My eighth random ward, Walbrook, is named after a stream that once ran through the heart of the City. Walbrook lies right at the centre of things, at Bank Junction where as many as nine roads meet. What gives the ward its peculiar shape is that only five of the intervening wedges lie within Walbrook - Mansion House and the Bank of England included - and the other four will have to be documented elsewhere.[9 photos][pdf map]
This is the ward where the Lord Mayor lives, or at least has his official residence. Mansion House was built in the mid 18th century in Palladian style, and still impresses. Its main entrance is on the first floor balcony, past some whopping lanterns, while a minor tradesmen's entrance provides access at ground level. A more practical front door exists just around the corner, outside which I spotted a pair of bootscrapers and the Lord Mayor's Lexus. Fans of blue police callboxes should be advised that the original here is no longer operational (Please Use Nearby Payphone). Also if you walk along the alleyway round the back of the building beware if you hear a klaxon sound because that means the metal fire escape is about to lower itself on top of you.
The building that dominates the ward, however, is the fortress-like home of the Bank of England. This occupies an entire City block between Lothbury and Threadneedle Street as well as a substantial amount of storage underground. The Bank took root here in 1734 and was famously rebuilt by Sir John Soane at the turn of the 19th century. Alas it was infamously rebuilt by Sir Herbert Baker between 1921 and 1942, replacing Soane's masterpiece with "a hotch-potch, a pasticcio, a patch-work of symbolical odds-and-ends". One of the most striking features is a total absence of windows around the curtain wall, as befits a national gold reserve the Governor would rather nobody broke into. Doors are in very short supply too, especially on the west and south flanks, and where they do exist tend to be mighty bronze portals with ornate symbolic decoration. In one recess a speaking tube is labelled 'For Night Service Only', 'To Deliver Letters Etc. Ring Bell And Await Instructions'. The only concession to the public is a cut-through passageway at TivoliCorner, freely-accessible, but if you look up through the circular skylight expect to see two CCTV cameras looking down at you.
Unsurprisingly this is a favoured spot for other banks to have clustered. The Midland Bank had its headquarters across the road at 1 Princes Street, which became surplus to requirements when HSBC took over and relocated to Docklands so the building now contains a super-luxurious hotel called The Ned. Nat West are nextdoor in another splendid Lutyens creation, incorporating a proper high street branch in case you still want to withdraw some coinage. At the other end of the street is One Lothbury, now home to the City flagship of the Bank of China because times change. Meanwhile the 26-storey tower two blocks east of the Bank of England used to be home to the Stock Exchange between 1972 and 2004, and has since been reclad in shiny glass.
Financial agglomeration dominates Walbrook to such an extent that the ward lacks a network of characterful back alleys. Promising starts turn into unwelcoming service roads, or lead you round the back of office buildings much younger than their preserved frontage. Pope's Head Alley has morphed into a steel and glass corridor overlooked by emblematic beehives (and yes, a Pope's head), while historic Change Alley has become something much drabber. The only cut-through of merit is St Olave's Court off Old Jewry where a half-demolished Wren church conceals the offices of a maritime law firm, but I wouldn't go out of your way just for that.
Another easily missed minor street is St Swithin's Lane, a turning off King William Street, where the Rothschild financial dynasty is based. Banker Nathan moved into New Court in 1809, so was expertly poised with a supply of gold when the Bank of England suffered a liquidity crisis a few years later. New Court has been rebuilt four times since, the latest (2011) iteration presenting a steel colonnade to the street behind which lies a strictly anonymous glass facade. Old masters hang in the windows behind gold tickertape drapes, reflecting the fact that the price of gold was set here for the best part of a century. Step up to the podium and you can look down into the garden of St Stephen Walbrook, presently trapped behind a low glass wall.
The church is one of Wren's finest with an altarpiece by Henry Moore. When originally founded in 1428 it lay on the banks of the Walbrook stream, but that's been lost longer than most lost rivers and the church now fronts a street of the same name. Most of the eastern side is now occupied by a ribbed office block (resembling a either a wobbly black jelly or a metal armadillo) called the Walbrook Building. The architects squeezed in a Little Waitrose, a gym and a restaurant in an attempt to activate the perimeter, but all of these are currently closed. They also planned to display the London Stone here...
...but heritage inertia kept it further up the road opposite the entrance to Cannon Street station. The previous incarnation of this building was a grotty W H Smith with the Stone trapped behind an intrusive grille, but the latest financial office has sleek white frontage and a protective chamber it's much easier to photograph. All you need to know about this chunk of oolitic limestone is on the website www.londonstone.org.uk, as the information panels to either side confirm in text and in Braille.
Let's finish with a look at some of the City of London heritage plaques I found dotted around the ward while I was exploring, of which Walbrook seems to have more than its fair share.
» Elizabeth Fry had already moved out to East Ham before starting her compassionate work at Newgate Prison.
» The first postmark was called a 'Bishop mark' because it was introduced by Postmaster General Henry Bishop.
» Poet Thomas Hood had a head start in the literary world because his father was a bookseller on Poultry.
» St. Bartholomew-by-the-Exchange was demolished when the City Corporation widened Threadneedle Street.
» Mansion House now covers the site of Stocks Market, for centuries the City's largest food & produce market.
» Mary was only allowed to become an accountant after the passing of the Sex Disqualification Act in 1919.
» Cardinal Newman became the fifth City-born saint when he was canonised by the Pope in October 2019.
» Anti-Semitism in the late 13th century drove Jews from their City ghetto and forced their relocation overseas.
» Jonathan's Coffee House in (Ex)Change Alley became the location of the City's first ever Stock Exchange.