Nairn’s London #1
French Ordinary Court
THEN: Number 42 Crutched Friars, near Fenchurch Street Station, is one of the best eighteenth-century houses left in the City, with a swagger steak-and-oyster doorway. Beside it a hole leads into French Ordinary Court, neither French nor ordinary. It is in effect a big and very dark wedge-shaped room carved out under the railway tracks, full of mysterious and seductive smells (spices? scent?) from bonded warehouses. A fine and private place; but, as the notice says ‘Commit no nuisance’. A footpath runs through from one corner into Fenchurch Street.
NOW: No spices. No smells.No sign. But still a seductive and secluded spot, a stone’s throw away from the Tower. And Nairn’s not wrong – the Crutched Friar is a fantastic boozer, with a long arched entrance and layered floorplan.
Nairns London #25
THEN: St Paul’s can be reached in a hundred ways: this approach to Westminster needs to be calculated to the foot. Take an eleven or seventy-six bus from Victoria and get off at the stop called Great Smith Street, or ‘the Abbey’. Walk on twelve paces from the bus stop and what meets you is a set of four verticals, evenly spaced like a great major chord; Big Ben, St Margaret’s Tower, the Crimea Memorial, and the north-west tower of the Abbey. In terms of distance, they fire 1-2-4-3, rather like a car engine, folding the sequence in. As Gordon Cullen once said: ‘View? It is more like organ music!’
NOW: Rather hard to track down. Pretty sure I got it right, but times have changed. The pavements are busy, the trees are bushy, and buses block your view every ten seconds. Organ music, but muffled.
Nairns London #13
Spiegelhalters, Mile End Rd
THEN: Messrs Wickham, circa 1910, wanted an emporium. Messrs Spiegelhalter, one infers, wouldn’t sell out. Messrs Wickham, one infers further, pressed on regardless, thereby putting their Baroque tower badly out of centre. Messrs Spiegelhalter (‘The East End Jewellers’) remain; two stuccoed storeys, surrounded on both sides by giant columns a la Selfridges. The result is one of the best visual jokes in London, a perennial triumph for the little man, the bloke who won’t conform. May he stay there till the Bomb falls. (A bleak thought is that, if Messrs Wickham’s problem had arisen today, smooth lawyers and architects could probably have presented a case for comprehensive redevelopment, and persuaded the council to use their powers of compulsory purchase. Big deal; fine democracy.)
NOW: I’ve a feeling Spiegelhalter’s has entered its final days. It’s been gutted. It’s been boarded up. And it’s now flanked either side by heavy duty scaffolding. There’s a chance they’re shoring it up. But I’m not holding out hope. Lunch in the restaurant next door was a little sadder for it.