About the walk
From Saffron Hill to West Smithfield, Bart’s Hospital to Bleeding Heart Yard, Ely Place to Fleet Street via churches, pubs and other interesting architectural features and facts, this walk tours history-rich Farringdon, London.
Apart from agencies, individuals, friends and family, this walk was for anyone who wanted to learn a bit about Farringdon. And as I am now based in Stockholm, I decided to make it a public blog post. The content has been curated (and slightly plagerised) from various sources online and the book Eccentric London.
Pubs such as the New Market and Fox & Anchor are thrumming early in the morning and don’t follow regular licensing hours. In fact many a top-hatted heartless toff has ended up here after a night of ravishing innocent chambermaids (or whatever they do.) The New Market serves a spanking breakfast for around a fiver, but also one for a little more, and an insanely good one for about £30 for two including champagne.
The impressive original entrance to St Bartholomew the Great is a half-timbered medieval gem, but the church is really special as well. It’s featured in Shakespeare in Love and Four Weddings.
The testicles bit
Back in the day a particularly prudish newspaper, which would never show a white woman’s nipple – tribal types were all right – or pubic hair or anything like that. The paper once published a picture of a West Country prize bull but the nervous executive ordered that the beast’s enormous wedding tackle be cut out of the picture. As a result the outraged farmer sued the b*****s of them, as his bull’s income depended on that equipment being in full working order.
‘It was market morning. The ground was covered nearly ankle deep with filth and mire; and a thick steam perpetually rising from the reeking bodies of the cattle, and mingling with the fog, which seemed to rest upon the chimney tops, hung heavily above ... Countrymen, butchers, drovers, hawkers, boys, thieves, idlers, and vagabonds of every low grade, were mingled together in a dense mass: the whistling of drovers, the barking of dogs, the bellowing and plunging of beasts, the bleating of sheep, and the grunting and squealing of pigs; the cries of hawkers, the shouts, oaths, and quarrelling on all sides, the ringing of bells, and the roar of voices that issued from every public house; the crowding, pushing, driving, beating, whooping and yelling; the hideous and discordant din that resounded from every corner of the market; and the unwashed, unshaven, squalid, and dirty figures constantly running to and fro, and bursting in and out of the throng, rendered it a stunning and bewildering scene which quite confused the senses.’
– Charles Dickens Oliver Twist 1838
Smithfield, or "Smoothfield," to follow the true derivation, was from the earliest times a memorable spot in old London.
Meat, meat and more meat. In fact, the area has such a connection with meat that even the street names reflect it – no points for guessing what Cowcross Street and Poultry Avenue were named after.
From its early days as a smooth field where horses, pigs and cattle were sold, the area also became used as grounds for jousting tournaments, a cloth market and executions. William Wallace was hanged, drawn and quartered there, and Queen Mary ordered 200 Protestants to be burnt at the stake in the 1550s. Through it all, the market carried on and it’s recently undergone a £70 million refurb to make it meet modern hygiene standards.
Number 41 – 42 Cloth Fair is considered to be London’s oldest lived-in house. It was built between 1597 and 1614, and is currently occupied by – who else? – an architect.
Before we plunge through the central Grande Avenue opposite, take a look at the fearsome city griffins perched high above the entrance. They guard the city as surely as nine invisible Chinese dragons guard Kowloon, but we prefer ours visibly terrifying – more fang showing than feng shui.
Remarkably, the striking purples, greens and blues of the market’s cast-iron skeleton and decoration are the same colours visitors would have seen when it was opened in 1868.
Cattle were still being driven through the streets of London to Smithfield well into the 19th century – until the practice was banned due to drunken drovers playing silly buggers and stampeding cattle into houses and shops, (originating the phrase “bull in a china shop”).
Another oddity worth a look, further down on the right, is the deeply eccentric brickwork above Pizza Express.
This remarkable pub should be showing three signs (although I can only find two) One shows a cockfight, another the Tower of London and the last depicts three golden balls, signifying, unexpectedly, a pawnbrokers. King George IV, the deeply unpleasant and greedy monarch was enjoying a night out cock-fighting (hence the cockfight sign) in a nearby cockpit when he ran out of money. So the king went into the pub and asked the landlord to pawn his gold pocket watch and give him some cash. The landlord, bold as brass, said he could only do so if the he had a pawnbrokers licence as a publican and a pawnbroker.
