diamond geezer

 Tuesday, June 08, 2021

Random City of London ward (18): Coleman Street

If they were naming my 18th random ward today they'd probably call it Moorgate, but parallel Coleman Street came first by several centuries so gets the accolade. It slots into the gap between the Barbican and Liverpool Street, is mostly low key commercial and doesn't offer many great reasons to visit. [pdf map]

This is Coleman Street today, a much sanitised version of the medieval thoroughfare which linked Lothbury to the City wall. It is indeed named after incineratory practices, in this case the charcoal burners who plied their trade on open ground by the river Walbrook. These days it's one-way and somewhat of a backwater, the sort of place you'd only come if you worked here, but retains a smidgeon of character at its northern end. Its chief building used to be St Stephen's church, a Wren rebuild with two stone pineapples on the roof and a weathervane commemorating 'La Cokke on the hoop', a local 15th century brewery. Alas the church was never rebuilt after the Blitz and its site is currently occupied by a coffee shop and a Japanese restaurant, but the cockerel lives on as the ward's Nando-esque logo.

A number of short alleys lead off Coleman Street with evocative names like Great Swan Alley, Great Bell Alley and King's Arms Yard. The only one with any character is Mason's Avenue, a narrow curved cut-through with Tudor-style frontages and a selection of hospitality options. Best known of these is The Old Dr Butlers Head, identifiable by the barrels out front, which was established by a quack in 1610 to sell a liquid cure-all that had allegedly eased King James I of his back pain. On weekdays City workers with pints spill out to fill the alleyway, but on Sundays everything's closed so it's the ideal time for a chat with the homeless guy who sleeps outside the opticians.

Great Swan Alley continues across Moorgate where we find Chartered Accountants' Hall, the numbercrunchers HQ. Its lengthy neo-Baroque facade conceals a similarly ornate interior, subsequently mashed together with a Brutalist concrete extension facing Copthall Avenue. A lot of the buildings around here are, or look, Victorian, and are presently occupied by an entirely different institution to that which built them. The home of Zurich's Habib Bank, for example, boasts a fine 3m-high lighthouse carved into one corner because it used to be the offices of the Ocean Accident & Guarantee Corporation. The lantern alas no longer illuminates.

The crossroads where Moorgate crosses London Wall, you won't be surprised to hear, is the location of the former Moorgate entrance to the City of London. It's the only one of the big seven gateways to be added after the Romans left because back then the land on the other side of the wall was marshy fenland fed by the upper reaches of the Walbrook. The gate spanned the road by the Globe pub, a listed hostelry that stands on the site of the Swan and Hoop Inn and Livery Stables. It was here in 1795 that the poet John Keats was born, or is believed to have been given that his grandfather owned the inn and his father was an ostler paid to look after travellers' horses.

Moorfields, beyond the wall, wasn't drained until the 16th century. It became a large open space for recreation, grazing, markets, fairs and the like, and was where most of the City's displaced residents camped out following the Great Fire. The second Bethlem Royal Hospital was built here in 1676, backing onto the Roman wall, and remained until the asylum moved on to what's now the Imperial War Museum in 1815. Around this time Lower Moorfields was transformed into Finsbury Circus, an elliptical greenspace surrounded by two ornate crescents, and which is still the City's largest public park. It used to boast the City's only bowling green but that hasn't been replaced since Crossrail's construction site moved on, and the temporary lawn by the bandstand has yet to be transformed into the promised 'haven for people and wildlife'.

The platforms of Liverpool Street Crossrail station run directly underneath Finsbury Circus, and one day next year you'll be able to descend at the Moorgate end to speed off to Heathrow. The new entrance remains interminably sealed beneath a cliff face of sheathed scaffolding, which will ultimately be Deutsche Bank's new London bolthole, while the empty gash out front has been leased by Aviva for an eight-storey block. The only way curvaceous Moor House was able to avoid the development maelstrom is because Foster & Partners had the nous to build extra deep foundations and a ventilation shaft in the early 2000s, several years before the purple railway officially got the go-ahead.

Many of the streets at the northern end of the ward are flanked by anodyne offices and small lockdown-susceptible shops. Anything a desk jockey might need to nip out for at lunchtime is catered for, from dentists and opticians to sushi and stationery, not to mention greetings cards, paracetamol and tailor-made shirts. Not all of these outlets have survived a year without footfall, and it's notable that several bars and restaurants which'd be thriving in the suburbs still have signs in the window apologising for not reopening yet. Even £4.20 luxury pasta isn't shifting while patrons of Spagbowl continue to work from home.

The tallest building in the ward is Citypoint, a glass tower resembling a hardback book. When it opened in 1967 it was called Britannic House, the new home for British Petroleum, and became infamous as the first City structure to rise higher than St Paul's Cathedral. The British Red Cross have their HQ in a much less glam concrete block on the opposite side of the piazza. A disjoint scrap of Coleman Street ward extends along Silk Street to embrace the last offices before the Barbican kicks in. The chief point of interest here is the former Whitbread Brewery, operational 1750-1976, home to many a barrel and a vault of porter. Today it's part hotel and part conference/events venue, so you probably won't be getting inside unless your company hosts a corporate awayday.

I may have made Coleman Street sound interesting. Don't let that tempt you into making a special trip.

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