Category Archives: Guided walks

Guided Walk: Shakespeare Land and Southwark from Blackfriars to London Bridge by Tony Keen

College of Arms. By Andreas Praefcke, CC BY 3_0.

Our second guided walk of the season started at Blackfriars Station.  We proceeded along the Thames Embankment, pausing to admire the College of Arms which is a fine, late Georgian building with its attractive gold leaf gates and its startling embellishments, situated half way between the bridge and St Paul’s Cathedral.

Crossing the Millennium Bridge, heading south towards the imposing presence of the Tate Modern, we went to inspect the house where St Christopher Wren is often purported to have lived whilst St Paul’s was under construction, along with several other famous names from the 17th Century.  But all is not as it seems, because the house actually dates to Queen Anne, was erected in 1710, and the plaque over the door appears to have been a romantic twist dating to 1945.

Heading east, we passed Sam Wanamaker’s modern Globe Theatre replica into Park Street where the Blue Plaque on the wall proudly boasted the site of the Elizabethan Rose Theatre, where despite the modern frontage plays are performed in a time-warped atmospheric setting.  Just beyond, partially under Southwark bridge, is the original site of Shakespeare’s Globe.  There is a very good description of the site and the development of the theatre on the display boards, explaining that the theatre is known as “Shakespeare’s Globe” not merely because his plays were performed here, but because it was built in 1599 by Shakespeare’s company of players, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.

We then continued to Clink Street under the railway arches and to the remains of the great hall of Winchester Palace with its magnificent medieval stone rosary window.  The famous Clink Prison dates back to 1144 was one of England’s oldest prisons, spanning over 600 years of history.  In its heyday, it was in fact a dungeon – part of the Winchester Palace estate – that provided accommodation for those who displeased the Bishop.  It is now open to the public as a tourist attraction, showcasing some of the darker and more gruesome stories of life in Medieval London.

Francis Drake’s Galleon Golden Hinde. By Jose L. Marin. CC BY 2.5

A replica of Sir Francis Drake’s astonishingly small and brightly coloured galleon Golden Hinde greeted us next, always a remarkable sight as one turns the corner from the Thames Path.  The information boards gave informed us that he had navigated under the orders of Elizabeth I to  negotiate new trade agreements with nations never before encountered, to acquire land, to discover new shipping routes and to acquire treasure from Spanish ships.  This project, led by Drake, who was accompanied by five other ships, was designed to undermine Spanish dominance in South America and improve British links across the globe.  thereby weakening the Spanish dominance of South America. He did this successfully, and to liberate treasure from Spanish ships.  As well as securing around £600,000 in Elizabethan money, Drake was the first navigator to successfully circumnavigate the globe.  He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth aboard the Golden Hinde.  Although it was intended that she be preserved as a museum to commemorate the Queen’s achievements, Golden Hinde was not maintained and had disintegrated by the mid-17th century.  Today it is a popular tourist destination and wedding venue, due both to its novelty and its link to an important historic event.

Southwark Cathedral’s Shakespeare Window. Source: The Looking At London website

Tracing our way through the streets behind London Bridge we entered the precinct of Southwark Cathedral.  This beautiful majestic and imposing monument, with its colourful effigies, is London’s oldest and finest Gothic structure.  From the early 1100s it was the church of the Augustinian Southwark Priory, dedicated to the Virgin Mary.  It was badly damaged in a fire of 1212 and the following rebuild gave it its present form.  Following the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th Century, it became a parish church dedicated to St Saviour.  Entering the building, we encountered the memorial stained glass window dedicated to many of Shakespeare’s most well beloved plays, designed by Christopher Webb in 1954, with a reposing figure of the bard beneath.  Shakespeare’s elder brother Edmund is buried in the nave and there is a memorial slab in the floor.  We were treated to a wonderful organ recital whilst we were there, the decibels alone impressing with their sheer magnificence.

