diamond geezer

 Wednesday, July 07, 2021

Random City of London ward (20): Cordwainer

My 20th random ward is small, compact and the closest any City division comes to being a rectangle. It occupies a 270m×130m patch between Cheapside and Cannon Street and contains much worthy of note, including Bow Bells, a listed 1990s building and a Roman temple. It also used to be London's shoe-making district, that being the job of a medieval cordwainer, whereas mending shoes was done by a load of old cobblers. [pdf map]

St Mary-Le-Bow has long been one of London's most important churches, and holds the distinction of having been destroyed by a bomb (1941), a fire (1666) and a tornado (1091). It also famously housed the bells that true Cockneys had to be born within earshot of, although the sonorous originals have been replaced and research suggests they barely reach Shoreditch these days, let alone the wider East End. They certainly sound loud enough if you're stood underneath at nine on a Sunday morning. The modern church is progressive and outward-looking, hosts daily weekday services and (normally) hosts a cafe in its Norman crypt. One of the most famous parishioners was Captain John Smith, founder of Virginia's Jamestown settlement, and that's his statue outside in the churchyard surrounded by a ring of plastic barriers.
n.b. The church was said to be the first in London built with stone arches, hence the name ‘le bow’. St Mary's church in Stratford-le-Bow, E3, was named after a similarly-arched bridge across the Lea, and people have been confusing their Bow Bells ever since.

The spire is a dominant feature on Cheapside, for centuries the City's retail spine. Despite the pandemic Daunt Books, Greggs and Argos are still going strong but Cards Galore has folded and the Vodafone shop on the corner of Bread Street is no longer engaged. The none-too-thrilling office block here is called Bow Bells House and covers the footprint of John Milton's birthplace, an almost textbook case of Paradise Lost.

Bow Lane, curving bow-legged from the church, is a much more characterful thoroughfare and the ideal place to wield your Cheapside Privilege discount card. Smaller joints range from a vape shop to a wine bar charging £6 for a side of chips, and from a newsagent to a cake shop charging £39 for a carrot sponge. Historically speaking I'm pleased to say the area still has a proper shoe shop with an emphasis on brogues and loafers, should your workwear budget stretch to £350. But it's the even narrower alleyways to either side that merit the most careful attention. Well Court conceals a gentleman's tailor with a display of armoury in the window, Watling Court leads to the keg-choked beer terrace of The Pavilion End, and as for Groveland Court...

This alleyway starts well between two gently indented shopfronts, clearly signposted by a pristine old-style City street sign. The passage then opens out into a narrow Neo-Georgian courtyard with a Nicholson's pub on one side and a mothballed cocktail joint on the other. The pub extends into the red-brick townhouse at the far end, one of the very first buildings to be erected after the Great Fire and built as the official residence of the Lord Mayor of London. The wrought iron gates out front were donated by William and Mary after a particularly hospitable stay. But by 1739 these lodgings was deemed insufficiently grand so the Mayor moved out to Mansion House and the house instead became a hotel, and today serves Schofferhofer Grapefruit Radler, Smoked Applewood Macaroni Cheese and Pale Ale Pie.

Crossing Bow Lane is Watling Street, which sounds like it must have been part of the famous Roman Road but is on entirely the wrong alignment. It is pre-medieval in origin, though, and until the 19th century was the main route between St Paul's and the Tower of London. The dome of the cathedral is nicely framed at the western end, scaffolding excepted. Several buildings merit closer architectural inspection, especially the former warehouse at number 23 and the turquoise faience at number 67. As for Ye Olde Watling, this was the first tavern to be built in the City after the Great Fire and its upper room was used as an office for draughtsmen working on designs for St Paul's.

Behind the pub is St Mary Aldermary, one of Wren's few Gothic rebuilds, paid for by a widow who insisted he build something resembling the original pre-Fire church. It's currently home to the Moot Community, a contemplative bunch who prefer to worship via collective reflection rather than hold formal services, plus a number of diaspora-specific congregations who meet here on Sundays. Outside is a ward-specific bronze statue of a seated man with an upturned leather boot between his knees - a cordwainer - although I still haven't quite worked out what he's doing with his hands.

Two churches that didn't make it past 1666 are the delightfully-named St Benet Sherehog and the City's only St Pancras. The latter's churchyard was upgraded in 2010 into a garden with some delightfully quirky wooden benches carved by students from the City & Guilds of London Art School, each with an intricate Romanesque design. I spent some time inspecting the city scenes, fabulous beasts and geometric patterns, then inspected a planning notice on one wall and sighed. The office block at the rear has requested to create a new entrance and 'reconfigure' the garden, which will involve replacing the benches, removing the central tree and adding a set of lockable railings. They've spun it as improving pedestrian circulation, increasing daylight and removing the "opportunity for rough sleeping at night", but the end result is an identikit joyless bolthole with its heritage vibe extinguished so let's hope the City objects.

They didn't object to 1 Poultry, the startling postmodern wedge that faces Bank junction on the site of the old Mappin & Webb jewellers. Its pastel layers rise to an exclusive roof garden enjoyed by cosseted restaurant patrons, which tapers to a pair of overhanging balconies and a porthole viewpoint. Mere mortals are allowed to pass through at ground level via Bucklersbury Passage, or perhaps pay for a round of minigolf at Puttshack whose neon-lit basement bar can be seen through a large hexagonal skylight. Very few buildings get listed before their 20th birthday, in this case specifically to protect the architecture from its owner, but you only have to look up from within to see how multi-dimensionally extraordinary 1 Poultry is.

The latest megastructure in the ward is Bloomberg London, the media corporation's fortress-like sandstone-clad European HQ. It fills a footprint formerly occupied by a 1950s office block, broken only by a central passageway shamelessly given over to a sequence of dining opportunities. Londinium's Temple of Mithras was a national sensation when it was uncovered here in 1954 and relocated alongside Queen Victoria Street, and has since been relocated back to the spot in Bloomberg's basement from whence it came. Free pre-booked Mithraeum tickets are available for a very modern illuminated experience, or you can descend into Bank station nextdoor to see several glassy Roman figures at the foot of the escalators.
The Waterloo and City Line platforms, if you've ever wondered, are under Queen Victoria Street, beneath the westbound bus stop, in Cordwainer.

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