03 July 2022
Never getting tired
in the search for
and hidden London
Samuel Johnson once told his biographer James Boswell, ‘Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.’
Above the north-west door of Southwark Cathedral, a stained glass window depicts Samuel Johnson, creator of the first great English dictionary, who was familiar with Bankside and Southwark. It seems appropriate that the Cathedral Cat is named Hodge after Johnson’s own cat.
Visitors to Southwark Cathedral are invited to search for Hodge, and during a recent visit I found myself exploring some hidden and often unknown places in Southwark and other parts of London.
Southwark is known for its links with Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims and the founder of Harvard University. But do tourists ever hear about Cross Bones Graveyard? In mediaeval times, this was an unconsecrated graveyard for the marginalised, including the ‘Winchester Geese’ or local prostitutes, paupers and the ‘Outcast Dead.’
An early campaigner to save the graveyard was the Irish philanthropist Lord Brabazon, later the 11th Earl of Meath. But the burial yard only received the church’s first official blessing on Saint Mary Magdalene’s Day, 22 July 2015, when the Dean of Southwark Cathedral, the Very Revd Andrew Nunn, conducted ‘An Act of Regret, Remembrance, Restoration.’
Cultural diversity in
Soho and Chinatown
Greek Street, between Soho Square and Shaftesbury Avenue, is famous for its restaurants and cosmopolitan nature. Greek Street takes its name from a Greek church that was built in 1677 in adjacent Crown Street, now part of the west side of Charing Cross Road. The church is depicted in William Hogarth’s ‘Noon’ in Four Hours of the Day.
The name of Greek Street and its Bohemian atmosphere reflect the diversity that is flourishing in London, even in these post-Brexit days.
Maison Bertaux, at 28 Greek Street, is the oldest French pâtisserie in London. It was founded in 1871 by a Monsieur Bertaux, a communard from Paris. He arrived in London as a political refugee and opened his shop in the heart of the French community in late 19th century London. The French Protestant church is nearby in Soho Square, while the Catholic Notre Dame de France is in Leicester Place.
Three of the mirrors in the shop contain the inscriptions Liberté, égalité, fraternité. Each year, the shop creates a tableau vivant on 14 July to celebrate Bastille Day.
Nearby on Frith Street, Bar Italia is an Italian café that was opened in 1949 by the Polledri family, and is still owned by Veronica and Anthony Polledri today. Bar Italia inspired the song of the same name by the band Pulp, the last track of their album Different Class (1995). The song describes the café as ‘round the corner in Soho’ and ‘where other broken people go.’
Dave Stewart, formerly of the Eurythmics, once said, ‘This coffee shop is very small but what goes on in there is as big as the world.’ Bar Italia has been named at times as London Coffee Shop of the Year. Next door, Jimmy’s opened at No 23 in 1948 and was the oldest Greek restaurant in Soho until it closed in recent years.
Chinatown borders Soho and Theatreland, in an area around Gerrard Street, off Shaftesbury Avenue. It includes Chinese restaurants, bakeries, supermarkets, souvenir shops, banks and other Chinese-run businesses.
London’s first Chinatown was in Limehouse in the East End and the present Chinatown only dates from the 1970s. After World War II, the increasing popularity of Chinese cuisine and the arrival of immigrants from Hong Kong led to an increasing number of Chinese restaurants opening in the area that became Chinatown.
The Chinatown gate on Wardour Street opened in 2016. It was made by Chinese artisans in the style of the Qing dynasty and assembled in London.
The lost bookshops of
Charing Cross Road
Charing Cross Road, north of Saint Martin-in-the-Fields and Trafalgar Square, is still known for specialist and second-hand bookshops. From Leicester Square station to Cambridge Circus, the street is home to antiquarian, specialist and second-hand bookshops. Between Cambridge Circus and Oxford Street, the street includes more generalist bookshops.
Foyles was once listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s largest bookshop in terms of shelf length, at 30 miles (48 km), and for number of titles on display. It was a tourist attraction in the past and was known for its literary lunches and for its eccentric business practices.
Foyles moved from 111-119 Charing Cross Road to 107 Charing Cross Road, once the premises of Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design. It was bought by Waterstones in 2018 and now has a chain of seven shops in England.
The New York-based writer Helene Hanff had a long-standing correspondence from 1949 with Frank Doel, the chief buyer of Marks & Co, antiquarian booksellers on Charing Cross Road. She was in search of obscure classics and British literature titles that she could not find in New York.
The books she bought ranged from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and John Donne’s Sermons to the writings of Samuel Johnson and Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows.
Their exchange inspired her book 84 Charing Cross Road (1970). It has been made into a film starring Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins (1987), and also into a play and a BBC radio drama.
Like so many other premises, 84 Charing Cross Road is no longer a bookshop; it eventually closed in December 1970. It is now part of a McDonald’s outlet, with its entrance around the corner in Cambridge Circus. A brass plaque on a stone pilaster facing Charing Cross Road commemorates the former bookshop and Hanff’s book.
Old Saint Pancras
Walking between Euston Station and King’s Cross, many visitors to London have noticed and even been challenged by Saint Pancras New Church and the sight of its two sets of caryatids, inspired by the Erechtheion on the Acropolis, and its vestibule and tower inspired by the Tower of the Winds in Athens.
The church was completed 200 years ago in 1822, to serve what was then a fashionable end of Bloomsbury and with seating for 2,500 people. It cost £76,679 to build, making it the most expensive church to be built in London since the rebuilding of Saint Paul’s Cathedral.
When Saint Pancras New Church opened in 1822, Saint Pancras Old Church, about 900 metres away, fell into disuse, and it was virtually in ruins by the 1840s. However, the industrial expansion of London brought in a new population, and the Church underwent a complete restoration in 1847-1848.
Local lore claims that church is of a very great age, perhaps even the oldest church in England. Although little remains of the original medieval church and certainly one of the oldest sites of Christian worship in England, possibly dating back to the early 4th century.
The present building has been there since the 11th or 12th century and is close to the River Fleet, which was culverted in the 19th century. The church was ruinous in the 13th century, rebuilt in the 14th century, half abandoned in the 16th century, restored in the 17th century and again substantially rebuilt in the mid-19th century, when the 13th century West Tower was dismantled and the new bell tower added.
During the English civil war, the church was used as a barracks and stable for Cromwell's troops. Before the troops arrived, the church’s treasures were buried and lost, only to be rediscovered during restoration work in the early 19th century. The items included a sixth century altar stone said to have been used by Saint Augustine of Canterbury.
The burials there include Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, the parents of Mary Shelley. The Soane Mausoleum was designed by Sir John Soane, the celebrated architect of the Bank of England, following his wife’s death. Charles Dickens refers to Old Saint Pancras Churchyard in his Tale of Two Cities (1859).
Sadly, the churchyard is about to lose the Hardy Tree, which is being felled due to disease. The novelist and poet Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) once studied architecture in London from 1862-1867 under Arthur Blomfield.
When the railway line was being built over part of the original Saint Pancras Churchyard in the 1860s, Blomfield was commissioned to supervise excavating 10,000 graves. The task fell to his protégé Thomas Hardy, who placed the headstones around the ash tree that became known as Hardy’s Tree.
On the river embankment close to the north entrance to Southwark Cathedral, a plinth is inscribed with well-known words by Sir Walter Raleigh: ‘There are two things scarce matched in the universe, the sun in heaven and the Thames on Earth.’
For the visitor, London continues to display a delightful diversity and has many hidden corners to explore and discover. As Johnson told Boswell, there is no need to tire of London, ‘for there is in London all that life can afford.’
This two-page feature was first published in the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) in July 2022