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St Mary Woolnoth.

In the three months leading up to Christmas, while researching my forthcoming book,  City of London Pubs, I spent rather more time than usual walking the streets of the Square Mile. On several occasions my perambulations took me close  to the church of St Mary Woolnoth, which stands at the junction of Lombard Street and busy King William Street. Once or twice this historic and idiosyncratic structure even took me a little by surprise.

One dreary November afternoon, for instance, I emerged from Bank underground station via the Lombard Street exit and as I did so was astonished to encounter the tower of St Mary’s looming over me as I ascended to street level. The tower is imposing with its sturdy Corinthian columns and twin turrets, and certainly unmatched in the Square Mile for quirk and strangeness. Indeed Pevsner reckoned St Mary ‘The most original church exterior in the City of London.’

Architecture aside, St Mary Woolnoth is certainly one of the oddest churches in London, for a number of reasons.

Many of you, I dare say, will be familiar with its name from TS Eliot’s The Wasteland – ‘Flowed up the hill and down King William Street/ To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours’ –  while the church also crops up in Peter Ackroyd’s groundbreaking 1985 novel Hawksmoor.

The book, Ackroyd’s most accomplished piece of fiction, weaves elements of magic realism and London noir into a plot surrounding a series of murders linked by seven churches designed by the architect Nicholas Hawksmoor. The novel won a number of awards at the time of its publication and remains a piece of cult London fiction, not least because of its occult subtext and the fact that it’s an early example of contemporary psychogeography (Ackroyd is on record as acknowledging the influence of Iain Sinclair’s epic Lud Heat on the genesis of Hawksmoor).

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Inside St Mary Woolnoth with, bottom, John Newton’s self-penned plaque.

 

The real Nicholas Hawksmoor, 1661-1736,  was a prolific and mercurial architect who as a young man worked under Wren.  Hawksmoor’s other notable London churches include Christ Church, Spitalfields, St George’s, Bloomsbury (the tower of which can be seen in the background of Hogarth’s Gin Lane) and St Anne’s, Limehouse.

St Mary Woolnoth was Hawksmoor’s only City church, although he did also work on St. Paul’s Cathedral. St Mary is certainly a bold design, essentially English Baroque, built between 1716-27 and one of the fifty ‘Queen Anne churches’  constructed as a result of the New Churches in London and Westminster Act of 1710. A place of worship has probably stood on this site for more than 2,000 years and St Mary Woolnoth itself is mentioned in 1273, rebuilt in 1440. It was damaged in the Great Fire of 1666 but ‘repaired’ by Wren.

Despite the rather grand and perhaps even foreboding exterior, the church interior is surprisingly compact and, according to A short guide to the City of London Churches, published by The Diocese of London no less, ‘perfectly proportioned and…modelled on the Egyptian Hall described by the Roman architect, Vitrivius.’

Among those most strongly connected with the church is John Newton, who was Rector here until his death in 1807. Newton, who was born a mile or so away in Wapping, led a remarkable life, during which he was press-ganged into the Royal Navy and later flogged for attempting to desert. Later still he became a slave to the, by all accounts, sadistic wife of a wealthy slave dealer.

Despite this last experience, some years later Newton himself was captain of a slave vessel. Many years later still, once established at St Mary Woolnoth, he became an outspoken abolitionist and an associate of William Wilberforce. He was a great orator and also wrote the hymn Amazing Grace.

A plaque commemorating Newton adorns the north wall inside the church. A lengthy inscription includes the following:

“John Newton.

Clerk.

Once an infidel and libertine.

A servant of Slaves in Africa.

Was.

By the rich mercy of Our Lord and saviour Jesus Christ.

Preserved, restored, pardoned.

To preach the faith he had long laboured to destroy.”

Apparently Newton wrote the words himself shortly before his death.

Largely as a result of Ackroyd’s novel, Hawksmoor himself is regarded by many as a mysterious figure and for some this is reflected in many of the buildings that he designed. St Mary Woolnoth is no exception and certainly there is a feel about the place that is difficult to put into words.

On my most recent visit I found myself inside and, briefly, alone. The soundtrack to this moment was an almost gentle, ambient hum. The muted sound of traffic crawling down King William Street towards London Bridge perhaps? The rumble of tube trains underfoot?

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Emerging from Bank station St Mary Woolnoth looms large.

St Mary Woolnoth is a handsome church in a rather unconventional way. And with that in mind we should be grateful that it is still with us at all, for there have been several times over the years when it has been under threat from the ball and chain.

The best chronicled of these came late in the 19th century when the Central Line was under construction. The plan was to demolish St Mary’s to make way for Bank station, but so vigorous was the public outcry that the City and South London Railway company were forced to come up with an alternative. Which is why St Mary Woolnoth is the only church in London, I dare say in the world, that stands atop an underground station.

Many City churches have only small congregations, if indeed they have any at all, and survival can be a precarious business. With this in mind St Mary’s, like several other Square Mile churches, boasts a small coffee outlet – I hesitate to use the term shop – in its intimate porch area. It means you can have a spiritual experience and get you caffeine fix at the same time.

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Melina Herrmann, coffee vendor at St Mary Woolnoth.

Running the operation is Melina Herrmann, an elegant and cheerful Brazilian lady who has been offering superior coffee here for a few years now. She opens at around 7am each morning to cater for her loyal and regular customers, most of them City workers, and continues to dispense a range of hot drinks and cakes until around 4.30pm.

