diamond geezer

 Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Random City of London ward (19): Cripplegate

For my 19th random ward we're going back to the Barbican, the better known half with the arts complex. It's very much the jackpot modern-architecture-wise, which is why I spun off the Golden Lane Estate into a separate post yesterday. It's also probably for the best that it was drizzling throughout my visit otherwise I'd have dawdled round taking hugely more photos. [pdf map] [12 photos]

Cripplegate was the northernmost entrance into the City of London, named for reasons now lost to the mysteries of time. It was located near the top of Wood Street, at the overshadowed crossroads beside the Barbican Dental Practice, where you can read more on plaque 13 of the excellent London Wall Walk. But far better to go in search of plaque 15 which is attached to the remains of a medieval bastion in the garden of Barber Surgeon's Hall, accessed through an overgrown gap in the wall halfway down a parking ramp. In the far corner of the lawn a muddy footpath squeezes between the scheduled monument and a rampant hedge before opening out at the edge of the Barbican's shimmering lake. Ducks scuttle from the undergrowth, a sign warns 'No Fishing' and the Wallside walkway stalks across the pool on lofty concrete stilts. Only Estate residents can access the bench inside the ruined stone tower beyond the locked gate but I love the unexpected isolation of this historic spot.

Across the water is St Giles Cripplegate, one of the City's few surviving medieval churches and the Barbican's sole ancient building. It's been rebuilt a few times, notably after the Cripplegate Fire of 1897 and the Blitz, although the tower and parts of the chancel are 15th century. Oliver Cromwell got married here, John Milton is buried here and William Shakespeare may have attended his nephew's baptism here, which isn't bad as pseudo-history goes. Cripplegate is the most populous of all the 25 City wards so a readymade congregation lives nearby which helps explain why Sung Eucharist was underway when I arrived, the sweet sound of choral music drifting out through the open door. The surrounding podium - St Giles Terrace - felt empty and somewhat cut off, but I suspect perks up enormously when the City of London School for Girls is in full educational flow nextdoor.

A few flats thread in alongside the Roman stonework, notably on The Postern and Wallside (where Norman Tebbit used to live). Front doors here open straight out onto the walkway, a much homelier touch than elsewhere, plus there's no need to stick your surname in a list beside a buzzer. I thought the place had gone downmarket when I heard a football reverberating around the highwalk, but it was just three slightly posh lads come to collect their mate for a proper Sunday morning kickabout.

The chief residential blocks in these parts are Gilbert House (above the bridge across the lake), Andrewes House (to the south), Willoughby House (to the east) and Speed House (to the north). Together they almost form a square circuit of highwalks, perhaps the most familiar part of the Barbican's apocryphal navigational labyrinth. Glass and concrete stairwells pierce the walkways at regular intervals, occasionally entered by well-dressed couples or men clutching reusable Waitrose bags. At one point you can look up into a triangular crevice used by residents for storage purposes, in one case entirely filled by shoes, in others by neatly-stacked family accoutrements. According to the estate agent's cubbyhole in the southeast corner a one-bed flat typically sells for £750,000 and a two-bed maisonette rents for £2250 pcm (other charges apply), so I've regretfully crossed the place off my list of aspirations.

The estate's centrepiece is a long shallow lake, resplendent from above (because the water contains a harmless dye to better reflect the surrounding architecture). The eastern end includes a waterfall resembling an overflowing pipe and a warren of submerged brick crucibles accessible only by residents and their lucky guests. The western end has lush patches of clustered waterlilies and several circular indentations for fountains, each a Health and Safety nightmare. The Lakeside Terrace is the premier place to be, especially as the adjacent arts centre unlocks, although Benugo's outdoor tables don't get much use during prolonged drizzle.

The Barbican Arts and Conference Centre may be iconic but it's also bloody difficult to circumnavigate without going inside. The far end of the terrace is for Guildhall music students only (public access "in an emergency"). A set of moodily-lit ramps climbs to one end of Gilbert Bridge, where access to Frobisher Crescent's useful short cut has been closed off. The gates at the top of the steps into the art gallery are also locked, blocking another route the architects originally intended to smooth pedestrian flow. Trek far enough and you'll eventually reach the highwalk past the conservatory on Level 3 (tickets free, socially-distanced one-way-system in operation, please prebook, entirely sold out for the next week), and finally you're through.

Cromwell Tower erupts from the podium outside the Silk Street entrance, and is the only one of the Barbican's three highrises grounded in Cripplegate ward. Its sawtooth profile rises 42 increasingly-prestigious storeys, although the podium entrance is deceptively low-key. Neighbouring Ben Jonson House is 50% longer than Cromwell Tower is high, indeed it's the longest slab block on the Estate and consists mostly of split level maisonettes. Lurking round the back is Breton House, blessed with an impressively quiet off-piste setting (unless it's playtime at the adjacent Islington primary school when I guess life gets rather noisier). And in amongst the planters on the edge of the podium I found an exit I'd never stumbled upon before, a long ramp down to Golden Lane, which just goes to show you never really know somewhere until you micro-explore it.

Facing off against all this concrete is the Victorian brick of the former Cripplegate Institute, a benevolent institution which once contained reading and reference libraries, classrooms, a theatre and a rifle range. It's currently occupied by UBS (who won't be renewing their lease when it expires this year), and the Cripplegate Foundation has transferred its assets to supporting the disadvantaged and vulnerable across the borough of Islington instead. The police hostel immediately to the north has recently been demolished and replaced by a bulky block of non-affordable housing branded The Denizen, and looks utterly out of place looming above the Jewin Welsh Presbyterian Chapel. But that's City planning for you - former Chief Planner Peter Rees sanctioned the demolition of the Barbican's only unlisted block in 2007 and now lives in a 27th floor flat in The Heron which replaced it.

Which brings us to the Golden Lane Estate, which deserved better than being shoehorned into a final paragraph so got a post all of its own yesterday. It may just be me but I reckon City wards where people live can be a lot more interesting than wards where they merely work.

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