London 5: Butchers, Saints and Sinners

smithfield 1BLOWN on a thin wind around a corner from the Barbican tube station past a private park surrounded by private railings to a place where knights once jousted on a meadow called the Smooth Field – which was situated just outside London’s mediaeval walls . . .

This ancient name has been corrupted to Smithfield, and today it’s the fulcrum of the meat and poultry trading business. This morning’s fur and feathers have been swept away on a wind that’s bouncing pellets of unseasonal snow off the cobbles like welding sparks off a ship’s deck. There’s hardly anyone about. Only taxis and butchers’ vans tear along streets that are usually bustling with people. Still, it’s a good day for a walk. Sort of. And walking is the name of the game. (Click on pictures for high-res versions)

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Spoilsports. At least spitting's still allowed

Spoilsports. At least spitting’s still allowed

smithfields 1aSmithfield’s poultry market – which is contiguous to the meat market – burned down in 1958 and was rebuilt in the early 1960s, according to my wife who recalls purchasing a brace of pigeons in a miniskirt in 1967. Just to clarify that point – it was her wearing the miniskirt, not the pigeons. I’m scribbling this post in a church refectory on the back of an information leaflet, so there might be one or two ambiguous statements.

In 1963, when the poultry market reopened, it possessed the largest free-standing domed roof in Europe. That’s worth knowing, if you ask me.

smithfield 6London’s cobbles are cold beneath the soles of my newly-cleaned boots. It was even cold on the tube on the way here, despite standing shoulder to shoulder in a press of humanity between South Kensington and Westminster on the Circle Line.

If there are autumn leaves left in the back streets, they have been blown into unseen crevices. But in Cloth Fair, an alley with some charming pubs and a couple of houses that survived the Great Fire of 1666, there is a sanctuary of peace and warmth – a jewel of a church.

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More spoilsports

More spoilsports

Gin LaneThe Priory Church of Saint Bartholomew the Great is the oldest church in London and – according to the pleasant and welcoming chap at the door – only last month celebrated its 890th anniversary. The interior has survived almost unchanged since mediaeval times.

Another unlooked for discovery is the happy fact that the great William Hogarth was christened here in the church’s font – Hogarth, the wit and artistic talent that created Beer Street and Gin Lane (right), March of the Guards to Finchley, and The Rake’s Progress. I’ve been fascinated by Hogarth’s dark and sometimes disturbing satirical humour since my junior school days. The money lavished on my education by that nice Mr Wilson wasn’t completely wasted, after all.

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Wonder what a "hair merchant" did? Is that an obvious question?

Wonder what a “hair merchant” did? Is that an obvious question?

St Bart’s was in the news for less salubrious reasons only last month. The funeral of Great Train Robbery mastermind Bruce Reynolds took place here. Ronnie Biggs was pictured widely in the newspapers giving a V sign to the press, and there were blokes wearing very unchristian-looking golden bullets and knuckle-dusters on chains.

smithfield 2aWonder what their god made of it all. Wonder why they need a god. Self doubt and desperation? A final deal to wipe the slate clean? Because it’s only right and proper to say a prayer and have a booze up? Hope their god’s not as cold as the wind that’s whipping around these ancient stones.

I’ve run out of paper and a lady called Suzy has brought me another pot of tea. The pictures will tell the remainder of the story as we journey on through London’s backstreets . . .

Outside St Bart's Church is St Bart's Hospital. This is where they've been patching people up since the 12th Century

Outside St Bart’s Church is St Bart’s Hospital. This is where they’ve been patching people up since the 12th Century

And outside St Bart's Hospital is the place where William Wallace was hung, drawn and quartered. There seems to be a conflict of interests there, if you ask me

And outside St Bart’s Hospital is the place where William Wallace was hung, drawn and quartered. There seems to be a conflict of interests here, if you ask me

We are not far from one of London's major cathedral's here. This is where Sir John lived when, in a fit of creative passion, he penned his famous poem: As I Was Walking Past St Paul's

We are not far from one of London’s major cathedrals here. This is where Sir John lived when, in a fit of creative passion, he penned his famous poem: As I Was Walking Past St Paul’s

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More sinners . . .

