This book’s full title is Hidden City. The Secret Alleys, Courts & Yards of London’s Square Mile. A bit of a handful, so I’ll stick to Hidden City from here. But the full title has a does-what-it-says-on-the-tin quality. This is not uncommon nowadays and important from the author’s point of view because in a highly crowded and competitive London-themed book market, the potential punter needs to see what’s what right away.
David Long is a successful author already of a number of titles which range from the scholarly and personal architectural title Spectactular Vernacular – in which he covers 100 London buildings – to The Little Book of London, a Ben Schott-style listings pocketbook of interesting facts. Hidden City, in a way, is a hyprid of these two approaches. Like Spectacular Vernacular it has an itemised text plus photograph format, but like the smaller titles, it is crammed with fascinating historical facts and insights.
The point of the book is to get to know the City not through its grand architectural statements such as St Paul’s, the Guildhall or even Wren churches, but to dig further by exploring its medieval capillaries, “to enjoy the precious thrill of discovering somewhere centuries old yet to the beholder all but unknown”.
Hidden City is arranged alphabetically by street (the author points out there are no Roads in the City, I never knew that), from Abchurch Yard, EC4 to Wine Office Court, EC4. There are around 100 entries with detailed coverage, accompanied by photographs taken by the author. Appendix I supplies a further 100 or so thumbnail entries that didn’t make the A List, so to speak. Example: “Watergate, EC4. Now an unlovely, shapeless cul-de-sac built on the water-gate to the palace of Bridewell”.
So the main body, as the title tells us, explores the Alleys, Courts & Yards. Expect no Cheapside, Fleet Street etc. Long typically explains the etymology of the location, gives us interesting historical stories relating to it, and often offers a personal take – “delightful”, “singularly impressive”, and so on. Hidden City is richly illustrated by photographs taken by the author and my sole quibble with the book is that the images would have benefitted from captions.
An example of one of the shorter entries, chosen almost at random:
COWPER’S COURT, EC3. John Cowper was a sixteenth century City alderman who lived nearby and in the early 1900s builders uncovered a series of brick vaults believed to have been part of the cellars of his house. He died in 1609 and was buried nearby in St Michael Cornhill. The name also recalls one of his descendents, the poet and satirest William Cowper (1731 – 1800) who died or dropsy after many years as a victim of depression.
In the 1840s the court was home to the Jerusalem Coffee House. Despite its name this was popular among India, Far East and China merchants as a place to do business and to hear the latest trading news. Later traders with Australia joined them and by 1879 with three to four hundred subscribing members what had now formally become the Jerusalem Exchange moved to Billiter Street and the old eighteenth-century premises were converted to offices.
The joy of this type of book is that one can read it cover to cover, or flit back and forth at random from entry to entry. For anyone with a slight acquaintance with London’s – or even England’s – history, there are many “aha” moments. If you decide to do your own odyssey around the City’s nooks and crannies, it is an invaluable reference, although at about 8” by 10” don’t expect to carry it in your back pocket.
There is no shortage out there of books about apparently “hidden” or “secret” parts of the capital. Most of them are pretty good. So to make your mark, you really need to trudge the miles, do the research, tease out interesting and lesser-known facts, to get your fingers deep under the surface. With Hidden City, David Long has singularly succeeded here and given us a book that is both scholarly and dripping with absorbing historical jewels.
Hidden City. The Secret Alleys, Courts & Yards of London’s Square Mile by David Long, 2011, 230pp, published by the History Press. RRP £19.99, but generally available for around £13.