To sit outside in the shadow of St Mary’s, with perhaps the ghosts of Hawksmoor and Eliot looking over your shoulder, is one of London’s more unique drinking experiences. And as Melina offers what is probably the best cup of coffee in the Square Mile it’s an experience not to be missed.

 

 

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Jerusalem Passage looking towards St John’s Gate.

While researching a slot for BBC Radio London’s Robert Elms show, I turned to Geoffrey Fletcher’s London, published in 1968, for his account of Pluto, the ‘tea-and-coffee-brewing gas lamp’ that for a brief period in 1899 stood where Roseberry Avenue and Exmouth Street meet. Pluto is mentioned in a chapter titled On Foot in Finsbury and my re-reading of this particular piece inspired me to set out on a perambulation of my own around this unique area of the mighty metropolis.

I should perhaps point out here that although I was born at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in the City of London, I’ve spent the majority of my life living in the old London Borough of Finsbury, with an EC1 postcode to prove it. This is an area I know intimately. I have walked its streets, man and boy, always eternally grateful to grow up in a working class district of central London positively dripping with history and boasting a rich tradition of radical politics.

As a separate borough Finsbury sadly no longer exists. It was swallowed up by Islington in 1965 following the London Government Act of 1963 and promptly stripped of much of its identity, although some of us are still inclined  to declare  Altiora petimus when the occasion demands it.

But Finsbury as an area, despite its modest size, still has much to offer and I will no doubt return to the subject in the future. For now, however, I will follow in Geoffrey Fletcher’s footsteps.

He started his adventure all those years ago at Mount Pleasant, where can be found the giant Royal Mail sorting office of the same name, once the largest in Europe. The Apple Tree pub, which he described as ‘a typical London local’, is still with us, as are a row of 18th century houses that he also mentions. For me, strictly speaking, this isn’t Finsbury at all. Indeed part of Mount Pleasant is actually in the London Borough of Camden, and pre-1965 would have been in the old London Borough of Holborn.

From Mount Pleasant Fletcher headed for Exmouth Street. I am old enough to remember when Exmouth Street was still a genuine London street market, complete with fruit and veg stalls, hardware stores, a butchers and a pie and mash shop. There was even a Wimpy. It was never as boisterous, or as busy, as Chapel Market half a mile or so up the road, but it still had an honesty and integrity about it. It catered for the local working class population and, as such, had a genuine sense of purpose.

Over the past 15 years or so the place has been gentrified almost beyond recognition and these days my heart breaks just a little bit more with every visit. Today’s Exmouth Street is soulless, absolutely soulless. It is a triumph of style and fad and fashion over substance. Even the Exmouth Arms has been turned into a craft beer bar.

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The Holy Redeemer, Exmouth Street.

The Holy Redeemer is still with us, thankfully. Fletcher was rather taken with the church back in 1967, writing that ‘the silver candle-sticks and the stations of the cross make it hard to realize that the cabbages and cauliflowers, bananas, brussels and budgie foods of Exmouth Market are pressing close outside.’

A few yards along from the Holy Redeemer Fletcher reached Manze’s pie and mash shop. ‘Visit it and have a bash at sausages and mash or eels and mash,’ he instructed his readers. If only. Manze’s, or Clark’s as it was later known, closed last year and on my recent stroll an eatery called Blackfoot occupied the premises. This place is run by someone called Allegra McEvedy, who as a chef I believe enjoys a modicum of celebrity. Blackfoot, described in the Evening Standard as a ‘lauded’ ‘pork restaurant’, hasn’t displayed anywhere near the same staying power as Manze’s or Clark’s and, once more according to the Standard, is soon to close its doors. Perhaps Ms McEvedy should have put saveloys on the menu.

A peek through Blackfoot’s windows seems to reveal that some of the original wall tiles are still in situ, although the ‘boxes like those of the old coffee houses’ appear, regrettably, to have been ripped out.

From Exmouth Street, via Myddelton Street, Fletcher made his way along Sekforde Street, admiring the ‘Pall Mall Renaissance’ of the Finsbury Bank for Savings along the way. Sekforde Street remains a handsome thoroughfare, largely unspoilt, and the Finsbury Bank for Savings is as dandy as ever.

 

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Surviving entrances to the old Hugh Myddelton School.

Alas the 18th century terraced houses he admires in Corporation Row, opposite the old Hugh Myddelton School, have disappeared. But the school, which stands on the site of the old Clerkenwell House of Detention, survives, now housing an adult education centre. The school’s outer wall also remains, with separate entrances marked for ‘Special Girls’ and ‘Girls & infants’. Around the corner in Clerkenwell Close there is a third surviving entrance, this one for ‘Cookery & Laundry.’

Clerkenwell Green, for Fletcher, was one of his ‘favourite haunts in London.’ There is very little green to be seen here, apart from a few mature London plain trees, but there is still some accuracy almost 50 years on in his view that the Green has ‘an indefinable country town air lingering about it.’

The old Middlesex Sessions House that Fletcher mentioned was shrouded in scaffolding on my recent visit, but the church of St James, late 18th century and by James Carr, looked as magnificent as ever. Sadly, the ‘fish-and-chip shop, near the steep little alley going up to the church’ is these days but a distant memory.

After strolling along the (still) wonderfully atmospheric Jerusalem Passage and visiting St John’s Gate, Fletcher ended his tour in Clerkenwell Road at the Italian church of St Peter. This is very definitely Little Italy and most certainly Clerkenwell, although I suggest as far as Finsbury is concerned it is cusp.

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The parish church of St James, Clerkenwell.

