Sunday, 17 February 2019

City of London Alleyways & Courtyards

16th February 2019

The City of London sometimes appears to consist mostly of shiny modern office buildings, all stainless steel, glass, ventilation grilles, CCTV cameras and private security guards. In amongst all that though weaves the city's history, old inns, bombed out churches, and little noticed details down narrow passages between and sometimes beneath the shiny new stuff. There are many walking tours to be had on which knowledgeable guides will show you bits of this "hidden London", frequently adding ghosts and ghouls to the mix. Or you could have a wander about on a Saturday afternoon when the city boys and girls are off spending their over-inflated bonuses elsewhere and see what you can find while the City is less busy. I did.

Lombard Court EC3


Running between Gracechurch St. and Clements Lane. with a kink in the middle so you can't see from one end to the other.

Lombard Court EC3 Lombard Court EC3 Parish Boundary Markers, Lombard Court Lombard Court EC3

On the wall of one of the modern buildings two old parish boundary markers have been remounted, one for St Benet Gracechurch, the other for All Hallows Lombard Street. Further up Lombard Court passes under the buildings for a short way and then becomes a very narrow road open to traffic rather than a footpath. Plough Court, another narrow passageway leads off to the right to Lombard Street.


Bengal Court, Castle Court, & Ball Court



In George Yard next to the back of the historic George and Vulture pub, once a haunt of Charles Dickens and perhaps also the notorious "Hellfire Club" a very small opening, little more than a doorway, leads to Bengal Court. This had several former names, taking its current one in the 19th century from the Bengal Arms Tavern that once stood in it. No more alas, now it's lined with more modern office buildings although on one side these have been given the appearance of old shop fronts. Sort of.

George Yard EC3 Bengal Court EC3 Bengal Court EC3

The other end of Bengal Court comes out into Birchin Lane, passing under the first floor of what is now a sandwich shop. Turning right and past two shops there is the entrance to Castle Court. There's no castle so it might be another one named after a long-gone pub. There is a barber's shop though, which seems to be a feature of many of these alleys, and a number of other small shops which enhance the feeling of "Olde Worlde London".

Bengal Court EC3 Castle Court EC3

Turning left into St. Michael's Alley brings you out onto Cornhill alongside the impressively carved doorway to St. Michael's Cornhill church. Burnt down in the great fire of London and apparently not rebuilt by Wren even though he is sometimes given the credit.

St. Michael's Alley EC3

Turn left along Cornhill for a short distance to find the atmospheric Ball Court on the left. This leads back up to Castle Court by Simpson's Tavern, quiet on a Saturday afternoon on account of it being closed but I suspect quite popular during the week. And probably has been since the early 18th Century.

Ball Court EC3 Ball Court EC3 Ball Court EC3

Newman's Court, Sun Court, & White Lion Court




Returning down Ball Court and crossing Cornhill there are three alleyways which are dead ends. The first two, Newman's Court and Sun Court hold little of interest unless you count the yellow sign above Sun Court entrance, being service entrance and cycle parking for the offices above. Though wandering in and out of them taking photos probably gave interest to the people watching the CCTV.

Newman's Court EC3 Sun Court EC3 White Lion Court EC3

White Lion Court also at first glance appears to be similar to the other two but with a set of large iron gates. They were open, I don't know if they get closed. Maybe they do because there's something special up there. As well as a bicycle rack.

White Lion Court EC3 White Lion Court EC3 White Lion Court EC3

2 White Lion Court is a Grade II listed 18th Century 4 storey house with a basement and a red stucco front and stone lions guarding the front door. Also there's a curious small building to the left I can't find anything about which looks old. Heavy carving over the side door and a plaque, possibly a coat of arms on the other door. It looks like a very fancy garage so I suppose it could have been a coach house. Also two parish boundary markers on the house wall above. Apart from the front door of number 2 none of this is visible from Cornhill if you're just walking by.

St. Peter's Alley




On the opposite side of Cornhill from Sun Court is St.Peter's Alley. This leads around the back of St. Peter upon Cornhill church and out to Gracechurch Street.

St. Peter's Alley EC3 St.Peter's Cornhill churchyard St. Peter's Cornhill

The church stands on the highest point of the City of London although it's not immediately apparent and don't expect far reaching views! It may also be the site of London's first church if it really was set up by King Lucius in AD 179. The present building replaces that lost in the great fire and this one is by Wren. It seems to have escaped the worst attentions of Herman Goering's boys as well. The churchyard has been turned into a garden on the site of the former burial ground. As a tour guide once pointed out to me if you have to climb steps to get into a churchyard in this city it's because you're standing on a pile of corpses. There are steps.

Star Alley




Cross Gracechurch Street, go through Leadenhall Market out to Lime Street then via Cullum Street to Fenchurch Street, cross over and turn left. A little way up is Star Alley. This leads under an office building and out into the open by the Tower of All Hallows Staining which has a very long history. Staining in this case meaning built of stone instead of wood as was more usual when the first one was built.

