diamond geezer

 Wednesday, April 23, 2014

For St George's Day, to St George's Fields SE1.

The south side of the Thames built up much more slowly than the north, being mostly marshland, and the largest part of this was St George's Fields. Originally Southwark Field, this medieval expanse lay inland from the Thames between what's now Waterloo station and Elephant and Castle. The land originally gained its saintly name from St George's Church on Borough High Street, in whose parish it sat, although no parishioners lived this far out. Only tracks and causeways crossed the fields, one of these leading eastward from the Horseferry at Lambeth in the general direction of Kent. Londoners used the common land to grow crops and to graze animals, until the development of two new river crossings in the mid 18th century brought greater importance to the area. One of these was Westminster Bridge, the other Blackfriars Bridge, and it was the latter that made the greatest mark.

The architect of Blackfriars Bridge, a certain Robert Mylne, built a grand Parisian-style boulevard due south into St George's Fields. This ran for almost a mile down to the junction with Borough Road, and here Mylne created a circus with a stone obelisk at its centre. New roads were built radiating out in all directions, with the intention of creating a well-to-do neighbourhood of Georgian terraces where previously there'd been only marshland and a pub. The Dog and Duck tavern was replaced by the relocated Bethlem Hospital, otherwise known as Bedlam, and now the home of the Imperial War Museum. The area built up swiftly after that, not always to Mylne's high standards, but the road pattern and especially the obelisk survive.



It's not been here all the time since 1771, having been relocated to nearby Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park in 1905 to make way for a Diamond Jubilee clocktower. Indeed it wasn't until 1998 that the now-listed obelisk was returned to its rightful place at the hub of St George's Circus. You'll most likely see it from the bus, because several routes pass this way, standing tall and lonely in the centre of a large paved piazza. This isn't the most pedestrian friendly of spaces, neither is the surrounding road a complete loop thanks to a one-way street on London Road. But you can get right up close to the inscription - in part tribute, in part grandiose milepost.
North: ERECTED IN XI YEAR OF THE REIGN OF KING GEORGE THE THIRD MDCCLXXI
East: ONE MILE FROM PALACE YARD, WESTMINSTER HALL
South: ONE MILE, CCCL FEET FROM FLEET STREET
West: ONE MILE, XXXX FEET FROM LONDON BRIDGE
Around the edge of St George's Circus the buildings aren't quite so impressive - a tandoori restaurant, a Subway, a wall of 90s student flats and a stack of very 60s offices. The latter, and a considerable length of Blackfriars Road beyond, are under immediate threat of redevelopment from a joint project between Barratt Homes and Southwark Council. To be fair much of what's planned to disappear is ugly postwar commercial architecture, but after the urban cleansing debacle at the nearby Heygate Estate it's hard to view such schemes objectively. Barratt's plans are for a "residential-led, mixed-use scheme" and include what they describe as a "landmark" concave building facing the circus, although their artist's impression suggests mundane and bland to me. Instead the most interesting building hereabouts is concealed behind the brown fa├žade beside Subway - that's the subsurface depot for the Bakerloo Line.

And beyond that, never quite joining up with the circus, lies St George's Road. This broad street runs along the same alignment as that medieval track from Lambeth Palace, skirting the edge of long-vanished fields. It's now part of the one-way system hereabouts, and rather busy, leading up from Elephant and Castle towards Westminster Bridge Road. It's not a retail sort of road, more a mix of residential, religious and educational use. The E&C end's the bleakest, although with some fine turn-of-the-19th tenements at St George's Buildings. Various denominations of faith and non-denominational school get a look-in, plus a few surviving terraces of aspirational Georgian townhouses.

The IWM looks out towards St George's Road across Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park, the latter given to the LCC by Lord Rothermere in 1934 and named after his mother. The park's relatively quiet at the moment, what with the museum being closed for redevelopment, but arguably this creates a better setting for the Dalai Lama's Tibetan Peace Garden. I particularly like the Ice Age Tree Trail, a collection of 34 species that colonised these isles following glacial retreat, including all your well-known trees like oaks and willows but also a wild service tree and a wych elm.

And across the street is St George's Cathedral, which in 1848 became the first Roman Catholic cathedral to be built in England since the Reformation. Its architect was Augustus Pugin, more famous for the rebuilding of the Palace of Westminster, although this is a far less gothic creation. Step inside to stand in the lofty arched nave, which alas isn't original but a postwar rebuild following heavy bombing. Look out for the restored remains of Pugin's high altar frontal in one of the chapels, and a more modern shrine dedicated to the Patron Saint of Migrants alongside the confessional booths. And where better to pay one's respects on St George's Day, than in the cathedral named after the fields named after the parish church named after the patron saint brought home from the Crusades?

» For a truly in-depth history of St George's Fields, Patrick tells all


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