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At the Vintners’ Hall

February 24, 2012
by the gentle author

Vintners’ Hall

Last summer, I joined the Worshipful Company of Vintners swan upping on the Thames and yesterday I took up their long-standing invitation to walk over and visit the Vintners’ Hall, established in Lower Thames St since 1446.

Here where the traffic emits a deafening roar as it races past an array of undistinguished corporate classical architecture lining the street, there is no sign of the ancient structures still standing hidden within these modern carapaces. Yet there are wondrous seventeenth century panelled rooms constructed shortly after the Great Fire, built upon the remains of the medieval Hall, where a different atmosphere prevails.

The Court Room of the Vintners’ Company, dating from 1671, is one of London’s oldest continuously-used rooms. Lined with chocolate-dark panelling, adorned with richly-carved swags of foliage and hung with luxurious seventeenth century paintings in golden frames flanked by shadowy mirrors in gilt surrounds, it is one of the few surviving fragments of the Hall. The old master paintings gleam and the sombre panelling recedes to create a charged space that evokes how it all might have been, once. Inside this majestic chamber, it is also possible to deduce how the rest of this structure was configured – because this room comprised the west wing of a symmetrical building with the Hall at the back and a courtyard at the centre. Although the site has been whittled down since the building of Southwark Bridge took a slice off the eastern side and the widening of Lower Thames St pared away a sliver from the northern aspect, and although the courtyard has been built over, much of the current building follows the earlier ground plan.

From the Court Room, you can look through the lobby past Mr Woodroffe’s handsome carved staircase of 1673, to the Hall itself which was rebuilt upon its medieval foundations after the Great Fire. There is a breathtaking change in scale as you enter this unexpectedly huge room where gargantuan chandeliers descend upon ropes from the ceiling far above. As I arrived, flunkies were covering tables that extended into the distance with crisp white cloths, placing chairs in immaculate array and carrying in dozens of identical arrangements of fresh flowers, while the caretakers were polishing up the venerable silver collection and displaying it in lit display cabinets built into the panelling. There is almost no plate that predates the Fire, because the Vintners had to sell it all to pay for the rebuilding. Just a Tudor coconut cup and a stoneware jug mounted in silver gilt survive since they contain so little precious metal, yet the cup dating from a time when the exoticism of a coconut warranted setting in precious metal carries its own bizarre poetry today.

The ambiance of this extraordinary hidden Hall is palatial with an overtone of a religious order and just the hint of an educational institution. And in unlikely and intriguing contrast to all this proud display, five seventeenth century carved women’s heads illustrating the degenerative effects of wine peer down upon the diners, as a warning against over-indulgence.

Upon the next floor, in the lavish withdrawing rooms, I came upon a deed for the hall site dated 1352 and signed by Geoffrey Chaucer’s father, John, who was a prominent Vintner. It was the granting of the Royal Charter of 1363 that gave monopoly upon the importation of wine from Gascony, when it was under British rule, thereby making the fortune of the Vintners Company. One relic that speaks of the wealth of this era is an elaborate embroidered coffin cover given in 1543 by John Husee, Chamberlain of London, for the use of deceased members of the company. St Martin the Patron Saint of Vintners is depicted at either end, while recurring upon the sides are jaunty images of Death personified as a skeleton holding a coffin. It manifests the paradox of the Vintners’ Company, a body existing in the long shadow of its own history yet dedicated to wine that, by its nature, delivers an intensified experience of the present moment.

After walking through the Court Room, climbing the three hundred year old staircase and exploring the Hall, I was eager to descend to the “Bin” – as the vaulted room, where the wine is uncorked and decanted, is called. Relieved to return to a space with a purpose that was self-evident, I found wine waiters busily at work uncorking bottles from the Vintners’ cellar prior to decanting it to breathe before that evening’s dinner. At the centre of the flagged floor was a large table where the decanters would spend the day. This was the centre of it all, because having been in the game for more than eight hundred years, if the Vintners cannot serve wine in an exemplary fashion nobody can.

The Court Room of the Vintners’ Company in continuous use since 1671.

The staircase was built by Mr Woodroffe in 1673.

This window celebrates the mythic “Feast of the Five Kings,” when five medieval monarchs all dined together at Vintners’ Hall as the guests of Henry Picard.

Stephen Freeth, Vintners’ Company archivist.

These five faces overlooking the Vintners’ Hall illustrate the long-term effect of drinking wine.

The “Bin” beneath the hall where wine is uncorked and decanted.

Vintners’ collection of decanters and loving cups awaiting use.

The Vintners’ coat of arms, three barrels and a chevron, adorns all of their properties in the City.

Statue of the Swan Marker outside St James Garlickhythe across Lower Thames St from Vintners’ Hall.

(With grateful thanks to Stephen Freeth, archivist of the Vintners’ Company.)

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5 Responses leave one →
  1. Robin permalink
    February 24, 2012

    Once gain,our host Gentle Author,does not fail to bring us into the charmed relics of days long past.This building is fabulous ,and without our guide G.A., we would never have the oppertunity to steal a peek inside these relevant rooms.Once again,thank you from across the pond.

  2. February 24, 2012

    Thanks you once again for taking us behind the closed doors of the city – absolutely fascinating! I always look forward to your new blog posts popping into my inbox each morning and this was an especially interesting one…x

  3. Gary permalink
    February 24, 2012

    It is strange to think of all of that opulence dedicated to grapejuice that has gone off.

  4. June 12, 2014

    “Grape juice that has gone off!”
    Wash your mouth out please!
    Wine is one of man’s greatest discoveries, and old fine wine achieves a summit of excellent and perfection that could be compared to the finest works of Mozart or Chopin!
    A good wine ,gently matures lying semi dormant in a coll ( hopefully temperature) controlled room until the decision is taken to pull the cork, and release the multiple of flavours, grape varieties, tannin, acids and alkalis that can combine to make pure elegance and an ambrosian-like quality that can linger in the memory for years.
    Ah the Ch Latour 1945 drunk at Andre Simon’s (would have been his) 100th birthday on 28th 1977- (he died at 93). He had chosen and laid down this wine for him and his friends to be drunk on that date.
    And it was still a little short of perfection needing a few more years in bottle!
    PS Its ready to drink now 68 years after harvest, but will go off in teh glass within 10 minutes due to oxidisation.

  5. November 12, 2015

    After your article on the Fishmongers I clicked on to the Vintners. Thank you for both articles full of information.
    I was married at Jt James GarlickHythe, 38 years ago, and walked across the road to our reception at the Vintners. My husband was a vintner and you get one free use of the hall. Amazing!

    Best wishes. Su

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