Going to LondonCategory: Land + People
By Anthony Weymouth
If you flew over London you would see the city spread out below you. Therewould be the Monument, the tall buildings in the City packed so closely together, the wide Queen Victoria Street leading to the Thames. Next, you’d probably notice the tall newspaper buildings in Fleet Street, and very soon afterwards the clock tower of the Palace of Westminster which contains Big Ben. If your plane turned slightly northward at this point you would fly over St. James’s Park, Hyde Park, and later you would reach Kensington Gardens and the densely populated area of Kensington.
I expect you’d think that London has very little pattern, because from the air you see a kind of jig-saw picture in which the streets look tiny compared with the mass of buildings. And you’d be right. London has no pattern because in the past it spread in every direction; one century has built on fields in the west, another to the south, yet another to the north and to the east. What a glorious muddle it looks!
But how dull it would be if every street were straight, if every open space were a square, and if you knew exactly what you were going to find wherever you went.
Fortunately, London is not like that. It’s a mixture of fine streets side by side with narrow courts and alleys of really old buildings facing those built, so to say, the day before yesterday.
I’ll tell you another curious fact about this town. Our ancestors were never careful how they named their streets. You’ll find quite a number of Charles Streets, and Duke Streets; though recently the authorities have tried to avoid the muddle this caused by renaming them: one Charles Street has become Charles I Street, and a Duke Street has become Duke Street, St. James’s.
Then there are lots of “Squares” which have not got four sides, “Crescents” which are not crescentic, and “Gardens” which have no garden. But once you have begun to know London, you’ll realize that the Londoner has never bothered much about whether there is one Trafalgar Square or more than one. I remember the driver of a car being told to go to Trafalgar Square and naturally he went to Charing Cross. But his passenger wanted the Trafalgar Square in Chelsea — there was one at that time, but it has since been renamed and is now called Chelsea Square.
Well, that’s what London is, a mixture of very old, not so old, and new. In London we shall find almost every variety of architecture, ranging from a piece of old Roman wall to the most modern buildings such as the Bank of England extension by St. Paul’s Cathedral and Bucklers- bury House. You’ll find, too, a few medieval churches which escaped the Great Fire of 1666 and a number of buildings dating from the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
A Street that is Unique
A friend of mine once asked me if I knew the only street in London where the police have no power to arrest a man, unless they are summoned by someone living there. Luckily for me I did, otherwise he wouldn’t have thought much of my knowledge of London.
This is the street where no policeman ever patrols. There are gates guarding the entrance and a porter wearing a livery on which you’ll notice a Bishop’s mitre. This is Ely Palace which was originally the property of the Bishops of Ely and the old palace there was built by Bishop Arundel in 1388. The palace has long since disappeared but we can see St. Etheldreda’s chapel on the west side.
Sir Christopher Hatton, after whom Hatton Garden is named borrowed money from Queen Elizabeth which he spent improving the property. He leased it for twenty-one years, then asked the Queen to make the Bishop hand over the estate to him.
Since those days, the estate which the Queen demanded from the Bishop has long been built over, and all that remains to-day are the two rows of houses and the little chapel. But the privilege of freedom from arrest in this street has never been cancelled and, as I’ve said, no policeman patrols this street. The gates are closed at 10 p. m. when a watchman calls out “Past ten o’clock, all’s well”.
As I said, it is the unexpected which you meet in London. You and I have just seen a street, now merely a small cul-de-sac, which you’d probably not look at twice unless you knew its history. If we now walk along Holborn Viaduct from Ely Palace, we shall find ourselves looking down from a bridge — not on a river or a railway cutting, but on another street. This “street over a street” came about like this. Charterhouse Street runs sharply downhill to meet Farringdon Street. This latter street is on a much lower level than Holborn, which is the main route to the City. Until a hundred years ago this was a steep hill, Holborn Hill, and all around were small streets with overcrowded houses. It was not a nice neighbourhood and was a favourite haunt of rough men, who used to amuse themselves by rolling women down Holborn Hill in barrels. Then, between 1863 and 1869 Holborn Viaduct was constructed over what had formerly been the Holebourne part of the Fleet River.
Not long ago I stood looking over these railings. It was a Saturday afternoon and I had been wandering around Smith- field market. At the corner of Cork Lane and Giltspur Street I had seen the statue of a fat boy. This is supposed to have been placed there to mark the spot where the Great Fire of 1666 had been arrested. The boy has been regilded and looks complacently out on the world from his pedestal. This boy is supposed to represent the sin of gluttony, because the fire began in Pudding Lane and finished at Pye (pie) Corner!
From Going to London, Lnd, 1959.