While restaurants, pubs, shops, museums and other non-essential businesses remain closed, we’re excited about the first step in the easing of lockdown today – we’re allowed out of the house! To celebrate this, we’ve planned ahead and discovered five unusual outdoor wonders that tap into the rich history of the City of London which you should visit on your daily walks. While the City’s quiet, there’s never been a better time to wander around. This guide will take you on a journey that not many get to see and will help you discover some of the oldest alleyways in the City and the history behind their names. We hope you’re ready to stretch your legs and start exploring!
The Artillery Passage is a Conservation Area of special architecture and historic interest, dating back to the 13th and 19th centuries. This historic alley is a surviving fragment of the 17th century street pattern, characterised by its network of historic narrow passages, lanes and courtyards.
Prior to the Dissolution of the Monasteries under King Henry VIII in the 16th century, the area was home to several small churches and was owned by the Priory of St Mary Spital. When the Church land was taken into the possession of the Crown, the area quickly became a storage space for artillery, canon and archery grounds. The old regiment of ‘The Gentlemen of the Artillery Garden’ used the land as a training ground, when Spitalfields was just a field outside the city walls!
In 1968 the land was leased for development, which is when houses and shops appeared. Grade I listed 56 Artillery Lane is one of the most significant surviving Georgian shopfronts in London. Today 56 Artillery Lane houses the Raven Row free art exhibition space.
Artillery Passage is also packed with restaurants and bars, including the great Grapeshots, which is filled with antique curiosities and historic wine artefacts collected over the decades. Wood panelling and candlelit tables add special character and charm to the atmosphere.
The whole area surrounding Fleet Street brims with historic alleyways. One passageway slightly off the beaten track is Magpie Alley. This tucked away passage celebrates the history of printing on Fleet Street, which for decades housed the UK’s biggest newspapers.
Today Magpie Alley is a special little alleyway decorated with a series of tiles, which are a testament to the printing history of the area and feature images of printers, newspapers, as well as printing presses. If you reach the end of Magpie Alley, you will also be surprised to see the remains of a 14th century monastery – the Whitefriars Monastery!
Magpie Alley is in close proximity to the Wine Office Court, whose main feature is the Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, a Grade II listed pub of great character. The pub has been here since at least the late 18th Century, although the existing building was built in 1926 and was designed by Thomas Henry Nowell Parr, a British architect best known for designing pubs in West London.
White Rose Court
White Rose Court is a quirky courtyard in the City of London, which first appeared on a London street map in 1720. A couple of centuries ago, when Spitalfields was mainly inhabited by Jewish immigrants, White Rose Court housed two of the oldest and iconic Jewish bakeries in London – Levy Bros and Matzo’s.
If you look up at the building facade, you will be able to spot a row of four bakers, which pay tribute to these famous bakeries that once operated there.
Today White Rose Court is a modest little court, but like so much of the rest of the City of London, brims with rich history and heritage.
French Ordinary Court
French Ordinary Court is a wacky little alley that has existed since at least the Tudor times, when much of this part of London was still fields.
Linking Fenchurch Street to Crutched Friars, the alley includes two passages into one, which in the old days, must have been two different parishes: the northern one known as St Katharine’s Row and the southern one known as French Ordinary Court. The main entrance used to lead to the Monastery of the Crutched Friars.
The peculiar name is thought to come from a Gallic eatery, and an ‘ordinary’ was a fixed-price meal. The eatery was destroyed during the Great Fire and never replaced. Today French Ordinary Court offers great views of the Lloyd’s Register of Shipping, designed by Lord Rogers.
This fascinating passage is famous for The Williamson’s Tavern, a historic pub that is said to hold the oldest excise license in the City! The pub used to be a residence for the Lord Mayors of London, and William III and Mary II dined here.
The existing pub was rebuilt in the 1930s, however the original pub dates back to the 17th century and it was a private home built in 1667 on land formerly occupied by Sir John Fastolf, who fought in the Hundred Years’ War and became a famous character in Shakespeare’s plays.
Some say that the pub marks the centre of the City of London, however there is not enough evidence to support this claim. This alley really gives you the impression you are stepping back in the past, as it even features an old City of London street sign, which adds even more character and atmosphere to the area!
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