A very fine cat indeed

Monday, June 23rd 2014

Tigger has some days off this week and so we are using the time to continue our explorations of London and other places. We started today beside an immediately recognizable landmark.

Christopher Wren's Masterpiece
Christopher Wren’s Masterpiece
The dome of St Paul’s

Though pierced by a single bomb that fell through the great dome and destroyed the high altar, St Paul’s escaped the Second World War virtually unscathed. No longer London’s tallest building, which it was at the time of its consecration in 1697, St Paul’s remains one of the capital’s most famous and best loved landmarks.

National Firefighters' Memorial National Firefighters' Memorial
“Blitz”, the National Firefighters’ Memorial
John Mills, unveiled 1991

London, as we know, suffered heavy bombing during the Second World War and the fire services were stretched well beyond their limits in dealing with fires and collapsing buildings. Their courage and dedication to the task should never be forgotten and this memorial, sited opposite St Paul’s in Sermon Lane stands as a reminder and a gesture of gratitude. The lively sculpture is by John Mills and was unveiled by the Queen in 1991.

City of London Information Centre
City of London Information Centre
Make, 2007

Close by is this spiky shed housing the City of London Information Centre, a posh name that really means “Tourist Information Office”. It was designed by a company of architects called Make and completed in 2007. If form follows function, we might wonder what the the purpose of the almost painfully stretched out corners is. Or perhaps not. Maybe there isn’t any purpose (although there is obviously a point). Anyway, read the architects’ account of the project and see whether it convinces you.

St Paul's
St Paul’s
Seen along Sermon Lane

If you continue down Sermon Lane, you come to the Millennium Bridge, a useful shortcut to the Tate Modern art gallery. We did not cross it today, though, but continued exploring on the north side of the Thames.

Now it is time for today’s panorama shot, taken in Carter Lane.

Once St Paul's Choir School
Once St Paul’s Choir School
Today a Youth Hotel

To get a better view of the picture and the building, you will need to click on the image. The building accommodates a hostel belonging to the organization that today calls itself simply the YHA, but its boldly displayed Latin inscription all the way along the façade may induce you to think it was once ecclesiastical. If you thought that, you would be right for this was once the St Paul’s Choir School, built in 1874. I will forgo the temptation to pretend that I know Latin by transcribing the lettering but, if you are interested, you will find a full rendering on this page of the very useful London Remembers site. That the two people passing by on the right of the photo have been cloned into four is an artifact of the panorama function.

Totem Pole
Totem Pole
The Seven Ages of Man

On Queen Victoria Street stands the massive Baynard House. A Brutalist eyesore, it does possess one interesting feature, seen in the photo above. This is a cast aluminium sculpture by Richard Kindersley, in the form of a totem pole and entitled The Seven Ages of Man. It was commissioned by Post Office Telecommunications and unveiled in 1980. The colour of the sculpture and of the building forming its background may fool you into thinking this is a black and white photo until you notice the few small items in colour. In case you are wondering, I never do black and white photography. I consider the idea that black and white is somehow more “artistic” to be pretentious nonsense on a par with lifting your little finger while holding your tea cup. Life is not monochrome and nor will my photography be… unless I become colour blind. If that happens, I’ll think again.

Two Posting boxes
Two Posting boxes
From two reigns

On St Andrew’s Hill, these two posting boxes caught my eye because of their unusual colour and design. They are embedded in the railings of a house and seem to be out of use, hence the black paint. At first sight the two boxes appear identical but they are not. The one of the right is slightly taller and there are other minor differences, for example in the locks. The reason for the differences becomes apparent when you look at the makers’ names near the bottom. The box on the left is by W T Allen & Co, who had the contract to make pillar boxes and wall boxes during the Victorian era. The box on the right is by McDowall, Steven & Co Ltd Falkirk. The latter company was founded in 1804 as the Phoenix Foundry and ceased trading after a respectable 160 years in 1964. As far as I know, W T Allen & Co is still in existence though apparently not making posting boxes.

The main difference between the two boxes, of course, is that one bears the royal cipher of Edward VII and the other of his successor, George V. Notice how the florid script of “ER VII” gives way to the far simpler “GR”. We know that “GR” is George V because he is the only king not to have his reign number on posting boxes. Victoria too had no number, presumably because she was always simply “Victoria” and never “Victoria I”. All other monarchs, with the exception of George V, included their reign number in their cipher.

