Day 29 – Bunhill Fields – Whitecross Street – Barbican

This walk begins opposite where the last one finished, on the western side of City Road at Bunhill Fields, the last remaining historic burial ground in central London. It then winds its way westwards and southwards, taking in Whitecross Street market before ending up at the behemoth of modernist architecture that is the Barbican Centre and estate.

Day 29 Route

Bunhill Fields is the final resting place for an estimated 120,000 souls, a large proportion of them interred at the time of the great plague of 1665 when the area first came into use as a burial ground. As the ground was never consecrated by the Church of England it became a popular burial site for Nonconformists and Radicals among whose number were  John Bunyan (1628 – 1688), the author of The Pilgrim’s Progress and a Baptist, Daniel Defoe (1660 -1731), writer of Gulliver’s Travels and Moll Flanders and a Presbyterian, and William Blake (1757 – 1827), poet, artist and religious iconoclast.

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Tomb of John Bunyan
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Memorials to Daniel Defoe and William Blake

The last burial here took place in 1854 and the site was configured into its current layout in the 1860’s with a public garden area created alongside a hundred years later. The burial ground now contains 2,333 monuments, mostly simple headstones (of which there are 1,920) arranged in a grid formation. Among the more extravagant memorials is that of Dame Mary Page, wife of Sir Gregory Page, first baronet, wealthy City merchant and East India Company director. As you can see below, the tomb is unusual in bearing an inscription setting out the graphic detail of the disease that brought about the lady’s demise – believed to be what is now known as Meigs’ Syndrome.

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After a circuit of Bunhill Fields we head north up City Road a short distance before turning left into Featherstone Street and proceeding west to Bunhill Row with a brief deviation into Mallow Street. Cross over into Banner Street just off the south side of which sits the Bunhill Fields Quaker Friends House, originally the caretaker’s house of a set of Quaker mission buildings, the rest of which were destroyed in WWII. The surrounding gardens and playground occupy the site of the old ‘Quaker Burying Ground’ where the movement’s founder, George Fox, is buried along with many thousand early adherents.

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At the next intersection with we turn north for the first of several visits to Whitecross Street. This has been home to an eponymous market since the 17th century though by the late 19th century the area had become a by-word for poverty and alcohol, known colloquially as Squalors’ Market. When I used to visit it occasionally ten years or more ago it was very much in the “pile it cheap and high” tradition of street markets with just the odd food stall among the DVDs, kitchen implements and cut-price clothing. Nowadays the “street food” has effectively taken over completely and the market is more-or-less just a lunchtime affair. Naturally (in keeping with established tradition) I got here just as all the stalls were packing up.

We hit Old Street just opposite St Luke’s and resume west as far as Golden Lane where we turn south then east along Garrett Street back to Whitecross Street. The restaurants that line the street have gone pretty upmarket and edged out most of the old-school retailers. The second-hand record store run by a couple of aging Teddy Boys is long gone but one or two of the old guard cling on as you can see.

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Whitecross Street and its offshoots have also succumbed to the encroachment of “street art” (spreading west from its Shoreditch heartland). Topically and appositely, the latest manifestation is an image of someone very cross and very white.

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Next up it’s the western stretch of Banner Street which returns us to Golden Lane where we look in on Nags Head Court before turning back east along Roscoe Street. Loop round Baird Street then continue east along Chequer Street (through another Peabody Trust estate). On the return to Bunhill Row we dip south briefly then make a right into Dufferin Street and complete a circuit of Dufferin Avenue and Cahill Street before crossing Whitecross again, this time into Fortune Street. Where this meets Golden Lane once more we encounter what can only be a sign of things to come.

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Turning south we arrive at no.1 Golden Lane which is now offices of UBS Bank but started life in 1896 as the home of the Cripplegate Institute; a charitable foundation set up by the City of London Parish of the same name. The building, designed by architect Sidney Smith, who was also responsible for what is now known as Tate Britain, incorporated a reference library, news and magazine rooms and classrooms for teaching such subjects as photography, dressmaking and first aid. In 1898 a theatre, staging mainly amateur productions, was opened in the building. The institute left the premises in 1987 and relocated to Chiswick, having sold the building for £4.5m.

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At its southern end Golden Lane emerges into Beech Street, a lengthy stretch of which forms the Barbican Tunnel. Heading east again we pass the Barbican Cinema which is now housed in a separate building from the rest of the arts complex.

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Passing this we turn back into Whitecross Street where the last vestiges of the old 3-for-a-fiver style street market are huddled in a concrete forecourt to a Waitrose supermarket. I once bought a checkered trilby hat here for £6 and still get occasional use out of it when the sun deigns to make a proper effort.

