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London's Banker-free Zone

A quiet weekend in the City is filled with ghosts for Neil Sowerby

Written by . Published on September 21st 2011.

London's Banker-free Zone

Travel editor Neil Sowerby wonders whether he ought to feed the Beefeaters or the ravens first, then enjoys a sumptuous visual feast in The Somnolent Square Mile

A FIT of giggles assails us on almost every corner of the City of London as we play Spot the Gherkin or, meandering towards the Thames shore, I-spy The Shard. As iconic buildings go, these contemporary architectural statements will never catch up with the Tower of London for historical resonance but they do contribute to a rich visual tapestry...

... And to our amusement, as we struggle to find a church, shop or pub open as the brokers and traders enjoy their weekend fat-cattery elsewhere and the Sunday tumbleweed blows down Threadneedle Street. After the West End it’s really quite liberating. You start to look at the small details of the cityscape around you.

Tower Of London From The RiverTower Of London From The River

The Shard, on completion, will be Europe’s tallest building, centrepiece of galloping  regeneration across the river. 30 St Mary Axe, the Swiss Re Building (colloquially referred to as the Gherkin because of its shape) represents the flamboyance of the 21st century financial district – as a less daring successor to Richard Rogers’ “inside out” Lloyd’s Building.

But I love the Square Mile and surrounds not for the big landmarks (not even the Monument or The Bank of England). No, I love the discreet thoroughfares that follow ancient settlement patterns and conjure up quirky corners and for some great boozers, daytime and early evening midweek, naturally. You can’t help but stumble upon constant  evidence of histotry. Here’s just one example:

The Tower EssentialsThe Tower Essentials

Take Samuel Pepys, the great diarist. He watched the Great Fire of London from the tower of  St Olave Hart Street, after surrounding buildings had been cleared to ensure its survival. In consequence, it was one of the few medieval churches left standing after the Great Fire – but it didn’t make it unscathed through the Blitz. Then again many of Christopher Wren’s replacement churches were also badly hit.

St Olave was restored in the Fifties and surviving features include a monument to Elizabeth Pepys (she and husband Sam are buried there) along with some woodwork attributed to Grinling Gibbons.

The churchyard is also said to contain the grave of Mary Ramsay, the woman believed to have brought the Black Death to London and, more bizarrely, that of pantomime character “Mother Goose”. A wall plaque details her interment on September 14, 1586. Much later, Charles  Dickens was so taken with the church he dubbed it "St Ghastly Grim" in one of his journalistic pieces.

What A CodpieceWhat A CodpieceThat might be inspired by the macabre 1658 entrance arch with its carved grinning skulls. We spotted this and the Pepys plaque, while heading out from our base, the Apex City of London Hotel, which happened to be next door. It’s on Seething Lane, a street name that dates back to Pepys’s time, like the adjoining Crutched Friars, which boasts a jolly pub of that name and an even jollier one called The Ship. Both were rammed and loud. It was still Friday and the weekend was definitely starting here.

Just as Mincing Lane has nothing to do with first impressions, so Seething comes from medieval word ‘sifethen’ meaning ‘full of chaff’  in reference to its proximity to Cornmarket, while Crutched Friars is named after the crossed friars, a still-existing order of fratres cruciferi which means “cross wearers”. No, not what you thought, either.

Of course, this rich stew of the capital’s history can be bewildering. The clearest overview can be found at the Museum of London, in the concrete brutalist setting of the London Wall.

From before Roman Times to the accelerating changes of the 20th century, it’s all there done with great visual gusto, a great educational tool for kids. A short rat-driven film about the Black Death had its audience of mainly kids riveted.

The Tower of London was also around the corner from our Apex. I’d never been before. Perhaps Friday afternoon wasn’t the quietest time to remedy that. We sneaked in to see the Crown Jewels just at closing time when the lengthy queues suddenly dissolved.

Bubbly At SearcysBubbly At SearcysBeefeaters, ravens, the vast displays of armour (what a codpiece King ‘Enery sported!) were just has I had always imagined. A bit theme park in parts. I was moved, though by the quarters where Sir Walter Raleigh was imprisoned, the preserved wall scrawlings of Catholic martyrs awaiting hideous torture and execution and, of course, the grim aura of Traitor’s Gate.

A greater treat for me came next morning. We got to Samuel Johnson’s House just as it opened and had it to ourselves. Celebrating its 100th anniversary as a museum, it is tucked away off Fleet Street, among some undistinguished modern office blocks. There is, though, a discreet alleyway whisking you away to the delights of the Old Cheshire Cheese, one of the writer’s drinking haunts when he wasn’t toiling over his great dictionary in his attic.

