diamond geezer

 Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Random City of London ward (14): Bassishaw

My 14th random ward was once the smallest - little more than the Guildhall and one street behind it. Recently it's spread further west, away from Basinghall Street, and also nudged north to the edge of the Barbican. The peculiar name comes from the Basing family who lived locally in the 13th century and filled the position of Lord Mayor of London twice. And I'm pleased to say that, unlike many other wards, Bassishaw merits a proper poke-around. [pdf map] [8 photos]

Almost all of the Guildhall complex lies within Bassishaw, apart from the medieval hall and most of Guildhall Yard which are in Cheap. Unfortunately the yard continues to be commandeered for Covid testing so I had to skip the impressive side of the building and focus on the rear. The eastern flank on Basinghall Street has a reconstructed Gothic vibe and incorporates the Old Library and Art Gallery (whose basement Roman Amphitheatre is very much out of bounds at present). Elsewhere two more modern administrative blocks have been bolted on, the West Wing (concrete and glass) more recently than the North Wing (mostly brick).

The piazza out back, known as Three Nun Court, is less familiar. It includes a strikingly abstract glass fountain, currently drained, topped by what might be a slice of moon or a crab's claw. It's also where the church of St Michael Bassishaw used to be, at least until 1900 when the crypt was found to be unstable and the whole thing was demolished. The most impactful building rises up behind, its roof of scalloped concrete vaulting originally built to cover a subterranean exhibition hall. And because it was designed in the late 1960s it incorporates that most utopian of City features, an elevated 'highwalk', indeed Bassishaw is a properly pedwaytastic ward.

Bassishaw Highwalk climbs to cross Basinghall Street and then enters a raised garden between two office blocks. Its granite benches look better suited to a quick sandwich or a shifty cigarette rather than protracted relaxation, and one or two of its exits turn out to be dead ends. But three years ago it earned an additional lease of life with the construction of a jaunty metal highwalk slicing across London Wall, and from there a web of modern pedways links conveniently to the old. One even has a wiggle so it can dodge round the remains of St Alphage's church, or at least its tower, since converted into a low-level seating area. I've blogged all this before in glowing terms, but the Australian cafe alongside is new.

The dominant building to the north is Salters Hall, designed by Basil Spence (of Coventry Cathedral fame) and resembles a chunky salt crystal. It's worth dropping down to street level to explore its revamped environs which include a pristine terraced sunken garden, a reflective pool and a set of iron gates. The garden is laid out across what used to be a ditch just beyond the City wall, a fair stretch of which survives along one side, although most of it's a medieval repair job rather than the Roman original. As for the iron gates these spent 40 years in Watford after the Blitz prettifying a row of almshouses, and could only be cajoled back to Salters Hall once the council had been promised a replica.

The Salters aren't the only livery company with their livery hall in Bassishaw, although since the Haberdashers moved to Smithfield they are now the most senior. Pewterers Hall can be found in Oat Lane and somewhat resembles a postwar telephone exchange. Girdlers Hall is over on Basinghall Avenue, paid for out of the fortune that centuries of belt-making delivered, and looks similarly out of place. Brewers Hall on Aldermanbury Square is currently surrounded by scaffolding so that three new floors of revenue-boosting offices can be built on top. Be aware that all four of these halls are post-Blitz rebuilds of post-Fire rebuilds because the local area has burned repeatedly over the years. Indeed an inscription chiselled into the wall on Fore Street marks the spot where the first bomb to hit the City in the early hours of 25th August 1940.

Churches also suffered, to the point where Bassishaw no longer has a standing place of worship, only ruins and footprints. Most have been transformed into gardens, including St John Zachary, St Mary Staining, St Olave Silver Street and St Mary Aldermanbury. William Shakespeare was briefly a parishioner at St Olave's although it's St Mary Aldermanbury (in whose parish his Globe Theatre partners lived) that boasts a bust of the bard as its centrepiece. The largest surviving church remnant is the tower of St Alban's in Wood Street, a Wren original, subsequently transformed into a very thin private dwelling on an island in the centre of the road.

Whoever lives in the tower had better behave themselves because across the street is the current headquarters of the City of London Police - a micro-force watching over a small population but a large amount of financial activity. Vanfuls of oddly-helmeted coppers arrive and depart, off-duty officers gather in gardens for an off-site fag and a large van labelled Police Horses is the only clue that the mounted division has stables within. But I see plans are afoot to move everybody out to a fresh site off Fleet Street, the City's new Justice Quarter, where state-of-the art facilities and eighteen courtrooms would allow the force to rationalise its existing properties by using an adjacent commercial development to help pay for it all.

It's quiet enough around Bassishaw already, especially on a Sunday morning mid-pandemic. The foyers of multiple corporate bulwarks are ominously silent. Covid Marshals outside Guildhall Yard await non-existent throat-swabbers. Nobody's littered any churchyard benches with over-social leftovers. The Chartered Insurance Institute doesn't do weekends. Empty escalators rise towards long-decanted restaurants fronting Alban Gate. A man on pink rollerblades takes full advantage of the lack of footfall on Bastion Highwalk to film himself looping round in circles. It's a great time to come exploring if all you want to see is the neighbourhood, not the people.

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