We thought we might try out the cafe in the Mary Ward Centre in Queen Square, Holborn, for lunch, so off we went. The bus took us to Theobald’s Road where this imposing building stands on the corner of Red Lion Street. The plate on the corner façade dates it to the reign of King William (1832) and gives the architect’s initials as “J.H.”
Across Theobald’s Road and once partly a continuation of Red Lion Street, is Lamb’s Conduit Street. This narrow street was named after William Lamb or Lambe (died 1580), a thrice married but childless gentleman philanthropist, chorister at the Chapel Royal and member of the Clothworkers’ Company, who, having founded almshouses (1574) and a grammar school (1576) in Kent, paid in 1577 for the restoration of the Holborn conduit which had been built to supply water from nearby sources to the City of London. The conduit no longer exists, having been demolished in 1746, but the street retains its name in his honour.
You don’t have to go very far in London to come across references to Charles Dickens. Partway along Lamb’s Conduit a road leads off that bears a Dickensian name.
At number 64 Lamb’s Conduit Street, we find an intriguing historical remnant, about which I have so far found very little information. Today, the address houses a medical centre on the ground floor and presumably apartments on the upper floors.
The ventilation grill beneath the ground floor windows suggest that this was once a shop selling fresh food such as meat, fish or dairy products. The interesting feature, however, appears above the first floor window.
The relief, showing four hands (I think meant to be the hands of four different people) tying a bundle of sticks, or fasces, represents the theme of working together for mutual benefit, and this was the symbol of the United Patriots National Benefit Society, a mutual assurance company. It was founded in 1843, as the relief indicates, though originally in North Gower Street. I believe that the Society had branches in several towns and continued operating until about the middle of the 20th century or beyond but although I have not seen definite evidence of its demise, nor can I find any of its continued existence. Perhaps, like so many of its ilk, it was absorbed by a larger company.
Lamb’s Conduit Street has a character all of its own and contains some interesting and unusual shops such as the experimental and much discussed People’s Supermarket which seems to be surviving despite dire prophecies of its early demise. Today, however, we turned off into Great Ormond Street. We turned left, leaving behind us the building in the above photo.
Great Ormond Street, famous these days for the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children that resides within it, is thought to have been named in honour of James Butler, later made Duke of Ormond (sometimes spelt Ormonde), the Anglo-Irish statesman and military commander and supporter of the Royalist cause against Cromwell’s invasion of Ireland.
Barely do you turn the corner when you come upon the house of John Howard, marked by a blue plaque placed there by the now defunct London County Council. The son of an upholsterer but later inheritor of wealth, Howard dedicated himself to philanthropic works including the amelioration of public health and the reform of the prison system. His name is now remembered particularly with regard to the improvements he achieved in prison regimes. Sadly, Howard died as a result of contracting typhus while visiting Russian military hospitals in 1790. He lived in Great Ormond Street from 1777 until his death.
Today we pressed on along Great Ormond Street to Queen Square. Named in honour of Queen Anne, the square was once a very fashionable place to live. It was built in the early decades of the 18th century but all of those first buildings have now disappeared. There was a reservoir here, too, but it is not visible today. One trace of it remains, however.
I refer to the pump at the southern end of the gardens which would once have served the square’s householders (via their servants) with water. The pump is decorated on the base with coats of arms of St Andrew and St George and around the body with four occurrences of this grimacing face. The date is given in Roman numerals as 1840 and, needless to say, the pump is chained and out of use. (I am curious to know, nonetheless, whether the pump can still produce water, at least in principle: is the reservoir or its supplying spring still present?)
The Mary Ward Centre is on the corner where Old Gloucester Street meets Queen Square. It is an adult education college with a broad range of courses and prides itself its personal and friendly approach. Unfortunately, it was closed (we should have checked), so we tightened our belts and went on our way.
We walked down Cosmo Place at the end of which, on its corner with Southampton Row, stands the Bloomsbury Park Hotel, a large red-brick Victorian building. A blue plaque on the wall indicates that it was here, in 1899, that Sir John Barbirolli was born. The plaque gives no indication of who placed it there.
