BLOWN on a thin wind around a corner from the Barbican tube station past a private park surrounded by private railings to a place where knights once jousted on a meadow called the Smooth Field – which was situated just outside London’s mediaeval walls . . .
This ancient name has been corrupted to Smithfield, and today it’s the fulcrum of the meat and poultry trading business. This morning’s fur and feathers have been swept away on a wind that’s bouncing pellets of unseasonal snow off the cobbles like welding sparks off a ship’s deck. There’s hardly anyone about. Only taxis and butchers’ vans tear along streets that are usually bustling with people. Still, it’s a good day for a walk. Sort of. And walking is the name of the game. (Click on pictures for high-res versions)
Smithfield’s poultry market – which is contiguous to the meat market – burned down in 1958 and was rebuilt in the early 1960s, according to my wife who recalls purchasing a brace of pigeons in a miniskirt in 1967. Just to clarify that point – it was her wearing the miniskirt, not the pigeons. I’m scribbling this post in a church refectory on the back of an information leaflet, so there might be one or two ambiguous statements.
In 1963, when the poultry market reopened, it possessed the largest free-standing domed roof in Europe. That’s worth knowing, if you ask me.
London’s cobbles are cold beneath the soles of my newly-cleaned boots. It was even cold on the tube on the way here, despite standing shoulder to shoulder in a press of humanity between South Kensington and Westminster on the Circle Line.
If there are autumn leaves left in the back streets, they have been blown into unseen crevices. But in Cloth Fair, an alley with some charming pubs and a couple of houses that survived the Great Fire of 1666, there is a sanctuary of peace and warmth – a jewel of a church.
The Priory Church of Saint Bartholomew the Great is the oldest church in London and – according to the pleasant and welcoming chap at the door – only last month celebrated its 890th anniversary. The interior has survived almost unchanged since mediaeval times.
Another unlooked for discovery is the happy fact that the great William Hogarth was christened here in the church’s font – Hogarth, the wit and artistic talent that created Beer Street and Gin Lane (right), March of the Guards to Finchley, and The Rake’s Progress. I’ve been fascinated by Hogarth’s dark and sometimes disturbing satirical humour since my junior school days. The money lavished on my education by that nice Mr Wilson wasn’t completely wasted, after all.
St Bart’s was in the news for less salubrious reasons only last month. The funeral of Great Train Robbery mastermind Bruce Reynolds took place here. Ronnie Biggs was pictured widely in the newspapers giving a V sign to the press, and there were blokes wearing very unchristian-looking golden bullets and knuckle-dusters on chains.
Wonder what their god made of it all. Wonder why they need a god. Self doubt and desperation? A final deal to wipe the slate clean? Because it’s only right and proper to say a prayer and have a booze up? Hope their god’s not as cold as the wind that’s whipping around these ancient stones.
I’ve run out of paper and a lady called Suzy has brought me another pot of tea. The pictures will tell the remainder of the story as we journey on through London’s backstreets . . .