The Cockpit
The Cockpit
A Victorian pub with a gruesome background

On a corner opposite the posting boxes is this building in the shape of a slice of cake. Such structures intrigue me and I wonder what it is like to live in a triangular setting. I suppose you get used to it. The word “cockpit”, nowadays used to designate the seat in which a pilot sits, is so familiar to us that we tend to forget its gruesome origin. The horrid activity (whatever else it is, it is not a “sport”) of cock fighting is still practised in many parts of the world, even in Britain, where it has been illegal since 1835. The present building dates from about 1860, well after that time, but I understand that signs that cock fighting once took place here can still be found inside, including the pit and a viewing gallery.

Burgon Street
Burgon Street
One of the many narrow lanes and alleys of the City

This whole are is a maze of streets, many narrow and more like lanes or alleys than streets. Some will be actual medieval streets while others will have emerged as the result of odd corners of land between buildings being paved. Burgon Street is one such though I do not know its history or how it acquired its name.

St Anne's Burial Ground
St Anne’s Burial Ground
And site of a medieval priory

This is a paved garden that was once the burial ground of the Church of St Anne Blackfriars. In medieval times, a Dominican priory was here (because of the colour of their gowns, Dominicans were known as the “black friars”) but it was dissolved by King Henry VIII in 1538 and replaced with a church. However, this was destroyed by the Great Fire in 1666 and, although its burial ground continued in use until 1849, it was then closed and has now been landscaped to form a public amenity, albeit with a few tombstones left in place to add ambience.

Decorative head
Decorative head
Carter Court

We crossed Carter Lane once more and found a narrow alley or yard called Carter Court, so, of course, we went in to take a look. There wasn’t much there except this head with braided hair and a cap. The details are carefully modelled but I do not know what it represents or who made it.

A very fine cat indeed

We had been heading towards Gough Square and we now arrived there. The first thing you notice in this exclusive enclave is a monument supporting a sculpture of a cat, seated upon a large book and with an open oyster in front of him. The book represents one of the volumes of Dr Samuel Johnson’s groundbreaking English dictionary and the feline personage is of course the lexicologist’s cat, Hodge, for whom he daily bought a ration of oysters. The sculpture is by Jon Bickley and it was unveiled by the Lord Mayor of the City of London in 1997.

The oft quoted description of Hodge comes from James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson in which we read as follows.

I recollect him one day scrambling up Dr. Johnson’s breast, apparently with much satisfaction, while my friend smiling and half-whistling, rubbed down his back, and pulled him by the tail; and when I observed he was a fine cat, saying, ‘Why yes, Sir, but I have had cats whom I liked better than this;’ and then as if perceiving Hodge to be out of countenance, adding, ‘but he is a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed.’

Dr Johnson's House
Dr Johnson’s House
17 Gough Square

The famous scholar lived and worked on his dictionary here in the mid-18th century in a house built towards the end of the preceding century. Since Johnson’s time, the house has led a chequered existence until it has latterly been restored and opened to the public as a museum.

The top room
The top room
Where the manuscript was prepared

The top floor is a single room running the length of the house and it was here where amanuenses employed by Johnson stood to copy out the material prepared by Johnson to form the manuscript of his dictionary. On a table we find a two-volume replica of that dictionary.

The staircase
The staircase

Stairwells both attract and repel me but I am always drawn to photograph them. Johnson’s is quite a substantial house with five floors, including the basement, so even though this is not the deepest stairwell I have photographed, it is deep enough to induce a shudder!

Drawing Room
Drawing Room

The rooms are furnished – though whether the furniture really belonged to Johnson I am not sure – and there is information on hand to explain what you are seeing and relate this to Johnson’s life and the production of his great work. For me, though, it remained a pale experience. I received no feeling of a house once lived in, much less one lived in by the formidable doctor. If Johnson’s ghost haunts the place, he was absent today.

Plant covered building
Plant covered building

Continuing on, we passed this building coated in plants. I have seen a number of these appearing around London and other cities. I am not sure whether the greenery is merely a novel decoration or whether there is some serious ecological purpose behind it. I bet it takes a lot of work to maintain it green and healthy, though.

