diamond geezer

 Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Random City of London ward (23): Billingsgate

My 23rd random ward is based around London's old fish market, so lies downstream from London Bridge and upstream of the Tower. It stretches uphill from the river to Fenchurch Street, missing most of the City's more famous locations but still with enough interesting stuff to make exploration worthwhile. It's also your last glimpse of the Thames in this year-long series, so make the most of it. [pdf map]

Billingsgate hasn't always been fishy. It started out as a fortified water gate, maybe 1600 years ago, and grew into a wharf where all kinds of goods were traded. In the 16th century it displaced Queenhithe as the City's premier landing place, boosted by being the more convenient side of London Bridge, and that's when the specialist fish market properly kicked off. Trade moved indoors in 1849, shifted to a grand arcaded market hall (with gold-fish weathervanes) in 1875 and scarpered to Docklands in 1982. Richard Rogers then transformed Old Billingsgate Market into offices, but it's since become a premier events hub with one vast hall that can cope with 1800 for a sit down dinner. Peering through its grubby grilled windows into the empty Grand Hall it looks to have been entirely wasted space of late.

Nextdoor is the uncompromisingly blue Northern & Shell building, home to a media rump, whose blocky frame has jarred on the waterfront since 1985. But most of the ward's river frontage is occupied by a single building, the 500-foot-long Custom House. The authorities have been collecting tax on this site since the 14th century, initially for exported wool, and later customs duties for all kinds of traded goods. The current building is 200 years old and originally contained vaults and warehouses to store confiscated stock. It's since been repurposed as offices for HM Revenue and Customs, but they're now moving out and a 200-room luxury hotel will be created here instead. Expect a small museum up one end and the central Long Room reimagined as an ostentatious reception space rather than somewhere to fill with drab civil service workstations.

As part of the hotel upgrade Custom House's waterfront car park is due to become a widened public terrace, which is good news for anyone who's ever tried to use the narrow riverside walkway during a spring tide and found it blocked by flooding. The ward's fourth and final Thames-facing building is Sugar Quay, previously offices for Tate & Lyle but since replaced by 165 luxury apartments. Signs in the shrubbery outside warn No Smoking, No Drinking and especially No Sitting because residents would really rather the plebs visiting the Tower walked past quickly and didn't linger. Instead they gather on an attractive wooden jetty jutting out into the river, now two years old (if you've not been down recently), which has plenty of room for taking that all-important selfie with a Tower Bridge backdrop.

In Roman times the waterfront followed what's now Lower Thames Street, so that's where luxury 3rd century residents would have hoped to live. This is why the grey office block at number 101 conceals the City's largest set of Roman remains in its basement - the Billingsgate Roman House and Baths - whose extensive tiles, flagstones and central heating system are occasionally visitable. Alas this year's dates over the next two weekends have all sold out. For almost a century this was also the site of the Coal Exchange, one of the finest Victorian buildings to be thoughtlessly destroyed in the 1960s, and the small plaque the Earl of Wessex unveiled last summer in its memory is pitiful recompense.

Up the hill is St Dunstan in the East, social media's favourite City church. Like many it was rebuilt by Wren and bombed in the Blitz, but this time the ruins were turned into a compact garden (opened, according to the plaque, on 21st June 1971). They're a triumph - the remaining walls and windows overrun with greenery, numerous benches to slouch on and a warren of paths to explore. It's so atmospheric that it often appears prominently on 'Secret London' lists, although these days it's anything but, proving especially attractive to anyone with a camera. On my visit I had to dodge a professional crew, a couple of couples posing for each other in archways and a man doing a full-on photo shoot with a model showing off her freshly-sprayed tattoos. Back in January when it looked less lush I had the entire place to myself.

St Mary At Hill is the next church across, on a street of the same name that once ran down to Billingsgate dock. It didn't stand a chance in the Great Fire, being a spark's throw from Pudding Lane, but got lucky in the Blitz... and then suffered a nasty fire anyway in 1988. The front door's in Lovat Lane, the City's finest crooked alley, while its tiny churchyard is only accessible via a separate gated passage (Entrance through Iron Gate). Here I found a couple of trees, Thomas Knight's "unsafe memorial", photocopied missives from a nutter and a man setting up for that morning's Lutheran service. What with a mystery archway in the wall opposite and the Georgian Waterman's Hall at the foot of the cobbles, I wish I'd uncovered St Mary At Hill before.

Between Great Tower Street and Fenchurch Street are prime examples of massive office developments swallowing the streetscape whole. The largest is Minster Court, a trio of postmodern gothic buildings erupting alongside Mincing Lane, rather like No. 1 Poultry on acid. Their jagged granite walls reflect late Thatcherite ambition, as do the broad steps sweeping past three equine statues to a lofty glass atrium. Wine bars, clubs and restaurants lurk beneath the podium hoping to skim excess salaries, and through one window in Mark Lane you can see the ripples of a swimming pool. But come on a Sunday and these three acres are essentially a gated fortress so don't expect to get much further than a pint at Brewdog.

The other massive block hereabouts replaced Plantation House, where London's tea and India rubber auctions took place, so was named Plantation Place. But its owners got itchy feet last year over possible links to slavery so have renamed the building 30 Fenchurch Street, an address now as inoffensive as it is unmemorable. Like many a City erection it was part of Open House the year it opened, which is how I got to visit the roof garden in 2004, but has never graced the list again since. Round the back is the church of St Margaret Pattens, another Blitz-dodger, with an impressive 200 foot Wren spire. And between them runs Plantation Lane, an alleyway upgraded in 2004 with a lunar lightbox to one side and a stream of golden historical text underfoot. This is Time and Tide, the first permanent artwork by Simon Patterson who you probably know for his Great Bear but I know as a classmate's younger brother.

And with Billingsgate ticked off that leaves just two more random wards to visit, one on either side of Old Broad Street. The end is nigh.

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