diamond geezer

 Thursday, January 27, 2005

Great British Roads - A4: London - Bristol
The first mile: Holborn - Charing Cross

The A4 used to start in the same place as the A3, at the Monument. Ten years ago walking the first mile along the A4 would have taken me west along Cannon Street, round St Paul's Cathedral, down Ludgate Hill and up Fleet Street. Writing about this journey could easily have filled a blogging week all by itself. But that's not the first mile any more. Terrorist paranoia in the City of London has beheaded this particular mile from the route, forcing the A4 to retreat to the edge of the City beyond a miserable security checkpoint cordon. And now the Great West Road starts somewhere rather less glamorous.

Road begins: Holborn Circus
Six roads meet at Holborn Circus, which is now little more than a glorified roundabout surrounding a statue of Prince Albert trapped in the middle. The new route chosen for the A4 follows the most insignificant of these roads, that tiny street in the centre of the photo squeezed inbetween a branch of Lloyds Bank to the left and the glass-fronted Sainsbury's head office to the right. This is New Fetter Lane, which leads before very long to the similarly quiet and narrow Fetter Lane. At the junction of the two stands London's only cross-eyed statue, a memorial to 18th century libertarian John Wilkes. Here too are magnificent Gothic buildings which once formed the Public Records Office but now house the King's College library. If you own a copy of Peter Ackroyd's London - the Biography (especially if you've always been meaning to get around to reading it) then you might enjoy the centuries-old story of this historic backstreet in Chapter 22.

At the foot of Fetter Lane the A4 turns finally turns right to join its original path along the western end of Fleet Street. Still world-renowned as London's journalistic heart, the press have long since moved out and the only papers you'll find in Fleet Street nowadays are sold in a tiny newsagents. This end of the street, however, has always found more favour with financial and legal practices. Here you'll find Child's (Britain's oldest bank, 1661), Hoare's (London's only remaining independent bank) and a branch of Coutts (the Queen's bank), none of which (inexplicably) has a cashpoint outside. A magic timbered portal on the south side leads through to the Temple, where the country's top legal minds scurry round a maze of ancient passages and courtyards in search of the perfect argument. And opposite the entrance, standing guard in the middle of the road, stands the dragon that acts as a replacement for Temple Bar (about which I've already written far too much). It may not look as impressive as its arched predecessor, but at least traffic can get past it.

After Temple Bar Fleet Street metamorphoses into the Strand, named after the foreshore of the River Thames which once lapped closer than it does today. Benjamin Disraeli described the Strand's heady mix of palaces, hotels and playhouses as 'perhaps the finest street in Europe', although much of the gloss has been lost since then. At the top end of the road is the coffee house where Thomas Twining established his first teashop, and also the Strand's most famous theatre - the Royal Courts of Justice. Next, alongside Aldwych, the A4 passes three famous houses - Australia House (your portal to Down Under), Bush House (BBC global HQ) and the monumental Somerset House (once home to the General Register of Births, Deaths and Marriages but now more well known for its winter ice rink - closes Sunday).

Strand's most well-known stretch leads from Aldwych down to Trafalgar Square along a bustling boulevard packed by theatre-goers and tourists. There's a raised cobbled strip down the centre of the road that most pedestrians use as an elongated traffic island, but I took this path to complete my journey. This kept me away from the restaurants, the red phone boxes and the hotel foyers, and a safe distance from the mobile phone shops, the bewildered foreigners and the Starbucks clones. I avoided the demonstrations outside the Zimbabwean embassy, resisted the charms of Stanley Gibbons the stamp dealer and bypassed the Savoy Hotel at the end of a tiny cul-de-sac (the only road in the UK where traffic drives on the right). But most of all I mourned the passing of the magnificent mansions that once lined this historic street.

Mile ends: Charing Cross
The end of my journey was also the final resting place of Queen Eleanor of Castile. She died while on royal walkabout in Lincolnshire in 1290, and a grieving Edward I had a cross erected at each of the 12 places where his wife's coffin rested on the long journey home to London. Seven centuries later just three Eleanor Crosses remain but alas the monument at Charing Cross is not quite one of them, being merely a stone replica erected in 1863.

OK, so the first mile of the new A4 does appear to be at least as fascinating as the original. And the second mile's even better, continuing from Trafalgar Square to pass along Pall Mall and Piccadilly (which I've already spent an entire month writing about). Of all the capital's major trunk roads, it's the A4 that gets off to the best start.

Road continues: Trafalgar Square, Pall Mall, Piccadilly, Knightsbridge, Brompton Road, Cromwell Road, Hammersmith, Brentford, Heathrow, Slough, Maidenhead, Reading, Newbury, Hungerford, Marlborough, Chippenham, Bath, Bristol, Avonmouth.

A4 links
A4 route description (from uk-roads)
A walk down the Strand and Fleet Street
My journey down Piccadilly (the second mile down the A4)

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