Outside the group continued through the sights and smells of Borough Market. There has been a market on the site since at least 1014, and its millennium was celebrated in 2014.  More formally it dates to 1756 when the Borough Market website reports that in February 1756 advertisements were placed stating that a “commodious place for a market is now preparing on the backside of Three Crown Court on the west side of the high street of the Borough and will be ready by the 25th March next for the reception of all country carriages and others bringing any kind of provisions to the said market.”  Today it is a vibrant hive of busy stalls selling high quality food products, visited by serious buyers and tourists alike.

The George Inn, Borough. Photograph by Ewan Munro. CC BY-SA 2.5

We wrapped up our walk with a visit to London’s oldest surviving galleried inn, The George, built in 1570.  Although damaged by fire and having suffered the indignity of the loss of its north wing to the railways, the inn retains many original features and was frequented by Shakespeare, Marlowe, Pepys, Johnson, and thousands of their contemporaries.  Today it rejoices in the presence of the likes of you and I, tired and hungry after a satisfying sightseeing expedition.

With many thanks to Tony Keen for leading us through the winding streets of north Southwark and introducing us to so many superb insights into the Port of London’s rich and fascinating history and heritage.  Shakespeare was a recurring figure in our travels, but the echoes of many other voices were heard too.

Panorama of London, with Southwark in the foreground by Claes Van Visscher, 1616

Guided Walk: The Highway and its Byways by Ian McBrayne

The Royal Foundation of St Katherine. By John Salmon. CC BY-SA 2.0

Ian launched our summer term of visits and guided walks with a fascinating walk through the old riverside districts of Ratcliffe and Shadwell, exploring the area around two parallel east-west roads, The Highway with its thundering traffic and the much quieter Cable Street.

Our first stop was outside the Royal Foundation of Saint Katharine, a religious house founded by Queen Matilda in 1147, whose royal origins saved it from dissolution by Henry VIII.  As some of us discovered, its café in a yurt in the grounds serves rather good coffee.  We then passed artists’ studios in a former sweet factory, two charming rows of Victorian cottages and two late 18th century warehouses converted into flats – an early indication of the very mixed past and present economy of the area.

We then walked through the first public park in Stepney, opened in 1922 close to Ratcliffe Cross where several 16th century explorers set sail in search of the North West Passage.  This brought us to Shadwell Basin, the easternmost and best surviving part of the former London Docks, and Shadwell’s parish church, St Paul’s.

The funeral of the Marr family, victims of the Ratcliffe Highway Murders. London Chronicle 1811.

A little further west, we heard the gruesome story of the Ratcliffe Highway murders, which shook London in December 1811.  A seaman was convicted posthumously of the seven very violent killings, but the evidence was flimsy and the truth has never been established.  Walking on through the welcome greenery of the recently created Wapping Wood, we then admired the house where wealthy local brewer Henry Raine set up a free school for poor children in 1719.
We speculated on the prospects for the Grade I listed warehouse at Tobacco Dock.  When the docks closed, it was turned into a top-end shopping centre, but this was one of the slowest areas in Docklands to regenerate and the shops failed.  Twenty years later it is being marketed as a business and events venue, but uptake seems slow.

Back on The Highway, we came to the site of Jamrach’s Animal Emporium, set up in the 1840s to import exotic animals for onward sale to zoos and menageries.  We heard the high Victorian tale of the tiger which escaped and captured a small boy.  Thanks to the quick-witted bravery of Jamrach and his staff, the story had a happy ending.

Modern mural of the Battle of Cable Street. By jo-marshall CC BY 2.0.

We continued to St George’s in the East, a Hawksmoor church rebuilt within its shell after bombing in the Blitz.  We were divided on the success of the new design.  On the side of St George’s Town Hall, we admired the large mural which commemorates the 1936 Battle of Cable Street, when local people turned out in numbers to prevent a Fascist march from passing along the street.

In Cable Street and Cannon Street Road, we saw houses and shops surviving much as they were in the early 19th century.  By contrast, we then passed through the area where two fashionable squares were built in the 17th century: Prince’s Square, completely obliterated in the 1960s; and Wellclose Square, where the layout remains but the original buildings have all been lost.

