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Along Old St

August 21, 2021
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. In winter, 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.

Hat & 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


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


The Bezier Building has a curious resemblance to a pair of buttocks


Eighteenth century house in Charles Sq

Prince Arthur in Brunswick Lane

Old House in Charles 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

9 Responses leave one →
  1. JohnB permalink
    August 21, 2021

    I’ve always found Old St. a long walk too, I think because it’s uninteresting. Is the Hat and Feathers (not Hand) open these days? It was closed for the whole 12 or so years I worked in Northburg Street.
    I’m still loving Spitalfields Life, all these years down the road, thank you!

  2. Bernie permalink
    August 21, 2021

    How ashamed of myself does this make me! As a child and adolescent Old St was a frequent location in my comings and goings yet never did I give its history a moment’s thought. Alas, alas! Woe is me!

  3. aubrey permalink
    August 21, 2021

    Not forgetting the longstanding magistrates’ court, now converted into the posh Courthouse Hotel.

  4. David Elliott permalink
    August 21, 2021

    It is the Hat & Feathers at 2 Clerkenwell Road, not the Hand & Feathers

  5. Pauline Taylor permalink
    August 21, 2021

    Thank you GA, you have inspired me to make another effort to chase up the history of my family. My great grandparents, Samuel Denton Russell and Jane Mc Grath, both gave Old Street as their address when they got married, they then lived just to the north of the street where their first child, Samuel, who was sadly to die as an infant, was born, they then moved to Whitecross Street where Arthur, Jane, another Samuel and Alfred,(my grandfather), were born. I have explored the area on foot but I really know so little about what life must have been like for them. My great grandmother, Jane Russell, died very young, Arthur dropped dead in the street according to my aunt, maybe it was Old Street, Jane set up home with a married man in Pimlico near Downing Street and then disappears, Samuel emigrated to Canada and my grandfather moved to Colchester, at the eastern end of the Roman road that Old Street follows. I must try to find out more.

  6. August 21, 2021

    More than a pair of buttocks, I see a pair of huge casks. Whatever it calls to mind, the design leaves much to be desired. Thank you for a wonderful walk through and around Old St.

  7. paul loften permalink
    August 21, 2021

    I have often felt an affinity to the Argos in Old Street. Perhaps because many moons ago I used to occasionally lunch at health food cafe, directly opposite the store and would gaze at the Argos frontage in the midst of delicious sushi. Thanks to you Gentle Author, I now know that the affinity lies deeper than the sushi roll. The sad story of Christoper Smart confined at St Lukes Asylum, perhaps at the location in the sole company of his cat Jeoffrey ,fills me with a sense of sadness. I dont know who to feel more sorry for, Jeoffrey for having to endure the endless prayers or Smart confined in such a sad condition just for an unpaid debt

  8. gkbowood permalink
    August 21, 2021

    I see a pair barrels or the housing around jet engines. I guess your butt was sore after all that walking!

  9. August 22, 2021

    After reading your post above, I decided that I would give Old Street a well deserved MISS if I was ever in that area. However, your photos as always are a delight, so decided it was maybe worth visiting after all lol!

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