Geoffrey Snowcroft Fletcher, to give him his full name, has been accused by some of being condescending to the London working class he often wrote about and illustrated, of ‘slumming  it.’ Certainly his oft repeated claim that the majority of his many books on the capital were written in ‘cheap caffs’ where ‘the cups of tea are thickest and sweetest’ should be taken with a large pinch of salt.

But there is no doubting that the record he left, in pictures and in words, of a London that has now been mostly lost is an invaluable and often endearing one. If you come across any of his London books in second hand or charity shops they are well worth adding to your collection.

 

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The Jamaica Wine House, St Michael’s Alley.

 

 

The George in Southwark

The George in Southwark

If you believe everything you read, the traditional pub is in imminent danger of extinction with around 30 closing every week. It’s enough to drive a man to drink.
But it’s not all gloom and doom. We still have some thriving hostelries in this country, and while London is not immune from the plague of closures the mighty metropolis can still boast a greater concentration of truly exceptional pubs than anywhere else on the planet. Trust me, I’ve done the research.
So, in the age of the bucket list, I thought it might be a good idea to select ten London hostelries (in no particular order) that, in my humble opinion, you should all visit before the Grim Reaper calls last orders at the bar.
Oh, and mine’s a pint.

Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, Wine Office Court, EC4

Although the Fourth Estate left the Street of Shame years ago, Fleet Street remains an area of charm and character in large part because of the number of historic and traditional pubs that remain, of which ‘the Cheese’ is more historic and traditional than most.
The current building was ‘rebuilt’ in 1667 and inside you’ll find a warren of bars and dining rooms, floored in stone and clad in dark wood. This is the kind of place for which the adjective ‘Dickensian’ is most apt. Charlie knew the pub well, as did Dr Samuel Johnson.
Today the pub belongs to Yorkshire brewer Samuel Smith, who have updated it while respecting the historic fabric of the place.
Find yourself a seat in the small ground floor Gentlemen’s Bar, order a bottle of Porter, block out the tourists (there are always tourists at the Cheese) and gaze off into the roaring fire. Suddenly you have stepped back in time.

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The George Inn, 77 Borough High Street, SE1

In a courtyard off Borough High Street you’ll find the George, London’s sole surviving galleried coaching inn. These days the George is a third of its original size, although all things considered we should perhaps be thankful for what has survived.
The bare bones of the current George date from 1676, although ale and accommodation might have been available as early as 1542 when it was one of many inns in the area. All roads here once led to old London Bridge, the main route in and out of the old walled City of London. The traffic was a nightmare apparently, and this was years before double yellow lines.
The George is today overseen by the National Trust. It is always busy, always buzzing and always running alive with tourists. You have been warned.

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The Jerusalem Tavern.

The Jerusalem Tavern.

The Jerusalem Tavern, 55 Britton Street, EC1

You don’t get quite so many tourists at the Jerusalem Tavern in Clerkenwell, but those that do nip in can be forgiven for thinking they have discovered one of London’s oldest surviving pubs. In a way they have. Although, at the same time, they haven’t.
Let me explain.
There’s been a Jerusalem Tavern in Clerkenwell since the 14thCentury, its name taken from the nearby priory of St John of Jerusalem.
The current incarnation, however, dates from 1996, although the building itself was built around 1720 with a frontage circa 1810. The small interior is distinctly Georgian in feel with wood panelling, distressed furniture and floorboards that slope. As a recreation of an old London tavern the ‘JT’ could be considered a little contrived, but the age and location of the building means that this particular example of pub as historical recreation works, and it works bloody well.
This is the sole London pub of the Suffolk-based St Peter’s Brewery, who produce an astounding range of beers. The JT has a changing selection on draught and more in the bottle. The ‘old style’ porter is exceptional.
The pub is small and gets busy. The staff, meanwhile, look like people who have failed the auditions for a remake of Richard Linklater’s Slacker and decided instead to work in a pub until the right media job comes along. They can appear grumpy at times, so be sure to give them your best smile.

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The interior of the Viaduct Tavern.

The Viaduct Tavern, 126 Newgate Street, EC1

Standing on the corner of Giltspur Street and Newgate Street, opposite the Old Bailey, stands this handsome old pub, named in honour of nearby Holborn Viaduct, an engineering marvel of its day which opened for traffic in 1869.
The Viaduct pub, built the same year, revels in the glitter of a gin palace, although an 1898 facelift provided a gentle nod towards the Arts and Craft Movement. There is some lovely etched glass and extravagant mirrors, and of particular interest are three huge panels depicting buxom Pre-Raphaelite ladies who represent agriculture, banking and the arts. The small bullet hole visible on the ‘arts’ panel was the result of an ‘accident’ during the First World War.
Oscar Wilde was a regular during his infamous 1895 trial for gross indecency. To help him forget his troubles he loved nothing more than a pint of porter and a bag of pork scratchings, the really hard core ones that still have the hair on them.
OK, I made that last bit up.

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Cittie of Yorke, 22 High Holborn, WC1

If Harry Potter ever had a local, then the Cittie of Yorke would surely be it. This is a fantastic fantasy of a place. I’ve drank here many, many times but I’m still not entirely sure it hasn’t all been a strange, strange dream.
This extraordinary pub is part old London tavern, part baronial manor house; ‘a self-conscious, romantic evocation of Olde Englande,’ according to CAMRA’s 2004 Regional Inventory of London Pub Interiors. This is almost pub as medieval theme park.
The front bar is nice, if a bit Laura Ashley, but it is the long back ‘room’ that causes the jaw to drop. Booths line one wall – for legal eagles from nearby Lincoln’s Inn to consult their clients in private – while the high pitched roof and arched windows are spectacular. As indeed are the huge vats suspended on iron pillars, emptied at the start of the Blitz and never refilled.
Like the Cheese, the pub is owned by Sam Smith’s, so the beer is occasionally remarkable (Imperial Stout, Taddy Porter) while the building is well maintained too. It was known as Hennekey’s Long Room in a previous life.

