London’s Rich Tapestry of History

Above: The destination board of this London bus bears the name of a location that was in existence about 1,400 years ago.

For those of us who live in London, it is all too easy to go about our everyday lives and forget about the history of the famous places that surround us. Board the right bus and it will take you over London Bridge which has its origins in Roman times. In the 11th century, the Normans constructed a stone bridge – the one that had houses and a magnificent chapel on it. That site is only a short distance downstream from the modern bridge we have today. Think how much history was bound up with that bridge!

A bus journey can also take you over Tower Bridge – an iconic symbol of London, designed by the Architect and Surveyor to the City of London, Horace Jones. When I was at college, one of our lecturers was also called Horace Jones who, while he never said where he was born, he was unmistakably a Cockney Londoner. My theory was that he was born near Tower Bridge and because his surname was Jones, his parents named him after the great man – Horace Jones (the architect) who had been responsible for the exterior design of Tower Bridge, as well as other City buildings. On my first day at my new secondary school, as I glanced out of the classroom window, I could see the top of Tower Bridge while sitting at my desk.

Travelling up to my secondary school each day, I used the train which terminated at London Bridge Station. This was London’s first railway terminus – for the London and Greenwich Railway, opened in December 1836. In very recent times the whole station has undergone modernisation, the first complete rebuild in about 180 years. The remains of the original brick arches on the site have a special place in railway history.

Around the corner from the station is Borough High Street, once the site of many medieval inns which later became used for coaching. Among them was the Tabard Inn, well-known to Geoffrey Chaucer who wrote the ‘Canterbury Tales’ in 1386. ‘They were just tales and the pilgrims described in the ‘Prologue’ were all fictitious’ I hear you say. You are right, they were made up. However, we know that Chaucer often travelled along Borough High Street, probably several times each week, in connection with his work. He knew it intimately and certainly would have known the Tabard Inn. He would have watched the throng of pilgrims arriving or departing from those inns – on their way to Canterbury or returning from the famous shrine. There is little doubt that many of the pilgrims described in the fictitious ‘Prologue’ were based on real people that Chaucer had observed as he passed by.

History is all around us. The red double-decker buses also pass within a few yards of St Paul’s Cathedral. Originally founded in Saxon times, the Norman cathedral was the tallest of all the cathedrals in England. After being destroyed in the Great Fire of London, it was rebuilt, designed by Christopher Wren. It became his masterpiece and was not completed until 1697. It could have been destroyed by bombing during the Second World War. It was hit by one bomb that fell onto the High Altar. Mercifully it was spared further damage and stands as a symbol of the City of London.

London has trains which are of different sizes. There are the ‘normal’ sized trains – like those that travel into London’s mainline railway termini. There are the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) trains which are slightly smaller and a lot shorter. There are the trains that run on the deep underground lines which are smaller still because the Victorians built the tunnels to a much smaller gauge. Just travelling on the underground (sometimes called the ‘Tube’) is also to surround yourself in history. The first ever underground railway in the world opened in January 1863 as the Metropolitan Railway. It is now part of the Circle, Hammersmith and City and Metropolitan lines of today’s underground system.

One of the newer lines, called the Overground, which has ‘normal’ size railway carriages, crosses under the Thames using the famous Thames Tunnel. Designed by Marc Brunel and his son Isambard, it was the world’s first sub-aqueous tunnel. The Isambard Brunel only lived to see it used as a foot-tunnel. It had been intended for it to carry carts between Rotherhithe and Wapping. Soon after its completion, in 1843, the tunnel was purchased by the East London Railway Company, in September 1865, and is now in use for the Overground railway which runs from Highbury and Islington via Dalston Junction to its southern termini at New Cross, Crystal Palace and West Croydon stations.

London’s history is even displayed on the destination-boards of London’s buses. The number 9 bears the name ‘Aldwych’ on its eastbound journey, as well as the number 6. It was not until 1985 that archaeologists discovered that there had been a Saxon settlement at Aldwych – whose name derives from Old English and means ‘the old village’. Another bus route – the number 8 – often displays the destination ‘Old Ford’ which was the Roman crossing point of the River Lea. With time, the crossing was abandoned when Bow Bridge was built across the River Lee in Norman times a short distance to the south. Almost everywhere you look in London, historic place names are to be seen. It is only a matter of realising how historic some of these names really are.

