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In Old Holborn

August 10, 2018
by the gentle author

Holborn Bars

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 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 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

Chaos at Holborn Station

Rush hour at Holborn Station

Fusiliers memorial in High Holborn

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

8 Responses leave one →
  1. Claire permalink
    August 10, 2018

    Thank you for this excellent post and the wonderfully evocative photos, and all that you do.

  2. Richard Pascoe permalink
    August 10, 2018

    Dear GA
    Thank you for my daily fix, and a wonderful excursion through dear old London.

  3. August 10, 2018

    Love the photographs.

  4. Richard permalink
    August 10, 2018

    Lovely photos of a interesting area. By the way would a visit to the India Club restaurant in the Strand be of interest. It’s a unique old survivor and is soon to be redeveloped apparently.

  5. Geoff Stocker permalink
    August 10, 2018

    Your wonderful photographs show why London is the greatest city in the world thanks GA for reminding us .

  6. Malcolm permalink
    August 10, 2018

    Holborn is a well-kept secret and there are many places of interest that reward the inquisitive explorer. The other thing about Holborn is that there are a lot of people living there, right in the centre of London. From Bloomsbury to Clerkenwell, from The Strand to Kings Cross, Holborn has always had a population of working people and it still has – if you know where to look. Just behind Leather Lane there is the Bourne Estate, for instance. A living, thriving community of ordinary people, not wealthy business people or foreign investors, but people who live and work in the greatest city on earth. Just look in the side streets and you will find families living in houses and apartments, with gardens and washing lines, just like anywhere else. There are parks and playing fields, schools and theatres, cinemas and small shops, just like a small town or village. And that’s what Holborn is, a village in the centre of London. A real community of real people. Of course, there are rich people too but Holborn still retains its working community and long may it continue.

  7. tovangar2 permalink
    August 11, 2018

    Thank you so much GA. I can no longer visit these lovely familiar streets because age and infirmity have immobilized me, but I know they’re out there and welcome the proof you provide. I think you can have no idea how much your posts mean to many of us. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

  8. mlaiuppa permalink
    August 11, 2018

    Can you still stay at the Staple’s Inn or the Gray’s Inn? That would be worth winning the lottery to go and stay there.

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