diamond geezer

 Monday, October 14, 2019

Four London-based nursery rhymes
London Bridge is falling down,
Falling down, falling down.
London Bridge is falling down,
My fair lady.
Origin: London's most famous bridge has never fallen down, although it has been replaced several times over several centuries. The rhyme's first recorded UK usage is in the 1740s, but its roots are in several older bridge-collapsing songs across Europe, so the English version's not original. In early drafts the bridge is "broken down", rather than falling, and the fair lady is "The Lady Lee". Best not read too much history into it.

Today: The latest London Bridge is of 1973 vintage, as the plaque the Queen unveiled in the centre of the walkway confirms. Its predecessor, famously shipped off to the Arizona desert, had been there since 1831 when it replaced 'Old' London Bridge, the medieval one with the houses down it. And intriguingly that wasn't quite where London Bridge is today but 50 yards downstream. On the southern bank it landed amid the office block No 1 London Bridge, where a small information panel on the riverside walkway marks the spot. And on the northern bank, well, if you've ever wondered why the Monument feels off-centre and Gracechurch Street terminates with an awkward curve, it's because this used to be the original alignment of the former bridge.

In particular the northern roadway used to pass the west door of St Magnus the Martyr, a church which for six centuries was the spiritual guardian of this crucial bridgehead. It was one of the first churches to be destroyed in the Great Fire of London so what now occupies the site is Wren's magnificent replacement. Its clock once projected out above the roadway, and when traffic increased a pedestrian walkway had to be cut through the bottom of the tower. St Magnus's importance vanished when the bridge shifted, and its churchyard is now a flagstoned dead end, barely trodden, with a small flowerbed at one end. It's still worth a visit, though, to see two chunky stones from the Old London Bridge which were relocated here in 1921.

Do you know the muffin man,
The muffin man, the muffin man,
Do you know the muffin man,
Who lives on Drury Lane?
Origin: Drury Lane is named after Drury House, built here during the reign of Henry VII by a Suffolk knight called Sir Robert Drury. By the time the rhyme was published, circa 1820, Drury Lane was a notorious gin-riddled slum with a very famous theatre at the Aldwych end. Muffins were a favourite fast food at the time, a small, round, bready snack delivered to ovenless homes by tray-carrying hawkers. They did not in any way resemble cupcakes.

Today: I attempted to buy a muffin on Drury Lane and failed. At the southern end the pre-theatre teas were more of an Apple Tarte Tatin experience, and at the busier northern end non-British non-baked goods had swept the board. The closest I came was a plant-powered cafe offering bagels with breakfast toppings, a pub doing baguettes and a cafe serving paninis. It's ironic because Drury Lane was the site of the very first Sainsbury's store, where John and Mary first sold butter, milk and eggs to a discerning clientele in 1869, but their grocery store at number 173 is lost beneath a modern office block.

Of course the nursery rhyme never claimed that muffins were sold on Drury Lane, only that the muffin man lived there. And although the rookeries have long been swept away, a surprisingly high proportion of this inner London street is lined by relatively lowly mansion blocks. One flank is formed by a wall of Peabody housing, the Wild Street Estate, though which no doors or gates open out onto Drury Lane other than the stores where the bins are kept. Perhaps the muffin man is buried in Drury Lane Gardens opposite, a former graveyard converted in 1877 into one of central London's very first public open spaces. The swings and slide are very much not original.

Half a pound of tuppenny rice,
Half a pound of treacle.
That's the way the money goes,
Pop! goes the weasel.

Up and down the City road,
In and out the Eagle,
That's the way the money goes,
Pop goes the weasel.
Origin: Pop Goes The Weasel is the youngest of these four nursery rhymes, originating in 1852. It started out as a novelty dance, the Agadoo of its day, with everyone joining together to sing 'Pop Goes The Weasel' at the end of each verse. The remainder of the rhyme is thought to reference slang terms for money. As for the Eagle Tavern, this was an inn roughly halfway along City Road at the corner of Shepherdess Walk. It gained a theatre out back in 1841, which then expanded into a renowned 4000-seater music hall, which eventually went bust. The current Eagle pub was built on the site in 1901.

Today: City Road extends from the edge of Finsbury Square to the Angel Islington, a major artery of greatly varying character. The southern end is mostly commercial, then beyond the Old Street Roundabout someone let the architects loose and a series of wild residential towers has erupted. The Islington end is lined by well-to-do Georgian terraces, but in the middle is a recognisably poorer slot of council flats. I did some consumer research in the local supermarket and can confirm that half a pound of rice no longer costs tuppence - Sainsbury's 250g microwaveable sachets start at 60p. Meanwhile Lyle's Treacle only comes in one pound tins and that's £1.50. Just don't try your luck in the Sun Star Express corner shop else your money really will go pop.

These days the Eagle pub is set back from City Road behind the iconic Shepherdess Cafe. It has a pleasingly Gothic air, with sharp brick gables and a cupola with a gold eagle perched on top. The key verse from the nursery rhyme has been painted on a prominent panel outside, whereas reality within is the Rugby World Cup on a big screen and Sunday roasts with a red wine jus. A separate plaque courtesy of the London borough of Hackney remembers the site's music hall heritage, specifically how Marie Lloyd's first performance was right here... or perhaps within the police station immediately behind.

Oranges and lemons, say the bells of St Clement's.
You owe me five farthings, say the bells of St Martin's.
When will you pay me? say the bells at Old Bailey.
When I grow rich, say the bells at Shoreditch.
When will that be? say the bells of Stepney.
I do not know, says the great bell at Bow.
Origin: This rhyme first appeared in print in the same book as London Bridge Is Falling Down, but may have been sung long before that. A variety of City churches have appeared in the rhyme over the years, including couplets about St Giles', St John's, St Helen's and St Catherine's. The final couplet about a chopper coming to chop off your head is a later addition, not a gruesome throwback.

Today: It's possible that the first two churches in the rhyme were St Clement Danes and St Martin-in-the Fields, but tradition has it they're the far more minor St Clement Eastcheap and St Martin Orgar, barely 50 yards apart across Cannon Street. Wren only rebuilt one of them, St Martin's being duly absorbed into the parish of St Clements, and its churchyard has become a private garden. Church number three is St Sepulchre without Newgate, four is St Leonard's, five is St Dunstan's and six is St Mary-le-Bow on Cheapside and definitely not St Mary's in Bow where I live. I would tell you more, but Oranges and Lemons was the first historically themed week on this blog fifteen years ago so I already have.

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