Between school on London’s Essex fringes and Birmingham University – in what I suppose must have been a parentally-guided bid to broaden my experience of life, I spent six months clerking for a Japanese investment bank in the City.
In those days – we’re talking more than 30 years ago – I had a daily allowance of 75p in Luncheon Vouchers, and as often as not would set off across the Square Mile in search of a shady bench or leafy churchyard where I could enjoy my prawn and mayonnaise sandwich whilst reading a book. I was, even then, delighted to discover a maze of narrow alleyways and secret places that had somehow survived centuries of change, and soon acquired the habit of spending my lunch hours walking what was essentially still the geography of a vibrant and successful medieval city.
Years later, having moved to the London for a writing job on a magazine, my impression was that these ancient thoroughfares were being systematically destroyed, or at least modified beyond recognition as the demands of international finance gained precedence over any sense of London’s past or its cultural importance. In fact I was only partly correct, which is perhaps the best discovery I made whilst researching my latest book, Hidden City: The Secret Alleys, Courts and Yards of London’s Square Mile.
Setting out, somewhat self-importantly perhaps, to document the old City’s passing before it was too late and these places were expunged from the A-to-Z, I actually found plenty to celebrate in words and pictures. Not only had many of the places I remembered from my time among the brollies and bowlers survived, but some of the more enlightened developers were seeking to preserve them or to incorporate these fragments of the past into their new schemes with admirable tact and sensitivity.
Inevitably some had gone, and a few more have definitely changed for the worst. But among walled gardens, winding alleyways, tiny squares and ancient courtyards I found it was still possible to find stories of the old city and its characters, a surprising number of intriguing and often quite unlikely architectural survivors, and a wealth of evidence demonstrating that the City – built, burned, bombed, rebuilt and rebuilt again – is still a uniquely fascinating, rich and engaging place to wander through.
Samuel Johnson famously told Boswell, ‘Sir, if you wish to have a just notion of the magnitude of this city, you must not be satisfied with seeing its great streets and squares, but must survey its innumerable little lanes and courts’ – and as many hundreds of visitors discover every weekend it is nowhere truer than here in the Square Mile.
The old gateways into the bustling medieval settlement may be long gone, traders may no longer come this far upriver, the mighty Roman Wall which defended Londoners for centuries has almost (but not entirely) disappeared beneath offices and apartments, and towering new developments continue to be thrown up and torn down with bewildering rapidity.
But stepping behind the glass façades, or squeezing through narrow passes between the vast ziggurats of 21st century commerce in search of a favourite Wren church, a nicely nooky pub or just somewhere quiet to sit and think, one can still find what the current Lord Mayor of London describes in his foreword to my book as ‘the London which existed before the Great Fire, before the Blitz, and long before Big Bang and all that followed that more technological but equally seismic change’.
Examples include plague pits and medieval martyrs, the largely intact crypt of a 13thcentury Carmelite priory incorporated into the basement of modern office block, the last surviving portion of London’s infamous Newgate Gaol (along which the condemned were lead to their deaths), Purcell’s old organ, and a Parisian-style pissoir. There’s a even a blue plaque to London’s most celebrated accountant – no, really: where else but the City? – what must surely be its least-public public house, and the home of the world’s first self-pouring teapot.
An award-winning ghostwriter, under his own name David Long has written and illustrated a number of books on London including Spectacular Vernacular: London’s 100 Most Extraordinary Buildings and a sequel Tunnels, Towers And Temples: London’s 100 Strangest Places. The latest, Hidden City: The Secret Alleys, Courts and Yards of London’s Square Mile, hits the shelves any day now and can be pre-ordered on Amazon.