Street names, of course, act as reminders of the capital’s past. One of the famous streets in Central London is Strand whose name was given to it by the Viking settlers because it is actually a Danish word that is still in use to this day. It means ‘path beside water or beside a river’. Not far away is Whitehall, reminding us of the grand Tudor palace that once stood with two large gateways guarding its entrance from the north and from the south. Only a few hundred yards from that is the centre of Westminster, so-named by the Saxon founders of the religious house that is now better known as Westminster Abbey. To the Saxons, it was a ‘Münster to the west of the City of London’ – or ‘West Münster’. The word Münster is, of course, the German word from which we have derived our English word ‘Minster’. If you are wondering, there was also an ‘Eastminster’. It was the Abbey of St. Mary Graces which stood just east of where the Tower of London now stands. Sadly, nothing remains above ground of that once famous religious house.

One of the finest reminders of London’s history are the many pub names. The only problem is that pubs are being closed before being converted into a block of flats or – worse still – totally demolished. The permanence of a pub is not as assured as a place name, a street name or even a station name. At a time when England was a Roman Catholic country, there were many way-side crucifixes beside the roads. One such crucifix or cross was beside the ancient Roman route from London to Canterbury. Because those travelling on the road often stopped at the cross a tavern was built nearby with the simple name of ‘The Cross’. When it needed rebuilding, the later version was called the ‘New Cross’. From this simple action, the name of an area of land near Deptford took on that name which remains to this day. What happened to the pub? – Well, the Victorian version still stands beside New Cross Road.

Another pub, the Duchy Arms, in Sandcroft Street, Kennington, is a reminder of land that is part of the Duchy of Cornwall. The land is owned by the Prince of Wales which is the traditional title of the first son of the reigning monarch – presently Prince Charles. The land has been in the same ownership since Edward of Woodstock, known to history as the Black Prince (1330 – 1376), the eldest son of King Edward III, acquired the land in London and had Kennington Palace built as a place in which to live. Sadly that palace is no more.

One more pub, the Old Mitre, in Ely Court, a narrow alleyway running off Hatton Garden in Holborn, is an indirect reminder that the land was in medieval times the London house and extensive grounds owned by the Bishops of Ely – known as Ely Place. Although there is no physical evidence for the grand house (or its splendid grounds) to be seen today, the pub is a reminder of those times.

The unlikely name for a pub of the Pineapple – a pub in Lambeth – is a reminder of the Tradescant family who lived in that part of London, in the 16th and 17th centuries, They were important collectors of rare plants and grew many of them in their large garden which was near today’s Lambeth Bridge. John Tradescant (the Younger) is thought to have grown the first cultivated pineapple in England.

Much of South London was once dense forest – called the Great North Wood. The land was so so dense with trees and so hilly that, even today, few roads cross the terrain. Many residents of Forest Hill and Sydenham travel past pub names like the Woodman, the Bird in Hand and the Greyhound and fail to make the connection with the history of the area. Clearly, in a forest, you would have found a woodman, felling trees. Furthermore, the country pursuit of hunting in various forms would also be carried out. The ‘Bird in Hand’ refers to a falcon or some similar bird, used in hunting, and the Greyhound was used in other sports.

There are also subtle hints at London’s history, which carry no plaque with an explanation. They are just things that you have to discover for yourself. As an example, you may know that Westminster Bridge is painted green. This is for a reason, it is to match the colour of the bench seating in the House of Commons. Similarly, Lambeth Bridge, the next bridge upstream, is painted red to match the seating in the House of Lords.

This blog could go on and on. It is in danger of becoming an essay and then continuing as a whole book on the subject. This is probably the best place to stop before the blog extends too far. Hopefully, it will make you more curious about the environment of London – but be careful to look where you are going. If you dawdle too much – looking up at street names and trying to work out why a pub is so-called, you are in danger of being hit by a passing bus!


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