diamond geezer

 Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Random City of London ward (21): Dowgate

My 21st random ward is essentially Cannon Street station and a few blocks either side. It's where the Walbrook once flowed into the Thames, duly defended by a barrier called the Dowgate, "dou" being the Anglo-Saxon word for water. The ward's small, slopes down to the river and the upper bits are generally more interesting than the lower. [pdf map]

Cannon Street is one of the largest stations in the City, a terminus to feed southeastern commuters into the Square Mile and not its finest architectural moment. The most recent addition is the monolithic crossbeamed office block above the station entrance, a replacement for John Poulson's controversial 1960s development. The gloomy concourse beyond is because the air rights were sold in the 1980s to make way for two office blocks above the platforms (and a sports club underneath), more with an eye to BR's bottom line than to customer experience. A Wetherspoons and a lonely WH Smiths are amongst the non-delights to be found up the steps before the barriers, and the platforms stretch all the way across Upper Thames Street as far as the water's edge.

The most interesting thing about Cannon Street station is what it used to be, which was an Anglo-German medieval trading complex. The Steelyard was a walled community built by the Hanseatic League in 1475 to smooth the export of wool and cloth between England and Cologne, and contained a chapel, weighing houses, a guildhall, wine cellars and residential quarters. Queen Elizabeth I eventually stunted their influence, but it wasn't until 1852 that the Germans sold the land to the South Eastern Railway allowing them to gain a toehold in the City. The dark riverside passage under the end of the platforms, the one that always smells of chlorine emanating from the adjacent health club pool, has been named Steelyard Passage in its honour.

At the foot of one of Cannon Street's twin brick towers, beside the Banker pub, a set of steps provides the City's best pedestrian access to the Thames foreshore. It's not the original set Samuel Pepys ran up to warn the Mayor of London about the Great Fire, more a modern safety-conscious replacement, and descends into lapping water if you turn up either side of high tide. My timing was unfortunate so instead of further sentences describing mudlarktastic exploration I can only draw your attention to a post I wrote in 2015.

The rest of Thames-side Dowgate is a textbook example of how modern development eradicates the historic street pattern. Red Bull Yard, George Alley and Old Swan Lane used to run down to a set of waterfront wharves but have since been swallowed by the footprint of two enormous office blocks, 1 Angel Lane and Riverbank House. The former replaced BT mega-switchroom Mondial House a few years ago and is home to Barclaycard and Japanese bank Nomura (who were proud enough to invite Open House-rs to their 1 acre roof terrace in 2017). The pedestrianised boulevard separating the two used to be an alley called Angel Passage but is now a stripe of sanitised public realm with benches that hardly see any direct sunlight.
If you've ever wondered where the City of London's fire station is it's here, squished inbetween Nomura and Cannon Street platform 1.

An underused timber-clad footbridge provides a shortcut for Nomura employees trying to cross Upper Thames Street. It lands within a Bath stone colonnade on the northern side under a squarish office block called Governor's House (although I turned up while it was being jetwashed so wasn't allowed out). Londinium's governor lived here in what would have then been a prime riverside location, and Prudential's current HQ had to be built cautiously to avoid disturbing the foundations of the Roman palace underneath. The whorl of cobbled lanes nearby has a Georgian feel, courtesy of a few finely-decorated townhouses and a lamplit alley between two burial grounds. This is Laurance Pountney Hill, today more a ramp than any kind of contoured challenge, and belonged to yet another church that didn't survive 1666.

The District line runs just to the north under Cannon Street in a cut and cover tunnel, then swings beneath the mainline station and exits under Cloak Lane. Here in 1879 it encountered the graveyard of another Great Fire casualty, the church of St John the Baptist upon Walbrook, necessitating the collection of all the mortal remains in the railway's line of travel. Five years later they were reinterred in a vault topped with a classical monument, duly inscribed, which now finds itself in a grimy recess forming the tube station's fire exit. The view's not great but stand here for a few minutes and the sound of trains can clearly be heard not so very far below.

This part of the City is particularly densely populated with livery halls. At the top of Dowgate Hill is Tallow Chandlers Hall, home to the medieval livery company devoted to fat-based illumination, who've since reinvented themselves by embracing BP and other oil companies. Nextdoor is Skinners Hall, whose money originally came from treating skins and hides, and whose doorpost announces that the Worshipful Companies of Turners, Fuellers and Fanmakers are also based inside. Nextdoor to them is Dyers Hall, the bunch who now take responsibility for Swan Upping, and across College Street is Innholders Hall, which was originally for hostellers rather than publicans. Of these the Tallow Chandlers have the best decorated entrance, the Innholders have the best sign and the Skinners have by far the best address, which is 8½ Dowgate Hill.

Dowgate's last church standing is St Michael Paternoster Royal at the foot of College Hill, rebuilt by Wren (and again after a V1 strike). Its most famous parishioner was Richard Whittington, the panto-friendly four-time Mayor of London who the local blue plaques refuse to describe as Dick. He lived a few doors up the lane and was buried beside the altar, although last time the tomb was opened they didn't find his body, only that of a mummified cat. The parklet alongside the church, opened on a neglected bomb site in 1960, unsurprisingly bears the name Whittington Garden. This hosts a strange pair of identical statues donated by the Italian government, allegedly depicting a rider on horseback, plus a bubbling fountain... perhaps evoking when this used to be the Roman riverbank.

(and just four wards to go)

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