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The Tree on the Corner

Consider the plane tree at the corner of Wood Street and Cheapside. No one knows how long it has existed on that spot—once the old churchyard of St. Peter’s, which was destroyed during the Great Fire of 1666—but in extant documents it is termed “ancient,” and for centuries it has been a familiar presence. In 1799, for example, the sight of this tree in the centre of London inspired Wordsworth to compose a poem in which the natural world breaks through Cheapside in visionary splendour:

At the corner of Wood Street, when daylight appears,

Hangs a Thrush that sings loud, it has sung for three years:

Poor Susan has pass’d by the spot, and has heard

In the silence of morning the song of the Bird.

Then enchantment holds her, and she witnesses

A mountain ascending, a vision of trees;

Bright volumes of vapour through Lothbury glide,

And a river flows on through the vale of Cheapside.

This might be construed as an example of Wordsworth’s disenchantment with the city, and his wish to obliterate it in the interests of “nature,” but it might also represent his vision of a primeval past. The tree conjures up images of its distant predecessors. Everything about this corner of Wood Street suggests continuity. Even its name is connected with the tree; wood was indeed once sold here, but the tree itself is protected and can never be cut down. In the spring of 1850 rooks came to rest in its branches, re-establishing the ancient association between London and those dark birds. The London plane flourishes in the smoke and dust of London, and the tree at the corner of Wood Street has become an emblem of the city itself. It has now reached a height of approximately seventy feet, and is still thriving.

Beneath it nestle the small shops which have been an aspect of this corner for almost six hundred years. In 1401 a shop known as the Long Shop was first built here against the churchyard wall, and others followed; after the Fire, they were rebuilt in 1687. The site is only a few feet in depth, and each small shop still consists of a single storey above and a box-front below. The trades which have passed through them were various—silver-sellers, wig-makers, law stationers, pickle- and sauce-sellers, fruiterers—all of them reflecting the commercial life of the capital. Appearances may change, but form remains constant. In more recent years there was a shirt-maker and a music warehouse, a sweet-shop and a gown-maker. A florist, Carrie Miller, who was born in St. Pancras, and had never left London, was interviewed here in the years immediately following the Second World War: “I was fortunate enough to find this little shop under the famous tree in Wood Street. Before I came it was a toy shop. The City is in my blood now. I would not be anywhere else in the whole world.” So this tiny spot, this corner, provides evidence of continuity on every level, human, social, natural, communal. There exists on the site today a shirt-maker’s, L. and R. Woodersen, which advertises itself as “under the tree,” a newsagent’s with the shop sign “Time Out. London’s Living Guide,” and a sandwich bar called “Fresh Options.”

Such lines of continuity are to be found everywhere within London, some of great antiquity. The fact that Heathrow Airport is built upon the site of an Iron Age camp is suggestive, with the evidence of a neolithic track or cursus extending two miles on the western side of the “runways” of the present airport. The original Roman street pattern of London has survived, unchanged, in certain parts of the city; Cheapside, Eastcheap and Cripplegate still follow the ancient lines. In Milk Street and Ironmonger Lane, seven successive waves of building have employed exactly the same sites, despite the fact that during this period the street-level itself rose some three feet three inches.

There is a spiritual, as well as a physical, continuity. One historian of the parish of St. Andrew, Holborn, C.M. Barron, has noticed that “along the Roman road leading westwards from Newgate there was a kind of funerary ribbon development,” which in turn coincides with the fatal route taken by the condemned from Newgate to Tyburn; the line of death seems to have been prepared in advance. In a similar spirit we may note that at the same church of St. Andrew, there is evidence of pagan cremation burials, Roman sepulchral building and remnants of early Christian worship; the layers of sacred activity radiate from one to another within what is undoubtedly an holy area. An archaeological investigation of the graveyard of St. Katherine Cree, between Leadenhall Street and Mitre Street, offers interesting evidence of continuous occupation. Here were a series of “patchy Roman surfaces,” according to the London Archaeologist, into which were cut “burials in stone and mortar cists, probably a continuation of the late Saxon graveyard excavated to the east … The area continued to be used as a graveyard to the present day, with burials being made in wooden and lead coffins and the ground level rising steadily.”

