diamond geezer

 Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Random City of London ward (17): Aldersgate

For my 17th random ward we finally hit the Barbican - not the eastern half with the arts centre but the western half that's mostly flats. The ward boundary includes a few other sights so I'll start with those, but after that it's going to be mostly concrete. [pdf map][15 photos]

Aldersgate was a post-Roman entrance into the walled City of London, not one of the originals. It spanned what's now the A1 between St Paul's Cathedral and the Museum of London roundabout, but was removed to improve traffic flow in 1761. A decent chunk of Roman wall survives along one side of Noble Street, overlooked by a sequence of plaques with excellent historical maps and a couple of etched viewing windows. The ruined wall is safely isolated in the sunken garden of Plaisterer's Hall, a livery company's lair stashed beneath a 70s office block, whose members and guests have exclusive access via a tiny bridge. It's an incongruous look, but that's Foster + Partners for you.

The ward was originally split into Aldersgate Within and Aldersgate Without, referencing the line of the City wall, but recent boundary changes mean it's now almost all Without. St Anne and St Agnes is a rare Within exception, and also the only church in the City with a double dedication. Three famous Johns were once parishioners, that's Bunyan, Milton and Wesley. As a Wren rebuild with a superb acoustic the building's now used an "international centre for vocal excellence", or rather not used at present while singing's off the indoor activity list.

Worshippers still attend St Botolph's without Aldersgate, which used to be the first building beyond the City wall and is one of several City churches named after the patron saint of travellers. It's probably best known for its churchyard, nicknamed Postman's Park because it was once the favoured breakout zone for workers at the General Post Office nextdoor. The park contains one of London's Top 10 Quirkiest Delights, the Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice - a wall of glazed commemorations to extraordinary but ultimately fatal acts. Most citations involve burning, drowning or being hit by a train, but runaway horses and poison gas also feature. Only one new plaque has been added since 1931, courtesy of a canal rescue in Thamesmead, but discussions are underway for recent bridge-jumper Folajimi Olubunmi-Adewole to maybe join them.

The adjacent street, delightfully named Little Britain, was the site of Charles Wesley's religious conversion in 1738. His brother John took three days longer, finding his 'heart strangely warmed' at a Moravian Religious Society meeting on Aldersgate Street. This is therefore the spiritual epicentre of Methodism, an event still marked annually as Aldersgate Day on the Sunday closest to 24th May (which fortuitously this year coincides with Whitsun). The largest memorial is the inscribed bronze on the highwalk outside the Museum of London, known as the Aldersgate Flame, which vaguely approximates to the site of John Wesley's heartwarming moment.

The Museum of London dominates the southern end of the ward. Escalators and walkways feed up to a circular promenade above the roundabout, which resembles a brick fortress and contains a tiny garden at ground level. The Museum's excellent but its days are numbered, potentially about 1000, thanks to advanced plans to move to a new site within Smithfield Market, whereas the current site's future is uncertain now that the prestigious Centre for Music concert hall has been deemed an unnecessary extravagance. Behind the museum is Ironmongers Hall, an endearing Tudor-medieval hybrid which looks old but in fact dates to the 1920s. And beyond that it's concrete all the way.

The Barbican Estate was the City's response to the largest bombsite in London, conceived in the 50s, begun in the 60s and completed in the 70s. Architects Chamberlin, Powell and Bon had an almost clean slate so replaced the original street pattern with a dense complex of 2000 flats (and an arts complex I'll return to when I get to Cripplegate). It's uncompromisingly brutalist, famed for its labyrinthine split level walkways and very much divides opinion, although if you don't adore it you're plainly wrong. I've visited umpteen times, but what I really got a sense of on this occasion is how there are two Barbicans, one for residents and one for everyone else.

The core of the residential sector is given over to recreation, and the rest of us can only peer down intermittently from outside. Thomas More Gardens form one of the largest greenspaces in the City, sandwiched between and below Defoe House and Thomas More House (whose residents are blessed with the best view). It's basically a manicured lawn with the occasional bench, above which rises a rich canopy of leaves and blossom, and it's all matured beautifully. A separate large courtyard houses a set of tennis courts where I watched a couple of residents knocking up, plus a basketball court and a children's playground, and absolutely none of this is for you.

The interfaces between their world and ours are many, and either firmly secured or labelled Residents Only. Narrow glass-fronted staircases rise from the highwalks at equally spaced intervals. Stairwells spiral down towards somewhere that might be the car park. The well-scrubbed occasionally emerge from behind a shared door. Friends and visitors get to press grubby buttons in brushed steel panels to summon the entryphone. The enforced separation of people and vehicles makes it surprisingly difficult for Ocado to deliver. For an in-depth look at what it's like to live here, from how to register your bike to the ins and outs of the waste disposal system, I can highly recommend the Barbican Living website.

The Aldersgate side of the estate contains two of the three tall triangular towers - Lauderdale and Shakespeare - half the Beech Street Tunnel and the architectural anomaly of Murray House. This limestone-clad office block was built in 1956 before the City decided the Barbican would extend north of Beech Street, so somewhat wrecks the aesthetic on the upper level, but at least it gives the phone companies somewhere to attach all their masts. Follow the ramp down towards Fann Street and you'll also find the Barbican Launderette, a proper throwback with rows of duck-egg blue machines below a roof with a curved concrete lip.

My new favourite spot for photos is the elevated quadrangle facing Bunyan Court. Its lush borders are pierced by rotunda fire exits from what used to be the Barbican Trade Centre underneath, but my eye is invariably taken by the ornamental pool half-hidden below Bryer Court. Thick concrete pillars thrust up from unfeasibly blue water, one edge is implausibly grassed and a brief tiled causeway permits asymmetrical passage across the centre. It works from every angle, and because it's not on the way to anything you might easily miss it while struggling disorientatedly to find your somewhere else.

I could go on and on about the Barbican but I like to keep these ward reports concise. You'll have to make do with five paragraphs for now, and 15 photos, and the promise that I'll be back to do the other half later.

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