Our last two stops provided contrast.   At the first we admired a survivor of the 1960s purge which destroyed the nearby squares: Wilton’s Music Hall, created out of a row of four houses in the 1840s and 1850s and functioning as a theatre today, though with a long period in between as a Methodist meeting hall, followed by decades of uncertainty and gradual restoration.  The final stop was the site of a short-lived disaster, the Royal Brunswick Theatre, built in 1828 and demolished after collapsing three weeks later.  The subsequent 1830 building, originally a seamen’s home, largely survives, alongside the 1890s home of the Mercantile Marine Office, which regulated the employment of seamen – a fitting reminder at the end of our walk of the maritime origins of the area.

Our many thanks to Ian for all his research and planning, and for a very enjoyable and informative guided walk.

The front entrance to Wilton’s Music Hall. Photograph by James Perry CC BY-SA 3.0.

Our new Summer Term programme is now available

Our new Summer Term programme of visits and walks is now available.  See our Programmes page.  Thanks to everyone who has volunteered to organize and lead each of these.  It is going to be a great summer with plenty to see and do.   Short summaries of our visits and walks will be posted afterwards, but if you would like to join us for our visits on a Monday morning between 11am and 1pm, please see our Join Us page – we would love to welcome you.


Emirates Air Line. Source: Nick Cooper at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Walks along the Thames with Footprints of London guide Rob Smith

footprints-of-london-jpgFor those who enjoy educational walks, Footprints of London guide Rob Smith’s “Walks Along The Thames” seem like a great idea. The first walk is in March.  You can see the other walks by clicking here, and you can book the walks on the Eventbrite website from that page.  Here’s the introduction:

“During 2017 Footprints of London guide Rob Smith will be leading a series of twelve guided walks along the Thames, looking at aspects of the river’s history along the way. Starting in the streets of East London, the walks will go out into the marshland and big skies of Essex and Kent before reaching the sea at Shoeburyness. The walks take in relatively unexplored places that offer some peaceful walking, yet are less than an hours train ride from central London. On the way Rob will talk about themes like industrial and military history, housing, film and archaeology. The story of London really is tied in with this part of the Thames.”

A Guided Walk around Fish Island by Sheila Dobner

Old Fort lock

Old Ford lock on the Lea River

Our walk yesterday began with a ride on the Dockland Light Railway (DLR), meeting at Pudding Mill Lane.  As with other walks during the term, this was an area that very few of us, except Sheila, had visited before.  It was a really unexpected corner of east London, with a surprise around every corner.  Fish Island in E3 is a 19th century industrial quarter in the northern section of the lower Lea Valley, part of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, sandwiched between Hackney in the north and Newham to the east.  Fish island received its name because it is bounded by canals – the Hackney Cut and the Hertford Union Canal, the East Cross Route road, and Bazalgette’s Northern Outfall sewer, together with the fact that several streets are named after fish!  It is now a conservation area.  Although the Olympic Park is just across the canal, a number of the old industrial buildings survive and are now in use by creative, light engineering and other small businesses. There is lots of graffiti art, much of it of very high quality. Our walk took us along the Jubilee Greenway (atop Bazalgette’s sewer) and onto the island.

The Olympic statdium and the ArcelorMittal Orbit

The Olympic statdium and the ArcelorMittal Orbit

Fish Island falls in the area of Old Ford, the main crossing place on the River Lea from London to Essex until the early 12th century, when a stone bridge was built half a mile downstream.  In the late 18th and early 19th centuries canals were cut across the marshy area north of Old Ford.  These remain as the Hackney Cut (1768-9), which bypassed the River Lea, and the Hertford Union Canal (1830), which links the Hackney Cut and the Regent’s Canal, expanding London’s water transport network and encouraging the development of new businesses and industries in the area.  In the 1850s the North London Railway line was built, followed by an east-west branch line in 1866.  To the south, Bazalgette’s Northern outfall Sewer (1860s) crosses the area, completing the isolation of the so-called “island.”  The East Cross Route constructed in 1959 now forms the western boundary.