Londoners seem instinctively aware that certain areas have retained characteristics or powers. Continuity itself may represent the greatest power of all. The coinage of early tribes in the area of London, particularly that of the Iceni, carried the image of a griffin. The present City of London uses the same miserly and rapacious birds as its emblem. More than two thousand years after their appearance, the griffins still guard the boundaries of the City.

Within that City, the administrative network of the wards is of ancient date; these units of local government can be traced back to the early ninth century, and their exact alignments are still employed at the beginning of the twenty-first century. This is perhaps so familiar a concept that its striking singularity is often missed. There is no other city on earth which manifests such political and administrative continuity; its uniqueness is one of the tangible and physical factors that render London a place of echoes and shadows.

The texture of the city is also remarkably consistent. Peter’s Hill and Upper Thames Street were laid out in the twelfth century. Other street-surfaces and frontages have a similar history, with property divisions remaining intact for many hundreds of years. Even the devastation of the Great Fire could not erase the ancient lanes and boundaries. In a similar pattern of continuity those streets which were newly laid out after the Fire also showed tenacity of purpose. Ironmonger Lane, for example, has had the same width for almost 335 years. That width was and is fourteen feet, originally sufficient to allow two carts to pass each other without hindrance or blockage. It is another aspect of this continuous London history that its structure can accommodate itself to quite different modes of transport.

When George Scharf drew an early nineteenth-century oyster-shop on the corner of Tyler Street and King Street, just east of Regent Street, its shallowness was explained by Scharf’s latest editor, Peter Jackson—“all the houses on the north side of Tyler Street followed a medieval building line which ran at an angle making them progressively shallower.” The streets have been renamed as Foubert’s Place and Kingly Street but even now “the building on this spot still has the same proportions.”

An even more remarkable physical token of the past lies a little further west in Park Lane. The lower end of that street, from Wood’s Mews down to Stanhope Gate, is marked by irregularity; the streets are set back a few feet from each other, so that the “front” is never in a straight line. This is not an accidental or architectural arrangement, however, since the “map or plott of the Lordship of Eburie” reveals that those streets were in fact laid down upon the pattern of the old acre strips of the farmland which once covered the site. These acre strips belonged to the village community system of the Saxon period, and the irregularity of Park Lane is a token of their continuing presence and influence. Just as the Saxon wards maintain their energy and power within the city, so the Saxon farming system has helped to create the structure and topography of the modern city. In similar fashion the curve of West Street, where the Ivy restaurant is now situated, exactly imitates the curve of the country lane which once existed there.

A sixteenth-century surveyor named Tiswell drew up a map of the land which is now occupied by the West End. At that time it consisted of farmland with lanes winding between the villages of St. Giles and Charing. Yet a modern map superimposed upon the Elizabethan plan coincides with its principal thoroughfares and most notable topographical features. It may be a cause of surprise, but it should be one of wonder. Once the city is seen in this light, then it begins to reveal its mysteries. The persistent echoic effect can be recognised everywhere. Thus one of the great twentieth-century writers upon London, Steen Eiler Rasmussen, has noted of standard London dwellings in London: The Unique City that the “little house, of which there have been thousands and thousands, is only sixteen feet broad. It has probably been the ordinary size of a site since the Middle Ages.” He adds that “the uniformity of the houses is a matter of course, and has not been forced upon them.” These houses emerge as a matter of instinct, therefore, deriving from some ancient imperative; it is as if they were similar to the cells that cluster in a human body. When in 1580 Elizabeth I declared by edict that one house should belong to one family, she was giving expression to another great truth about London life; and, as Rasmussen suggests, her proclamation or programme “has been repeated over and over again through the centuries.” The names of the streets, in which many of these houses are to be found, also prove to be of ancient provenance. In similar fashion the squares of London can be associated with the courtyards of the medieval city. The so-called “ribbon development” along the Western Avenue in the 1930s obeys the same process of growth as the ribbon development along Whitechapel High Street in the 1530s. The passage of four hundred years means very little in the workings of London’s inexorable laws.

