Behind us, to the west, lie Cornhill, Poultry, Cheapside and, beyond Newgate, Watling Street, leading towards Saint Alban's, Wroxeter and, ultimately, Wales. The road to the south, Gracechurch Street, is also part of Watling Street, leading across London Bridge to Canterbury and Richborough: a Welsh pilgrim heading for Canterbury would have turned right at this point. On our left, the road leading north is Bishopsgate, which, beyond the city limits, becomes Ermine Street, stretching out towards Lincoln, York and Scotland.
|Bishopsgate, looking north from the intersection with Leadenhall Street, with Tower 42 in the centre. Photo: John Salmon (licensed under CCA).|
These are the roads along which, for more than a thousand years, the great and the good moved around the country on horseback, and the poor on foot. Ermine Street is the road along which my own great-grandfather walked from Beverley in Yorkshire, determined to learn a trade in London (he apprenticed himself to a Jewish tailor), rather than enter domestic service, as his parents had intended. My days as a motorist are behind me but, whenever I could, I much preferred to avoid the motorways and follow these roads instead, recognising that they were, in Jim Crace's memorable phrase, "drenched in narrative."
Bishopsgate itself (it used to be Bishopsgate Street) is the northern half of the main road running through London from south to north. At its northern end was Bishopsgate itself, one of the original Medieval (and, before that, Roman) gateways to the city.
|Bishopsgate, as depicted by Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677). This is the gate through which James I and his party made their triumphal entry into London, following the death of Elizabeth I (image is in the Public Domain).|
Before the coming of the railways in the Nineteenth Century, and the construction of Liverpool Street Station, Bishopsgate was home to at least eight coaching inns, places where travellers recently arrived in the city could find board and lodging. They were places, also, where people from all corners of the land might come together to exchange news, information and gossip (in the Fifteenth Century, these might have included Lancastrian and Yorkist spies; in the Eighteenth Century, Jacobite agents; in any age, they might have included criminals on the run, keen to drop their accents and blend in with the local population, to leave their past behind them in a distant town or village).
|The White Hart, one of Bishopsgate's coaching inns, by John Charles Maggs (c1885), British Postal Museum and Archive (image is in the Public Domain).|
The rich and powerful, however, far from distancing themselves from this hubbub, frequently chose to live in the midst of it; their servants doubtless frequenting the coaching inns, their ears always alert to whatever unguarded comments might be let slip under the influence of fatigue and strong drink. Sir Paul Pindar, a city merchant who also served as Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire under James I, built his home in Bishopsgate. It later became an inn itself, but was dismantled when Liverpool Street Station was built, its facade now preserved in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
|The facade of Sir Paul Pindar's house, originally in Bishopsgate, now in the Victoria & Albert Museum. Photo: K.B. Thompson (licensed under CCA).|
Crosby Hall (moved to Chelsea in 1910) was built in 1466 by a wealthy wool merchant, Sir John Crosby, and was, at various times, home to the Duke of Gloucester (later Richard III), Sir Thomas More and Sir Walter Raleigh. William Shakespeare set a scene in his Richard III in Crosby Hall, a building he will have known well, since he lived locally in the 1590s, and was a parishioner at nearby St Helen's Church.
|Crosby Hall, c1885 (image is in the Public Domain).|
|Crosby Hall, c 1884 (image is in the Public Domain).|
|Liverpool Street Station in the late Nineteenth or early Twentieth Century (image is in the Public Domain).|
Liverpool Street Station now dominates the area, so perhaps Bishopsgate is still a meeting place of sorts, but much was destroyed when it was built. Now, as the Crossrail project turns the whole of London into one giant crossroads of England, however, archaeologists are unearthing more of the mysteries that have, for centuries, been hidden beneath its streets.
Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon. He is currently working on The Cheapside Tales, a London-based trilogy of historical novels.