The church of St Bartholomew the Great in Smithfield is one of the jewels of London. A breathtakingly beautiful architectural gem that has occupied its site for 900 years.
It is one of the capital’s oldest parish churches, founded as it was in 1123 by Rahere, a courtier (some say the jester) to Henry I, the son of the Conqueror. Rahere had been on a pilgrimage to Rome when he fell ill, promising God that if he were spared he would build a hospital for the poor on his return to London. After his recovery he had a vision of St Bartholomew who told him the place where the church should be founded, just outside the City walls in Smithfield.
Hard by St Paul’s at the entrance to Paternoster Square, is Temple Bar gate.
Like the Cathedral, this is the work of Sir Chirstopher Wren, and it is also built from the same Portland Stone. It was constructed between 1669 and 1672 as part of the general improvement works to the City of London following the Great Fire of 1666.
Eastcheap – from an old english word for market (and “east” to distinguish it from the original Westcheap, now ‘Cheapside’) – runs from Monument tube station towards the Tower of London; its name dates to at least anglo-saxon times.
At number 20 is a bar called Eastcheap Records, but look above the door and you will see a frieze of three laden camels being led by a Bedouin across a desert. The bones of a fourth camel might be made out in the centre foreground.
There are quite a number of ‘Holland Houses’ in the capital – the remains of a Jacobean country home in Holland Park, Kensington; a school in Edgware; a student hostel near Victoria – but it’s only outside Holland House in Bury Street in The City (a stone’s throw from the Gherkin), that they still fly the Dutch flag.
This Holland House dates from 1916 and is sometimes called the first modern office block in London. Designed by the Dutch modernist architect Henrik Petrus Berlage, it was the first steel-framed building in Europe, with walls of green glazed terracotta bricks (shipped in from Delft) rising from a black plinth. (It is also said to be the first office block in Britain to have an atrium.)
I’ve tried hard to like the Walkie Talkie, Rafael Vinoly’s skyscraper at 20 Fenchurch Street, but so far I’ve been unsuccessful. The thing dominates the surrounding streets, blocking out the whole sky from the narrow cobbled alleyways that lead up to Eastcheap, and its solitary position away from the cluster of tall glass and steel buildings that form the new vertical City means it intrudes into views from Waterloo Bridge and along the south bank, as well as seeming to loom over the Tower of London.
It is blessed, though, with a wonderful, free viewing gallery – a couple of floors of space some 150m up – higher than the London Eye – and with a 360 degree view of the capital.
This is the Sky Garden. The architect’s plans (of course) were for a mini-Kew, a verdant ‘public park’ accessible to all; it hasn’t quite worked out like that (of course). The accessibility involves navigating a clunky website to book tickets (which are released every other Monday), queuing to get through ticket barriers, trudging through airport-style security, and then queuing for the lift.
In 1978, the year after architect Richard Rogers’ Pompidou Centre opened in Paris, construction started on his first major London project, The Lloyd’s Building in Lime Street.
Built to house the London Insurance Market, this was the first “high tech” building in the UK and there is still nothing quite like it.
The building is “inside out”, with the service functions placed on the exterior. The pipework and air conditioning ducts wrapped around the outside, the glass lifts scooting up the outside walls, the corner staircases like corkscrew metal are all still a delight to behold. But the concept is not decorative per se: it allows for easy replacement and maintenance of the facilities, and it means the inside can be open and flexible, with uninterrupted activity on each level. Rogers has designed other buildings in London since Lloyd’s, but none provoke the same sense of looking at something otherworldly.
Climb the 311 stairs today to the top of the Monument and the the 21st century City spreads out around you. To the north the Walkie Talkie seems close enough to touch, and behind that are the Cheesegrater, the Gherkin, Heron Tower and the other towers of skyscraper alley.
To the south the view is dominated by the Shard, but the Elephant and Castle developments are now starting to block that horizon; the east has the packed legoland towers of Canary Wharf.
The west gives some relief with a great view of St Paul’s and down the river to Westminster, but look down into the City and one can see the current building boom with cranes and construction sites all around.
In the post on the Firefighters’ Memorial we talked about the destruction caused by the Blitz – and Christchurch Greyfriars gives a hint of that devastation. This was a Wren church built after the 1666 Great Fire and gutted in WW2. Rather than being restored like so many others, it was turned into a garden. Flowerbeds mark where the pews once stood, and wooden frames with climbing plants show where the towers once stood in the nave.
Before Wren’s church it had been one of the largest churches in London. Originally it was part of a Franciscan friary (Franciscans wore grey habits, hence greyfriars). Four queens were buried in the friary grounds, including the wives of Edward I and Edward II , which stretched from King Edward Street (once known as ‘Stinking Lane’ by the way) right down to the City Wall at Newgate.
When Henry VIII broke with the Catholic church in 1533 over his divorce from Katherine of Aragon, he also ‘dissolved’ many religious institutions and Greyfriars was one of those. The friary church became Christchurch. Another part of the friary was to become the site of Christ’s Hospital School – which still exists, although it moved out of the City at the start of the 20th century. The pupils still wear a tudor-style uniform of a long blue coat and yellow knee length socks.
75 years ago George Orwell, the author of 1984 wrote, “as I write, highly civilised human beings are flying overhead trying to kill me”.
He was talking about the Blitz, the WW2 bombing campaign by the German airforce that attempted to destroy London’s industry and infrastructure and shatter the morale of the population. Between September 1940 and May 1941 over 18,000 tonnes of high explosive was dropped on London, up to a million and a half homes were damaged or destroyed, and nearly 30,000 people killed. It seems almost impossible to us, living here in this cosmopolitan city, that all this horror and destruction took place within a human lifetime.
And this monument commemorates some of the people who helped London survive: the firefighters – professionals and auxiliaries, men and women – the “heroes with grimy faces” as Winston Churchill called them.
With the current building works going on around it, the approach to St James’s is now down Garlick Hill, an indication – along with the church’s suffix – of what the area was known for in medieval times. A ‘hythe’ is an old English word for a jetty or landing, so this is the place where garlic was unloaded and brought into the City. It was also where wine was landed, as the church is in the ward of Vintry – home to wine merchants. More on this shortly.
There has been a church on this site since at least the 1100s and the scallop shell motif seen above the door indicates that this was a pilgrim church – it was a stop on the route to the cathedral at Santiago de Compostella which was reputed to hold the body of St James the Apostle. It was rebuilt in the 1320s with money from Richard de Rothing, a member of the Vintners’ guild and, although St James’s is the Guild Church for ten Livery Companies, it is with the Vintners that it is most closely associated. Continue reading “St James Garlickhythe”