I live in Blackfriars in one of the areas of the City which were historically beyond the control of the City Fathers (what we’d call the Corporation of London today). Where I live in Blackfriars there was a priory. The land was owned by the Church and when the priory was dissolved in 1538, the land remained in the ownership of the Church – and not subject to City laws.
That is why we live next to Playhouse Yard and the Apothecaries Hall which was once the site of the City’s only theatre. This is where Twelfth Night had its premiere. Shakespeare is thought to have been a Catholic, he is said to have attended St Anne’s Church next to PlayHouse yard. It was a catholic church long after Mary’s reign, Malvolio wouldn’t have liked Blackfriars much.
St Annes is now subsumed into the Church of St Andrew’s by the Wardrobe. St Andrews claims to have the chalice from which Will would have drunk – we drank from it recently.
Shakespeare bought a property next door to where I live (now the Cockpit pub). He used it to house his players, the area was and remains a site of many ale-houses.
Indeed my next-door pub (the same Cockpit) could have been accessed from the Church of St Andrew by the Wardrobe (outside the Blackfriars Gate ) via a tunnel. It is thought that puritans who fancied a bit of the other, made their way into Blackfriars via the tunnel. I have seen the start of the tunnel and where it emerges but have not crawled it. Like much of the history of London, it has been embellished in the telling.
John, the publican at the Cockpit. proudly told me the pub was once called the Third Castle;- being the third pub you came to as you walked away from Barnard Castle on the river, the river is 300 yards away.
The City has not been like this since 1667.
Following the Great fire of 1666, the area where I lived burned down and new buildings emerged (including the Third Castle pub and the Church of St Andrew by the Wardrobe).The Wardrobe was a changing room for the monarch who used it to get in and out of City garb. It too burnt down and is now serviced accommodation for City visitors.
The old church of St Anne which existed within Blackfriars church ground was not rebuilt. Its churchyard remains one of the City Gardens and it’s where Stella and I have sat on a gravestone with a glass of Prosecco and toasted the NHS and 75 years of peace .
Normally our little area of the City, a hive of paved streets is noisy with tour groups but these have gone for now. There is little noise in the City once the construction workers have shut down for the day (mid afternoon). Busses still make their way up Ludgate Hill and past St Pauls and ambulances speed to and from St Bartholomew’s hospital, but there are no planes or helicopters above and few trains below.
It feels like 1667 when the Citizens of the City decamped north to the mallow fields and south to Southwark. When I last looked at the ONS map, the City of London with 8900 residents, had only 16 hospital admissions for COVID-19 and but 3 deaths.
Like 1667, most of our residents are outside the City Walls . They have gone to their second homes in the shires.
The Barbican flats are empty, I see them from WeWork. There are a few joggers on its walkways but the great cultural centre is furloughed. Only in the City of London owned estates of Golden Square and Old Street are there still queues for the shops. In Blackfriars there is no-one, most of the flats around me are serviced either for short term business rents or by Air B&B. Even the “lonely harlots” who use AirBnB lets – have no custom – and have gone home.
The Grange Hotel at St Pauls is now a hostel for the homeless. The homeless of St Pauls continue to lie in doorways during the day but make their way to hotel splendour as the night draws in. This is a City being reconstructed where only derelicts and a few people such as Stella and I, choose to remain.
The great plan for 1667 would have seen the City’s street structure overhauled and a grid plan replace it. This never quite happened and the City remains a hive of small backstreets, ally’s with one or two through fares and a massively busy circumference road from which the City is serviced.
The City Fathers (now the Corporation) are now looking to reconstruct these streets so that they become what they were, mainly pedestrianised with motor cars prohibited from large parts
You will no longer be able to drive your car up Ludgate Hill past St Pauls, there will be no more cars crossing the Bank interchange and you won’t be able to make yourself East to Aldgate, north past Moorgate or down to Tower Gate by car.
It is not yet clear whether the ban will include taxis and hire cars. Busses are not mentioned. Right now the vast majority of cars in the City are limos ferrying in the traders and senior execs of the financial and professional institutions. It will be interesting to see whether these execs have to make the final mile of their journeys by bus, bike or Shanks’ pony.
The City of London is keen that when the 90% of the 550,000 non-residents return (current estimates from Land Securities is that office space is at 10% capacity), the City will be ready.
For this reason , large parts of the City are currently being reconstructed. The interchange at the east end of Cheapside is being dug up, the whole of Cheapside is dug up, much of the rest of the Blue Roads (see map above) look to be going the same way with wider pavements and bigger cycle lanes replacing the two-way traffic systems of today.
No going back?
When you go back to the City, it will be a different place. On many of the Square Mile’s streets, pavements are too narrow to maintain safe social distancing, even if only a small proportion of the City’s workforce initially returns to work. In some streets, the Corporation thinks it is likely that existing arrangements will be a danger to the public.
So the emergency measures will be drastic, I wonder if they will be permanent.
The corporation’s plans point out that Covid-19 could mean a longer-term effect on traffic levels. During the 2008 recession, traffic in the Square Mile fell 16.5 per cent between 7am and 7pm — but there was no subsequent rebound in volumes as the economy recovered.
My suspicion is that the City of London will become not just less congested, but less populous. Many people will never go back to the City. For those who do it will be quieter, less polluted and less friendly to pandemics. As a resident, I see obvious benefits , but if I was part of the eco-system of shops, bars and hotels that support the pre COVID City of London, I would be concerned. If I was Land Securities or WeWork or any of the Office landlords or sub-landlords I would be very concerned.
As in so much else, I see the pandemic as fundamentally changing lifestyles and with them our geography . The geography of London has always been changing and so has its population. More people have died from the pandemic in London than in any other region of the UK and COVID alertness is high here.
London is ahead of the curve both going in and coming out of this first (we hope only) surge of the pandemic. I am pleased to see that it is making radical preparations for the future, recognising that the City of London will not be the same again.