Star Alley EC3 Tower of All Hallows Staining EC3 Tower of All Hallows Staining EC3

Austin Friars Passage



Austin Friars Passage off Great Winchester Street didn't appear to offer much of interest other than an ornate archway and a lot of white glazed bricks but half way down was a bit of older wall with another parish boundary marker. All Hallows London Wall this time.

Austin Friars Passage EC2 Austin Friars Passage EC2 Austin Friars Passage


Tokenhouse Yard



A little to the north of Bank station Tokenhouse Yard runs between Lothbury and Telegraph Street. Most of it is a street, which incidentally crosses the course of the Walbrook, but at the north end there's a covered alleyway through to Telegraph Street and Copthall Buildings. The Token House from which it gets its name refers to a place where tradesmen's tokens were issued to be used in lieu of small denomination coins.

Tokenhouse Yard EC2 Tokenhouse Yard EC2 Copthall Buildings EC2 alleyway

Above the entrance to the alley is a cast iron grille and a carved stone City of London arms. Telegraph Street was formerly part of Great Bell Alley until 1859 and the opening of the General Office of the Electric and International Telegraph Company when it was renamed.

Mason's Avenue



Turning left up Telegraph Street, crossing Moorgate, up Great Bell Alley, and over Coleman Street brings you to Mason's Avenue. Now to me an avenue suggests something wide and tree lined, probably in Metroland but this is definitely an alley. What's more it has both an old pub and a barber's shop to end this little exploration.
Mason's Avenue EC2 Mason's Avenue EC2

It being Saturday and this being the City The Old Doctor Butler's Head wasn't open, which was a shame as I could have done with a pint about this point. Old Dr. Butler was, not to put too fine a point on it, a quack. But a very successful quack, From the pub's own website:

History of The Old Doctor Butler's Head
One of the City of London’s most historic pubs, The Old Doctor Butler’s Head was originally established in 1610 - with the present building dating back to just after the Great Fire of London in 1666. 

The pub takes its name from one Dr Butler, a 17th century self-proclaimed specialist in nervous disorders. His 'miracle cures' included holding consultation on London Bridge, during which the unfortunate client would be dropped through a trapdoor into the torrent below. 

As a cure for epilepsy, he would fire a brace of pistols near his unsuspecting patient, to scare the condition out of them. In cases of the plague, he’d plunge the poor soul into cold water. 

So highly was he considered, that despite his lack of qualifications he was appointed court physician to King James 1. 

At a similar time, he developed a medicinal ale for gastric ailments, which was available only from taverns which displayed Dr. Butler's head on their signs. This led to him acquiring a number of ale houses in the capital - of which The Old Dr. Butler's Head is the last one standing.

The ale is no longer on the menu…

In this little exploration I've not even begun to cover the multitude of alleyways in the City of London but it was an interesting afternoon's exercise. If you want to know more then I can't do better than to point you towards the website Ian Visits whose section on London's Alleyways was the inspiration for my trip.

For this post I've tried something a little different and embedded the Flickr photos into the blog. Clicking them should take you to the original full size version.

Sunday, 10 February 2019

Clapham South Deep-level Shelter

9th February 2019

Another Hidden London visit to break up the monotony of winter. This time to a very deep hole in the ground. I got the train from Sandhurst via Guildford and Clapham Junction to Balham (Gateway to the South) and despite it being Saturday all the trains ran within a couple of minutes on time and none were cancelled. I mention this because I'm not usually that lucky.

A 15 minute stroll up Balham High Road brought me to Clapham South station, or more accurately to the Costa opposite for refreshments, impeccably timed so that I missed the rain shower that occurred whilst I was inside. Filled up on cappuccino and cinnamon brioche bun (those are nice) and with some time to kill before the tour of the shelter was due to start I crossed the road and had a wander around the southern half of Clapham Common. 

Clapham South shelter surface building
The first thing you come to (ignoring the robot khazi) is one of the entrance "pillbox" buildings to the deep level shelter. Just behind it is the top of one of the ventilation system shafts. 

This entrance is not the one used for the tour though, that's further south back along Balham Hill, now incorporated into a modern apartment block and known locally as the drum. 

Further wandering across the common brought me to the bandstand and Mount Pond before heading back to Clapham South station to meet the Hidden London tour guides and be registered and fitted with a fetching pink paper wristband. While waiting we were entertained by the leaping beggar outside the station entrance who would occasionally and for no discernible reason jump up into the air. I'm not sure care-in-the-community is working quite as well as we'd hope. Just be glad it isn't you - unless it is you and you're reading this in which case you've dropped your lighter by the south entrance door to the station.

South London Women & Children's Hospital
Across the road from the station is an impressive bit of 1920s neo-classical architecture.

A quick Google informed me that it was the
South London Hospital for Women and Children. Designed by Sir Edwin Cooper it was for women patients and staffed by women only right up until its controversial closure in 1984.