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Dog and Duck, 16 Bateman Street, W1

Get along to Soho pronto my friends, because the character of London’s most bohemian quarter is changing rapidly. Developers have got this little patch of W1 in their sites, and if they get their way the shabby glamour and neon allure will be replaced by gleaming office blocks, designer shops for bearded hipsters and chain restaurants.
When you do get along to Soho be sure to pay this pub a visit. This small but perfectly formed boozer dates from 1897 and its name tips a hat to Soho’s past as an area for hunting. The interior is a wonder to behold, a riot of ornate tiles, etched glass and late Victoriana.
The cask beer is pretty good too, but arrive early if you want a seat.

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Hand and Shears, Middle Street, EC1

This lovely, ever so slightly battered old boozer is so unremarkable that it is totally remarkable. There is not a whiff of pretence here, just a pub steeped in history that has intrinsically changed little in the past 160 years.
Tucked away in Middle Street, close to Smithfield meat market and St Batholomew’s hospital, the current pub dates from 1849 and is Grade II listed. However there has been an inn of the same name on this site since the 12th century. Its name comes from the annual cloth fair. Held in the area until the 1850s, the event was opened from the tavern steps by the Lord Mayor of London’s ceremonial snipping of a ribbon.
The pub, still boasting much of its original Victorian interior, offers reassuring bar snacks and an excellent and changing selection of cask ales. On winter afternoons gas fires hiss in two of the four separate bars and looking up from your newspaper you half expect to see John Betjeman sitting across from you. For many years the late Poet Laureate lived just yards away in Cloth Fair and the Hand and Shears is very much a Betjeman kind of pub. It is an unspoilt delight, and long may it remain that way.

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Craft Ale Co, Leather Lane, EC1

If you are even remotely serious about beer you should get yourself along to this place.
Founded by Martin Hayes in 2011, to ‘celebrate old school British pub values alongside the very best in modern standards of service’, this Clerkenwell pub – very definitely not in the City of London, despite what you might read on the company website – marked the company’s arrival on the London drinking scene. Further London outlets have followed, in Brixton, Clapham, Covent Garden and Islington.
Leather Lane is an old style London street market and the Clockhouse, to give the pub its former name, was an old style, no thrills boozer catering for stall holders and residents from the nearby Bourne Estate. It has been reinvented although not completely remodelled by Hayes and co and today offers a nice balance of being retro traditional and, whisper it at the back, hip.
The pub’s original mirrored ceiling remains, as does a stunning Charrington mirror that adorns one wall. If memory serves me correctly Charrington ale, by contrast, wasn’t quite so stunning.
But it is the beer that takes top billing here. On my last visit I counted 21 keg offerings (craft beer and cider) in addition to 13 cask ales and two cask ciders. Apparently the Covent Garden branch has an incredible 45 taps.
There has been some talk of a schism between the craft beer and real ale camps, but here you’ll find the two living side by side in almost perfect harmony.

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The Jamaica Wine House, St Michael’s Alley, EC3

Assorted developers, architects and bureaucrats are doing their best to strip the City of London of its remaining vestiges of character and charm. Just look at the monstrosities taking shape near Cannon Street station!
But if you head off the main drag, turn down the likes of St Michael’s Alley for instance, you’ll still get a flavour of the old City, a sense of what the Square Mile must have been like during the 18th and 19th centuries. You’ll also come across the Jamaica Wine House, which is pure Dickens if ever I saw it.
The Jamaica, first opened in the 1670s, takes its name from the fact that merchants who traded in the West Indies favoured it as meeting place. It is also reckoned to be the first place in London to sell coffee, although I doubt they did latte back then. Today’s Jamaica Wine House dates from 1869.
It is now in the hands of Kent brewer Shepherd Neame, the oldest in the country, and remains largely unspoilt. Sheps of Faversham seem to tread a similar path on these delicate matters as Sam Smith’s, that is to take on old pubs and make them contemporary while respecting their antiquity.
Dark wood dominates the interior at the Jamaica, which is divided into a number of different bars, while men in suits quaff Spitfire and talk animatedly. You are left in no doubt that you are in a real City pub.

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The Wenlock Arms, Wenlock Street, N1

These days we take for granted the quality and variety of beer available in London, but it wasn’t always the case. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, when keg ruled and cask ale was the exception, one sometimes had to go in search of a decent pint.
The Wenlock, tucked away in the twilight zone where Islington and Hackney rub shoulders, dates from 1836 and was probably the tap for the nearby Wenlock Brewery, which closed in the 1960s. However it was in the early 1990s when, as a purveyor of an ever-changing array of cask ales, that the pub became a favourite destination for the discerning beer drinker.
It subsequently won numerous awards and, from personal recollection at the time, also functioned as a local community boozer. But Hackney has been changing for many years now and in 2010 an application was made to knock the pub down and replace it with a bland development bereft of originality and style. London has enough of that sort of thing already, take my word for it.
I’m pleased to report, however, that a lengthy campaign to save the pub proved successful and it re-opened in 2013, although only after a bit of a wash and brush up. Subsequently it’s a little smarter these days than of old, but at heart remains a friendly and inviting pub with no airs and graces and excellent beer.

