diamond geezer

 Monday, November 09, 2020

Random City of London ward (3): Aldgate

My third random ward is adjacent to the second, one gate clockwise around the former London Wall. Aldgate, which probably means 'Old Gate', gives its name to an irregularly-shaped area best known for a vegetable-shaped skyscraper. More somewhere to pass through than a busy destination, there is nonetheless plenty to track down. [pdf map]

Aldgate has one of the strangest City ward boundaries, incorporating a thin tongue of land which follows the street of the same name without including any of the buildings to either side. Aldgate tube station perversely lies outside Aldgate ward, newly pedestrianised Aldgate Square has a broad stripe of not-Aldgate across its centre, and all so that the site of the original Aldgate can be technically attached to the ward. The twin-arched gateway was rebuilt several times during the medieval period, then entirely reconstructed in 1609, then removed in 1761 after becoming a serious hindrance to traffic. The approximate location is marked by the pedestrian crossing on the stopped-up gyratory just outside Boots.

Close by, at the fork in the road between Leadenhall Street and Fenchurch Street, is the ill-famed Aldgate Pump. Originally a medieval well fed by spring water it was capped by a Portland stone obelisk in the 18th century, then shifted slightly to be on the pavement rather than in the middle of the road. Its waters were praised for being "bright, sparkling and cool, and of an agreeable taste", until it became clear that the mineral tang came from the leaching of calcium from the bones of the buried dead. The New River Company promptly changed the supply to mains water. Last year the Heritage of London Trust restored the pump, scrubbed the wolf's head spout and replaced the lantern on the top so it's all looking particularly splendid, but if you fancy a drink the Co-Op alongside is a much safer bet.

Three things to spot near Aldgate Pump
Hartshorn Alley: A perplexingly modern alleyway burrowed behind the Co-Op to give access to several fire exits and a bookmakers, and just wiggly enough to be highly disconcerting.
London Metal Exchange: The LME moved somewhere cheaper in 2016 so their former trading floor has been appropriated for the War of the Worlds Immersive Experience. The owners hope you'll top-up their £72.50 ticket price with a halfway cocktail and a meal in a steampunk restaurant, but the protracted alien assault has recently been immobilised by a tiny virus (which is wonderfully appropriate).
Mitre Square: The site of Jack the Ripper's only City murder, and recently remodelled to remove all trace of the last authentic cobbles.

The ward's most famous building is the Gherkin, or 30 St Mary Axe to use its proper name. Completed in 2003, its dildoesque silhouette is both instantly recognisable and much loved, although an increasing cluster of surrounding towers makes it a lot harder to spot these days. Its tenants are mostly insurance companies, although there is currently space to rent on the 32nd and half the 27th floors if you're interested. The spell breaks slightly if you stand underneath, the rising latticed skeleton somewhat overwhelmed by a drab piazza watched over by swivelling cameras.

Five things to spot around the Gherkin
The Baltic Exchange: The original building at 24-28 St Mary Axe, home to a membership of 650 shipping companies worldwide, was mostly destroyed by an IRA blast in 1992. The Gherkin now occupies the site, and the Baltic Exchange has moved nextdoor to a less-wow building at number 38.
Grave of a Roman girl: While excavating the Gherkin site contractors uncovered the skeleton of a girl, later determined to be about 15 years of age, buried circa 400 AD. She was reinterred at the same spot in 2007. The site is now marked with a laurel wreath and a Latin inscription.
Holland House: Facing the Gherkin on Bury Street is the striking facade of an elegant office block built in 1916 for a Dutch shipping company. The southeast corner is marked by a splendid granite sculpture of the prow of a ship.
Site of the Fall – study of the renaissance garden: Action 180: At 9:15 am Sunday 28 May 1967: That's a very long title for one of this year's exhibits from Sculpture In The City, a striking marble figure of a victim of the Vietnam War with a bag over his head.
The Same for Everyone: More art from the same collection, this time an illuminated phrase appropriated by Nathan Coley and dropped into Cunard Place.

One thing not to spot around the Gherkin
The Tulip: 20 Bury Street is an insignificant six-storey office block in one corner of the Gherkin's piazza, and the proposed site of Foster & Partners' latest assault on the City's skyline. They want to build a 305m-high visitor attraction resembling an erect sperm, constrained only by a minimal footprint at ground level. Supporters claim it'll bring cultural and economic benefits including viewing galleries, restaurants and (eek!) a loop of glass gondola pods circling the exterior of the building. Lest that sound too frivolous the plans also include a 'classroom in the sky', but the real aim is to outShard the Shard as a must-visit global experience. The Mayor said no, it'd be appallingly intrusive, but a higher level planning appeal is underway this week and who knows, aerial desecration may be back on.

Aldgate ward lies at a sweet spot within the City for highrise development, a convenience numerous developers have duly taken advantage of. As well as the Gherkin we now have the Scalpel, a 38-storey angular tower with a slanting triangular face on top (but only visible from South London). Alongside is the 26-storey triple-stepped Willis Building, which architects thought tall in 2008, while over on Houndsditch is the impressively smooth Can of Ham. Demolition work is almost complete at 40 Leadenhall Street where a dense glass monster awaits erection. To walk around Aldgate is to peer into vast ground floor atriums where reception staff sit alone across unnecessarily wide foyers and lines of security gates lead to banks of escalators ascending to where the real work gets done.

Three places of worship to spot around Aldgate
Bevis Marks Synagogue: Britain's oldest synagogue in continuous use dates back to 1701 when most of the City's Jewish population lived in and around Aldgate. Set in a secluded courtyard off Bevis Marks, and still a safe refuge, visitors are normally welcomed for a fiver (National Trust members half price). It's quite the experience.
St Andrew Undershaft: Rare survivor of both the Great Fire and the Blitz, soon approaching its quincentenary, better known as "that old church you can get a photo of with the Gherkin rising behind".
St Katharine Cree: London's only Jacobean church, more impressive within than without. Being a City church it closes over the Christmas period, which is ecumenically perverse.

Aldgate ward used to extend well south of Fenchurch Street, but millennial restructuring lopped off all but a stubby tongue either side of Lloyd's Avenue. Here we find Lloyd's Register (not Lloyd's of London, but from the same coffeehouse roots), founded in 1760 to serve the needs of merchant shipping. Their Renaissance-style HQ was used by Monty Python in swashbuckling skit The Crimson Permanent Assurance, and augmented a century later by a towering Richard Rogers steel and glass extension bolted onto the side. As ever Open House is your key to getting inside, but for now treading the surrounding streets will have to do.

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