Everyone’s first question was about where Pudding Mill Lane got it’s name, and the answer was that it was named for St Thomas’s Mill, which was apparently shaped, you guessed it, in the form of an upturned pudding!   We made our way out of the station and headed along a small section of the Jubilee Greenway.  The Greenway is 60km long representing one kilometre for each year of the Queen’s reign on her Diamond Jubilee (for a map click here) and, in this area, links together all the major sites of the Olympic Games.  And indeed, as we proceeded up a short slope covered with a beautiful array of bright flowers, the ArcelorMittal Orbit and the Olympic Stadium loomed into sight. Created by Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond as the UK’s tallest sculpture, to mark the 2012 Olympics, the Orbit is now also, at 178m, the world’s longest tunnel slide.  The Olympic Stadium is thankfully still in use today.  In direct contrast, looking to the left a wide undeveloped strip of land lay alongside the Greenway, on the other side of which was the old Bryant and May match factory, a real landmark, now converted to apartments, flanked by trailing odds and ends of modern commerce and industry.

Bryant and May match factory

View to the west from the Jubilee Greenway, with the old Bryant and May match factory taking centre stage

As we proceeded along the Greenway we saw the tall chimney now part of the Big Yellow Self Storage complex in Bow, featuring an advert for the company at its top, which turned out to be a ubiquitous feature on the walk, visible from all over Fish Island.  Walking down a gentle slope we found ourselves at sun-dappled stretch of water, the navigable River Lea, with the 19th Century waterside brick-built buildings of Plough Swan Wharf already visible.   A few moments later we were at the 1856 Old Ford lock, where a small foot bridge took us over the river into the heart of Fish Island.

Swan Wharf on Dace Road

Swan Wharf on Dace Road

Our first stop was at an attractive Edwardian building called Swan Wharf on Dace Road.  Over three levels, built out of yellow stock with windows surrounding in black engineering brick, it was probably the most surprising of many surprising buildings on the walk.  Servicing the eternal need on roads and along canals for horses, and built between 1906 and 1912, it was a multi-storey horse stables over all three floors, with access ramps at the back, and windows at the front to ventilate the stalls.  Victorian ingenuity never ceases to amaze.  Today the building is used for a variety of small business enterprises, a woodworking workshop, the Barbican Fish Island Labs and a large events space.  From the outside, it appears to be in really excellent condition.  On the other side of the road, in a building that looked rather like a church with blocked windows, the modern world was taking off with the former Birnbaum Rubber Works of 1889, possibly the last surviving rubber works in Fish Island, which specialized in waterproof clothing.

In the Victorian and Edwardian periods this area was dominated by light industry including rubber processing, waterproof clothing manufacture, a folding box company, print works, an iron works, peanut processing works and small artisan factories.  Although the architecture that survives today is an echo of this industrial past, the Gas Light and Coke Company who had owned the land in the 1870s developed the area as a factory town, which included terraced housing and a school, and it was at this time that some of the streets were named after freshwater fish (bream, dace and roach).  The area was seriously affected by bomb damage in the Second World War and post-war planning led to the removal of the housing, schools and other amenities and Fish Island became dedicated to light industry.  In spite of the war damage, many of the original buildings survive and it is great to see them being occupied by a wide variety of small businesses, with a heavy emphasis on artistic and other creative enterprises.

Algha Works

Algha Works

As we headed further into Fish Island, walking along Smeed Road and Stour Road, we had a real sense of the pride that local businesses have in the place, with multiple plant displays and a profusion of wall art.  One low building with some nice architectural features and a carriage entrance had been a waterproof clothing factory but became a Percy Dalton’s peanut factory.  Liberally decorated in painted motifs, it was an explosive mixture of traditional architectural concepts and newer forms of expression.  Percy Dalton’s took on several buildings in the area as peanut factories, at least one of which has now been converted to artists’ studios.  Although the company no longer has premises in the Hackney Wick area, it survives today.  Further along the same road we stopped to take in another blend of 19th and 21st century ideas – the Algha Works.  Formerly a printing works, with the lower level windows angled outward to attract as much light into the basement areas as possible, it became an optical works making spectacles in 1932.  This is another building that combines old and new, the original features in tact, but bright colours adorning walls and doors.