Bleeding Heart Tavern & Bleeding Heart Yard
This was the scene of the most gruesome killing recalled by Dickens. Lady Elizabeth Hatton was the toast of 17th Century London society. The widowed daughter-in-law of the famous merchant Sir Christopher Hatton (one-time consort of Queen Elizabeth 1), Lady Elizabeth was young, beautiful and very wealthy. Her suitors were many and varied, and included a leading London Bishop and a prominent European Ambassador. Invitations to her soirees in Hatton Garden were much sought after.
Her Annual Winter Ball, on January 26, 1662, was one of the highlights of the London social season. Halfway through the evening's festivities, the doors to Lady Hatton's grand ballroom were flung open. In strode a swarthy gentleman, slightly hunched of shoulder, with a clawed right hand. He took her by the hand, danced her once around the room and out through the double doors into the garden. A buzz of gossip arose. Would Lady Elizabeth and the European Ambassador (for it was he) kiss and make up, or would she return alone? Neither was to be. The next morning her body was found in the cobblestone courtyard – torn limb from limb, with her heart still pumping blood onto the cobblestones. And from thenceforth the yard was to be known as The Bleeding Heart Yard.
Past the Narninan Lamppost
Up Greville street and left onto Hatton garden, you may find another gem of a pub, The Olde Mitre. You need a bit of Nanina magic to find it, for in some ways it is in a different land. The wonderful stories of C S Lewis, you may recall, hinge on the strange fact that when the children pass a strange, wonky lamppost in the forest, they are crossing from one reality to another.
Ignoring the pub for a moment, continuing through the alley way we will find Ely Place. Ely Place once belonged to the bishops of Ely. Some sources say that, technically, it makes it an enclave of Cambridgeshire, though nobody seems to know exactly what this means. You can tell on the street signs, they are missing the EC1 district number.
It was in one of the 18th-century townhouses of this charming enclave that Dickens set Mr Waterbrook’s house in David Copperfield. Here the adult David renewed his friendship with his old school friend Thomas Traddles at a dinner party, which was also attended by the saintly Agnes Wickfield and the very ’umble Uriah Heep.
Many a petty pickpocket has escaped the clutches of the law down these passageways because since being these gates you were no longer in London.
Bishop Goodrich built the pub in 1564, although completely rebuilt in 1772.
A relic of the former bishop’s palace is the chapel and crypt of St Ethelreda’s, now a Roman Catholic place of worship.
In 1666 the great fire ravaged London, and the medieval church of St Andrew’s was only saved at the last minute by a change in the wind direction.
However, as it was already in a bad state of repair, Christopher Wren decided to rebuild the church anyway (he was like that)
On the side you will find a blue boy and a blue girl. These figures are to be found in various parts of London, on the walls of school buildings. This would mean that this church once had a school for girls and boys. The boy holds a bible in his right hand and a cap in his left. If the children needed to go to school there was no pointing sticking up a sign that said ‘School’ because they couldn’t red.
We are turning right onto Fleet Street past the art deco clock of The Daily Telegraph (why some prat has taken the name of the paper out I don’t know, it’s obviously made for it)
The ratted journalists
We should pay our respects to the creator of the first English dictionary in 1775, Dr Johnson, if only by popping into the legendary Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese pub. This is a labyrinth of a building with more restaurants and bars and more levels than you’d ever guess from the outside. The entrance to this historic pub is via a picturesque alley just down from Dr Johnson's House (he drank here, as did Thackeray, Dickens and the visiting Mark Twain). Cross the threshold and you'll find yourself in a wood-panelled interior (the oldest bit dates from just after the Great Fire of 1666) with sawdust on the floor and divided up into various bars and three restaurants.
There’s always been a Dr Johnson legend based here, with his chair and even his chipped soup bowl available to the gullible to lap from. Actually, there’s no record of his ever having been here, but there is to his having visited nearly every other old pub within five miles.
One must assume that this was his ‘local’, he didn’t bother to mention it.
Or it could be the old Fleet Street advice.
’When the facts conflict with the legend, print the legend.’