The Old Bailey. More sinners . . .

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The Centre Page is a pub that has bitter-sweet memories. In June 2010 we sat supping beer in front of its big screen and watched Germany hammer England in the World Cup. It was a sad day. But after the match finished we ordered fish and chips, supped some more beer, and things didn't seem so bad after all . . .

The Centre Page is a pub that holds bitter-sweet memories. In June 2010 we sat supping beer in front of its big screen watching Germany hammer England in the World Cup. It was a sad day. But after the match we ordered fish and chips, supped some more beer, and things didn’t seem so bad after all . . .

Back to Smithfield for supper in the Butcher's Hook and Cleaver. Good name, good beer, good food

Back to Smithfield for supper in the Butcher’s Hook and Cleaver. Good name, good beer, good food

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There are bargains to be had everywhere in London if you keep your eyes open. Three for the price of two. This picture's just reminded me why I feel so chipper today . . .

There are bargains to be had everywhere in London if you keep your eyes open. Three for the price of two. Who could resist such an amazing offer? This picture’s just reminded me why I feel so chipper today . . .

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About McFadzean

Alen McFadzean, journalist, formerly of the Northern Echo, in Darlington, and the North-West Evening Mail, Barrow. Former shipyard electrician. Former quarryman and tunneller. Climbs mountains and runs long distances to make life harder. Gravitates to the left in politics just to make life harder still. Now lives in Orgiva, Spain.
This entry was posted in Beer, Cookery, Death, Environment, Food, History, Life, Pigeons, Politics, Religion, Walking, Writing and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to London 5: Butchers, Saints and Sinners

  1. What a great walk, and some wonderful pictures! Good to see you with your pint at the end!

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    • McEff says:

      Thanks for that, Anne. I’ve just been looking at your Hidden London site and it’s great. I shall be going back for a more leisurely visit in the near future.
      Cheers, Alen

      Like

  2. Alen, I have enjoyed your last 3 London posts. Need to get back to London and have another few days there. Not been there other than business since November, so much history so much to see. The greatest city in the world!

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  3. Tracey says:

    I’ve really enjoyed your London posts too. One day I may have the chance to visit and wander myself. Looks like I’d have to include St Barts on my tour. Class. 🙂

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    • McEff says:

      Hi Tracey. St Bart’s was great because the organist was having a practice – which always adds to the atmosphere – and the staff were really friendly and chatty. It’s a beautiful church and one where you can just sit and meditate – then go for a cup of tea.
      Cheers, Alen

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  4. balikuevent says:

    Hello McEff,
    It is look beautiful by discovering some photos and it was bring me to the real point. Congratulation and great job

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  5. David says:

    It’s always tempting to head away from the crowds and into the hills but reading about your urban walks certainly suggests otherwise. I especially like the idea of heading into a pub for a pint and a warm on a cold day – although thinking about it a pint on a hot day would be good too.

    Smithfield market looks like an interesting place for photography. Have you seen the old Pathe news reel of the fire in 1958 – brave men.
    http://www.britishpathe.com/video/two-die-in-smithfield-blaze
    David

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    • McEff says:

      Hi David. That newsreel is amazing. When my wife told me about the fire I had no idea how dramatic or widespread it had been. It looks bad enough on the surface, but to go down in those cellars, into the gloom and smoke, and fight fire is beyond heroism. And it was all in a day’s work for those poor chaps.
      And on a lighter note, I don’t often get chance to pop into a pub when I’m out walking because I’ve usually got a long drive at the end of it. But when the chance arises, caution does tend to get cast to the wind.
      Cheers, Alen

      Like

  6. Hanna says:

    It’s exciting history, Alen, and some amazing pictures.
    All the best,
    Hanna

    Like

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