Mr Londoner goes in search of the Square Mile’s lesser-known treasures
Many people know that the City – the Square Mile, the financial district – is the ancient Roman capital of Londinium. More recently it’s re-invented itself as a burgeoning centre for fin-tech – a sector set to supersede even banking and insurance. Its big sights are world famous: the towering St Paul’s Cathedral, the imposing Tower of London and the Royal Exchange – the world’s first shopping mall. But there’s more to the city than finance and old buildings.
What about those hidden corners that far fewer get to see? Did you know there’s a chunk of Roman Wall in a car park? Could you find explosive reminders of the Blitz? Ever clapped eyes on a chunk of the oldest writing system in the world, in a hidden garden? These are brilliant discoveries. They involve shining a light into some of the City’s darkest corners – and they are best explored on foot or by bike.
The blitzed City
The face of the City changed forever on the night of 29 December 1940. That night London was firestormed by German aircraft in one of the most destructive raids on the Square Mile. Throughout the Blitz, 24,000 high explosive bombs and 100,000 incendiaries were dropped on the City. One in six people lost their homes. St Paul’s Cathedral was saved thanks to the strenuous efforts of the local firewatch, but many of the nearby historic buildings were lost. They included Christ Church Greyfrairs, now preserved as one of the City’s ‘pocket parks’ – with only its tower surviving as a private home. The Blitz tore out much of the City’s historic heart. However, it also revealed the evidence of an earlier age. The foundations of the Roman walls of Londinium re-emerged from the rubble as the Victorian warehouses collapsed in the firestorm or, badly damaged, faced the wreckers’ ball afterwards.
One of the City’s best secrets is the tiny church of St Vedast-alias-Foster, on Foster Lane, just off Cheapside. The building has 13th, or possibly late 12th, century origins. It’s dedicated to the little-known French Saint St Vaast (or Vedastus). This charitable 6th century Bishop of Gaul was known for his patience and meekness and was venerated by the Augustinian priors. The church was burnt down in the Great Fire of London in 1666 and again demolished in the Blitz, during the same raid that destroyed Christ Church Greyfriars.
St Vedast was left as just four bomb-blasted walls. Church services continued however, among the twisted rubble, thanks to the steely determination of the Rector of St Vedast, Canon Mortlock. The church was re-built in the 1950s under the direction of Mortlock and the architect Stephen Dykes Bower. It was re-created in its original Baroque style, with much of its exquisite detail restored despite the building’s almost total destruction. The pub next door was pulled down and became the church garden.
Today, this secret garden contains a few secrets of its own. There’s a pavement of Roman terracotta, discovered in 1886, when the church of St Matthew Friday Street was demolished. Next to it is something much more mysterious – a muddy-coloured stone, which actually turns out to be baked brick. It doesn’t look much at first. It dates, however, from the 9th century BC and was discovered during digs completed in Iraq during the 1950s and 60s, by the Wandsworth-born and Kingston-educated Middle East specialist, Sir Max Mallowan, who brought some of his finds back to London.
This is a block of Cuneiform – one of the oldest writing systems known to man (cune is Latin for ‘press’). Mallowan, an expert in ancient languages, discovered the name of Shalmaneser, a 9th century BC King of Assyria and Babylon. This rare artefact was a gift to Canon Mortlock from Mallowan and his wife, the crime writer Agatha Christie. Even more surprisingly, tucked away in the corner unknown to most of the people who walk down Foster Lane, is a bust of Canon Mortlock himself, by none other than Jacob Epstein.
Another of the City’s best-kept secrets – although rather different – is the gold vault where Sean Connery’s James Bond killed evil henchman Oddjob in the 1967 film Goldfinger. The vault, which stood in for one at Fort Knox, is on the lower ground floor of what today is the Ned bar and restaurant. This vast and impressive marble-floored space was previously the hall of the Midland Bank. The massive gold vaults are still down there, now part of the Ned’s private members’ club.
Often overlooked between the Mansion House, the Bank of England and the Royal Exchange, is a fine bronze statue of a Victorian man in a fetching broad-brimmed hat. He’s South African civil engineer James Henry Greathead, who patented the tunnel shield. This massive 19th century safety device protected workers digging the tunnels for the London Underground from the dangers of falling scree. The bronze statue of Greathead, by James Butler, is a surprisingly recent arrival, dating to 1994. It bears a small circular plaque showing the tunnelling shield itself. Appropriately, the artwork’s base also serves as a ventilation shaft for the London Underground below.
Featured image: Engineer JH Greathead by James Butler (1994) @Meetmrlondoner
About the Author:
Mr Londoner is writer and broadcaster Antony Robbins. He is currently running bike and walking tours of the secret city, with a focus on the Square Mile and the East End.