H. Formans and Sons building

H. Formans and Sons building

Turning down Stour Road, a surprising combination of buildings and businesses followed.  the former land of a carbonic acid gasworks and the site of two former piano factories were accompanied by the ultra modern H. Formans and Sons building.   For the time being the gasworks remain something of a mystery but one of the two piano factory buildings survives in part, and the brick chimney, with a blue decorative brickwork top, is in good condition.  It belonged to John Broadwood and Sons Ltd who have made pianos for the Royal household from the time of George II to the present day.  They moved here in 1902. Although the rails are now long gone, in 1903 a tramway had connected the factory and the timber wharf that supplied the wood for the piano manufacture.  Modern units included a small Truman’s brewery distribution centre.  The modern Forman and Sons building was partially pink, a nod to its function as a distribution hub for its well known smoked salmon, both via its warehouse and its restaurant (the latter perhaps fortuitously closed on the day of our visit).

Heading around another corner, we found ourselves confronted by a building site with a 19th Century chimney sitting rather bizarrely in the midst of the construction work, and a modern residential development, called Omega Works, at the end of the road, just before the Hertford Union canal bridge.  A rather more attractive concept than some modern developments, I was amused and pleased to see that one of the upper storey balconies overlooking the canal sported a small but rather good looking piece of graffiti on an interior wall.  The chimney in the middle of the new building site was marked M.K. Carlton.  It was originally built for the Gas Light and Coke Company but became the factory premises of the M.K. Carlton Shoe Company later on.

The remains of the Clarnico confectionary factory

The remains of the Clarnico confectionery factory

Crossing the Hertford Union Canal, we were leaving Fish Island but had not yet finished our walk.  The canal opened in 1830, its purpose to link the Regent’s Canal to the River Lea at the Old Ford Locks, where we had already been, as a short route to the Thames.  It was a private venture by Sir George Duckett who borrowed money to build it and charged a toll for vessels passing along it, and it was known for some time as Duckett’s Canal.  Unfortunately, it was a commercial failure, became unnavigable and was eventually sold to the Regents Canal Company in 1857, when it was restored and re-opened.

To the north of the Hertford Union Canal, the Hackney Wick area was the home of many innovative industries, from dye stuffs, plastics and dry cleaning to, rather endearingly, confectionery, Matchbox toys and Bronco toilet paper!  All were based around the river and canal system, busy cargo routes, part of the dense industrial landscape and quite unlike the the quietly drifting leisure resources that most of our waterways are today.  After leaving the canal the first of the buildings that we came to was part of the former Clarnico company premises in Hackney Wick, the remnant of the largest confectioners in Britain in the late 19th century when the building was established in 1879.   The company was bought by Trebor in 1969.  The rest of the buildings in the complex were demolished to provide land for a bio-generator for the Olympic site.

We turned left down White Post Lane, passing the White Building, now a cultural venue, with studios, project space, hire space and a café.  Heading down White Post Lane we paused to look at number 92, which was an early dry cleaning centre at a time when dry cleaning was an innovative new process, but is now the Schwarz Artz Gallery.  Beyond that was the site of the Lea Tavern followed by the site of a tar and chemical works.

Central Books distribution centre

Central Books distribution centre

Walking along a liberally decorated section of bendy White Post Lane, we passed the former Lord Napier pub, now a remarkable graffiti canvas, before turning into Wallis Road and passing under the railway bridge to stop for a moment outside 55-57 Wallis Road, the former Lion Works, built as an Iron Foundry in 1880 and enlarged over time.  It is thought that part of building was the first dyeing and dry cleaning company established in England, a business imported from France. Between the 1950s and early 80s it was occupied by upholstery and soft furnishing company George Hensher, and today the building now houses artists studios and other small businesses.   Our final stop was the Central Books distribution centre, a magnificently robust building dating to 1938, full of windows.  One of the striking things about the 19th Century buildings was the space in many of the buildings allocated to large windows, which must have suffused the interiors with light.