This, incidentally, demonstrates one of the problems we face when considering memorial plaques, whether they are blue or of any other colour. In London, the LCC put up plaques and so did its heir, the GLC. When the latter body was disbanded, English Heritage took over this responsibility. However, English Heritage is not alone in the field. Local councils also put up plaques and so do organizations of various kinds and even individuals. While some of the latter are obviously of an “informal” nature, it is not always easy to know whether anonymous plaques carry correct information. Caution needs to be exercised.
We now took a bus to Greenwich, another place we often visit because there is so much to see there and because of its historical associations, including the Royal Naval College and the Royal Observatory. The bus trip is quite long from Holborn but you get a good view of the scenery from the upstairs windows!
We tried to sneak a view of the Cutty Sark over the builders’ fences but she was still under wraps as she has been since being damaged in the disastrous fire in May 2007. I look forward to completion of the work and being able to go aboard her again.
We visited Greenwich Market, of course. It was very busy and the stalls were piled high with goods, making for a very lively scene.
The pub in the market is called the Coach and Horses and today there was a pair of buskers sitting outside. I assume they had the pub’s permission to perform there though I noticed when we went inside that the pub had its own background music as usual. Perhaps the buskers’ music didn’t find favour with the landlord.
We went across to look at the Church of St Alfege. As I am sure you know (though I didn’t and had to look it up), Alfege or Alphege (or Ælfheah, in Old English) was an archbishop of Canterbury who was abducted and martyred in 1012. If you want the grisly details, you will find them here and in plenty of other places on the Web.
The previous church having lost its roof in a storm in 1710, a new one was commissioned, designed by that famous builder of churches, Nicholas Hawksmoor. It was built between 1712 and 1714 but not consecrated until September 1718. Why not? Well, if you really want to know, you will find all the details here.
Cross the picturesquely narrow alley called St Alfege Passage that runs beside the church and you enter St Alfege Park. There are no prizes for guessing that this was once the church burial ground, now landscaped as a garden. The ordinary grave headstones and footstones have been removed to the perimeter where they stand in a serried row quietly rotting away. The box tombs of the more affluent dead have been left in place.
I was glad to see that the trees had nesting boxes in them to encourage wild birds and the garden as a whole seemed well cared for.
In one corner is this little drinking fountain, deprived of its tap and cup. Only the retaining stud of the latter remains. The fountain bears the name of the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association but is undated and lacks a dedication. How many people, I wonder, refreshed themselves here during visits to the churchyard?
We still hadn’t had lunch and so made a quick decision to repair to the local branch of the famous pseudo-French cafe-restaurant chain, Café Rouge. To our pleased surprise, we discovered that they have started marking vegetarian items on the menu with a ‘V’, something that was lacking before.
We now took a walk up the hill to the Royal Greenwich Observatory, once Britain’s most important observatory and arguably one of the most important in the world in its day. It is of course the place where resides the Greenwich Meridian, zero degrees longitude, upon which the maps of the world are based. It is now a museum full of the most interesting objects and displays concerning astronomy, time-keeping and navigation.
As you might expect, the place was crowded so today we did not tarry here but carried on, first stopping to admire the view.
The view from here must have been spectacular when the Observatory was first built. The countryside would have been empty of buildings and at night observers would have enjoyed dark skies without the light pollution that hampers observational work today. Astronomy has long since had to retreat to remote mountain sites and, more recently, to space.
Walking down from the Observatory we encountered another drinking fountain. There is no date and no other inscription on it so one would have to make a guess at its age. Nearby is a modern style drinking fountain, very practical no doubt, but completely lacking in the aesthetic appeal that makes its older companion so attractive.
We made our way through Greenwich Park as the evening began to draw in. There were parakeets in the trees, recognizable by their long tails and bright green colour. They can also be rather noisy. No one is quite sure how these exotic creatures came to be living wild in Britain but the fact is that they have multiplied and spread all over southern England and even further north.
There were also many grey squirrels in the park and, while cautious, they were ready to approach people, hoping for a hand-out.
We reached the bottom of the hill as the sun was setting though there was still enough light to see our way. The ducks were still dabbling on this pond.
Soon we reached the road and found a bus to start to long ride home.
Despite things not going quite to plan, we had a good day out and packed a lot into it. London is such a huge and varied place that exploring it never ends. Returning to places already visited reveals changes and new discoveries