diamond geezer

 Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Random City of London ward (13): Castle Baynard

I've reached the halfway point on my random ward journey and finally hit one of the big three out west. Castle Baynard ward wasn't always this large, it grew an extra prong in 2003 during the City's Bizarre Administrative Rejig by swallowing a lot of Farringdon. It's so large that I've decided to focus on the old bit, east of the River Fleet, so my apologies for skipping through the Fleet Street bulge in less detail. [pdf map] [13 photos]

The most important building in Castle Baynard, possibly in the entire City of London, is St Paul's Cathedral. Wren's masterpiece is the fifth cathedral on the site, most of the previous having been destroyed by fire, located in a prime position on Ludgate Hill. It remains a fabulously imposing sight, thanks not least to the long term policy of not building anything too tall nearby. On Sunday it reopened for public worship for the first time in months, although inbetween services the churchyard was entirely empty bar a security guard at the main door and another on the steps waiting to check in worshippers and offer a squirt of sanitiser. It felt like the ten o'clock bongs were just for me.

The cathedral is almost entirely surrounded by the ward of Bread Street, as I mentioned a fortnight ago, apart from a single row of buildings on the southwest side. One brasserie, one coffee shop and two burger restaurants - that's your lot. But step behind Condor House to discover narrow lanes most tourists never filter into, even when there are any. One city block has been swallowed by a glassy hothouse called the Leonardo Royal Hotel, but the most interesting overnight accommodation must be in the youth hostel on Carter Lane. This terracotta and brick building emblazoned with Latin used to be St Paul's Cathedral Choir School until they moved to New Change in the 1970s. It now offers 213 cheap beds... or at present just 20, because during the pandemic it's been repurposed to house the City's socially distanced homeless.

Three organisations with their fingers deep in the fabric of society have a significant presence on Queen Victoria Street. One is the College of Arms, the UK's official home of heraldry, where a staff of Kings, Heralds and Pursuivants can knock you up a coat of arms for £6700. Another is the Church of Scientology who opened their chief UK place of worship here in 2006, alongside a multimedia 'Public Information Centre' designed to encourage non-believers to wander inside. And the third is BT the telecommunications behemoth who have a considerable presence in the ward. The Faraday Building started life in 1902 as London's first telephone exchange, then in 1933 grew into the current 11-storey monster (which first triggered campaigns to protect views of St Paul's). It's especially austere around the back, reducing the exciting-sounding Knightrider Street to the role of a drab service road.

And BT's presence doesn't stop there. Across the road is Baynard House, an outburst of layered concrete that even fans of Brutalism find hard to love. It sprawls no higher than three storeys (because those protected view rules had kicked in by 1979) and covers a huge chunk of riverside alongside Blackfriars station. It was optimistically built with a pedway at first floor level, for which read a dark twisted passageway hardly anyone uses unless they work here, connecting a station entrance to a poorly-maintained pigeon-infested piazza. In pride of place here is a totem pole of seven heads inspired by Shakespeare's Seven Ages of Man, with mewling infant at the bottom and sans teeth at the top. If nothing else the benches offer a decent view of St Andrew-by-the-Wardrobe across the road.

Take the rear exit towards the riverside, if you dare, and the walkway eventually twists down to the embankment alongside an unexpected football pitch. This is the sports ground of the City of London School nextdoor, accessed via a staircase under White Lion Hill, and marks the former site of Baynard's Castle. [If you think that says something else, you need your eyes testing] In Tudor times this was an important royal palace, once gifted to Catherine of Aragon, and before that a Norman castle strategically located at the head of the Fleet valley. The Tower of London performed a similar defensive role to the east. Baynard's Castle alas failed to survive the Great Fire of London, its last stone tower eventually demolished to make way for warehouses (and now a telephone exchange and some astroturf).

The riverfront here was transformed in the 1960s with the motor car very much the eventual winner. A major dual carriageway was cut through to link Upper Thames Street and the Victoria Embankment, one end in tunnel and the dip beneath two bridges a full-on underpass. I made the mistake of wandering in via some obscure side road and discovered that the barriers designed to keep pedestrians out also prevent them from escaping, and that a serious lack of pavements makes this quite dangerous. I ended up walking out through the Blackfriars Underpass while dodging bikes on the cycle lane that threads this way, and I cannot recommend attempting this on foot on anything other than a lockdown Sunday.

Blackfriars station used to be as far west as the ward went, but only half of it because the former boundary divided platforms 1 and 2 from 3 and 4. The station now famously spans the Thames, but a cheaper way to get across the river is to use the 150 year-old wrought iron road bridge to one side. This is the other London bridge, other than London Bridge, that lies fully within the City of London. You can tell this because a dragon stands guard in the centre of the road on the southern side of Blackfriars Bridge, about 15 metres into what would otherwise be Southwark. Just upstream on the northern bank are substantial works for the Tideway Tunnel which will connect here to the end of the Fleet sewer. It'll also create an additional patch of land called the Bazalgette Embankment, enlarging the ward's land area by 1½ acres.


South of Fleet Street much of Castle Baynard ward is bland corporate. Unilever's neoclassical HQ is the exception, but even JP Morgan which looks a bit heritage from the waterfront turns out to have a modern office box bolted onto the back. Architectural abominations abound, like the dense Premier Inn with a rampant St George out front and dreary Salisbury Square. Tudor Street now looks anything but Tudor and Whitefriars, the medieval monastic counterpart to Blackfriars, is long gone. The Bridewell Theatre has a bit of downsized pizazz, but the true star locally is St Bride's, the church with the wedding-cake spire.

Fleet Street is no longer the mainstay of UK journalism, and Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese no longer full of drunken hacks. A few mighty fine newspaper hubs linger as offices, notably the dazzling Art Deco monochrome of the Daily Express. Several very narrow alleyways lead off from the northern side of the street, each with a clever newsprint-style plaque embedded in the pavement. Today the shops have more of a lunchtime focus and if there is still a barber (demon or otherwise) I failed to find them.

North of Fleet Street, amid a maze of back alleys, you may find lexicographer Dr Johnson's House. A statue of one of his cats, Hodge, stares across Gough Square from an oyster-topped plinth. Fractionally beyond is New Street Square, the dullest of 21st century piazzas, whose parade of non-essential shops has had all its shelves stripped. Shoe Lane still has a public library because the City Corporation has bottomless pockets. Thavie's Inn has an impressive legal backstory and zero modern character. And that excessively glassy office block facing High Holborn is Sainsbury's corporate HQ, or as they prefer to call it their Store Support Centre.


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