Our walk finished near Hackney Wick Overground Station, with a choice to take the Overground back into town, or to cross a bridge into the Olympic Park.

Map of our walk around Fish Island

Map of our walk around Fish Island (our path marked in orange)

It was remarkable how many small industries Fish Island supported.  As Sheila pointed out towards the end of the walk, each of the industries supported others in Fish Island, with chemicals and processes that could be exchanged between the businesses operating in the area.  The entire walk was a dazzling contrast of architectural styles, with a positive blaze of artistic expression giving life to an area that might otherwise seem rather fragmented, disjointed and sometimes decayed.  Although graffiti is often considered to be a sign of the degeneration of an area, in Fish Island it serves to express a solidarity of purpose and a real sense of direction.  Fish Island has a distinctive identity all of its own.  It was interesting to see how instead of being converted into apartments, which is the usual fate of surviving 19th Century buildings, the former factories and commercial works of this area are being put to use for small businesses.  With new residential projects being purpose-built at the Hackney Wick end, and presumably before too long at the Pudding Mill Lane end, it will be interesting to see what happens to Fish Island in the future.

Our many thanks to Sheila for doing all the in-depth research, her excellent handouts (the content of which form most of the content of this post), and for leading us so enjoyably and informatively, with a much-appreciated stop part way round at the lovely Greenway Cafe, 41 Dace Road, where we had some excellent coffees.  It was a really great walk.

For more information about Fish Island:

The book Buildings of England Series, London 5:  East by Bridget Cherry, Charles O’Brien and Nikolaus Pevsner, 2005.

Tower Hamlets website:  Fish Island, conservation area.  London Borough of Tower Hamlets, 2009

The Hackney Wick and the Old Ford Area Characterisation Study and Assessment of  Key Buildings. Compiled for EDAW Ltd. Opens as a PDF at: Hackney Wick Old Ford characterisation-study


Fish Island Medley


Tony Keen’s Guided Walk along Bazalgette’s Embankment

Sir Joseph William Bazalgette

Sir Joseph William Bazalgette (photograph sourced from Wikipedia)

A group of intrepid Port of London Study Group members braved the elements today on Tony’s walk along the North bank of the Thames from Westminster to Blackfriars. Walking above Bazalgette’s phenomenal 1860s Embankment built to take London’s sewage and the District Line, the route took in the Ministry of Defence, the remains of Whitehall Palace,  the exotic, lush planting and surprising bird life of 37 acres of Embankment Gardens, Temple Place and a variety of Victorian worthies in statue form, some of whom are still well remembered, others whose place in history seems less significant in 2016.

Of particular note was the only woman commemorated in bronze, Lady Henry Somerset, an early campaigner for women’s rights and leading light in the temperance movement. Her symbolic monument contrasts strongly with those of various military leaders.  The arts are represented by Sir Arthur Sullivan, appropriately placed below the Savoy where his and Gilbert’s operas were first performed, and we also encountered the philosopher John Stuart Mill and the Protestant leader William Tydale, whose translation of the Bible into English in the 1520’s did as much for the English Reformation as Martin Luther did in Germany.

We stopped our walk at Blackfriars Bridge, a little damp but all appreciative of a walk which has become less popular since the rise of the Southbank and Bankside but still has very much to offer anyone who enjoys the history of the Thames in London.

Statue dedicated to Lady Henry Somerset

Statue dedicated to Lady Henry Somerset by the Loyal Temperance Legion. Photograph by Justin Cormack (CC BY-SA 2.0)


A Guided Walk by Ian McBrayne: Rediscovering the Walbrook

St Leonard's Church, Shoreditch.

St Leonard’s Church, Shoreditch. Sourced from Wikipedia

One of the many benefits of our group is that because our interests are so varied, we cover a richly wide-ranging field of topics under the broad heading of the Port of London, varying both geographically and temporally.  This means that group members are constantly exposed to places and/or periods about which they may have only very superficial knowledge.  Today one of our members, Ian McBrayne, guided us on a really fabulous walking tour of the route of the Walbrook, which took us, perhaps surprisingly, to Shoreditch and the City.

