I popped into town yesterday to meet some friends with their small daughters (four and five years old), and seized an opportunity also to do some history touristing. We all went to the new London Street Photography exhibition at the Museum of London. Being half term, the place was packed. So I shan’t do a proper review now, except to say that I would certainly recommend it. I shall re-visit and review it properly after half term. Entrance is free.
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese
From Museum of London, we took a stroll past St Bart’s, through Smithfield Market and down the Farringdon Road to Fleet Street. The children were getting a little bored and very slightly fractious, so we stopped for lunch at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, a first for me. This tavern is one of London’s oldest, dating from 1667. Among thousands of writers and newspaper types down the centuries, it was also a favourite of Johnson and Boswell. The place retains its olde worlde ambience without being overtly touristy. It has a saloon and a bar and a “chop house” (the restaurant proper). The fare is very reasonably priced. Fish and chips for a tenner, roast meal or sirloin steak for around £15, all good. The service was impeccable. I can see this place being something of a fixture for me in the future. I think a lengthy quaffing session with fellow historians would be just the thing.
St Bride’s Church
I bade my friends farewell and crossed the road to St Bride’s. Another first. St Bride’s is one of the better known of the dozens of Wren’s churches, superficially famous for its beautiful layered steeple, the inspiration for wedding cake design ever since. But this is just the icing, so to speak, of the St Bride’s experience. The crypt is shared by two small subterranean chapels and a museum, which is a treasure hoard of archaeology. The phases of the church’s existence are clearly explained with diagrams, maps and artefacts, the most recent of which date from the Blitz. The current building is thought to be the seventh or eighth on the site.
But going back upstairs for a moment. Nothing not to like, really. Wren simplicity and plenty of light. This is, of course, the journalists’ church where they usually have memorial services for members of that trade. There is a small shrine in the north aisle for correspondents, photographers and crew recently – that is to say in the past 10 years or so – killed while covering conflicts around the globe.
On the backs of the pews there are hundreds of plaques commemorating prominent, deserving and otherwise, members of the media trade. Some of the recent ones actually bear corporate logos, which is not entirely necessary in my view.
The name St Bride’s actually derives from St Bridget, who is big in Ireland, that is to say, not the more eminent Swedish one. Archaelogical and other evidence suggests the first church was built in the 7th Century, during the Saxon period, but probably a Celtic foundation. Post-war archaeological digs have revealed many Roman artefacts which tell us that this immediate part of London was occupied during Roman times, albeit outside the city wall.
One of London’s first print shops, that of Wynkyn de Worde (Caxton’s apprentice) was set up next door in 1500, the beginnings of this part of London becoming a major print and media centre in the centuries that followed.
In the early sixteenth century, Henry VIII built his famous Bridewell Palace immediately to the south of St Bride’s. His son, Edward VI, donated the building to the City of London to be used as a poor house, hospital and prison for women. The word Bridewell subsequently got adopted by other prisons in Britain and indeed overseas, becoming more synonymous with a lock-up than a charitable institution.
The damage caused to St Bride’s by the Blitz allowed for extensive excavation of the crypt after the war. This had been totally sealed up for a century or so as a result of people wrongly believing that disease-carrying miasma emanated from corpses. There, archaologists, led by Professor W. F. Grimes, discovered the foundations of previous versions of the church along with thousands of artefacts previously mentioned.
It’s All in the Bones
They also discovered some 5,000 coffins. The bones from these have been examined in minute detail by experts over the past half-century. One of today’s leading experts is Jelena Bekvalec, Curator of Human Osteology at the Museum of London. She is giving a fund-raising lecture at St Bride’s on 17 March. Tickets are £7 or £10 on the door. More information here.
When I was in St Bride’s I had the place virtually to myself. While in the crypt, examining the coffin plate of the 18C writer Samuel Richardson, a man carrying a box of Ritz crackers approached me. We started chatting and he spent at least half an hour telling me virtually everything which I have just written about St Bride’s. It turns out he is the Verger, David Smith. What a lovely man: I’m very grateful for his kindness and generosity.