That top floor was destroyed during the Blitz but the rest of the uncluttered house looks miraculously much as it must have done in the 18th century. Keeping it open is a labour love and deserves support. It is within a short walk of St Paul’s Cathedral, where you can pay equal literary tribute to the statue of John Donne, the Elizabethan poet and former Dean.

I’d pay tribute, too, to St Paul’s excellent (daytime) restaurant. Most of the crypt is given over to a shop and sprawling cafe, but in one corner a bright arched ante-room offers some excellent sourced modern English cuisine. A bottle of refreshing English rose from The Choirs in Gloucestershire washed down a main of grey mullet, apple, fennel and heritage potato salad.

Unique View Of St Paul's From One New ChangeUnique mall view Of St Paul'sWe felt we deserved a treat after ascending the 259 steps to the Whispering Gallery, which runs inside the Dome 30m above the floor of Wren’s great edifice, then on up a further 119 steps to the Stone Gallery, which runs round the outside of the base of the dome. There was a queue for the remaining climb to the Golden Gallery (85m) so we contented ourselves with the magnificent panorama of London (I immediately picked up maximum points for nailing the Gherkin and the Shard in one quick pivot).

A great reflected view of the Cathedral itself comes in the artfully constructed foyer/atrium of the new shopping mall next door, One New Change. The latest branch of Searcys Champagne Bar offers a wonderful range of bubbly and, among snacks, good oysters and Forman’s London smoked salmon. It will enable you to live the fat cat life until your wallet squeals.

Then it’s time to start walking again – and keep your eyes open.

Fact file

Neil Sowerby travelled to London with Virgin Trains, which runs up to 50 trains a day between Manchester and London. For details of services and fares, including special promotions, visit www.virgintrains.co.uk. For timetable information ring National Rail Enquiries 08457 48 49 50.

He stayed at the (highly recommended)  Apex City of London Hotel, 1 Seething Lane, EC3N 4AX (0207 702 2020, www.apexhotels.co.uk/hotels/city-of-london/).
Stylish central hotel located on the doorstep of Tower Bridge. The award-winning hotel has a contemporary feel and 179 spacious en-suite bedrooms and suites, Addendum restaurant and techno-gym facilities. This mainly Scottish upmarket chain has an additional City of London hotel on Copthall Avenue, London Wall and is opening a third early in 2012 in the Inner Temple Conservation area, off Fleet Street – called Apex Temple Court.

The City of London boasts 600 listed buildings, 26 conservation areas, over 150 parks and gardens and some 50 churches or church ruins within its 1.22 sq miles. For further information – and a range of self-guided trails – go to www.visitthecity.co.uk.

Museum of London, London Wall at junction of Aldersgate, www.museumoflondon.org.uk.
Tower of London: www.hrp.org.uk/TowerOfLondon.
Dr Johnson’s House, 17 Gough Square, EC4A 3DE, www.drjohnsonshouse.org.
St Paul’s Cathedral, EC4M, www.stpauls.co.uk. Details of its restaurant: www.restaurantatstpauls.co.uk/restaurant.

Further recommended places to dine and drink in the area:
Mint Leaf Lounge and Restaurant, 12 Angel Court, Lothbury, Bank, EC2R 7HB (020 7600 0992, www.mintleaflounge.com). Vibrant south Indian inspired food and a cool DJ in high-ceilinged city slickers’ hideaway.

One New Change Searcys Champagne Bar, First Floor, One New Change, London EC4M 9AF (020 7871 1213, www.searcys.co.uk/one-new-change-champagne-bar/).

Refettorio, Crowne Plaza Hotel, 19 New Bridge Street, EC4V 6DB (020 7438 8052). Next to Blackfriars Station, this take on rustic Italian cuisine in a discreet hotel dining space benefits from the consultancy of Giorgio Locatelli.

Across the road from Refettorio is the one must-see pub in this part of town, The Blackfriar, 174 Queen Victoria Street, EC4V 4EG (020 7236 5474, www.nicholsonpubs.co.uk). This 1875 building only acquired its exquisite facade and even more spectacular interior in 1905. In tribute to the priory of the black-habited Dominican that once stood on the site fat jolly friars in marble and brass carouse their way around the walls amid a decorative riot ofgilt and stained glass. It’s all well matched  by the variety of well-kept cask ale. And it opens evenings!

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