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Hidden History of London

London's Hidden History
Tower Gateway

A short stroll across The Minories into Trinity Square past the elegant Neoclassical Trinity House, once caretaker of all manned lighthouses around the coast, and up Coopers Row to the Grange City Hotel. In the piazza is perhaps the best preserved section of London's original Roman wall, built 190-220AD. Medieval can be seen that increased the height of the wall by another ten feet. Left into Pepys Street and you are in for a treat.

Facing you, in Seething Lane, is the Gate of the Dead. It is the entrance to the churchyard of St Olave's or St Ghastley Grim as Charles Dickens called it in his book The Uncommercial Traveller. The Burial Register shows that a character call Mother Goose, no kidding, was buried here in on 14 September 1586, (she's below you!) and in 1665 three hundred and sixty victims out of the seventy thousand who died in the Great Plague are buried here. The ancient iron spiked gate decorated with grinning skulls and crossbones commemorates them. Grim huh?

The nursery rhyme "Ring a ring o' roses" sung by generations of children was composed to recall the Plague. The ring of roses was the rash that appeared on the skins of the victims. A pocketful of posies were the flower nosegays carried to avoid catching the Plague, didn't work! "Atishyoo atishyoo" was the sneezing symptom of the sufferers. And "All fall down". No explanation needed, brown bread me old china plate - dead mate! (Cockney rhyming slang.)

The ragstone Gothic church in Hart Street was erected to venerate the memory of King Olaf of Norway, who in 1014 helped Ethelred the Unready retake London at the Battle of London Bridge after Sweyn Forkbeard, the Danish leader, had captured the Capital the previous year.

London Bridge was pulled down in the battle and so the origin of another nursery rhyme "London Bridge is falling down, falling down, my fair lady". This is not the bridge that was sold to America and rebuilt in a desert in Arizona!

St Olave's was one of the fourteen City churches that escaped the Great Fire but it is best known as the church where Samuel Pepys, London's most famous diarist; after Jeffery Archer, of course; worshipped with his wife Elizabeth. Both are buried in the church.

Pepys, who lived in Seething Lane where a modern bust of him was erected in 1983 by The Samuel Pepys Club, had his own front row church pew in full view of the rest of the congregation. His diary entry for 9 October 1663 reads: "To church, where I found that my coming in a new periwig did not prove so strange as I was afraid it would, for I thought all the church would cast their eyes all upon me; but I found no such thing". How vain, Mr Pepys?

The interior of the St Olave's was destroyed in the Blitz but the carved wooden Grinling Gibbons pulpit survived. Excellent lunchtime classical music recitals are held in the week, so it is no wonder that this church is a favourite of Mark Field, Member of Parliament for London and Westminster.

Across Crutched Friars up the stone steps and you will see The Tower of All Hallows Staining, the only remaining part of a church built in 1320. Alas, the medieval market no longer exists outside the churchyard but tradition exists as there is now just one fruit and flower stall for busy office workers.

Back down Seething Lane to All Hallows by the Tower, Pepys watched the progress of the Great Fire (1666) from its tower. The fire started at 2 o'clock in the morning on 2 September in the shop of Robert Farriner, the King's baker in Pudding Lane, a stones throw from the church. The Monument, built by Wren and Robert Hooke, at 202 feet the world's highest free standing stone column, now marks the spot where the fire began.

The Lord Mayor at the time, Sir Thomas Bludworth, when awakened with news of the fire uttered the words, before going back to sleep, that forever haunted him; "a women might piss it out." Mayoral language has not changed much over the centuries!

The fire destroyed over 13,000 houses and 88 churches, including the original St Paul's Cathedral) but amazingly unlike the huge fatalities in the Great Plague, only a dozen lives were claimed.

All Hallows survived the fire but was virtually destroyed by the Luftwaffe bombing in 1940, only the seventeenth red brick tower and the exterior walls remained standing. A Saxon arch inside the church dates back to 675AD and in the crypt evidence of a Roman tessellated pavement can be seen. But what must not be missed is the world famous Grinling Gibbons carved limewood font cover in the Baptistery.

This exquisite carving of cherubs, costing 12 pounds in 1662, is only the lid of the font, the original wooden font is in Christ Church, Philadelphia. William Penn, founder of the state of Pennsylvania, was baptised in 1664 in All Hallows so perhaps he took it to the USA as a souvenir of trip to London! John Quincy, sixth President was married here in 1797 to add to the American connection.

The church has a historic maritime association. In the South Aisle is the Mariners' Chapel and there can be seen a stained glass window as a memory to the crew of a ship lost in the River Plate. There is a Port of London window and All Hallows is the chosen church of HM Custom & Excise but perhaps the most intriguing sight is the wooden crucifix with an ivory figure of Christ.

The figure is reputed to be part of the booty from a ship of the Spanish Armada and the wood for the cross from the "Cutty Sark", the famous China Tea Clipper. She can be seen in her full glory in Greenwich.


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