diamond geezer

 Thursday, January 29, 2004

Temple Bar

Work are sending me away, out of snow-splattered London, for two days. It's only for one night, but I can't say I'm delighted to be uprooted from my spiritual home merely for the sake of 'team-building'. I think that was the excuse they gave anyway. Still, things could be much worse. They're sticking us in a country-manor-cum-conference-centre within half a mile of the M25, which is barely outside London at all. And, lurking in the grounds, forgotten for decades, lies one of the City's most famous landmarks...

Temple Bar used to be located where the Strand meets Fleet Street, one of the ancient gateways into the City of London, named after the local Inns of Court. The first bar was just a chain across the road, the second a wooden structure with a prison on top, and the third (and final) a magnificent arch built from Portland stone. And yes, like everything else in this Fire-ravaged part of London it was built by Sir Christopher Wren - did this man ever rest? In the 18th century the heads of traitors were displayed on iron spikes across the top of the arch. Sorry, this is all sounding like a repeat of last week, isn't it?

By the late 19th century there was just one tiny problem - the gateways through the arch were rather narrow and therefore unsuited to ever-increasing amounts of road traffic. In 1878 the Corporation of London dismantled the arch, brick by brick, and hid it away in a yard off Farringdon Road. A pedestal with a large gold dragon was erected in its place, and the old bar was forgotten.

Salvation came from an unlikely source. Lady Meux was a banjo-playing barmaid who had married into high society but wanted desperately to prove her respectability. She had the bricks of Temple Bar shipped up to Hertfordshire on horse-drawn trolleys and reassembled in the grounds of her country house - Theobald's Park. Garden parties were held to celebrate its arrival, and such famous people as Edward VII and Winston Churchill were entertained in the arch's upper chamber. For a brief season, Temple Bar was back in the limelight. It didn't last. Before long the monument was lying fenced off and forgotten in overgrown woodland, slowly crumbling away.

Until recently, that is. Suddenly Temple Bar is on its way back to the City, not to its original location but to a new site in the shadow of St Paul's Cathedral. This is Paternoster Square (above left), a new piazza of questionable architectural merit, yet another swathe of office space and designer shops. The developers want to add a certain historical respectability to their new project, just like Lady Meux, so they're having Temple Bar shipped all the way back from Hertfordshire. Workmen started dismantling the arch at Theobalds last October and it appears I'm visiting only just in time before they take the last few bricks down for good. Meanwhile the scaffolding is going up in Paternoster Square (right) and Temple Bar should be reassembled here by the end of the year.

An excellent website charts the progress of the Temple Bar project, with daily photos of the stonemasons at work and all the latest news (they found a time capsule inside one brick a couple of weeks ago).

So, I may be out of general circulation until late tomorrow, but at least I'll have another slice of lost London to keep me company. Hopefully I'll have time to sneak out from the planned team-building activities to take a look at the team doing the unbuilding. Temple Bar, poor thing, has been trapped out of town for over a century. I'm only away for the one night, but I'm pleased we'll both be back home soon.

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