A number of rivers which run into the Thames in central London now flow underground for most or all of their length and are collectively known as London’s lost rivers.  The Fleet and the Tyburn are probably the best known.  The Walbrook is the shortest and most completely lost, flowing entirely underground from its source in Shoreditch to the Thames at Cannon Street and often completely dry.  We followed its course very closely, with Ian helping us to reimagine what the area might have been like when the river flowed above ground, as well as thinking about the varied history of some of the sites and current buildings along the route.  I have dotted hyperlinks throughout to external websites that contain more information about some of the buildings and sites that Ian discussed.

Wells and Co

The Wells and Co building on Shoreditch High Street

We met at St Leonard’s church, Shoreditch, immortalized in the line “When I grow rich, say the bells of Shoreditch” in the nursery rhyme “Oranges and Lemons.”  A church has stood on the site since at least the 12th Century, and thanks to Tudor theatres being built in the area, is the burial place of several actors from the period.  The building that survives today was built by George Dance the Elder in around 1740. See the St Leonard’s entry on Wikipedia for more details.  From the church steps we looked opposite at a very different form of architectural output.  The buildings of Wells and Co. date to 1878 and it was one of the earliest buildings to be fitted with electric lighting.  Sadly the company went bankrupt in 1895 and it is somewhat remarkable that the wonderful building remains.

The name Shoreditch is thought to have evolved from the name “Sewer Ditch,” referring to the Walbrook as a natural drain for the area.  The source of the Walbrook, which was our next destination, is both invisible and somewhat difficult to pin down as an entity.  Just outside the old City gates, and deep beneath the current level of the road, it is probably best described as the confluence of a number of streams that eventually became the Walbrook in the vicinity of the former Holy Well, around which the Holy Well convent was built.

Roman excavations

Roman excavations in the vicinity of the Walbrook

From Roman times onwards the river, probably a fairly modest entity, defined an area of ribbon development, much of which was industry that required the dependable supply of water.  Even in the First Century A.D. it was clogged with rubbish.  During excavations there have been numerous discoveries of Roman remains showing how important the river was during that period, including several groups of skulls and the Roman writing tablets from the Bloomberg building that have been recently published, the charred remains of the Boudiccan rebellion and the remains of a Roman temple, complete with mosaics, together with many other wonderful artefacts.

After the end of the Roman period industries that grew up here included tanning, brick-making, weaving, ironmongery, livery and furniture making, each with its own guild.  Although the area to its east was slowly built up during the Middle Ages, the area to the west remained without significant development for some time, and was used at one stage for the burial of plague victims.  The river began to be covered (or culverted) at an early stage and was completely covered over by 1463.

The source of the Walbrook

New Inn Square: more or less above the source of the Walbrook

The Mediaeval Augustinian Holywell convent was one of Holywell was the ninth richest nunnery in England at the time of the Dissolution, covering eight acres (subject of a 2011 publication by MOLA).

It is by no means certain that the nuns would have approved, but because the land was not owned by the City of London and was what is known as a “liberty,” which was not subject to the same rules that applied to the City, it was later available for use for activities that were not permitted within the City itself.  As theatres were banned, the liberty was an ideal location for the establishment in 1576  of what became known as The Theatre, now marked only by a hand-painted sign and some very accomplished graffiti.  The foundations were discovered by the Museum of London’s archaeology unit (MOLA) in 2008.  The theatre located on the site for 22 years but the entire structure was then relocated to another liberty in Southwark, and became the Globe Theatre.

On our route we passed a variety of buildings from a wide range of periods, many with really alluring histories, including the Old Blue Last public house and the building now occupied by Stirling Ackroyd on Great Eastern Street.   Our next stop was the site of the Curtain Theatre on Curtain Road, built in 1577 and used whilst the Globe was being moved to Southwark.  MOLA again found the original site, 10ft beneath the modern road surface, and hope to display the remains of the theatre in the public space of the new development that is being built on the site.