33 Eastcheap
33 Eastcheap
The Boar’s Head Tavern stood here

We passed along Eastcheap where this over-the-top building is at number 33. It was built in 1868 – as a vinegar warehouse, would you believe – by an architect of Huguenot descent, R.L.Roumieu. I think it’s now offices with shops on the ground floor. Apparently, the Boar’s Head Tavern once stood here and, as a reminder of this, the architect added a boar’s head to the decor. You can just about make it out in the arch of the centre window on the second floor.

Steeple of St Dunstan in the East
Steeple of St Dunstan in the East

Our next and final destination was St Dunstan’s Hill, site of the Church of St Dunstan in the East (there is a matching St Dunstan in the West in Fleet Street). This church is said to have been founded around the year 1100 but much has happened to it since then, not least in 1666 when it was severely damaged in the Great Fire of London – severely damaged but not completely destroyed.

Windows empty of glass
Windows empty of glass

The church was not rebuilt but was instead patched up by Christopher Wren who did, nonetheless, built a new steeple. This, however, was done in Medieval Gothic style rather than in the usual manner of Wren, in order to match the style of the refurbished building.

The final blow came in World War Two when the church was so badly damaged by bombing that a decision was made not to rebuild it. Instead, its secured ruins were left standing and the grounds converted into a public green space. The windows that were once glazed with stained glass now look frame views of the gardens.

Wren's crown spire
Wren’s crown spire

Remarkably, the church tower survived the destruction of the rest of the church and remains both a London landmark and an elegant example of a crown spire.

All Hallows
All Hallows
Seen from Great Tower Street

We walked up to the top of St Dunstan’s Hill into Great Tower Street. Looking down this major thoroughfare, I took my last photo of the day. It shows another architectural gem, the steeple of All Hallows. Founded in 675 and preceding by 300 years the Tower of London, two of whose towers you can glimpse on its right, this church actually survived the Great Fire of 1666, only to fall victim to the bombing in World War Two. Again, almost miraculously we might think, the steeple survived and formed the basis of the rebuilt church.

Copyright © 2014 SilverTiger, https://tigergrowl.wordpress.com, All rights reserved.


About SilverTiger

I live in Islington with my partner, "Tigger". I blog about our life and our travels, using my own photos for illustration.
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8 Responses to A very fine cat indeed

  1. cabbieblog says:

    Whilst in the Knowledge I must have spent 2 hours in the vicinity looking for Richard Kindersley’s totem pole – The Seven Ages of Man. Little did I realise it was a sculpture poking its head(s) over the top of a parapet surrounding probably one if London’s ugliest buildings.

    • SilverTiger says:

      I spotted it only by chance and had to do a search to find out what it was. That’s London for you: surprises round every corner (and over every wall)!

  2. Oddly at this very minute there’s a PBS network show “Time Scanners” that is talking about St Paul’s and Wren’s construction of it. They are using new technology to discover his hidden structural/architectural methods. – paired with your post – it’s all very nice.
    I was in the angled information center and thought it’s shape so unusual at the time. Did so much enjoy the visit – recognized some of your street scenes – but we missed Hodge ( and so much!) so must find a way to return.
    One again – terrific narrative and pictures ( color is appreciated – just as stylish as BW)

    • SilverTiger says:

      Rather interesting that our paths have crossed, geographically if not contemporaneously.

      It says something about the British temperament that whatever Dr Johnson’s importance to our culture, what people remember most is Hodge, his cat. (Shades of Dick Whittington.)

  3. WOL says:

    I like the thought that St. Dunstan’s, bombed to a ruin, was turned into a green space, which can still be sanctuaries from the world. Good old Hodge. He reminded me of my late aunt’s cat, Jackie, fed nothing but tinned salmon, who nonetheless lived to the ripe old age of 18.

    • SilverTiger says:

      When we were there, St Dunstan’s was full of city workers eating picnic lunches, chatting or just taking a break. In some ways, the church is now the most useful it has ever been.

      Cats have an impact on our lives quite out of proportion to their size! 🙂

  4. Mark Elliott says:

    As someone who is repelled by most modern architecture and who suspects that, like most abstract artists, the architect’s “message” is a pretentious invention to justify the high price of the resulting work, I must say that the form of the building seems to suugest a welcoming embrace of outflung arms. Or maybe I’m just being pretentious, too!

    That aside, the older buildings are certainly magnificent and knock the visitor’s centre into a cocked hat.

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