Some of you might recall that a few years ago the Central Line was suspended for almost three months, following a derailment at Chancery Lane. At that time, this meant that this Londonista’s daily commute often involved walking from Bank to Holborn, past St Paul’s and across Holborn Viaduct – a part of our journey that soon got annoying, but was still quicker than taking the overwhelmed bus services. (London Underground never did cough up a refund for our six-monthly travelcard, the crooks.)
So when we decided to explore some of this area in a bit more detail last weekend, it seemed rather apt that once again we had to endure the tube service stuffing up. In fact, oddly enough, every time so far that we’ve Got Off Our Arses to explore London, London Underground has seen fit to knacker the tube line we’ve been using. Someone somewhere is clearly trying to tell us something.
Anyway, we did finally reach the target of our explorations – that interesting area to the west of St Paul’s Cathedral. Having enjoyed his guidance greatly when we investigated Holland Park, we decided to once again employ the services of Robert Wright’s audio-guides for our wanderings.
To grossly simplify the nature of the area, it seemed to us that most of the interesting bits of this part of town are either very big and obvious (but still unfamiliar in some parts, to this Londonista at least), or very small, obscure and fascinating.
We started off big. Paternoster Square, in all of its spotless glory following the redevelopment a few years ago, was oddly pleasant and undeniably large-scale. From there we walked through a grand archway (Sir Christopher Wren’s Temple Bar, reconstructed stone-by-stone as it turns out) to be confronted with the huge West Façade of St Paul’s Cathedral. We were inclined to explore inside, naturally inquisitive about any site of worship that dates back to AD 604 (apparently), but we were discouraged by a big queue of tourists – two of our pet hates right there.
Other ‘big and obvious’ landmarks that Robert’s guidance took us past included the Central Criminal Court (a.k.a. the Old Bailey, built on the site of Newgate Prison), the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (a big old church on the main road that we had walked past hundreds of times, but never really paid any attention to), Holborn Viaduct (originally built over the ‘stinking open sewer’ that was the River Fleet, but now passing over the distinctly less smelly Farringdon Street instead), and Blackfriars Station (unsurprisingly unremarkable).
But as we mentioned earlier, it was the more obscure parts of the area that we found the most interesting, and without Robert’s help we would never have normally stumbled across them. The whole locale appears to be full of curious little courtyards and passageways (enough to keep M@ happy for a few hours at least), each with its own unique history.
The little square containing Stationer’s Hall (off Ave Maria Lane) was curious enough, built in the 16th century to house the Livery Company that controlled the city’s printing trade, but we didn’t linger for long as we were attracting suspicious glances from a group of nearby suits. Maybe with our camera and notebook, saying nothing of our hesitant wandering as we followed Robert’s directions delivered via an MP3 player, we may have looked a bit out of place.
We enjoyed the seclusion of St Bride’s Passage (round the back of St Bride’s Church, housing the St Bride Institute and Printing Library) and Ireland Yard, which leads to a narrow alleyway that runs behind the wonderfully named St Andrew-by-the-Wardrobe church, which was named after Edward III’s nearby ‘Royal Wardrobe’. However our favourite discovery of the walk (not too hard to discover actually, as eye-catching directions are painted on the sides of the hoardings of a nearby building site) was Gough Square, which contains the house of Dr Johnson, an influential 18th century writer who was probably most famous for A Dictionary of the English Language (claimed to be the “first comprehensive English Dictionary”).
Dr Johnson’s House is open to the public, doubtless containing a variety of exhibits of interest to those curious about Dr Johnson’s life and works. Being pushed for time we opted not to explore the house, but we did find ourselves strangely fascinated by a small bronze statue of the writer’s favourite cat. A plaque on the statue’s base read:
HODGE. ‘A very fine cat indeed.’
It’s fair to say that Hodge looked quite satisfied that he was a ‘very fine cat’, maybe even smug. Then again not too many cats have been immortalised in this form, so he probably did have something to look smug about.
Overall, we would definitely recommend an exploration of this whole area, if only for its hidden alleyways and courtyards. Let the crowds of tourists mill around the big attractions, while you wander away from the main road, just a little way…