diamond geezer

 Tuesday, January 05, 2021

Random City of London ward (7): Tower

The odd thing about Tower, my seventh random ward, is that it contains neither the Tower of London nor Tower Bridge. Both are in Tower Hamlets, not the City, as is the dividing strip of land called Tower Hill. Tower ward is merely the irregular arc of streets beyond, a labyrinth of intermittent heritage sprawling from Aldgate to the Thames. [pdf map]

The unintentional heart of Tower ward is Fenchurch Street station. It's the City's oldest terminus, and the most out of the way, intensively used only by those heading Essex-ward. A compact Victorian facade faces not Fenchurch Street but Fenchurch Place, a sideroad, where a queue of taxis waits to sweep away anyone baffled by the lack of tube connection. The City's only 'London Street' lies before you. So too does a large blue sign saying ARCADIA, which this plaza definitely isn't, but that's art for you.

But it's not the station entrance which dominates Tower ward, it's the viaduct the platforms are built upon. This carves obliquely across several streets, casting them into barrelled gloom, unless you're a fan of artisanal brickwork in which case it's a joy. By far the most atmospheric void is French Ordinary Court, which starts promisingly by ducking under a Georgian bedroom and then opens out into a dark pitched vault with cobbles underfoot and emergency firedoors around the walls. Here I bumped into a couple of very frustrated tourists attempting to find their way into the station but instead experiencing mild urbex nausea, so who were very pleased to be put right.

The main road underneath the station goes by the excellent name of Crutched Friars. This medieval order of 'cross-bearing' brethren once had a monastic house, long since suppressed, somewhere underneath the adjacent Doubletree hotel. You can meet two of the monks at the end of Rangoon Street in a morose statue carved into an office block, and read further background detail on a plaque outside the inevitable Crutched Friars pub. Hostelries of all kinds are very much a feature of Tower ward, and in normal times City workers flee in large numbers to the Bierkeller, Brewdog or Hung, Drawn & Quartered at the end of the working day.

A conference centre has been built above the station, called One America Square, because marketable space is at a premium hereabouts. America Square is an especially lacklustre quadrangle surrounded by buildings reflecting the worst excesses of 1980s architectural whim. But its footprint is actually 250 years old, part of a trio of spaces laid out by George Dance the Younger named Square, Crescent and Circus. Circus disappeared underneath Tower Gardens when the main road was widened but Crescent is still there, or at least numbers 6 to 11 are, in a magnificently unexpected Georgian sweep. Better still if you dodge round the rear of number 11 a fragile slice of Roman city wall survives, tall and thin, locked high and dry into a back yard.

The main street Minories gets its name from the Abbey of St Clare which was once populated by nuns called minoresses. The boundary of Tower ward juts out to encompass the original site. But it juts out further to reach Mansell Street, specifically the foot of the rear exit from Tower Gateway station, which also happens to mark the easternmost point of the City of London. As for the easternmost building that's a toss-up between Minories Car Park or the London Central Travelodge. Connoisseurs of artfully-rippled Brutalist concrete will hope it's the former. For Art Deco try the pre-war fortress of Ibex House on Portsoken Street, one of the City's older bespoke office blocks, while for 21st century excess Hilton's new Canopy hotel beside Aldgate bus station is hard to beat.

The ward contains more than its fair share of hotels, perhaps because the immediate vicinity of the Tower has a global allure. By far the grandest is the Four Seasons at Ten Trinity Square, former headquarters of the Port of London Authority, infilling an entire city block in Beaux Arts style. Trinity House nextdoor has yet to succumb to five-star dining. This was Samuel Pepys' stomping ground during the Plague and Great Fire years when he was living on Seething Lane in a house tied to the Navy Office. the great diarist is buried across the road beneath the communion table inside St Olave's church. This is one of the City's few remaining medieval buildings, having narrowly dodged conflagration in 1666, although what you see today is mainly a post-Blitz rebuild.

One street away is Mark Lane, today inconsequential but in its day a name as well known as, say, Downing Street is today. That's because it was the address of the Corn Exchange where the price of wheat, flour and bread was determined, initially around an open courtyard and later inside a grand classical building. But mercantile London has very much vanished, financial services aside, so the post-war version of the Corn Exchange was demolished in the 1970s. It lives on as the name of a bar and the name of an office block, the latter approximately in the correct location, but I could see nowhere that'd sell you a sandwich, let alone a loaf of bread.

Across Byward Street is All-Hallows-by-the-Tower, reputedly the oldest church in the City although others have cast doubt on its Saxon origins. By the 12th century it was definitely up and worshipping, and has since seen the baptism of the founder of Pennsylvania and the marriage of the sixth American president. Do check out the museum in the undercroft when you visit, should you be fortunate enough to be living at a time when this is permitted. The touristiest environs of the Tower of London are all across in Tower Hamlets, so thankfully skippable. Instead a strip of land barely 50m wide brings the ward to the edge of the Thames, where a chain of hospitality igloos lie empty after a festive season during which they were never necessary.

Expect it to be even emptier on the waterfront today.

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