diamond geezer

 Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Random City of London ward (12): Bread Street

My twelfth random ward is essentially a ring around St Paul's, but not the cathedral itself. It used to be based around Bread Street, the City's medieval bread market, but that's recently been relegated to the eastern edge following a series of boundary changes which confirmed the City has no truck with administrative heritage. Pretty much the entire ward was destroyed in the Blitz, so this'll mostly be a tour of what they replaced what they replaced it with. [pdf map] [10 photos]

St Paul's Cathedral is the elephant in the room, always visible but never to be mentioned. Here's the iconic view up Peter's Hill, which lies within the ward, although the interesting buildings on the left aren't and neither is the big dome at the end. Bread Street also includes the skateboarders enjoying the cascade of steps, the Firefighters Memorial at the top of the slope and the spiky City of London Information Centre just round the corner. Looking through its locked doors I spied a red bus fridge magnet, a rubber duck dressed as William Shakespeare and a copy of the Brighton Food and Drink Guide 2019/2020.

The ward can't claim Temple Bar as its own because it started life elsewhere, but it lives here now. This ceremonial gateway was removed from Fleet Street in 1878 having become a significant barrier to traffic, and then spent over a century decaying on a Hertfordshire estate. It was only brought back in 2003, stone by stone, to fill a gap between an outdoor clothing shop and a rare set of public conveniences. The Corporation of London reappropriated it as a heritage gateway to the new Paternoster Square development, a classical vision badly in need of something old.

A large area north of St Paul's Cathedral was razed in the '40s, rebuilt in the '60s and generally hated by the '70s, so architects decided to have another go in the '90s. They focused the new commercial zone around a continental piazza with radiant paving and added colonnaded offices on three sides. The centrepiece is a Corinthian column topped by a flaming copper urn, a flourish which it turns out is a ventilation shaft for a service road concealed under the square. Artwork dotted elsewhere includes Elizabeth Frink's marvellous Shepherd and Sheep and Thomas Heatherwick's twisty shafts disguised as giant angel's wings.

Paternoster Square was one of the City's first pseudo-public spaces, a patch of urban realm owned by a private company free to make up whatever access regulations it chooses. Environmental protestors discovered this in 2011 when they tried to set up camp in the square and failed, so were forced to squeeze into the cobbled yard in front of St Paul's instead. I managed not to attract the attention of the roving security guard while taking an excessive number of photos, but only because the tiny handful of other visitors included a small child furiously cycling round in circles.

In other square-related news the Paternoster Chop House restaurant, where Channel 4 used to film First Dates, closed at the end of November and relocated to a garish yellow building two streets away on Old Bailey. Their former block (Warwick Court) has just begun a major internal refurbishment, hence the forced move, a fate also befallen by Goldman Sachs former HQ nextdoor. As yet there's no indication that the London Stock Exchange requires a similar decant, although its foyer does now look horribly tired. As for the maze of hospitality alleyways closer to the tube station, normally all katsu and chemists, the lack of lunchtime clientele has hit it hard.

Things don't get much better to the east of St Paul's, either architecturally or economically. One New Change is the Square Mile's only big shopping mall and is appropriately sited along Cheapside, the City's historic mercantile thoroughfare. Some have likened the 2010 building to a stealth bomber, its upper storeys having a metallic stripy brown sheen. We should perhaps be grateful that, as the building squats immediately behind St Paul's when viewed from Richmond, it wasn't allowed to be any higher. The roof terrace boasts excellent views back the other way but that's closed, so I made do with multiple reflections up the central mall instead.

The shopping complex was eerily empty when I visited because a closed shopping centre is no attraction at all. Dozens of doorways displayed notices apologising to non-existent customers and advising them to buy online. Calvin Klein's unit had been emptied of all stock and fittings. Signs for pre-January sales boasted about amazing savings. Escalators continued to beckon upwards to the gallery or down into echoing retail caverns. Nobody's bought a £19 burger from Gordon Ramsay's restaurant, the appropriately named Bread Street Kitchen, in months. If only the area still sold loaves it might have been a lot livelier.

I'd not properly registered the building between New Change and St Paul's before, a drab garrison that turns out to be the cathedral's choir school. Its sole redeeming feature is the former tower of St Augustine's, the remainder of the church having been destroyed in the usual way by flame and fire. The oak alongside is described by The Friends of City Gardens as the City's 'friendliest tree', which sounds like a good reason never to take their Top Ten Trees trail seriously. Here too are Festival Gardens, the City's contribution to the 1951 Festival of Britain, a rather nice raised lawn with spouty lions-head fountains. The Young Lovers statue is a 1969 addition.

Our clockwise circuit of St Paul's is nearly complete but there's still a block to go, the least distinguished redevelopment of all. Stepped piazzas thread awkwardly between oversized office blocks. A tiny pocket park provides benches for a dozen workers to have a fag or gobble lunch. The Old Change Bar & Kitchen is a multi-levelled modern pub with the look of somewhere a well-behaved hen party might have lunch. St Nicholas Cole Abbey is the ward's sole surviving church, recently rebranded St Nick's to attract the contemporary ecumenical type. And although Distaff Lane sounds like a historic backstreet it now looks anything but.

You can give Bread Street a miss, all eyes are on the cathedral anyway.

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