It is now a Tesco store. Or at least the bits that remain that they weren't allowed to destroy are. Thankfully the Tesco branding on the exterior is unusually understated, to the extent that I hadn't noticed its new use until I looked it up.

Back to the main subject of this post and back to Clapham South station. The tour party met up under the high lantern over the station entrance and once all were present and correct lead the short distance
Clapham South entrance
down Balham Hill to an anonymous door at the bottom of a modern apartment block.

Inside we were given a short safety briefing - all sources of ignition are banned and anyone who thinks they might have trouble climbing back up the 179 stairs is requested to seriously consider whether they should proceed on the tour. There is no working lift. There is definitely no step-free access!

Clapham South is one of 8 deep-level air raid shelters built between 1941 and 1942 (10 were planned but two were abandoned before completion due to difficulties) after it became horribly apparent that the tube stations that people were using as air raid shelters were not adequate. There was great loss of life at Bank station and again at Balham, where the bombs shattered water and sewerage mains resulting in many of the victims being drowned in effluent which flooded into the tunnels. Each shelter was intended to house 10,000 people although that was later reduced to 8000 as it was decided that 10,000 would be overcrowded. The shelters were all attached to tube stations on the Northern and Central Lines because they utilised pre-war plans for express tube lines intended to run beneath the existing lines.
The 10 shelters were located at:

  • Belsize Park
  • Camden Town
  • Goodge Street
  • Chancery Lane
  • St. Pauls (not completed due to concerns about undermining the cathedral).
  • Oval (not completed because it kept flooding while they were building it).
  • Stockwell
  • Clapham North
  • Clapham Common
  • Clapham South
Of the eight built only Clapham South is currently open to the public, by Hidden London tour only. Although that is about to change as Clapham Common shelter, now an underground farm, are currently taking bookings to run tours of their own hole in the ground. I expect it will look a bit different to its neighbour to the south.

Direction sign in the tunnels
Spiralling down the 179 steps we went (insert your own reference to the "15 storeys" gag here) to the bottom and into one of the cross tunnels.

The shelter consists of two parallel quarter-mile long tunnels connected by cross passages at the bottom of the vertical access shafts. Each tunnel is divided into four sections and each section split horizontally by a floor giving a total of 16 sub-shelters.

The tunnels are 16' diameter tube train tunnels, dug by hand, lined with iron or concrete rings. It's not what you'd call spacious accommodation.

The whole shelter was connected to a powerful ventilation system. It had to be, this was the 1940s, almost everyone smoked!


Upper floor within the tunnel
In order to aid users in finding their way to their allotted space the shelters were given the names of Royal Navy admirals, 16 of them.

Some civil servant had to find 16 admirals with names starting with the letters A to P.

Within the shelter were were medical facilities, toilets and showers, and canteens as well as administrative offices for the Civil Defence staff under the control of the Shelter Superintendent.



Wartime bunk beds
Triple layer steel bunks were installed. There's not much space between them and the bottom bunk on the lower floor is rather short due to the curvature of the tunnel wall.

The shelter had to be evacuated during the day, it was important that people carried on as normally with their lives as possible and didn't become troglodytes. Only those who had been bombed out and had lost their homes were allowed to leave possessions in the shelter. Everyone else had to drag their bedding and everything else in and out up those spiral staircases.


Newspaper article 1944
By the time the shelters were completed the heaviest part of the Blitz had come and gone.

The shelters were mothballed as it wasn't felt to be economically viable to run them for the much reduced number of people who would need them.

They were actually opened later in mid 1944 when the German V1 and V2 weapons were falling on London but never saw anything like the 8000 people a night that they could accommodate.



After the end of the war the shelters were used as cheap 1d/night hotels, troop accommodation for the funeral of King George VI, briefly although famously to accommodate some of the migrant workers from the MV Empire Windrush, and then in 1951 as the Festival of Britain Hotel. A fire at Goodge Street in 1956 which was being used by US troops meant the shelters were deemed no longer suitable as sleeping accommodation and closed.

Secure archive shelving
Since then the shelters have found alternative use as secure archive storage. They are dry, ventilated, and have a fairly constant temperature which is suited to the storage of paper and other items.

As well as installing purpose built shelving many of the wartime bunk beds were converted to shelves by placing sheets of chipboard over the steel bed-springs.

Clapham South is a Grade II listed structure and if you can get a ticket (and if you can climb 179 stairs) it's well worth the entry fee. The Hidden London staff put on a really good tour (Pat is especially good) and you'll be surprised at just how extensive the shelter is while being quite cramped at the same time. At 6'5" tall I spent a lot of time ducking.

Clapham Common shelter
If you walk up past the common as I did past Clapham Common station then on the right on the corner of Carpenter's Place you can see the surface building for Clapham Common deep-level shelter. this is now Growing Underground hydroponic farm so has been spruced up a bit compared with Clapham South.

Next to it is the Maharani restaurant.

I can confirm that they do a bloody excellent curry 😊