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In Old Holborn

June 16, 2024
by the gentle author

Next tickets for THE GENTLE AUTHOR’S TOUR OF SPITALFIELDS are available for Saturday 22nd June


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 this week 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 knock 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 autumn 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

7 Responses leave one →
  1. June 16, 2024

    Fascinating glimpses of old Holborn. I took frequently walk this way out of necessity to get from West to East. I could take the Tube – and often do in inclement weather, but I prefer to walk. I imagine the area in the time of Dickens and great grandparents and consider what they would have shared with the present day.
    I was told that the Staple Inn was rebuilt after destruction (in World War II possibly?), painstakingly so from as much of the original materials as could be gleaned. But, I do not know if this is true. My great great uncle organised an annual fundraising dinner for the Music Hall Benevolent Fund at the Holborn Dining Rooms – which, I believe were at the Oxford Street end of Holborn.
    There is indeed still much to see in old Holborn.

  2. Marcia Howard permalink
    June 16, 2024

    A fascinating and interesting read. Time I returned for an exploration of my own. I still also have an Old Holborn tin, presumably my father’s, although he died in the early 1960s so I can’t check. Mine usefully holds paper clips!

  3. aubrey permalink
    June 16, 2024

    Not forgetting the walk through the alleyway from the highway to the ancient Gresham college.

  4. Bernie permalink
    June 16, 2024

    Ah yes! Like Marcia, I too have paperclips in an old tobacco tin, and also a hoard of screws and nails to remind me of the days when I was young enough to do lots of DIY around the home.

    As a Londoner by birth and upbringing I have my own memories of Holborn: Gamages great store, very good for toys and furniture, and a few doors away the fascinating shop-window of Basset-Lowke with its great range of model (working) steam engines.

    And then, after I left school and started to educate myself by attending Birkbeck College, then still in Breams Buildings, Chancery Lane, how I enjoyed my nightly walk from Gower St (UCL) to Birkbeck via Red Lion Square! Happy days!

  5. Cherub permalink
    June 16, 2024

    Fascinating photos. I didn’t actually know Leather Lane existed or even where it was until I’d been in London for about 15 years and a friend took me to a gastropub in the vicinity. It was the Bleeding Heart in Bleeding Heart Yard.

  6. Jo N permalink
    June 16, 2024

    You missed a little detour to the station via the fascinating curiosity of Sir John Soane’s Museum – but of course that deserves an entry to itself!

  7. Hugh permalink
    June 17, 2024

    One part of Shoe Lane the GA did not reach was the last to the South where it meets Fleet St. Here it runs between the Old Telegraph building and the infamous Black Lubianka, of Private Eye fame, that housed the Daily Express.

    I am very familiar with this stretch, as in 1980 I opened what was then called Britain’s first Superpub on the site of Aunties. Aunties was officially known as The Crown and Anchor, as was the new pub I ran. Dating back to around 1770 but probably subject to some rebuilds, it was demolished to make way for a new office block and library with the pub occupying the ground floor, first floor and with the beer cellar in the basement.

    Situated behind the Daily telegraph print rooms and adjacent to the Express, the new pub had 3 bars, a public bar for the printers, Daily Telegraph workers, a lounge bar which was used by both newspapers white collar workers, fathers of the print chapels and other white collars from the surrounding offices. On the first floor was Spatz, a 100 seat restaurant and cocktail bar for journos and other denizens of the area. It also offered live music from 5-7pm Monday to Friday. Only the public bar, a print boozer, was open at weekends.

    The print boozers were allowed special licensing hours to enable the printers working through the night to have their ‘blow’. The ‘Blow’ was a 15 minute break; away from the heat, noise and dust of the presses when the thirsty printers would down to or three light and bitters consisting of a half pint of draught bitter and a half pint of light ale.

    When it opened in 1980, operated by the Chaucer Inns division of Courage it very quickly became the busiest pub in the entire Courage Estate. It was a wonderful experience to open such a huge pub soon populated on both sides of the bar by a wonderful panoply of characters; not least Sadie, the Glaswegian barmaid who ruled the print bar with a rod of iron and Phillip the ‘blind’ chef who was straight out of Fawlty Towers.

    I was moved on by Courage after about 18 months and not long after the exodus of the printers began and the pub fell into decline, it was re-invented a few times but never again hit the heights of that heady first year

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