A recent study of London demography, London: a New Metropolitan Geography by K. Hoggart and D.R. Green, concluded that “several of London’s population characteristics have been present for five hundred years or more,” among them the creation of suburbs, the “over-representation of adolescents and young adults” as well as “the presence of a marginalised and destitute underclass” and “the exceptional representation of overseas migrants, and religious, cultural and ethnic minorities.” Any slice or slide of London life, in other words, would broadly mirror that of previous and succeeding centuries. There has been no fundamental change.

The work of London is also consistent. The preponderance of finishing trades and what have become known as the service industries affords one example, while another continuity is to be found in the reliance upon small workshop, rather than factory, production. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries aldermen complained about lack of public money; the complaint has been repeated in almost every decade of every century. Stephen Inwood, in A History of London, has remarked that “For a city that is the home of national government, London has often been a surprisingly poorly governed place.” Perhaps it is not a surprise, after all; it may be part of its nature and organic being.

These are all large concerns with which to demonstrate the essential continuities of the city’s life. But they can also be glimpsed in local and specific ways, where a stray object or perception can suddenly manifest the deep history of London being. It was in the early fifteenth century that Richard Whittington built near the mouth of the Walbrook in the Vintry the huge public privy that was known as “Whittington’s Longhouse.” John Schofield, in The Building of London, has noted that “centuries later the offices of the Public Cleansing Department now cover the site.”

In Endell Street there was once found an “ancient bath” of unknown date “fed by a fine spring of clear water, which was said to have medicinal qualities.” In the nineteenth century the lower parts of the bath-house were filled with lumber and rubbish so that “the spring no longer flows.” But it did not disappear; it simply emerged in different form. There is a sauna in Endell Street, and on the corner a public swimming bath known as “The Oasis.”

The site of the curative wells in Barnet, where people gathered for healing in the seventeenth century, is now occupied by a hospital. At the foot of Highgate Hill, where it inclines gently into Holloway, a great lazarhouse or leper hospital was established in the 1470s. It had fallen into decay by the middle of the seventeenth century. But the spirit of the place was not diminished. In 1860 the Small Pox and Vaccination Hospital was erected there. The site is now the Whittington Hospital. Almshouses for the frail or feeble were erected in Liquorpond Field; the Royal Free Hospital now covers the area. There was an old poorhouse on Chislehurst Common, erected in 1759; it is now the site of St. Michael’s Orphanage.

Once a famous maypole was set up at the crossing of Leadenhall Street and Gracechurch Street; it towered above the city, and in the fifteenth century the church of St. Andrew Cornhill was rededicated as St. Andrew Undershaft because it was, physically, under the shaft. The great maypole itself was stored along the side of Shaft Alley. This might seem an exercise in medieval nostalgia, were it not for the fact that on this very same spot now rises the tall and glittering Lloyds Building.

The history of a structure on the corner of Fournier Street and Brick Lane is also curiously suggestive; it was built in 1744 as a church for the Huguenot weavers of the period, but was used as a synagogue for the Jewish population of Spitalfields between 1898 and 1975; now it is a mosque, the London Jamme Masjid, for the Muslim Bengalis who succeeded the Jews. Succeeding waves of immigrants have chosen to maintain this place as a sacred spot.

It is possible, too, that an unpleasant or unhappy atmosphere may persist like some noisome scent in the air. It has been noted of certain streets such as Chick Lane, Field Lane or Black Boy Alley, all in the vicinity of the present Farringdon Road, that “a curious fact about these places is that their bad character began so early and persisted so long.” Of Coventry Street, off Piccadilly, it was stated in 1846 that “there is a considerable number of gaming houses in the neighbourhood at the present time, so that the bad character of the place is at least two centuries old, or ever since it was built upon.” The act of building may itself determine the character of an area for ever, in other words; it is as if the stones themselves carried the burden of their own destiny. So we may see the passage of time through stone, but that vision of unbroken continuity is essential to the vision of London itself. This is not the eternity vouchsafed to the mystic, who ascends from the body to glimpse the soul of things, but one immured in sand and stone so that the actual texture or process of life is afforded a kind of grace. The continuity of London is the continuity of life itself.

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