about a decline in both music publishing and songwriting for hire. Taking their place, a number of recording studios opened including Regent Sound Studio at no.4. This was where the Rolling Stones recorded their first album in 1964, under the guiding hand of manager Andrew Loog Oldham.

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In the mid 1970’s the Sex Pistols lived above in the upper floor of no.6 and rehearsed in its basement. Graffiti by Johnny Rotten depicting other members of the band was recently uncovered and has inspired the Department of Culture to grant Grade 2 listed status to the building. Just a little bit of that spirit still lives on.

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In 1992 the last of the publishers moved out and the focus shifted to musical instrument vendors (principally guitars). In the wake of Crossrail plans were drawn up for a redevelopment of the street which though committed to preserving the fabric of the street brought protests from those concerned that it would wreck the character of the place and force out many of the existing businesses. This struggle is still ongoing but for now at least the guitar shops seem to be hanging on tenaciously.

Double back down Denmark Street and you arrive at St-Giles-In-The-Field church. This was originally the site of a church leper hospital founded in 1101 by Queen Mathilda, wife of King Henry 1. The present church was designed and built in the Palladian style (after the 16th century Italian architect Andrea Palladio) in 1730-34 by Henry Flitcroft, who went on to design Woburn Abbey. Back in the day St Giles was the last church en route to the gallows at Tyburn and the churchwardens paid for the condemned to be given a draft of ale from the Angel pub next door before their execution. Whether or not Oliver Plunkett, Archbishop of Armagh was granted this benefice before being hung, drawn and quartered in 1681 and then buried in the churchyard is unknown.

Among the many memorials inside the church are those to Richard Penderell who accompanied Charles II on his flight from Cromwell and the watchmaker Thomas Earnshaw (1749 – 1829). There is also the tomb of Lady Frances Kniveton who was the daughter of Sir Robert Dudley (1574 – 1649) the illegitimate son of the man of the same name who was the first Earl of Leicester and favourite of Elizabeth I.

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After this it’s time for lunch, an Indonesian pulled chicken satay salad from one of the food stalls in the churchyard. While I eat this on a bench in the grounds the nearby bin is visited by a crow who has worked out that a meal is to be had by pulling out the discarded food trays and bags and spilling their remaining contents on the ground. Clever things crows. Your average pigeon hasn’t got a handle on that yet.

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Head away from the church down Flitcroft Street which takes us to the Pheonix Garden – a community garden and registered charity, managed by volunteers drawn from the local community and workers in the area. It’s currently closed for building works but is due to re-open this summer (2016).

Stacey Street runs alongside the garden passing Pheonix Street with its eponymous theatre. I don’t think I’d ever been down here before and so had only seen the theatre from the Charing Cross Road side which presents the main entrance and a incongruously functional office block sandwiched between it and the similarly neo-classical but superior Pheonix Street façade. The Pheonix Theatre was built on the site where the Alcazar music hall previously stood and opened in 1930 with a production of Noel Coward’s Private Lives.  The exterior was designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, Bertie Crewe and Cecil Masey, whilst the interior, often considered to be one of London’s finest, was designed by director Theodore Komisarjevsky in an Italianate style with golden wall engravings and plush, red carpets. Currently showing, as you can see, is the classic Guys and Dolls.

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Returning to Stacey Street we head a short way further south to New Compton Street which is as non-descript as Old Compton Street is exuberant. At the end of this we turn right then right again down Shaftesbury Avenue. On the west side we pass by the institution that is Forbidden Planet, which started out as a comic shop in Denmark Street in 1978 but now styles itself as a “cult entertainment megastore” (yes that’s a “c” missing from the left-hand side of the picture not an “ad”).

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And a bit further down is what I will always think of as the ABC Shaftesbury Avenue but was rebranded in 2001 as the Odeon Covent Garden . The building, which opened in 1931, actually started life as the Saville Theatre (perhaps just as well that didn’t last).  The sculptured frieze which extends for nearly 40 metres along the façade of the building is by Gilbert Bayes and represents ‘Drama Through The Ages.’ In the sixties the theatre was often leased by the Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, who promoted gigs there by the likes of The Who, The Bee Gees and the Jimi Hendrix Experience as well as the Fab Four themselves. In 1969 the theatre was bought by ABC Cinemas (then owned by EMI) and converted into the 2-screen ABC1 and ABC2. The takeover of ABC by Odeon Cinemas in 2001 resulted in a further conversion into four screens and the change to its current name (ignoring the fact that it can’t by any stretch of the imagination be considered to fall within the borders of Covent Garden).

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And with that it’s Roll Credits for today.