In Old Holborn
Even before I knew Holborn, I knew Old Holborn from the drawing of half-timbered houses upon the tobacco tins in which my father used to store his rusty nails. These days, I walk through Holborn once a week on my way between Spitalfields and the West End, and I always cast my eyes up in wonder at this familiar fragment of old London.
Yet, apart from Leather Lane and the International Magic Shop on Clerkenwell Rd, I rarely have reason to pause in Holborn. It is a mysterious, implacable district of offices, administrative headquarters and professional institutions that you might never visit, unless you have business with a lawyer, or seek a magic trick or a diamond ring. So this week I resolved to wander in Holborn with my camera and present you with some of the under-appreciated sights to be discovered there.
Crossing the bed of the Fleet River at Holborn Viaduct, I took a detour into Shoe Lane. A curious ravine of a street traversed by a bridge and overshadowed between tall edifices, where the cycle-taxis have their garage in the cavernous vaults receding deep into the brick wall. John Stow attributed the name of Holborn to the ‘Old Bourne’ or stream that ran through this narrow valley into the Fleet here and, even today, it is not hard to envisage Shoe Lane with a river flowing through.
Up above sits Christopher Wren’s St Andrew’s, Holborn, that was founded upon the bank of the Fleet and stood opposite the entrance to the Bishop of Ely’s London residence, latterly refashioned as Christopher Hatton’s mansion. A stone mitre upon the front of the Mitre Tavern in Hatton Garden, dated 1546, is the most visible reminder of the former medieval palace that existed here, of which the thirteenth century Church of St Etheldreda’s in Ely Place was formerly the chapel. It presents a modest frontage to the street, but you enter through a stone passage way and climb a staircase to discover an unexpectedly large church where richly-coloured stained glass glows in the liturgical gloom.
Outside in Ely Place, inebriate lawyers in well-cut suits knocked upon a wooden door in a blank wall at the end of the street and brayed in delight to be admitted by this secret entrance to Bleeding Heart Yard, where they might discreetly pass the afternoon in further indulgence. Barely a hundred yards away across Hatton Garden where wistful loners eyed engagement rings, Leather Lane Market was winding down. The line at Boom Burger was petering out and the shoe seller was resting his feet, while the cheap dresses and imported fancy goods were packed away for another day.
Just across the road, both Staple Inn and Gray’s Inn offer a respite from the clamour of Holborn, with magnificent tranquil squares and well-kept gardens, where they were already raking autumn leaves from immaculate lawns yesterday. But the casual visitor may not relax within these precincts and, when the Gray’s Inn Garden shuts at two-thirty precisely, you are reminded that your presence is that of an interloper, at the gracious discretion of the residents of these grand old buildings.
Beyond lies Red Lion Sq, laid out in 1684 by the notorious Nicholas Barbon who, at the same time, was putting up cheap speculative housing in Spitalfields and outpaced the rapacious developers of our own day by commencing construction in disregard of any restriction. Quiet benches and a tea stall in this leafy yet amiably scruffy square offer an ideal place to contemplate the afternoon’s stroll.
Then you join the crowds milling outside Holborn tube station, which is situated at the centre of a such a chaotic series of junctions, it prompted Virginia Woolf to suggest that only the condition of marriage has more turnings than are to be found in Holborn.
The One Tun in Saffron Hill. reputed to be the origin of the Three Tuns in ‘Oliver Twist’
In Shoe Lane
St Andrew Holborn seen from Shoe Lane
On Holborn Viaduct
Christopher Wren’s St Andrew Holborn
In St Etheldreda’s, Ely Place
Staircase at St Etheldreda’s
The Mitre, Hatton Garden
Charity School of 1696 In Hatton Garden by Christopher Wren
Choosing a ring in Hatton Garden
In Leather Lane
Seeking sustenance in Leather Lane
Shoe Seller, Leather Lane
Barber in Lamb’s Conduit Passage
Staple Inn, 1900
In Staple Inn
In Staple Inn
In Gray’s Inn
In Gray’s Inn Gardens
In Gray’s Inn
John Bunyan died in Holborn in 1688
Chaos at Holborn Station
Rush hour at Holborn Station
Fusiliers memorial in High Holborn
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