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Next right is Errol Street which forks right again into Lambs Buildings where you can find the home of the Royal Statistical Society in a converted Victorian Sunday School building. In 1833 the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BA) created a statistical section following a presentation by the Belgian statistician Adolphe Quetelet to its fellows. This proved so popular that, a year later, a Statistical Society was founded by Charles Babbage, Thomas Malthus and Richard Jones with the Marquis of Lansdowne as President. Florence Nightingale became the first female member in 1858. I failed miserably to come up with any interesting actual statistics about the RSS but a mildly interesting fact is that Harold Wilson was its President in 1972-73 whilst leader of the opposition to Ted Heath.

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Just around the corner is St Joseph’s Catholic Church featuring the memorial Cardinal Hume Quiet Garden.

Turning left we’re back on Bunhill Row which was originally called Artillery Walk (as it runs along the western side of the grounds of the Honourable Artillery Company – as featured in the last post). John Milton lived here for a time, during which he completed Paradise Regained.

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We go south from here onto Chiswell Street and then complete a circuit of Lamb’s Passage, Sutton’s Way and Whitecross Street (for one final time) before crossing into Silk Street and entering the Barbican Centre just as the rain starts to fall.

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The Grade II listed Barbican is Europe’s largest multi-arts and conference venue and one of London’s best examples of Brutalist architecture. It was developed from designs by architects Chamberlin, Powell and Bon as part of a utopian vision to transform an area of London left devastated by bombing during the Second World War. Although the first proposals were submitted in 1955 it wasn’t until 1971 that construction started and 1982 when the Queen formally opened the building. For a whistle-stop  history of the Barbican site from medieval times to the present day I would recommend this animated video inspired by an essay from the pen of Peter Ackroyd. The image below shows how things looked in 1955, with only the church of St Giles Cripplegate having miraculously survived the carnage wrought by the German air raids.

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The following selection of images feature :

  • a spatial installation in the foyer (until 10/09/2016), exploring the theme of collision, in which two revolving arms narrowly evade each other in a mobile of light and sound in constant motion.
  • the Barbican Muse – a sculpture, created by artist Matthew Spender, of a woman holding the separate masks of tragedy and comedy.
  • the Guildhall School of Music and Drama – founded in 1880 and taking up residence in the Barbican complex in 1977.
  • the “lakeside” terrace (thronged on this day with graduating students from King’s College)
  • the residential tower blocks (now some of last remaining from their era)

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Nip in to see the latest exhibition in the art gallery which is a retrospective of work by the Icelandic performance artist, Ragnar Kjartansson which you can catch until the first week of September 2016. Centrepiece of the exhibition is a work entitled Take Me Here by the Dishwasher: Memorial for a Marriage (2011) a live performance featuring ten guitar-strumming troubadours singing for up to eight hours a day against a backdrop of a clip from an Icelandic softcore film of the Seventies starring the artist’s parents.

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Leave the Barbican by the Silk Street entrance again, head east and loop round Milton Street and Moor Lane. This area is home to several of the monolithic glass skyscrapers that have come to dominate the City and these days there are as many residential as there are office blocks and I find myself asking if there isn’t perhaps a finite pool of people who can stump up £3.75m plus for an apartment, however stunning the view.

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Moor Lane backs onto another massive instalment of the Crossrail redevelopment.

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Fore Street takes us round to the southern side of the Barbican complex where we find the aforementioned St Giles Cripplegate church.  It is believed that there has been a church on this site since Saxon times though it was during the Middle Ages that it was dedicated to St Giles. The name “Cripplegate” refers to one of the gates through the old City wall, which had its origins in Roman times as a fortification to protect the Roman city from attackers. There is no definitive explanation of the origin of the word ‘Cripplegate’ but it is thought unlikely that it relates to cripples despite the fact that St Giles is their patron saint (along with beggars and blacksmiths).  It is more likely that the word comes from the Anglo-Saxon “cruplegate” which means a covered way or tunnel, which would have run from the town gate of Cripplegate to the original Barbican, a fortified watchtower on the City wall. Sections of the old wall can still be seen near the church.

The church was designated a Grade I listed building on 4 January 1950 and it was extensively restored in 1966. Against the northern flank of the church is one of 14 artworks located around central London which were organised during Lent 2016 into a trail telling the story of the Passion of Christ under the umbrella title Stations of the Cross. Some of these (like the Jean Cocteau mural reported on a couple of posts back) are longstanding features of the city but the one you can see below, station no.9 by G.Roland Biermann, is one of four freshly commissioned pieces in 2016.

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As you see, after an absence of several weeks, some more of my pigeon friends have managed to inveigle themselves into this final collection of images.

Leaving the many fascinations of the Barbican behind we finish for today by walking down Wood Street to London Wall (which we will return to on other occasion).

 

 

 

 

 

 

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