 

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LONDON is a city of shrines. They abound like red buses. From modest City churches and grand cathedrals through to DIY Buddhist temples lurking at the end of leafy suburban gardens, the mighty metropolis is awash with places of worship, remembrance and adoration.

But for every ornate altar and grand chapel there is a collection of dead flowers assembled at the base of a lamppost or tied to roadside railings, a rain smeared handwritten sign marking the passing of a traffic accident or street stabbing victim. These are perhaps the most heartfelt of shrines, genuine and spontaneous  outpourings of grief.

This type of shrine is a familiar sight in the capital these days, a poignant addition to London’s street furniture. Occasionally these makeshift memorials turn permanent; the plaque that now marks the spot in Eltham where teenager Stephen Lawrence was murdered in April, 1993 a notable case in point. The sad fact that this plaque has been vandalised several times since it was put in place shows that not all shrines attract worshippers.

Then there are the unofficial shrines inspired by popular culture, by events in popular culture and, once again and perhaps inevitably, by death.

These include what remains of the tree on Barnes Common that claimed the life of elfin glam rocker Marc Bolan in the late summer of 1977. I found it an eerie and sad place when I visited one winter afternoon many years ago while researching my Rock and Roll Tourist slot for BBC London (or GLR as it was at the time). I haven’t returned since.

More accessible is the zebra crossing in St John’s Wood immortalised by the Beatles on the cover of their Abbey Road album. The fact that said zebra is in a slightly different location to the one featured in that famous 1969 photo session doesn’t seem to bother the hordes of Japanese tourists who use the current crossing for impromptu photo shoots of their own, much to the frustration of many a London cabbie.

Tucked away just off Regent’s Street, meanwhile, in now fashionable Heddon Street is a red telephone box that attracts David Bowie fans from all over the world. Heddon Street, then a neglected side street but now proclaimed on one website as a ‘food quarter just off Regent Street,’ was the location for the cover shoot for Bowie’s breakthrough Ziggy Stardust LP in 1972 and the telephone box that features on the back cover gets most of the attention. The surrounding walls are covered in graffiti while many a snap are snapped. As with Abbey Road, it doesn’t seem to bother people that today’s telephone box is not the same one featured on the Ziggy album cover. Sentiment, after all, often blurs the edges of hard historical fact.

And then a few weeks ago, while roaming the Great Wen, I chanced across a new London shrine, a quirky one at that.

I had been walking around my old haunts of St.Luke’s, Clerkenwell and Smithfield – as is often my way – when after passing the William Wallace memorial as I headed towards Giltspur Street I chanced across an old style red telephone box situated just yards from the main entrance to St.Bartholomew’s Hospital.

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St Bartholomew’s Hospital and the telephone box that has become a shrine to Holmes, Watson and Moriarty.

London’s telephone boxes are mostly moribund and forgotten these days, and apart from offering a free canvas for ‘tart cards’ are largely obsolete in the mobile phone age. But this particular kiosk was different. A handwritten sign pasted in one window proclaimed: THE KING HAS RETURNED – #MoriatyLives. Inside was a gallery of graffiti, in a variety of languages, some of it obvious and some of it is obscure. ‘CALL SHERLOCK,’ read one inscription, while another instructed ‘CALL MYCROFT.’

This, then, is a shrine to Sherlock Holmes, and to a lesser extent Dr Watson and Mycroft too. It’s also a shrine, of sorts, to Moriaty, who for one of popular literature’s bad guys certainly has his share of admirers.

The location of this shrine makes perfect sense, for it was here that the second series of Sherlock ended with the apparent suicide of Holmes from the roof of Bart’s, a clever post-modern reinterpretation of Conan Doyle’s The Final Problem, which ends with Holmes (and Moriaty) plunging to their supposed deaths at the Reichenbach Falls.

There is another link with Holmes and Watson and St Bart’s, London’s oldest hospital. In A Study in Scarlet, in which Doyle introduced Holmes to the reading public back in 1887, the great detective and Watson meet for the first time. This meeting takes place in one of the hospital’s laboratories.

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What will happen to this latest London shrine remains to be seen. It is still a functioning telephone box, after all, so one supposes the graffiti will have to be removed as and when BT see fit. Since my initial discovery, as it is a working kiosk, I have been tempted on several occasions to call the number and, should it be answered, enquire about the great man and his friend the good doctor.

The number is (020) 7606 5183. Do with it what you will.

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The Old Coffee House, Beak Street. They still sell coffee.

Under a brooding afternoon sky I found myself on foot in Soho, all too aware that a downpour was imminent. I was in Warwick Street and had just paid a fleeting visit to the beautiful, intimate church of Our Lady of the Assumption and St Gregory, one of those strangely ‘out of the way’ buildings that central London has such a wealth of. It was as I left that the first big, fat drops of rain started to fall, so I quickened my step and was soon in Beak Street and within sight of the Old Coffee House, which promised sanctuary of a different kind.

Firstly I should perhaps declare that I know this cluttered and charming old place very well. For a few years of my life, while working as a staff journalist in the ‘features’ department of Oracle Teletext just around the corner in Carnaby Street, the Old Coffee House was just one of half a dozen or so pubs frequented by the office rank and file. Or at least by the journalists.

For despite its name the Old Coffee House is every inch a pub. What’s more it’s a great pub, an old style Soho boozer with an eccentric air of its very own that appears to be in no way contrived. It also boasts a history laced in irony, a history you might like to ponder on as you sip your pint of Brodie’s Bethnal Green bitter.

