diamond geezer

 Wednesday, September 01, 2021

Random City of London ward (24): Cornhill

My penultimate random ward is named after one of the City's highpoints, not that 17m is especially high, nor is any summit especially discernible. The ward follows the ancient street of the same name between Bank Junction and Leadenhall Street, and since 2003 has spread further north into less noteworthy quarters. So I'd best start with the older bit. [pdf map] [11 photos]

The summit of Cornhill is (of course) topped by a church, namely St Peter upon Cornhill. Legend says it was founded by a Christian king in the 2nd century, but that legend is almost certainly incorrect, and the current building owes everything to Christopher Wren instead. The recent demolition of Leadenhall Court allows an unusually good view of the church, its copper spire rising high above a symmetrical five-arched eastern wall. A plaque above the adjacent opticians notes that this was once was the site of the Standard, a water cistern with four spouts which between 1582 and 1600 provided the City's first pumped water supply. Its importance meant that for many years this crossroads was also the point from which all distances to London were measured, which arguably makes this 'central London'.

Barely four doors down the street is another ancient church, St Michael Cornhill, because parishes were hugely tinier in those days. Its tower has been jazzed up by Nicholas Hawksmoor, and a house out front had to be demolished so that George Gilbert Scott could build a seriously ornate porch featuring a charming scene of St Michael disputing with Satan. Of the pair St Michael's has by far the nicer churchyard, probably because it's fenced off and private, whereas St Peter's' is raised and open and bland in comparison. Both are hidden round the back amid a maze of courts and alleyways shared with Langbourn and Walbrook wards, wholly worthy of exploration, where lurk two further Cornhill gems.

The Jamaica Wine House, easily identified by the lamp half-filling the alley outside, is a red sandstone building with art nouveau flourishes and dates back to 1869. Two centuries earlier this was the site of London's very first coffee house, frequented by Samuel Pepys no less, established by a former Turkish servant called Pasqua Rosée. He proved an exemplary entrepreneur, having opened England's first coffee house in Oxford the year before, then France's first in Paris two decades later. In the adjacent alley (and even better hidden) is Simpsons Tavern, a gentlemen's restaurant since 1757, and still very much a throwback where portly souls might linger over luncheon. Order a Chargrilled Barnsley Chop or a plate of York Ham & Fried Eggs and you can throw in a 'side' of kidney for just £2.

The rest of the ward is rather less permeable. Along the northern side of Cornhill, for example, the three named courts all turn out to be dead ends. None are especially inviting, although a back door in Sun Court leads into the exceptionally well hidden Merchant Tailors' Hall, a livery hall entirely enveloped by surrounding buildings.

Impossible to miss is the Royal Exchange, the City's unofficial temple to commerce, which occupies the ward's western tip. The original building faced Cornhill and was opened by Queen Elizabeth I, whereas the current eight-pillared classical edifice dominates the view from Bank junction and was opened by Queen Victoria. Today it's home to 'superior brands' and thus the ideal place to spaff your bonus on a glittering watch, order bespoke brogues or swallow oysters at Fortnum & Mason's central bar. But at weekends the target audience decamps elsewhere so it's only possible to inspect the windows of the accessory boutiques gracing the perimeter, not all of which have survived the lack of profligate clientele during the pandemic.

Other things to spot around the outside of the Royal Exchange include...
• A statue to Paul Julius Reuter, founder of the definitive news agency
• A drinking fountain commemorating the 50th anniversary of The Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association
• A metronome-shaped water pump erected in 1799 above a 13th century well (restored in 2015)
• A (seated) statue of George Peabody, the early American philanthropist
• A statue to James Henry Greathead, Underground engineer, concealing a station ventilation shaft
• A metal pyramid marking the start of the Jubilee Walkway
• Lampposts each marked with the arms of one of the big 12 livery companies
• A statue of the Duke of Wellington, beneath which is a block of granite from the previous London Bridge
• Four paparazzi dogs, sculptured in bronze by Gillie & Marc
• City police officers making sure Extinction Rebellion don't try to take over the front steps

Threadneedle Street's not what it was, not when you pass beyond the Bank of England (which lies just outside the ward anyway). This narrow thoroughfare once housed the head offices of several major banks, but today only Lloyd's remains in situ, slotted in on the corner facing Bishopsgate. Nat West vacated their classical headquarters opposite in 1998, its opulent banking hall since repurposed as a wedding/events venue called Gibson Hall. Other formerly prestigious financial addresses down Threadneedle Street have since become Pizza Italiana, Burger & Lobster and a mothballed Marco Pierre White restaurant, and this is where abandoning cheques and over the counter transactions ultimately leads.

If the gates of Adam's Court are open you can step through and follow a peculiar doglegged passage up and down to Old Broad Street. Along the way you'll pass Sundial Court, the entertainment terrace of the City of London Club, whose leather-sofa-ed lair is only accessible to 1400 souls vouched for by at least six other members. Snooping at their rear terrace is the closest you'll ever come to joining. Nat West once hoped to buy this backlot to build a new office but were blocked for heritage reasons, so instead shifted their footing just up the road and that's where the tallest building in 80s Britain shot up.

The Nat West Tower is 42 cantilevered storeys high and famously designed to resemble the bank's logo from above. That's not at all obvious from below, merely a peculiar ribbed part-silhouette, and even peering out of the top floor cocktail bar you wouldn't guess. After being vacated by the bank it's since been renamed Tower 42 and has been increasingly shielded on the skyline by later pretenders to the altitude crown. Around the foot of the tower a glassy horseshoe of restaurants, wine bars and health clubs forms a split-level piazza that's nowhere particularly inspiring to linger. And it turns out this was once the site of Gresham College, established in 1597 inside the mansion of Sir Thomas Gresham, the businessman who helped set up the Royal Exchange... which I think wraps up Cornhill nicely.

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