Site of the Curtain Theatre

Site of the Curtain Theatre



We passed various pieces of modern art on our travels, some formal, like The Broad FamilyChormorama and other Broadgate Circus sculptures, and others informal, like some rather remarkable graffiti at The Theatre and the painting on the side of the Horse and Groom pub.  At the same time, many of the modern buildings were very fine (for example 5 Broadgate), but some were distinctly dubious (including the controversial replacement of the super Mappin and Webb building by the 1 Poultry building).

We crossed the site of the notorious Bethlehem Hospital, more popularly known as Bedlam, and passed through the modern Broadgate Circus, pausing at the site of St Mary’s Moorfields (1852-1870), where Crossrail excavations uncovered a deposit of Roman skulls.  Another pause at London Wall marked the point where the Walbrook flowed under the Roman wall, and was contained, during the Roman period, in an aqueduct to control its flow beneath the wall.  Remnants of the aqueduct were located in 1840.   Another halt was called at Austin Friars, its name deriving from the Medieval Augustinian priory, which leased out plots on the western edge of their site.  One of these plots was held by Thomas Cromwell.  When he was arrested and seized by the Crown his holdings were given to the Drapers guild, one of the many guilds concentrated in this area.

The church of St Columba

The church of St Stephen

Via the church of St Margaret’s Lothbury, we took a moment to consider Sir John Soane’s replica of the temple of Vesta at Tivoli ( built 1794-98) at the Bank of England, and then headed down Old Jury, passing numerous international banks as we went (“all the culprits in one place” as one of the group members commented).  This had been the centre of the Jewish quarter until around 1290 and had been the site of an important synagogue which was destroyed in about 1272.   We passed through Poultry and admired Mansion House by Charles Dance the Elder before entering the church of St Stephen with its great dome, a light-filled wonder with a Roman-style mosaic of St Stephen in the entrance, a Henry Moore central altar in the centre of the church and a wonderful organ over the main door.  It was also the place where the Samaritans were founded in 1953.   Opposite the church was another but much older place of worship: the Temple of Mithras which was found in the 1950s and drew enormous queues of visitors, and its fate was much discussed by a number of highly influential people, including Winston Churchill.

Newspaper article

Newspaper article about the discovery of the temple of Mithras

Walbrook Wharf

Walbrook Wharf, on of the last working wharves on this stretch of the Thames

We passed many more wonderful buildings and sites, including plaques and memorials on the way to Walbrook Wharf.  We didn’t enter the church of St Michael Paternoster Royal, but Ian pointed out that 4-times Mayor of London Richard (a.k.a. Dick) Whittington had built part of the church and was buried there.  Walking down Upper Thames Street we turned right just in front of Cannon Street and walked downhill to the river.   When we reached Walbrook Wharf, which is the point where the Walbrook enters the The Thames, there was nothing visible of the opening due to the high tide.   Walbrook Wharf is one of the few functioning commercial wharves that survives along the river.

Our route

The blue route shows the path of the Walbrook; the red shows our walking route

Thinking back on it later, I was struck by the way in which that whole strip around the Walbrook segued from one personality into another, each with its own slightly different character as we headed north to south, a diluted version of what it must have been like in the days of the guilds.  A truly lovely outing.  Many, many thanks to Ian for all his research and the great presentations at each and every stop.

See the MOLA’s Walbrook Discovery Programme for more information about work carried out along the route of the river.

For more about the Walbrook and other lost rivers in London Ian recommends Tom Bolton’s “London’s Lost Rivers” (2011) and also see the London’s Lost Rivers website.

For more about the Roman writing tablets from the MOLA excavations at the Bloomberg building, there’s a good article on The Guardian website and you can also see the transcript of the lecture Pompeii of the North by Sadie Watson in PDF format, which you can download by clicking here.

And finally, for more about the Museum of London Archaeology’s (MOLA) work in London see their website.  If buildings keep going up at the speed they are right now, MOLA could be kept busy for a very, very long time, and we may learn so much more about Londinium (the earliest known reference to which was found in the above-mentioned writing tablets).

Medley Walbrook

A medley of some of the many sights along the way