As long as there have been people who wanted to drink there have been people who wanted to stop them. The temperance movement in this country was probably at its height in the early and mid 19thCentury. It was well organised and at times it was well financed. It also attracted some surprising converts.

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The sign of the Old Coffee House, Soho.

In 1869, for instance, Frederick Nicholas Charrington, 19 and a member of the Charrington brewing dynasty, witnessed an alcohol-fuelled argument between a husband and wife outside an East End pub. The wife, with three young children in tow, had begged her husband for money to buy food. The husband answered her plea by pushing her into the gutter before heading into the aforementioned pub. To the horror of Charrington, already deeply effected by what he had witnessed, when he looked towards the hostelry concerned it was his family name emblazoned above the door. From that day on he was a leading light in the temperance movement, also choosing to forgo both his inheritance and the demon booze.

The temperance movement worked in a variety of ways and were voluble campaigners who knew how to work the media of the day. And while they often resorted to direct action – they liked to march, they loved to preach – they could be quite sophisticated when they put their mind to it, which is where the Old Coffee House comes into the story.

For many years the movement had operated coffee shops, welcoming places of refreshment that offered nourishment for both body and soul. These establishments also offered an alternative to the bawdy delights of the public house. Many years later, in a move which probably seemed very clever at the time but in hindsight now looks like a really bad idea, they opened a number of temperance pubs. These places looked like pubs and were run along the same lines as pubs. They were glitzy and opulent where glitz and opulence were appropriate, down to earth and homely where a more basic approach were needed. The big difference, of course, was that no alcohol was sold. On offer instead were cordials, hot beverages and such alcohol-free delights as Anti-Burton, which was probably as disgusting as it sounds.

But as the temperance movement started to wane, for a variety of reasons I’ll not dwell on here, so these temperance cafes and pubs started to struggle. And the real irony, sweet for those who didn’t like being preached at but cruel for those doing the preaching, was that the obvious fate for some of these establishments was to become pubs. Proper pubs. Real pubs. Serving real beer. Proper beer. The Old Coffee House is such a case.

The exact date when the Old Coffee House was built is unclear, as is the moment when cups of coffee were replaced by pints of porter, but as a tavern it is Victorian in heritage. What is certain is that today you’ll find a homely and slightly scruffy boozer that hosts a mixture of Soho media types and locals. On my recent visit I watched an elderly couple arrive to eat a late lunch. They were on first name terms with the staff behind the bar, who ensured that a table was available for them. If I had to guess I’d say the couple concerned were from one of the council blocks in nearby Marshall Street. There aren’t many pubs in Soho today that engage with the local community, but it appears that the Old Coffee House does.

And then there is the beer, or at least the range of ales. They hail from Brodie’s, a microbrewery based in Leyton, east London that has been knocking out splendid ales since 2008. There were five on the go when I visited and my pint of Bethnal Green bitter, golden in colour and dry on the tongue, was in tip-top condition. Indeed given the quality of ale, and the fact this is a distinctly traditional boozer in a part of town sorely lacking in that department, I’m even prepared to turn a blind eye to the sometimes surly bar service.

And for the record, the Old Coffee House still sells coffee.

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The Whitbread Brewery, Chiswell Street, June 2016.

Earlier this year, at a book fair in Kent, I chanced across Whitbread Craftsmen. Published in 1948, and weighing in at just 40 yellowing pages, this lovely little tome contains affectionate behind the scenes portraits – words and pictures – of ten different people, all employees of London brewer Whitbread, at the time one of the biggest in the country. They range from William Claude Lasman, head brewer resplendent in white coat, to cellarman George Martin through to cooper James Charles Frost, characters one and all.

In 1948, of course, heavy industry was still a feature of life in London, despite the ravages of the Blitz just a few years earlier. Printing still dominated Fleet Street and its environs while the docks out east still reverberated to the clang and clatter that accompanied arriving cargo; ‘Unloading foreign trade from a large ocean vessel, In the mighty metropolitan port of London’, as Ray Davies put it so eloquently in London Song, his rousing hymn to the Great Wen.

And of course brewing added to the industrial toil of the capital, then still home to such major brewers as Mann’s in Whitechapel, Truman’s in Brick Lane, Guinness out north at Park Royal and, south of the Thames and close to Tower Bridge, Courage.

Then of course there was Whitbread, brewing at Chiswell Street since 1750 and one of London’s best known brands. Their mighty Shire horses, used to deliver much of their beer, were a common sight on the streets of the capital while the company’s pub portfolio was a large and impressive one.

And so what really shines through from the pages of Whitbread Craftsmen, despite the modest dimensions of the volume, is a corporate pride that is almost tangible within the pages. Here it is clear to see that the bigwigs at Whitbread were proud of the company, of the beer they produced and, perhaps most importantly of all, the people who worked for them.

 

 

It was a very different picture less than thirty years after the book’s publication. In 1976 – April 13, 1976 to be exact – Whitbread stopped brewing beer at their famed brewery, located on the very fringes of the City of London and sitting in the shadow of the then still under construction Barbican Centre and its attendant residential attachment. And although the company would remain at their spiritual EC1 home for many years afterwards, using it as an administration base, the heady smell of the six o’clock mash would no longer provide an aromatic accompaniment to the traders of nearby Whitecross Street market as they set up for the day’s business. It was, truly, the end of an era.

