diamond geezer

 Tuesday, March 02, 2021

Random City of London ward (11): Cheap

My eleventh random ward is the most central, stretching from almost St Paul's to almost Bank. It consists of the strip of land between Gresham Street and Cheapside, plus a peculiar bolted-on bit which doesn't quite contain the Guildhall. Cheap is named after the Old English word for market, which was chepe, and was once one of the busiest parts of the City. No longer. [pdf map]

Cheapside used to be London's chief marketplace, the place its citizens came to buy bread, milk, poultry and allsorts. Originally it was called Westcheap to distinguish it from Eastcheap, the lesser market on the other side of the city. For centuries it was the centre of public-facing mercantile activity and seethed with traders and shoppers, as well as being a chief east-west route across the City. Cheapside is still lined with shops but these days mainly targeting office workers, with a particular emphasis on businesswear and lunchtime food options, which may not be the best foundation for post-covid recovery. One of the card shops still has a full display of Christmas cards in its tinselled window. Several of the takeaways hope to reopen for customers in January. Once an essential retail destination, Cheapside has become as non-essential as it gets.
n.b. only the northern side of Cheapside lies within the ward of Cheap, so I'll come back and do the more interesting stuff on the southern side later.

I counted seven streets leading north from Cheapside, some capable of two-way traffic but mostly narrow lanes bending to follow the medieval street pattern. These include Milk Street (where the milk market was), Ironmonger Lane (where the metalworkers clustered) and Wood Street (once a timber-selling hangout). Honey Lane led to a semi-enclosed market where 100 butchers plied their trade along with fishmongers and presumably the odd beekeeper. Honey Lane Market's existence was bookended by destruction, built on the site of a church destroyed in the Great Fire and itself destroyed in the Blitz. Most of this area was lost to bombing so the majority of these back lanes are now lined by modern office blocks far less evocative than their addresses suggest.

Trump Street's most interesting feature is the back of a Boots the Chemist. The Pizza Express on Russia Row was once the site of the City of London School until that relocated to Blackfriars. The South African bank in Lawrence Lane has a prominent stuffed zebra in its loading bay. Even Prudent Passage, which sounded from the map like a backalley with a backhistory, turned out to be an unexciting tiled walkway connecting nowhere much. The best I could muster in the heart of Cheap, unexpectedwise, were blue plaques to 40% of the saints to have been born in the City. Thomas Becket emerged on Cheapside on the site of what's now Church's shoe shop, fifty years before being murdered at Canterbury Cathedral. Thomas More never made archbishop but also angered his king to the point of execution, and he was born under an office block at the top of Milk Street.

What Cheap does have in abundance are Livery Halls. Four of the top 30 Worshipful Companies have their halls in the ward including two of The Great Twelve and the official Number One. Top of the heap are the Mercers, the general merchants, whose hall isn't much to look at from outside but has a splendid setting up Frederick's Place. Fifth place in the rankings goes to the Goldsmiths whose hall is massive if not outwardly ostentatious. They're still responsible for the hallmarking of bullion and testing the nation's coinage. Nextdoor are the Wax Chandlers, whose 20th position confirms the importance of wicked lighting in medieval times, and further down Gutter Lane are the 25th-placed Saddlers. All their halls have been rebuilt since WW2, and all are worth a look inside if Open House offers the opportunity.

At the western end of the ward is what used to be deemed London's Post Office Quarter. First to arrive in 1829 was the General Post Office, a massive Grecian-style building which acted as the UK's mail hub for many years but which was controversially demolished in 1912. Also gone is the Central Telegraph Office, from which Marconi made the first public transmission of wireless signals in 1896. It was replaced in the 1980s by the BT Centre, a bulky corporate HQ adrift on an island amid the gyratory. The sole architectural survivor is the Post Office's replacement HQ, opened across the road in the 1890s but now occupied by the Nomura investment bank. Look out for the green Penfold postbox unveiled outside in 2016 to mark the sort-of-500th anniversary of the approximate genesis of the Royal Mail.

Cheap has two surviving churches including one with the audacity to face St Paul's Cathedral. This is St Vedast Foster Lane, a Wren reconstruction with a three-tiered baroque spire and an interior full of fittings cannibalised from other Blitzed churches. To the left is a blue door which looks like it opens into somebody's house but in fact leads to a small secluded courtyard, visitors welcome, with a tree in the centre and a fragment of Roman pavement framed on the wall. The other church is St Lawrence Jewry, the official church of the Corporation of London, so named because it was built close to the City's medieval Jewish ghetto. In normal times it hosts lunchtime recitals, but at present events are restricted to Holy Communion streamed live every Wednesday morning via YouTube.

Which brings us finally to the Guildhall and Guildhall Yard, arguably the heart of the City of London. For some peculiarly archaic reason only a small fraction is delimited within the ward of Cheap, including the hammerbeamed Great Hall (and no other part of the main building) plus approximately two-thirds of the yard outside. Normally anyone can wander in and trace the outline of London's Roman amphitheatre but the entire piazza's been taken over as the City's coronavirus testing hub so only the symptomatic are permitted entry. The Square Mile has very few open spaces large enough for socially distanced marquees, hence in this case the only solution was going Cheap.

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