The third in our series of curious routes, free historic walking tours around the edges of the City of London, we explore the area around the Old Street Roundabout. Now sometimes known as the silicon roundabout it represents a key junction of intersecting routes coming into the city.
Of course Old Street itself is ancient. Probably starting life as a drovers track it was subsumed by the Romans into their road network, becoming part of a route that would have lead from Bath to Colchester with the section that we now know as Old Street bypassing the city to the north. This section is actually rather small only heading from Goswell Road in the West to Kingsland Road in the East, joining together Clerkenwell with Shoreditch, a distance of approximately one mile.
Old Street was first mentioned as Ealdestrate around 1200 and the etymology of its name has remained ‘eald’ being old english for ‘old’ and ‘strate’ meaning street. Given its provenance from Roman times and before it has long been recognised as an ancient route and was known as old even at the end of the 12th century.
So that’s a bit about where we are starting from. For this tour we’ll start and finish at the Old Street tube station taking in a circular tour of the area, skimming the edges of the old city of London. All in all it should take around two hours to complete.
Old Street to Finsbury Square
From the station find the exit leading to City Road and this will take you south towards the City of London. Be warned, the station is an absolute maze so don’t be disheartened if you come out the wrong exit. Just take your time, find City Road which is flanked by an ‘Eat’ restaurant on the corner and head down on the left hand side of the road.
Very soon you will come to a turning with Leonard Street. Head down for a few steps and find number 5, which at the time of writing is a small restaurant and very unassuming. This was, back in the mid nineties to mid-noughties, the sight of the original Dragon Bar one of the key hangouts for graffiti types in what was then a much less sanitised part of town. Banksy himself would have spent time here as a known hangout and it is here that it is claimed his famous spat with graffiti artist Robbo began, leading to the famous Banksy/Robbo graffiti wars.
The bar shut in 2008 following a fire in an adjacent building. One of the reports at the time from the wonderfully descriptive Graffoto blog really captures the essence of what the Dragon Bar was like at the height of the burgeoning graffiti and street art scene. Describing the inside after it closed as a “decaying, stripped out husk which previously had been such a vibrant, sweaty, germ incubating den for felons whose idea of a crime is leaving art on walls.”
Once you’ve tried your best to visualise the no longer existent bar, head back to Old Street and keep walking to the city. Just a few metres later you’ll come to Wesley’s Chapel built by John Wesley himself back in 1778. Wesley of course is credited as being the founder of the religious movement known as ‘Methodism’. The chapel itself is a grade I listed building as is the house directly to the right which was where Wesley lived. It is a fine example of eighteenth century architecture in this otherwise built up area of the city.
Wesley’s grave is in the garden to the rear of the chapel and a statue of Wesley can be seen in the courtyard. When the gates are open you can wander around the courtyard if you so please and there is also a museum to the history of methodism.
Once you’ve had a look round keep heading down City Road passing Epworth Road named after the small village in Lincolnshire where Wesley came from. Very shortly you’ll come to a patch of green with buildings surrounding it. This is Finsbury Square.
Finsbury Square to London Wall
One of the only remaining sections of the former Fynnesburie Field. Formerly part of the Moorfields which stretched out to the north of the ancient City of London. The area can be seen on one of the only remaining sections of the Copperplate map, the first known map of London. That map is intriguing as it shows an area which is rich in activity with windmills, grazing horses, traders, monks and archers all carrying on with their day to day business. The archery is important, in 1514 a law was passed making it compulsory for all men over the age of seven to practice once a week and here they are doing just that. The area was eventually developed in 1777 and at this point the square began to be laid out with the footprint of the area remaining the same even now.
Carry on straight down the road past the entrance to the Moorgate underground station and to the junction with the road London Wall. This road, as the name suggests, more or less follows the line of the old Roman City Wall which encircled the old town of London. You’ll pass another section of the old Moorfields, now known as Finsbury Circus. Today it is all but cut off due to Crossrail building activity taking place there but once that’s all been completed in 2018 then it will be restored.
The junction of City Road and London Wall is also the approximate location of the actual Moorgate which would have led through the city wall to the Moorfields. Originally a postern created in the wall it was created in 1415 to give citizens easier access to the expanses of the Moorfields without having to go east towards Bishopsgate or west towards Cripplegate, becoming one of the seven gates of London.
London Wall to Guildhall
Turn to the left and the section of street between City Road and Blomfield Street is the location of one of the former iterations of the old Bedlam or Bethlehem hospital. It moved here in 1676 after it’s previous location on what is now Liverpool Street station became so derelict and rundown that it was just falling in on itself. Built by Robert Hooke it would have been an impressive and imposing building, backing onto the edge of the old city wall. Alas a combination or boggy fields and poor foundations meant that the second Bedlam didn’t last either and in 1815 Bedlam moved again but this time much further away to St. Georges Fields in Southwark.
Cross the road and turn right towards the Barbican. The first street on the left will be Coleman Street, on the corner of which, is the livery hall of Armourers’ and Brasiers’ livery company. Occupying the same site since 1346 it was one of the few buildings in the area to survive the Great Fire of London in 1666. Rebuilt in 1839 it then managed to survive the Blitz which destroyed much around it. The area has a long military history and the Moorfields close by and so near to the city were often used for practice.