The departure of brewing from Chiswell Street, after 225 years, marked an acceleration in the disappearance of large-scale beer making in the capital, an exodus of an industry which London had once been famed the world over for.

In 1699 there were almost 200 substantial brewers in London, and in 1952 there were still 25 operating in the capital. But soon after Whitbread stopped brewing in EC1 Mann’s left Whitechapel (1979), Courage said goodbye to Shad Thames (1982) and Truman’s exited Brick Lane (1989). In 2005 Guinness disappeared from Park Royal. All of which meant that when Young’s ceased brewing at their Ram Brewery in Wandsworth in September 2006, Fuller’s of Chiswick were left as the capital’s last remaining major brewer.

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The old Whitbread stables in Garrett Street, June 2016.

Now I must declare a particular interest here, for not only am I a lover of ale and a keen student of the social history that accompanies it, but for much of my early life I lived in a tower block called Braithwaite House, located in Bunhill Row and just a two minute stroll from Whitbread’s Chiswell Street HQ. Even now I can clearly recall the Shires, mighty and solemn beasts with not a little dignity about them. And of course then there was the smell, a heady combination of malted barley and hops that, if the wind was blowing in the right direction, would dominate the whole neighbourhood.

Some of my early explorations into the world of beer also involved Whitbread, and I look back with muted fondness on the pints of Trophy (or was it Tankard?) that I downed in the Two Brewers in Whitecross Street, even though according to the strict letter of the law I should really have been drinking nothing stronger than lemonade.

Although Whitbread are historically rooted in London, and more precisely in the EC1 area of London, Samuel Whitbread himself was born and bred in Bedfordshire. In 1734 he arrived in London aged 14, two years later commencing an apprenticeship with the Brewers’ Company. Here he learnt his trade, eventually moving on to work for Wightman’s, one of London’s many noted beer makers of the day. At the age of 22 he joined forces with brothers George and Thomas Shewell, who owned the Goat brewery which occupied a site on the corner of Whitecross Street market and Old Street, in the old parish of St Luke’s.

The company produced high quality beers, mainly porter and pale ales. However if they were ever going to compete with the bigger brewers of the day they needed bigger premises and so, in 1750, they bought the King’s Head brewery at the opposite end of Whitecross Street. This would soon become the famous Whitbread Brewery and it took just eight years after moving for the company to become the biggest brewer in England, an industrial giant of the age.

As detailed in Beer – The Story of The Pint by Martyn Cornell, by 1758 Whitbread were producing 64,600 36-gallon barrels a year, taking them ahead of both the nearby Peacock brewery (61,800) and Truman’s Black Eagle brewhouse in Brick lane (55,000). In 1765 Whitbread bought out the Shewell brother’s share in the company for £30,000.

Porter, a beer invented in London for Londoners, was central to Whitbread’s rapid growth and they initially remained several steps ahead of their competitors by embracing the modern technology of the day to brew this potent and heady dark drink, by now the nation’s favourite style of beer, on an unprecedented scale. They achieved this by becoming the first major brewer to use steam power, installing a Boulton and Watt steam engine in 1775. This in itself was a huge operation and John Rennie, an engineer who would later go on to oversee the construction of London Bridge, Southwark Bridge and Waterloo Bridge, was called in to take charge of the installation.

The brewing industry, incidentally, were quick to embrace steam power. If you want to see an example of engines still in situ in a brewery setting then get along to Shepherd Neame in Faversham. Acknowledged as Britain’s oldest brewery – they give their official formation date as 1698 – their Court Street HQ still houses two wonderful old engines which can be viewed as part of the official brewery tour.

Now good porter needed time to mature and condition, and that meant allocating valuable space to storing it for a length of time, sometimes as long as a whole year. With space limited at Chiswell Street, Whitbread got around this problem by building six huge underground tanks, or cisterns. The biggest could hold 3,600 barrels.

These were not initially successful and at first the beer would leak through the cistern walls until an engineer called John Smeaton was brought in to solve the problem. He would later go on to design the Eddystone Lighthouse.

The brewery soon became one of the wonders of the mighty metropolis and in 1787 King George III and Queen Charlotte visited. However there were also dark days and tragedy at Chiswell Street.

In 1815 Samuel Whitbread junior, who had taken control following his father’s death in 1796, took his own life after becoming worried about the company’s finances. He apparently cut his own throat, conclusively ‘ear to ear.’ When Whitbread senior past away, incidentally, he was worth more than a million pounds according to some sources. An overestimation, perhaps, but there were certainly fortunes to be made and lost in brewing. Whitbread senior, incidentally, was also a vocal supporter of the abolition of slavery. He later became Member of Parliament for Bedford.

Another dark episode came in 1832 when John Martineau, a rival brewer who had joined forces with Whitbread, was found dead in a tank of spent yeast at Chiswell Street. The coroner’s verdict was: ‘Died by the visitation of God.’

Over the years Whitbread adapted and survived with the changing fashions in beer, they ceased production of porter in 1941 for instance, and were still the UK’s third biggest brewery at the start of the 1970s.

They also retained a huge pub estate, almost 7,000 strong at the start of the 1980s, many of those in the capital supplied by horse drawn dray. These were pulled by those magnificent Shire horses I mentioned earlier, which were stabled just off Whitecross Street in Garrett Street. The horses remained until September 1991 when, after one final parade past the brewery, they left for the green fields of Kent.

Whitbread pulled out of brewing completely in 2001 and their main interests these days are coffee shops and budget hotels. They remained at Chiswell Street until 2005, but with the brewing side of operations relocated the place had little of its former character or charm. Many of the local pubs were a lot quieter too.

