In Old St
In my mind, Old St is interminably long – a thoroughfare that requires me to put my head down and walk doggedly until I reach the other end. Sometimes, the thought of walking the whole length of Old St can motivate me to take the bus and, at other times, I have been inspired to pursue routes through the side streets which run parallel, in order to avoid walking along Old St.
Yet I realised recently that Old St is short. It only extends from Goswell Rd, on the boundary of Clerkenwell, to the foot of the Kingsland Rd in Shoreditch – just a hop, skip and a jump – which leaves me wondering why it seems such a challenge when I set out to walk along it. Let me confess, I have no love for Old St – that is why I seek alternative routes, because even the thought of walking along Old St wears me down.
So I decided to take a new look at Old St, in the hope that I might overcome my aversion. Over the last week, I have walked up and down Old St half a dozen times and, to my surprise, it only takes ten minutes to get from Goswell Rd to Shoreditch Church.
Old St was first recorded as Ealdestrate around 1200 and as Le Oldestrete in 1373, confirming it as an ancient thoroughfare that is as old as history. It was a primeval cattle track, first laid it out as a road by the Romans for whom it became a major route extending to Bath in the west and Colchester in the east. No wonder Old St feels long, it is a fragment of a road that bisects the country.
Setting out from Goswell Rd along Old St on foot, you realise that the east-west orientation places the southerly side of the street in permanent shadow, only illuminated by narrow shafts of sunlight extending across the road from side-streets on the southern side. This combination of deep shadow and the ferocious east wind, channelled by the remains of the eighteenth and nineteenth century terraces that once lined Old St which are mostly displaced now by taller developments, can be discouraging.
Of course, you can take a detour along Baltic St, but before you know it you are at St Luke’s where William Caslon, who set up the first British Type Foundry here in Helmet Row, is buried. Nicholas Hawksmoor’s obelisk on the top of St Luke’s glows in the morning sunlight shining up Whitecross St Market, which has enjoyed a revival in recent years as a lunchtime destination, offering a wide variety of food to City workers.
Between here and the Old St roundabout, now the focus of new industries and dwarfed by monster towers rising to the north up City Rd, you can pay your respects to my favourite seventeenth century mystic poet Christopher Smart who was committed in his madness to St Luke’s Asylum and wrote his greatest poetry where Argos stands today. Alternatively, you can stroll through Bunhill Fields, the non-conformist cemetery, where Blake, Bunyan and Defoe are buried. Seeing the figure of John Bunyan’s Christian, the Pilgrim of Pilgrim’s Progress, upon the side of his tomb always reminds me of the figure of Bunyan at Holborn, and I imagine that he walked here from there and Old St was that narrow straight path which Christian was so passionate to follow.
Crossing the so-called Silicon Roundabout, I am always amused by the incongruity of the Bezier Building that for all its sophisticated computer-generated geometry resembles nothing else than a pair of buttocks. Taking a path north of Old St, takes you through Charles Sq with its rare eighteenth century survival, returning you to the narrowest part of our chosen thoroughfare between Pitfield St and Curtain Rd, giving an indication of the width of the whole street before it was widened to the west of here in the nineteenth century.
The figure on the top of Shoreditch Town Hall labelled ‘Progress’ makes a highly satisfactory conclusion to our journey, simultaneously embodying the contemporary notion of technological progress and the ancient concept of a spiritual progress – both of which you may encounter upon Old St.
Hand & Feathers, Goswell Rd
Helmet Row, where William Caslon established his first type foundry
St Lukes Churchyard
St Luke by Nicholas Hawksmoor
The White Lion, Central St
At Whitecross St
In Whitecross Market
Mural by Ben Eine
In Bunhill Cemetery
John Bunyan’s tomb in Bunhill Fields with the figure of the pilgrim
John Wesley’s House in City Rd
Old St Gothic on the former St Luke Parochial School
Emerging from Old St tube
The Bezier Building has a curious resemblance to a pair of buttocks
Entrance to Old St Tube
Eighteenth century house in Charles Sq
Prince Arthur in Brunswick Lane
Old House in Charles St
Street Art in Old St
Figure of Progress on Shoreditch Town Hall
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