Temple Bar review
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Temple Bar is a Victorian monument in the middle of Fleet Street, topped off with a black dragon. It's quite a sight the first time you see it. I still remember sitting on the top deck of a bus and wondering what the hell it was. (This was twenty years ago.) It's something you look at, look at again, and then continue thinking about as you drive past. The next time you come down Fleet Street you'll already have your camera out, ready to take a photo. Can there be any higher praise than that?
But before I explain what it is, let me tell you that there are actually two Temple Bars in London. There's a Victorian monument in Fleet Street, plus a stone gateway embellished by Christopher Wren -- and you'll have to go on a ten-minute walk to see the second one. The monument just marks the spot where the original gate once stood. And when you see the actual gate you'll understand why they had to move it.
I always used to believe that Temple Bar was one of the Roman gates into the City of London, but the proper gate was further up Ludgate Hill. Temple Bar just marked the outer limits of the City's authority. It was the ceremonial entrance. When the king paraded up from Westminster he used to stop at Temple Bar and ask the Mayor for permission to enter. But by Victorian times it was bunging up the horses and carts and preventing all the traffic from entering the city, and business takes precedence over everything, doesn't it -- even 750 years of history -- so they tore the whole thing down.
If you look at all the black carvings around the base then you can see the final parade that took place before they pulled it down. You can also see what the original gate used to look like whilst it was still in situ. You need to remember that picture... because you're going to see the real thing a bit later.
Luckily for us a Victorian gentleman stepped in to save the stones when they demolished it, and had them re-erected in the grounds of his country house. 125 years later they were transported back to London and re-erected outside St. Paul's Cathedral. So that's where we're heading now: to see the original gate in it's new home.
I enjoy walking up Fleet Street because there are some lovely old buildings up here. The oldest one is a stone's-throw from the monument itself and pre-dates the Great Fire of London: Prince Henry's Room. It has one of those black-beam Tudor fronts that juts out from the second story. There's another skinny little pub front a couple of doors down that's worth looking at... and then you look across the road and see the fairytale front of the Royal Courts of Justice. Do we live in the best city in the world, or what? I actually feel quite proud of London when I come down here (I know that's daft). We tuck these little beauties away all over the city and never give them a second's thought.
Keep your eyes busy and you'll see plenty of other good-looking buildings -- how about that archway into Clifford's Inn (opposite that Ye Olde Cck Tavern)? St. Dunstan's is another of my favourites. There's an extremely old and battered statue of Elizabeth I above the door, and the mythical city builders on top of the clock: Gog and Magog.
The second half of Fleet Street is rather plain in comparison, but keep an eye out for two great buildings on the left -- can you see some pale green brickwork and a statue of Mary Queen of Scots halfway up? A lot of the bigger buildings down here are where the newspapers used to operate from. We still call the paper trade 'Fleet Street' today -- even though they've long since moved out to Canary Wharf and Wapping.
When you finally make it to the front steps of St. Paul's Cathedral, look left. Can you see it across the courtyard? That's the original Temple Bar over there. Can you recognise it from the picture on the monument? Imagine how fantastic it would be if it was still standing in Fleet Street today.
When you look at drawings and woodcuts of this thing in history books then they invariably show it with spikes sticking out the top. They look like cocktail sticks with pineapple chunks on the end. But those sticks are spikes, and the chunks are people's heads -- traitor's heads -- displayed on the gate as a warning to criminals who entered London. That's how we dealt with criminals in those days. Now we just give them a bib and tell them to pick up some crisp packets for thirty minutes.
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