Fuller’s remain as London’s only major brewer, but a wealth of microbreweries ensure that the capital continues to enjoy a varied and vivid reputation for good beer. Indeed it strikes me that, ironically at a time when the number of pubs is in decline, that the availability and variety of cask beer in London continues to improve.

Meanwhile the Chiswell Street brewery, now a conference centre, remains as a monument to a once mighty brewing empire. But unless you know what you’re looking for there are few other signs in the surrounding streets of how Whitbread once dominated a small corner of London. Having said that, I sometimes have a fancy that after a pint or two you might still be able to hear the ghostly rumble of Whitbread’s mighty Shires.

 

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USUALLY I like the rain.
In summer it can get in the way of the cricket, certainly, but at the right time and in the right place it’s a wonderful thing. I was born and bred in London and I remain of the opinion that the rain, the right sort of rain at the right sort of time mind you, can add a magical quality to this most magical of cities.
On Friday, however, the mighty metropolis was on the wrong end of the wrong sort of rain. This wasn’t just drizzle or a downpour, this was borderline monsoon. Or at least it felt that way. It was certainly heavy and was most certainly persistent. All in all, not ideal conditions for sauntering around town, which is what I like to do after my regular visit to Auntie at her snazzy new gaff down Portland Place way.
To make matters worse I wasn’t really prepared and had left home without a hat and wearing my expensive black overcoat, the one I usually keep for best. While said overcoat makes claims to be ‘water resistant’, this was only true to a point. At least my shoes didn’t leak; You can’t go wrong with a decent pair of Chelsea boots.
I had already decided prior to my trip to the Beeb that I would afterwards take a stroll down Fleet Street, one of my favourite London thoroughfares. I always wanted to work in the Street of Shame but alas missed the party, the departure of the newspapers coinciding roughly with my slow journalistic ‘coming of age.’
The closest I came was as an 18-year-old while working as an editorial dogsbody on a (now sadly defunct) London listings magazine, my first foray into the wonderful world of media and a start I’ll always be grateful for. Myself and the features editor of said listings magazine had managed to persuade a press agency (Central Press Features I seem to remember), based at the Strand end of Fleet Street very close to where the old Temple Bar once stood, to take a weekly pop slot from us, the idea being that they would then syndicate this finger-on-the-pulse snapshot of the London music scene to the provinces. Just to show how absolutely cutting edge this pop slot was, it was called, er, Pop Slot.
It wasn’t a huge success and I think in the end perhaps half a dozen newspapers took it, and quickly dropped it. Needless to say, it didn’t make myself or my features editor chum rich. But I always enjoyed my walk down to Fleet Street after work each Monday (it was due each Tuesday morning). These were the days before the internet, or even fax machines, and I would never have entertained the idea of posting my copy. That would have robbed me of my walk.
The offices of my nine to five employee were in Pentonville Road and my route to Fleet Street was down King’s Cross Road, onto Farringdon Road and past Mount Pleasant sorting office – where my mum and dad both worked – before turning right to take whatever particular backstreet route took my fancy. Names to conjure with they were too – Saffron Hill, Shoe Lane, New Fetter Lane and Fetter Lane, not to mention the myriad of tiny alleys and courts accessible along the way – and all of them chiming with history, an almost palpable history and tradition.
Sometimes I would walk past the old Mirror building on the corner of New Fetter Lane and Holborn Circus. It would have been 20 years old back then but still struck me as strangely space age, a late 50s idea of what a modern newspaper office would be like, and all the more charming for it. They knocked it down eventually and replaced it with another bland office block.
Just the feeling of dropping those 450 words of copy off once a week, and of then meandering my way back home to Clerkenwell via the pubs that back then were still a riot of chatter and gossip and stale smoke and beer fumes, even on a Monday evening, felt good. The fact that back then I never had the bottle to poke my head around the door of any of the pubs concerned – and I was by no means a stranger to pubs – or that my 450 words of (only occasionally) syndicated copy were hardly even a drop in the tsunami of words that issued forth from Fleet Street each day, didn’t matter.


Of course high finance rules the roost in Fleet Street today. The old Telegraph offices, a grand if pompous affair I always thought, and the sumptuous Express building, one of the sexiest and most erotically charged you’ll find in the capital, are now both occupied by money men. If you want to see the foyer of the Express building, which alongside the exterior represents the height of its seductive Art Deco allure, you have to peer through thick net curtains. It is, seemingly, no longer the main entrance to the building.
So Fleet Street isn’t what it once was, despite which some of the pubs have survived relatively intact. And so on my walk in the rain I took shelter in Ye Ole Cheshire Cheese in Wine Office Court. This boozer holds a special place in mky heart, for a number of reasons, not least because Lydia and I held our wedding reception here in the Johnson Room.
If you do visit ‘the Cheese’ the bar to head for is immediately on your right as you enter. Small, dark and dominated by a rampaging open fire, if 15 people are squeezed in here it’s unlikely you’ll fit too. Dripping wet, I ordered a bottle of Sam Smith’s Old brewery Pale Ale (‘The finish is long and broad,’ wrote Roger Protz in 300 Beers To Try Before You Die!, ‘with delicious juicy malt and a lingering hop bitterness.’) and managed to squeeze myself onto one of the communal bench seats. And as I started to dry off, savouring my pint and gazing into the flames, contemplation and reflection became the order of the afternoon.
The burning question of the moment, however, remained: Has it stopped raining yet?