diamond geezer

 Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Random City of London ward (1): Candlewick

My first random ward is also one of the smallest, having an area of just 13 acres, and is squished into the area between Bank and Monument stations. The rather splendid name derives from the candle makers who used to work along Candlewick Street, now Cannon Street, back when households and particularly churches needed an abundance of tallow and wax candles. It's not a ward brimming over with public buildings, tall buildings or indeed population, nor are its lanes and alleys especially noteworthy, but that didn't prevent me finding several flickering points of interest.

The chief focus of Candlewick ward is the road junction outside Monument station (where both the A3 and the A10 begin, and the A4 once did). It's overlooked by the magnificent frontage of 68 King William Street, originally the offices of Guardian Insurance and more recently a House of Fraser department store. But it's been empty since 2018 because City types no longer need to leave the office to buy clothing and fragrance, the ground floor now cavernously empty apart from a few green bins, assorted tools and a lot of unsurfaced concrete.

From here Cannon Street leads west, Gracechurch Street leads north, Eastcheap leads east and King William Street forges inbetween. But Candlewick doesn't stretch the full length of any of them, for example encompassing Monument station but not The Monument itself, and stopping just short of the legendary London Stone. The ward's eastern boundary is Fish Street Hill, once the main road down to London Bridge but when this was rebuilt in the 1820s a new approach road had to be carved through Candlewick, wiping Wren's St Michael's church from the map.

One of Candlewick's two remaining churches, St Clement Eastcheap, is nominally famous worldwide. The nursery rhyme Oranges and Lemons kicks off here, reputedly, because the church was close to the docks where citrus fruits were unloaded. It's another Wren rebuild, inconspicuous from the street but more magnificently rectangular inside. The noticeboard outside is also the place where Candlewick ward publicly lists its alderman and councilmen - that's Emma, James and Kevin - in gleaming gold on black. Coincidentally the second church in the rhyme, St Martin Orgar, also lay within the ward but wasn't rebuilt after 1666, so all that survives today is a rebuilt tower and a small locked grassy churchyard.

This part of the City is still based on the medieval street pattern, King William Street aside, with narrow lanes leading off narrow roads leading to even narrower back alleys. Half a century ago most of the buildings would have been banks whereas today they're merely offices, with neoclassical facades hiding corporate foyers and blocks of modern administrative infill inbetween. Perusing their doorways I spotted digs for Mitsubishi, TK Maxx and the insurance company I was arguing on the phone with last week. Five to seven storeys tall is commonplace, indeed only one of Candlewick's buildings (on Cannon Street) nudges higher into double figures.

And whereas wandering off down the sideroads might once have been atmospheric, today you're more likely to find gates to delivery bays, bin stores and all the other service paraphernalia required to keep the businesses up above up and running. Ventilation grilles exhale into medieval lanes. Yellow lines keep the non-existent traffic moving. CCTV watches you every step of the way. The working heart of the City is high on practicality and low on heritage.

Candlewick's alleyways are even more uninspiring, reduced to providing access to back doors rather than gateways to interesting discoveries. Lombard Court for example is bland at one end and overshadowed at the other, joining up in the centre with a gloomy backway that feels more like a tunnel. That said it's the only place I found life in the ward on a Sunday morning, thanks to a well-hidden gym pumping out the hits for the benefit of those pumping up. Further along Plough Court is a plaque marking the birthplace of poet Alexander Pope in 1688, when (unimaginably) this was the kind of residential backwater where the family of a successful linen merchant might reside.

The closest Candlewick comes to a continental piazza is at Abchurch Yard. Here bistro tables spread across a courtyard of patterned cobbles and stone, served by bar staff from The Vintry, a giant wine bar with the misfortune of completing its refurb a month before lockdown. A splendidly retro painted streetsign points the way towards a narrow jagged alley in the far corner. The northern flank is overlooked by St Mary Abchurch, one of Wren's finest (and squarest) City churches. Not only is it grade I listed but its What3Words location is bound.affair.mild, which I don't think is something I'd advertise on the outside of a place of worship.

But Abchurch Yard's ambience is diminished at present courtesy of a huge building site dominated by concrete silos and a yellow crane. An entire block between Abchurch Lane and Nicholas Lane has been demolished, some 5% of Candlewick's entire area, and all so that you can catch a train more easily. It's at the heart of the Bank Station Capacity Upgrade, or BSCU, the £600m upgrade of one of the world's most complicated subterranean railway stations. When complete it hopes to boost capacity by 40%, simplify interchange, increase step-free access and add a major station entrance on Cannon Street. It'll all be tremendously transformative.

Bank's biggest tweak is that a new southbound Northern line tunnel has been dug so that the old one can become a passenger circulation space, alongside fresh banks of escalators connecting to the DLR, the Central line and the surface. Latest timelines suggest completion in 2022, but don't hold your breath. And because the existing Bank-Monument 'escalator link' follows the line of King William Street it's all taking place in Candlewick, the ward millions of people interchange beneath but few get out to explore.

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