diamond geezer

 Monday, February 08, 2021

If the photos in today's post look a bit speckly that's because it was snowing when I visited, which is why I visited...

London has just one street named after snow, which is Snow Hill in the City of London. Before the Great Fire it was really important - anyone heading from the City to Westminster either followed Fleet Street or came this way. Snow Hill connected Newgate to Holborn Bridge, one of two crossings over the River Fleet, descending in a dogleg from valley top to valley bottom. At the start of the 19th century it was finally bypassed via a more direct connection and in the 1860s the construction of Holborn Viaduct changed the local street plan forever. It means the street we currently know as Snow Hill doesn't follow the original route at all, but let's explore it anyway.

The church at the top of Snow Hill is St Sepulchre, a medieval presence just outside the city walls and whose bell was tolled before executions at Newgate Prison. The road past the front of the church was the start of the original Snow Hill but is now called Holborn Viaduct because that's what it leads to. It's not pretty hereabouts, snow or no snow, unless you're a fan of 60s architecture or demolished 60s architecture. On one side of the main road is the 10-storey office block smothering City Thameslink station, which started out as Holborn Viaduct station, its frontage redeveloped with a thrusting white lattice in the 1990s. And on the other side, between the original Snow Hill and the current Snow Hill, is a large empty space.

This is destined to become Citycape House, a 382-room hotel. Property developers expect a significant hospitality uptick hereabouts when Crossrail opens at Farringdon so are getting in quick. The hotel's USP will be London's largest green wall, a grid of foliage surrounding bedroom windows across 11 storeys which will "potentially absorb eight tonnes of pollution annually". Come back in 2024 and you may be able to buy a drink in the sky-bar, which is promised to be publicly accessible, but for now it's just a demolished tongue of land surrounded by blue hoardings. Don't mourn its predecessor, a stark office tower of the kind the Thunderbirds special effects team was very keen on exploding.

The demolished plot is also where Snow Hill originally bore off downhill, approximately where the bus stop now is, and subsequently the site of Snow Hill station. Stairs led down from the pavement to a booking hall at basement level and thence to two platforms squished beneath on a pioneering rail connection between north and south. This is the Snow Hill tunnel, built in the 1860s just before Smithfield Market was built on top, and subsequently reused as the crucial core of the current Thameslink network. Snow Hill station was the low level cousin of the Holborn Viaduct terminus across the road, and poorly used, so closed to passengers in 1916. City Thameslink a smidgeon to the south now performs rather better. The railway's extraordinarily complex history is better explained elsewhere, so all you need to know for today's purposes is that nothing of the Snow Hill tunnel can be seen from Snow Hill.

The only good-looking buildings along Snow Hill are the tall thin ones at the top of the slope. The most interesting of these is the Arts & Crafts/Moderne hybrid at number 5 which opened in 1926 as Snow Hill Police Station. It has a prominent bay window, intricate detailing on the cornice and a plastic barrier across the front door because the police moved out last year. The new owners are Whitbread who intend to turn it into a Premier Inn 'hub' hotel, retaining the heritage block up front and adding 220 minimalist rooms in place of the police admin block behind. A plaque beside the door cites this as the site of the Saracen's Head, a popular medieval coaching inn whose numerous small bedrooms led off a central courtyard... so nothing much changes.

Halfway down, by the cycle hire stand, is the only point where modern Snow Hill overlaps the original Snow Hill. In olden times this was a crossroads known as Holborn Cross, and also the site of a public conduit where water could be drawn. One of the other arms led to Smithfield and the second was the delightfully named Cock Lane, which still exists if mostly lowered to the status of a narrow service road. I didn't spot anyone picking up a bike, not in this inclement weather, but I was passed by a convoy of minibuses and a number 25 looping round at the end of its westbound journey. Had I stood here during the reign of Queen Anne I might have been hit by a woman trapped in a barrel hurled down the hill by the hooligans of the age, the Mohocks.
Who has not trembled at the Mohock's name?
I pass their desperate deeds and mischiefs, done
Where from Snow-hill black steepy torrents run;
How matrons, hooped within the hogshead's womb,
Were tumbled furious thence; the rolling tomb
O'er the stones thunders, bounds from side to side:
The remainder of Snow Hill, down as far as Farringdon Street, is taken up by a single building on either side of the road. To the left it's the rear of an anonymous 13-storey office block which turns out to be Amazon's London HQ, a curvaceous beast designed to be viewed from the front on Holborn Viaduct. And to the right is Smithfield's former Fish Market, long disused and very nearly demolished by developers. Instead its Victorian exterior is currently enveloped by an abundance of scaffolding in readiness for rebirth as part of the Museum of London's eventual relocation. The larger General and Poultry Markets will be getting all the exhibits while the Fish Market's triangular interior is pencilled in for "food and beverage and events".

Snow Hill's a disappointing street to walk down, to be honest - overly redeveloped, no longer important and no longer following the downhill route centuries of Londoners would have recognised. But yesterday's snow was a disappointment too - underwhelming and unsettling - so a perfect match.

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