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In Old St

October 21, 2014
by the gentle author

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

Central Cafe

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

You may also like to take a look at

In Old Clerkenwell

In Old Rotherhithe

In Fleet St

In Mile End Old Town

In Old Stepney

In Old Bermondsey

In Old Holborn

22 Responses leave one →
  1. October 21, 2014

    As photographers would say you have ‘a great eye’… the composition of those photos is fabulous! Thanks…

  2. Wondercat permalink
    October 21, 2014

    A handsome post. Thank you.

  3. October 21, 2014

    Excellent pictures
    The turquoise colour scheme on the old house looks great.
    And thanks for planting the idea – I will forever see a great big bottom at Old Street roundabout 🙂

  4. October 21, 2014

    Thanks for the interesting walk along Old Street! Valerie

  5. Greg Tingey permalink
    October 21, 2014

    Err … “HAT & Feathers”, Goswell Rd.
    The “Prince Arthur” is a delightful survival ( Serves Shepherd Neame, IIRC?)
    I’ve often sat, looking at the changing weather in Bunhill Fields from inside the “Artillery Arms”, but not recently – I’m surprised you haven’t mentioned the eccentric “oldest regiment in the Army” – The HAC ….
    Talikng of which, I hadn’t realised that the (let’s face it) utterly, totally bonkers Bunyan was buried there.
    And isn’t the Old St roundabout ghastly, never mind trying to find you way out of the tube/GN&City line – no matter how many times ( & I must’ve done it over 50 exits by now) one still has to make sure you are coming out of the right hole!

  6. Jonathan Taylor permalink
    October 21, 2014

    Thanks – I’ll never look at the Bezier Building with the same eyes again ..!

  7. October 21, 2014

    I too, have an aversion to Old Street. I find it soulless although it fascinates me when I get those feelings of being drawn to and drawn against areas or buildings et al .
    Old Street is my main aversion….yet I don’t know it. It is a feeling, no logic!
    I very much appreciate your daily blog- thank you .

  8. Rupert Neil Bumfrey (@rupertbu) permalink
    October 21, 2014

    A delightful short stroll 🙂

  9. October 21, 2014

    Running off Old Street, Great Eastern Street has an intensely urban – almost brutal – character that is quite exhilarating. The incessant heavy traffic provides a soundtrack for massive Victorian furniture and clothing factories now converted to hotels and bars. There are several flat-iron buildings: the acute angled junction with Leonard Street is a scene straight out of Brooklyn, and indeed a few yards on is an American car-wash with multi-storey car park towering above. Beyond a vast 1960s slab block of offices are two Tube trains, converted to workspaces, perched on a bridge abutment.

  10. Chris Ashby permalink
    October 21, 2014

    I’m shocked! – I love the drama of Old Street and it’s many magnificent buildings. It’s full of life. It seems to have more cyclists than any other street in London and should be closed to motor traffic immediately. Ok, I don’t like the gyratory which should be changed back to a crossroads. And I try to avoid the tiresome Old Street tube. But Old Street has drama in it’s people and buildings.
    All the best.
    Chris A.

  11. Yvonne Kolessides permalink
    October 21, 2014

    Thank you so much for making my early morning cuppa here in Nicosia so special.. I stumbled upon your words, thoughts and amazing photography quite by accident and I can’t tell you how so many almost forgotten memories of old London warm my heart and soul..

  12. Carl Moss permalink
    October 21, 2014

    One of the less well-known inhabitants of Bunhill Fields is the Reverend Thomas Bayes. His article “An Essay towards solving a Problem in the Doctrine of Chances” led to the development of an entirely new approach to statistics, now called Bayesian statistics. Very little is known of him – we are not even sure that his sole portrait is truly of him. The theorem for which he is best known was not published until after his death.

    Every year the Royal Statistical Society would leave a crown of bays on his tomb, as a rather touching memorial to a profound, but almost unknown, mathematician, philosopher and divine.

  13. Andrew permalink
    October 21, 2014

    Thanks for the beautiful evocative photographs. I sometimes stay in Old Street when in town and have found touching little details in the neighbourhood such as the early 19th century houses built of yellow London stock bricks. St Lukes Church was once the centre of a vast sprawling parish outside the City which teemed with people in the early 19th century. It was known as ‘lousy Lukes’ as the curious weathervane (still there) was thought to resemble a louse. A man who may have been (its complicated) my 5 x great grandfather was baptised in St Lukes in 1806; the year after the Battle of Trafalgar.

    Andrew M

  14. max reeves permalink
    October 21, 2014

    Wonderful post, . thanks. I have heard stories that Old Street roundabout was the site of the last suicide burial in London. Can anyone shed any light ?

  15. October 21, 2014

    I had no idea where St Luke’s asylum was – thanks! Did you know Dr Johnson’s assessment of Smart’s madness? ‘My poor friend Smart shewed the disturbance of his mind, by falling upon his knees, and saying his prayers in the street, or in any other unusual place.’ And, ‘I did not think he ought to be shut up. His infirmities were not noxious to society. He insisted on people praying with him; and I’d as lief pray with Kit Smart as any one else. Another charge was, that he did not love clean linen; and I have no passion for it.’

  16. Gary Arber permalink
    October 21, 2014

    I hate Old Street for another reason. As a 15 year old boy I had to carry heavy packs of paper to and from Ferguson the machine ruler in Cowper Street, walking to and from the number 8 bus stop in Clerkenwell Road.

  17. Pauline Taylor permalink
    October 21, 2014

    Thank you for this GA. My great grandparents lived at several addresses in the Old Street area and my grandfather was born in Fosters Buildings just off Whitecross Street in 1874. I so much enjoy your reports on the areas which would have been familiar to them.

  18. Simon permalink
    October 21, 2014

    Ironic that the revival enjoyed by Whitecross St food market was caused in no small part by the regeneration of Spitalfields Market.
    Many of the food stall holders moved there temporarily when Spitalfields was closed for rebuilding. This move became permanent when the newly re-opened Spitalfields didn’t want them back.

  19. Victoria permalink
    October 22, 2014

    I too have never been keen on Old Street but have found the streets leading off it fascinating. Bunhill Cemetery on a crisp autumn afternoon just before dusk is quite magical. Love the first photo, the black and white one with the intense sunlight caught between buildings, it conjures up a sense of grandeur rather like those cavernous avenues in New York City!

  20. October 23, 2014

    Love your comments from Dr Johnson @Caroline Murray

  21. Carolyn Badcock - nee Hooper permalink
    October 24, 2014

    I can see that from now on, gentle author, you’ll be inspired to walk Old Street. It was such a pleasure to do the “walk” through your eyes. Just love the Old St Gothic shot with all that wonderful glass!

  22. December 30, 2016

    I lived in flats in old street and attended st lukes school i was evacuated with st lukes schoolwhen the 2nd world war started i remember hoxton and whitecross street very well but it has changed so much .Old street and city road that was a cross road not a rounderbout i could go on and on .

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