City Slickers

The griffin was a rapacious monster which was supposed to keep watch over gold mines and buried treasure. When human beings approached, the griffin swooped down upon them and tore them to pieces, thus punishing greed and avarice . . . . . . . . . .

Exclusively for Patrons, here is the start of the next chapter from my travelogue Pootling around London: Manor House to Gibson Square, again I hope you find it both amusing and informative.

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City Slickers

Quite why a griffin should have been considered an appropriate introduction to the City of London, I have never been able to understand. First used as boundary markers in the late 19th century, when an English banker was so scrupulously honest a handshake was all that was necessary to seal a deal.

The London Coal Exchange, opened by Prince Albert in 1849 and demolished in 1962 for road widening was decorated with griffins, the models of which purportedly were used for the City of London dragon boundary markers.

Today it’s described as heraldic dragons, with scaly bodies and wings, no feathers, and no eagle’s beak. Having lost the confidence of the public, mostly due to their many nefarious activities in the recent past, I suspect the City officials wanted to distance themselves from the griffin which perfectly described the modern banker.

In classical mythology, the griffin was a rapacious monster which was supposed to keep watch over gold mines and buried treasure. When human beings approached, the griffin swooped down upon them and tore them to pieces, thus punishing greed and avarice.

Ralf McTell sang about the Streets of London, although less poetic, and according to London pedants he couldn’t have his lyrics making a social commentary about the roads of London, for one of the most often quoted and pointless pieces London of trivia is that the City of London has no ’roads’. The Square Mile has streets aplenty, along with ‘Lanes’, ‘Gates’, ‘Gardens’, ‘Docks’, ‘Places’, ‘Alleys’, ‘Hills’ and ‘Yards’, but no ’roads’. Along with a veritable smorgasbord of thoroughfares that don’t fall into any category, ’Old Jewry’, ’New Change’, St. Mary Axe, Little Britain and ’Crutched Friars’ amongst others.

Of the many theories of the dearth of roads, one is that the Old English verb to ride has as its past tense ’road’. While the old Scots form of ‘ride’ is ‘raid’ which later would come to mean riding with hostile intent. So by the 16th century, a fixed route for getting from one place to another over land came to be known as a road.

As with many words of modern usage the term ’road’ to mean a thoroughfare was first used by William Shakespeare. In 1589 it appeared in A Comedy of Errors, Act II, Scene 2:

Go hie thee presently, post to the road:
An if the wind blow any way from shore,
I will not harbour in this town to-night:
If any bark put forth, come to the mart,
Where I will walk till thou return to me.
If every one knows us and we know none,
‘Tis time, I think, to trudge, pack and be gone.

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For us to refer to a long distance highway – as the Romans would – as a street seems to have the wrong connotation. We rarely refer to Watling Street, Ermine Street, or Dere Street preferring the more prosaic: A1, A2 or A15. So because a road had to go somewhere and in London, you were already there ’roads’ would commence outside the City gates.

Another theory is that a ’road’ has to be able to accommodate two carts passing one another, a feat performed with difficulty in London’s narrow medieval streets. The congestion problem was compounded in the 18th century with vehicles trying to cross London Bridge, so the rule requiring vehicles to ‘keep left’ was introduced, which would be formalized in the Highways Bill of 1835 requiring all vehicles to drive on the left.

All these trivia was great for the tourist guides (and cabbies) enabling them to demonstrate their knowledge of London. That was until the good Burghers of the town halls moved the City’s limits.

Goswell Street was renamed Goswell Road, in the past the northern section (that being furthest away from the City) was named Goswell Street Road, which probably denoted that by the time you reached the name change you were on the road to somewhere, or just confused.

In 1994 boundary changes brought the eastern half under the jurisdiction of the City of London, while the western carriageway remains firmly in the Borough of Islington. The boundary now runs down the middle of the road, pedants might argue that this still, technically, means that there isn’t a single road within the City of London, merely a half-road.

Compact but perfectly formed
The City of London, within its square mile, has at least 50 public houses; its governance is overseen and administered in the 25 wards, these surely must, by area, be the smallest in the country; and for your ecclesiastical well-being, it is blessed with 118 parishes, all this for a population of 8,000.

How can a Knowledge boy or girl find their way around this little part of London measuring precisely 1.12 square miles? For a start avoid weekdays, the population of the City of London rises to just under half-a-million during those times.

Despite the Great Fire of London, the Blitz and recent developments the survival rates for its ancient thoroughfares, some reaching back to medieval times has been surprisingly good. There are at least 225 alleys, courts and yards here, many with only the narrowest of entrances, and most are pedestrianised, one cannot hope to explore them all. Here a little bit of background serves to help recall, David Long’s Hidden City: The Secret Alleys, Court & Yards of London’s Square Mile has an illustrated potted history of these ancient places any of which might be asked of the Knowledge student.

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