diamond geezer

 Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The London Stone is moving. You know the one - the ancient stone in Cannon Street, the rock that legend says is linked to the destiny of our capital city. It's being removed from behind the grille on the shop opposite the station, and relocated to an office block down the road. Or it is unless planning consultation dictates otherwise. Deadline for public comments, next Tuesday.

The situation is this. The Stone is currently encased in a Portland stone surround on the front wall of 111 Cannon Street. It's quite low down, which makes it hard to see, and it's behind glass and an iron grille, which makes it even harder to see. Semi-visible, semi-ignored, but very secure. The former sports shop behind the wall has closed down, and is up for let, with contractors Bovis stripping out the interior as we speak. Meanwhile the entire seven-storey 1960s block is owned by property company Minerva, who want to create a mixed-use development on site and are rather keen to get on and build it. A Grade II* listed chunk of limestone embedded in the front wall makes that legally awkward, hence their intent to shift it a few doors down the street.

A few doors down the street is the Walbrook Building, one of the City's newer office blocks. It looks like a metal armadillo, or a striped grey blancmange - or whatever it was that Foster and Partners' project brief intended. A very modern building, very modern indeed, but still with a few heritage nods at ground level. Two of the metal struts planted firmly into Cannon Street incorporate small black plaques that once marked former ward boundaries. They look a bit incongruous, to be frank, but at least they're still on site rather than scrapped and dumped elsewhere.

So the plan is to relocate London Stone to the Walbrook Building. The front elevation will be altered, and a special display case will be built to contain the legendary rock from up the road. One of the existing grey panels will be replaced by a laminated glass wall, and the stone placed inside on an etched mild steel plinth. And the grille will come too, given a less prominent position beneath, plus the metal plaque that currently sits on top of them all. All the detail's in the published plans and drawings, if you know where to look. Indeed, if you ever want to find out the heritage of a historic artefact, I can heartily recommend waiting until it's the subject of a planning application...
• London Stone is a Grade II* listed block of oolitic limestone measuring approximately 53cm wide, 43cm high and 30cm deep, and is thought to be a former Roman milestone.
• Oolitic limestone is not local to the London area. It is therefore presumed that the stone cannot predate the Roman period, when it is believed the stone was transported to London for construction purposes.
• The first record of the stone is from the 10th century, mentioned as a landmark in a list of rents belonging to Christ's Church in Canterbury.
• In 1405, Kentish rebel Jack Cade is believed to have struck his sword on London Stone and claimed to be the 'Lord of London'.
• In the late 1550s, London Stone is shown on the 'Copperplate Map' of the City of London. The stone is shown as a large rectangular block in the roadway, located opposite the main door of St Swithin's Church.
They can't move this, surely, it would be sacrilegious! Ah, but hang on...
• St Swithin's Church was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666, and rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren. By this time the original stone is thought to have been worn down to a stump.
• In 1742 the Vestry Minute Book of St Swithin's records that the stone was moved from the south side of the street to the north as it was considered an obstruction and traffic hazard.
• In 1798 the stone was again considered an obstruction and relocated against the south wall of the church.
• The stone is understood to have been moved again in 1828 and set into an alcove in the wall of the replacement church.
• Wren's church was bombed and destroyed during the Second World War, but London Stone remained intact and remained standing until the building was demolished in 1961.
• In 1962, London Stone was placed in its current location in a new office block at 111 Cannon Street.
So it turns out the London Stone has led a fairly nomadic life, repeatedly crossing Cannon Street or being built into the fabric of yet another building. The latest shift isn't unprecedented heresy - it's a continuation of centuries of movement. The Stone will also be considerably easier to see, and better noticed by casual passers-by, which has to be a huge bonus. And yet I can't help seeing Minerva's action as some sort of corporate kidnap. They own the property where London Stone is, they own the property where London Stone will end up, and they want this inconvenient rock out of the way so that they can knock down an office block and make a profit.
• 111 Cannon Street is a potential development site and in order to ensure the continued conservation of London Stone, it is proposed that the Stone is relocated to the Walbrook Building where it can be better protected in situ.
Minerva's grand design finally removes London Stone from the built environment, forcibly elevated after two millennia at ground level. It'll become a showcased exhibit - an ancient relic in a glass cage - rather than part of the everyday fabric of the city. London Stone's moved many times before, and not always for the most noble of reasons. But this time I fear it's moving solely for commercial convenience, in what will literally be a break from the past.

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