Looking down Coleman Street, take the first right onto Basinghall Avenue and you’ll see a Georgian looking building that is looks totally out of place amidst the high rise buildings made from steel and glass. The building is another livery hall, this time from the Girdlers Hall. First built in 1431 it has occupied the site since then although in various guises. It was destroyed in the 1666 Great Fire of London and then again by enemy bombers in 1940 prior to its rebuilding in 1960. The Girdlers themselves were formed in 1327 and obtained a royal charter in 1449 as makers of belts and girdles.
Keep walking down the street and follow it round to the left as it turns into Basinghall Street. Soon on the right you’ll come across a little street called Guildhall Buildings which will take you straight into the courtyard on the impressive Medieval Guildhall. For so long the centre of London life, it was originally the location of the ampitheatre of the old City of London, the remains of which can be seen in the basement of the Art Gallery.
The church to the left overlooking the square is St. Lawrence Jewry and a church has occupied the site for 900 years. Destroyed in 1666 it was rebuilt by Christopher Wren and then rebuilt once more following more damage suffered during the blitz. It is the official church of the City of London Corporation. It’s unusual name is taken from Old Jewry, a Jewish ghetto whose name lives on in a street of the same name nearby. The area would have been Jewish until the expulsion of the Jews in 1290 by Edward I.
Guildhall to Fore Street
Keep walking to the other end of the Guildhall courtyard keeping the church on the left hand side and you’ll come to Aldermanbury the street that skirts the western side of the Guildhall complex. There you’ll see a nice little garden with a pond on the corner. Turn right up Aldermanbury and continue until you come to another garden, St. Mary Aldermanbury. A former church which was another destroyed in 1666 and then rebuilt by Wren only to be destroyed in the Blitz. The stones from the church were then transported to Fulton, Missouri where it was rebuilt as a memorial to Winston Churchill with the footprint of the old church becoming a garden.
There is also a memorial to Henry Condell and John Heminge which is well worth seeing given that it was they who compiled the 1623 first folio of Shakepeare’s plays also known as ‘Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies’. All in all it contained 36 plays and although some had been published beforehand it meant that a lot more of his work survived. Heminge and Condell had been co-partners with Shakespeare at the Globe Theatre and were buried in the churchyard.
Carry on up Aldermanbury and take the first left onto Aldermanbury Square and then turn right into a little alley which will take you to Brewers Hall Gardens. The Brewers are another livery company and were granted their royal charter in 1438 although they have had a hall since 1403. As many other buildings in the area it was destroyed first in the great fire and then again in the blitz. The current hall dates from 1960.
You should now be back on the road known as London Wall. Turn left and walk up to the crossing and cross over the road and head up Wood Street on the other side. As you walk up you will pass a plaque on the right hand side which commemorates the location of the old Cripplegate which started out life as the northern entrance to the old Roman Fort. Next to the plaque in a little area known as St. Alphege Gardens you’ll see one of the best preserved sections of the old Roman Wall in the City.
At the top of Wood Street turn right into Fore Street and a couple of steps down is where on 25 August 1940 at 12.15am the first bomb fell on the city of London. This area was devastated in the war as is testified by the towering buildings of the Barbican all around. The result of large scale redevelopment of the city as the medieval heart of the city took a terrible pounding from the sky.
Fore Street to Old Street
Keep following Fore street as it turns to the left into Moor Lane. Walk straight up until you reach Chiswell Street turn left and then take the first right into Bunhill Row. Walk past the college of law on the right hand side. Soon you’ll come to a set of gates next to the Virgin Active gym. Look through and you’ll see the Artillery Ground owned by the Honourable Artillery Company. Here we have another remnant of the old Moorfields which for many years has been used for military practice. The land was given to the Artillery Company in 1638 it then became the home of the London Cricket Club and cricket is still played here today.
Keep walking a little bit further up and you’ll come to another glorious green space covered with trees. This is the Bunhill Fields, a burial ground used between 1665 and 1854 which became so overused it became known as the Bonehill probably after the contents of the charnel house of St. Pauls were deposited there following its demolition in 1549. Victims of the plague in 1665 also found themselves buried there and then eventually it became a popular resting place for non-conformists given that this ground was never consecrated. These were Christians who practised their faith outside of the confines of the Church of England. Now run as a park by the City of London Corporation the likes of William Blake, Daniel Defoe and John Bunyan are buried there.
Have a good wander through and despite being in the heart of the City it will feel like a world away. Keep walking to the other side and you’ll come back out onto City Road opposite the Wesley Chapel where we were earlier. Turn left and the road will take you back to Old Street station where we started the tour.
More historic walking tours around the city can be found below:
And other historical posts that you might find interesting:
Where to find Jack the Ripper locations in London
Five historical wonders hidden below the streets of London
The Seven Gates of London
The Roman City Wall of London
The 12 Great Livery Companies of the City of London#