diamond geezer

 Tuesday, February 02, 2021

Random City of London ward (9): Portsoken

My ninth random ward consists of two housing estates, a school, a church, a station, a parade of shops, three pubs and two office blocks, a collection which makes it sound more like a small town than part of the City of London. Portsoken started life in the 12th century as a 'soke' (or liberty) beyond the city walls, and was later adopted by the City proper. Recent administrative changes have destroyed its traditional boundaries, absorbing an irregular slice of Tower Hamlets and extending an illogical tentacle inwards. Think of it as a central Aldgate spine with two less interesting wings. [pdf map]

I confess I wasn't thrilled when Portsoken was selected, both for its content and for its location. My nine picks so far all have a heavy bias towards the eastern side of the City and the riverside, with barely a flicker of interest to the north and west. I've also now been to all the wards whose names start with a letter in the second half of the alphabet, despite still having 16 wards to go, but that's the joys of random selection for you.

The church of St Botolph without Aldgate lies just outside what used to be the City walls and is dedicated to the patron saint of boundaries. It was founded by monks from St Botolph's Priory in Colchester, fifty miles distant, who were the original guardians of the liberty of Portsoken. The current church is building number 3, the 18th century rebuild of a 16th century church which survived the Great Fire, and has been substantially restored twice since. It's also where Daniel Defoe got married and where the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement was founded in 1976. As the pre-eminent local landmark it makes a fine centrepiece, but is currently inaccessible behind dug-up pavements and temporary barriers.

Alongside the church is Aldgate Square, which until a few years ago was part of the Aldgate gyratory and is now a coffee-loitering space. Peculiarly the boundary of Portsoken ward bends inwards to form a narrow neck across the centre of the square, then widens again to encircle the City's sole state school on the far side. This used to be Sir John Cass's Foundation Primary, but it was renamed last September as The Aldgate School because it's not good when it turns out your chief benefactor was an 18th century slave trader. Ofsted rate the place, and there's something immensely reassuring about seeing a playground littered with infant activities in the heart of the City proper.

On the other side of the church is Aldgate station, reputedly built on the site of a plague pit. The original trainshed canopy from 1876 survives, shielding four platforms in the cutting from the elements, but the roof is only visible from St Botolph Street at the rear. Passengers entering up front on Aldgate High Street instead see a tiled facade added 50 years later , decorated with the initials of the Metropolitan Railway in gold on the frieze. Two unatmospheric alleyways run to either side, one of which has a slightly contrived plaque marking the site of The First Publisher Of An African American Female Writer In English ('twas Phyllis Wheatley in 1773). If someone could finally take down the six year-old sign outside giving directions to the poppies in the Tower of London's moat, that'd be great.

Portsoken's two office blocks are a contrasting pair. Aldgate House (by the station) is a tedious cuboid erected in the 70s and subsequently reclad with glass. Beaufort House (across the road) is every inch an 80s creation, rising like a shopping mall on steroids, for which read 'postmodern'. Those working inside can enjoy a game of crazy golf on the roof terrace, whereas mere passers-by must suffer the pseudo-public forecourt where cameras zoom, security guards prowl and "cycling is not permitted".

Equally fortress-like is the Middlesex Street Estate, the first of two major housing projects within the ward's confines. It was built on a confined site at the end of the 1960s with upper walkways intended to link into the pedway system. Concrete staircases still rise into the sky but are now sealed by security doors accessible only by residents, each labelled with a lettered 'Ambulance Pick-Up Point' so that emergency workers know the best way into the sky-warren. 120 flats surround a central square, some with an excellent view down Petticoat Lane Market, while another 80 rise in a tower block in one corner. Shops at ground level include East End tailors and textile importers, but these are increasingly being ousted by indie beard-tamers and frothy baristas. The City also maintains a library here - a proper bonus in a ward with fewer than 1000 residents (because that's what bottomless pockets gets you).

The other significant housing nucleus is the Mansell Street Estate, built by the Guinness Trust in 1977 and transferred from Tower Hamlets in 1994. Find the unblocked entrance on Haydon Street, step under the skybridge and it's like walking into a council estate in Stepney. Narrow walkways look down over a central kickabout court, ground floor residents have tiny fenced backyards and the community centre resembles a green metal container with portholes. If your only experience of City housing is the Barbican, this is very much the other end of the scale. Plans were submitted in 2016 to knock the lot down and build taller irregularly-surfaced blocks instead, fractionally increasing the amount of social housing and adding 300 unaffordable apartments. But the local community hated the idea, the new stuff fell foul of the London Plan and the City withdrew their proposals last March. The current estate'll be gone by 2030 I'm sure, but for now it's a genuine outlier.

Less fortunate is the Still And Star, the City's last surviving ‘slum pub’ (licensed premises converted from a private house). Head beneath an archway opposite Aldgate station and you'll find it on the corner of two alleys, or at least what used to be the corner of two alleys until a hotel building site robbed the other walls. The Still And Star's door is plastered with Good Beer stickers, the words Traditional Free-House are handpainted above the awning and the ABVs of London Pride and Adnams Lighthouse have been chalked on a side wall. It is, in every sense, a 'proper' pub. And what developers intend to do with it is insane.

The S&S and adjacent buildings are to be knocked down so that a monstrous ribbed tower can rise in its place. The pub will be carefully measured and then ‘reimagined’ on a new site closer to the main road before reopening as a Gin Distillery and Public House. Its original site is needed as one foot of an office block above an illuminated vault, this cavernous void necessary because the Circle and District lines meet underneath and can't support foundations. TfL's Head of Property Development says "We are delighted that these plans to deliver highly sustainable and energy-efficient office and retail properties at Aldgate have been given the go ahead. The scheme will improve public spaces while making it easier for people to travel sustainably in the local area with new or improved pedestrian routes and cycle parking." which to be fair is fractionally less hateful than the architect's claim that "60 Aldgate will close an urban void between the City and Whitechapel". Come see Portsoken before it's further ruined, which may not take long.

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