‘Navigating Hidden London’ At The London Transport Museum

January 18, 2012

Events, London Sights

As part of their ‘Sense and the City‘ series of exhibitions and lectures, last night the London Transport Museum held a talk by Matt Brown (editor of the Londonist) and David Long, author of several tomes about London, called ‘Navigating Hidden London’.

The talk concentrated on David’s most recent book, ‘Hidden City – The Secret Alleys, Courts and Yards of London’s Square Mile’, which looks at how the City turns into a magical and mysterious place at weekends, when it is free of its workforce, and the unusual sights that lurk in the narrow alleys and lanes that criss-cross it, from Eastcheap in the south to the Barbican estate in the north.

The unusual names of these odd byways in the City come from various sources, many echoing the signs of long lost taverns that themselves got their names from long forgotten events. Others reflect the rich religious past of the area or describe the odd geography that persists within the boundaries of the ancient city. David also shared his fascination with the fact that, until the London suburbs started to develop in the 19th century, the City itself had 250,000 permanent inhabitants, many of whom would live their entire lives without ever going beyond its boundaries. Matt also explained an insight that he had about the area around Cornhill (a location that to this day is full of meandering alleyways); London’s mercantile traditions stem from the early coffee houses where entrepreneurs would gather together to do business. Eventually these buildings were co-opted as the banks and other financial institutions that would go on to become the City’s greatest enterprises but in more recent years, with the emergence of Canary Wharf and the new shiny architectural icons springing up around the City, many are returning to their original purpose – as coffee shops…

'Gilt Of Cain' by Michael Visocchi in Fen Court

David covers the vast majority of the City’s little secrets in his book, but I’ll just mention a few that were described at the lecture and which you might want to investigate for yourself:

  • One of the City’s two Star Alley’s contains a replica of a typically Parisien ‘pissoir’
  • Crane Court was the original home of the Royal Society, and numbered Isaac Newton amongst its original members
  • French Ordinary Court refers to the French restaurants that used to occupy it (an ‘ordinary’ being an old word for an eating establishment)
  • Turn Again Lane, a cul-de-sac, was so named because the River Fleet, an open sewer in the City’s earlier days, blocked it at one end. If you found yourself heading down it, the smell would force you to turn around and come back again.
  • Poppins Passage is named after the bird the Popinjay (Paul didn’t elaborate on whether it housed a menagerie or pet shop at one time)
  • Wardrobe Place was the site of the building where the King’s ceremonial garb was stored
  • Both Bleeding Heart Yard and Mitre Court have very gruesome pasts – the former is, according to legend, the spot where a jilted lover literally ripped the heart from his partner’s bosom, and Mitre Court was one of the locations where a victim of Jack The Ripper was found – Catherine Eddowes

I can’t commend¬†’Hidden City’ to you highly enough – I’ve spent many a weekend wandering the deserted City myself, and it’s a wonderfully peaceful place when the bankers aren’t there! If you ever get the opportunity, head over to the Square Mile and allow yourself to get lost in its warren of tiled passages and cobbled alleys…

About The Londoneer

Pete Stean is a keen blogger, amateur photographer, singer and ham radio enthusiast in his spare time... Google+

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    [...] Hidden Alleyways And Courtyards’ is very likely to cover much of the same ground as last week’s talk at the London Transport Museum! Another, ‘Somewhere Else London’, looks like its going [...]

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