Sometimes I hate living in London, and sometimes I love it.
In January rain it can feel as though it has turned its back and doesn’t want to know you, but it doesn’t take much to find a way through the cracks and into its secrets.
We walked, A & I and three friends from Charing Cross to Cannon Street, a station-to-station walk; not what we intended and more circuitous than the map might suggest. the original plan had been to walk round Bloomsbury, but the rain (torrential) meant that we skipped from cover to cover. Starting off in Embankment gardens with cups of coffee to give the rain a chance to clear (ha ha ha ha ha…) we stopped to chat with tree surgeon cutting into slabs that were still too big really, the remains of an enormous London Plane, which had been threatening the glazed roof of the tube station. Plane trees are a wonderful light coral colour inside, which blazed in comparison to the dark sky. Rain was dripping off my nose at this point, and I was regretting the new raincoat I sent back to Cotton Traders because it wasn’t big enough. Casting astonished glances at the memorial to Arthur Sullivan which has a… Nymph?… splayed across it naked from the hips up as though she’s drugged up on something quite intoxicating (not his music, I would think!) Then up the terrace on the river side of Somerset house where they were setting up a dome thing which it turns out is housing an ice concert where all the instruments are carved out of ice. Through Somerset House and to the courtyard where kids were skating aided by penguin things, then onto the strand.
Still looking for cover we stopped to glance at the museum in the back of Twinings Tea shop, which was a delight for anyone interested in the history of advertising and packaging ( that would be me).
We then dived into Lloyds Bank law courts branch to admire the Edwardian tiled vestibule (rather like Leighton house, heavily influenced by Moroccan architecture, but with a heavy overlay of the steam age somehow). The main banking area has tiled panels of what seem to be characters from Shakespeare and carved wooden owls. Lengthy discussion of the planning permission required to convert the heavy wooden doors (almost certainly listed) to open automatically. Very clever. Back onto the Strand and right into the Temple and to Temple church, which was almost completely destroyed in the Blitz, but carefully restored. I came here first when I was ten and spent a happy summer with my Gran visiting every church in London, (for the architecture and history, rather than any spiritual motives). I remembered the roundness and the knightly effigies, and nothing else, and to be honest roundness and effigies is still what it has to offer. The knights writhe as though trying to get up, but held back by the weight of their armour.
Helpful lady in the church suggested our next haven from the rain should be Prince Henry’s room, over the gate onto Fleet Street. Unfortunately it has been closed to the public for three years, said the man in Wildey’s Legal bookshop next door where they had what he described as a ‘flock’ of knitted stuffed owls in the guise of lawyers and judges perched on the stairs. This is something I have noticed about bookshops- the more serious and specialised the more given to flights of fancy.
Up Chancery Lane and detouring through Lincoln’s Inn and Staple Inn away from the traffic and back to Chancery Lane and onto Holborn where I remembered being in a building for a meeting which had another steam-tiled vestibule. A quick glance round and I identified the old Prudential Building at Holborn bars, now a De Vere Conference centre. We sauntered in to admire the completely tiled stairway and pillars. Kind lady on reception who is obviously used to blow-ins gawping at her tiling provided us with a sheaf of paper that explained the history of the building and escorted us downstairs to admire the safe which is like something out of Metropolis, a stunning bit of engineering and polished to within an inch of its life.
Still raining. Back out onto Holborn and across the Viaduct, which has more statuary that is strictly necessary for such a small stretch of road (but I love the serious lions) and round the corner into Ely Place and St Ethelreda’s church. This is another place I visited with my Gran, and I think we can have only been in the crypt for some reason, because right up until we went in today, I remembered it as being essentially underground. This feeling of being underground. It was this church, and of course St Ethelburga’s among others that led me to write All Hallows, that and feeling that T.S. Eliot had got it wrong about London’s ghosts being on the move in The Wasteland.
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Finally, a cup of hot soup and the train home.
Doing this walk made me think a lot about my Gran, and reminded me of that long summer of hot pavements and cool dark interiors, reading monuments to women dead in childbirth, and learning the history of London from its buildings.
the taste of greengages straight from the bag
still reminds me of Fleet Street in the rain
Grandmother’s Footsteps copyright Cherry Potts
Sometimes, I really hate living in London, and sometimes I really love it.
Copyright Cherry Potts 2011