Gates have often been the difference between life and death, as the city of Troy found out to its cost.

But they have also been a matter of money: tolls, to be precise.

I studied for three years at Southampton University, and delighted in spending far too much of my student grant in the main shopping street. It was divided into two: Above Bar, and Below Bar.

The Bar Gate has stood for nine hundred years in the centre of the city. It is not bar-shaped: it is a tiny fortress, which once interrupted the stout city walls. It is a squat flint giant, intimidating and immoveable. It was a Bar because it would have been a place to collect tolls: it was a gate because it stood at the walls of a city.

It is one of the first things a seaman would have met, travelling up the road from the port and into the city. This giant controlled entrance to a city from an entire continent. It must withstand merchants, sailors, dignitaries and the possibility of invasion. No wonder its construction has lasted for centuries.

What a different Bar I met yesterday, strolling across from St Paul’s Cathedral towards Paternoster Square.

I looked once, and then did a double take: because I recognised it instantly from all the old engravings I have seen. It is Temple Bar, distinctive and ordered, unlike so many of our gruff flint thuggish gates. In fact, it is likely to have been designed by St Paul’s Architect, Sir Christopher Wren.

But I didn’t recognise where it was at all.

All the engravings I have seen show it as a bar which stood sentry to ancient London. In the middle ages, as the settlement grew, the old city gates did not mark the end of the business any longer.

And so the City of London Corporation acquired powers to reach beyond the boundaries and charge tolls to merchants who were technically outside the walls.

The most lucrative of these was Temple Bar. It marked the westernmost point, where Fleet Street became the Strand. And it made its money through the incessant back and forth from the financial capital – the city – to the political capital, Westminster.

According to the City of London Corporation of today, the first mention of the Bar was in 1293. At that time it seems to have been a chain or bar between two posts. Named after the nearby Temple law courts, it soon developed into a multitasking timber gateway with a handy prison on the top.

The wooden gate survived the fire of 1666, but it was old and dilapidated, and Christopher Wren’s new London would have grown sniffy at its old incarnation. So a new one was built.

It has Wren’s look, this gracious, light gate of such classical proportions.

For 200 years, it graced the point between Fleet Street and The Strand. But eventually, the very hordes of traffic which had made its position so lucrative ensured its downfall.

The junction of these two roads was just too busy. The tiny gate caused traffic to back up disastrously. The Corporation held out as long as it could; it had such an affection for this landmark.

But in the early days of January, 1879, they relented. They took it apart, stone by stone; they numbered each stone with infinite care; and they took it round the corner, to a warehouse in Farringdon Road, until they could consider its future.

And this is where the history of Temple Bar takes a bizarre twist : and all at the behest of a banjo-playing barmaid.

Val Reece claimed to have been an actress before her marriage. But there are dark whisperings of a much less salubrious career in an establishment in Holborn. She was a well-endowed, raven-haired beauty who caught Whistler’s eye and sat for three of his portraits.

There is an untold story here, because secretly, and in a great hurry, Val got married. She chose for her consort New Money: a brewer and Member of Parliament, Sir Henry Meux. She was a sight to behold around London, riding on a high phaeton drawn by a pair of zebra.

Just months after Temple Bar’s dismantling, she acquired it and transported it, stone by stone – 2,500 stones weighing around 400 tonnes  – to Sir Henry’s home, Theobalds,  in Hertfordshire.

Was it her gateway to society? It is said that she used to hold select dinner parties in the upper chamber of the bar. It was, it seems, decorated with “spy” cartoons from Vanity Fair. Here she sat with the likes of Edward VII, and Winston Churchill.

Society certainly came to sit in her gateway.

The latter part of the twentieth century was not kind to Temple Bar. Theobalds fell into disrepair and the hallowed portal sat, forgotten, amongst the weeds and overgrowth.

In 1976, the Temple Bar Trust was set up. Its aim: to return the bar to the capital city. And after years of  campaigning, in 2001 the Corporation agreed to help the Trust make up the £3 million it would take to return. It opened on November 10 2004.

I found it at the entrance to a swish new development at Paternoster Square, once more an uncommonly handsome bar, the wonder of all who survey it.

I stared along with everyone else in wonderment. But I thought, hold on, how did that get there?

I wonder if somewhere deep in its stonework, it is every bit as bewildered as me?


23 thoughts on “Gateway

  1. A while back a story was published that at a zoo in England a fellow set up a gate at the parking lot and began collecting parking fees. He did this daily for 20 years and became a part of the scenery. Suddenly he disappeared. The zoo authorities called the city authorities to see why and the city queried the zoo for answers and neither had been privy to the enterprise. The fellow collected $7 million and disappeared scott free and scammed everyone is plane sight for 2 decades !

  2. So when they paid their tolls and entered, they’d have wanted a stiff drink and there’d be a tavern just inside the gates? Is that where our modern ‘bars’ originated?

    1. I think they are quite confused themselves, Sidey! If these banjo playing barmaids would stop messing about I think we’d all be able to find our feet a great deal more easily….

  3. Loved this. We have stood at So’ton’s Bar Gate and Much Better Half has wept at the plaque regarding the bombing, but we didn’t register properly the gate itself; As for Temple Bar, this has simply been part of our vocabulary, without really knowing the significance and history. I called her and she also read raptly. Thanx stax!

    1. So glad you both enjoyed it, Col 🙂 It is so compelling to find a puzzle like the relocated Bar, and solve it. And what memories you both have of Southampton’s Bar Gate! Unforgettable, if profound.

  4. So cool – very neat photo too. The gate must indeed feel like a time traveler since it never had the opportunity to watch its part of the city change over the years. But it must feel glad to be out in public service rather than helping a social climber feel cool.

  5. That’s a fascinating look through history. To have been built and rebuilt so many times must have been a strange thing, had the gate been able grasp the goings-on.

    London architecture does seem to be of a rather promiscuous sort, in that it “gets around” more than most. For example, the London Bridge currently resides here in Arizona at Lake Havasu City.

  6. Bar none, Kate, you are the best at telling a story. The pictures (both, I clicked on the one for Bar Gate as well) are quite wonderful. They make our silly toll booths here abouts look like Tinker Toys.

  7. When I come to London, this is how I shall travel around:
    She was a sight to behold around London, riding on a high phaeton drawn by a pair of zebra.

    This post was a real eye opener for me, Kate. I always thought that Temple Bar had something to do with barristers and soliciters ~ just like we have the American Bar Association to oversee our attorneys and lawyers. 😀

    I went to school at William And Mary and took classes in the Wren Building (modeled after Sir Christopher):

    Although the building’s current state dates to the 20th century restoration by Boston architects Perry Shaw & Hepburn, the College named the building in honor of the English architect Sir Christopher Wren, after the Reverend Hugh Jones, a William and Mary mathematics professor, wrote in 1724 that the College Building was “modeled by Sir Christopher Wren”. Perry Shaw and Hepburn’s restoration reflects the building’s historic appearance from its reconstruction in 1716 after a 1705 fire to 1859, when it burned again.

    1. Fascinating! Must chase that one up, Nancy! I love Wren’s work, so balanced and geometric. His St Paul’s staircase is my favourite…

      I shall look out for a lady with a couple of zebra when I’m in and around the capital. I shall not have to ask, I shall just holler: “Hello Nancy!”

  8. Imagine ‘riding on a high phaeton drawn by a pair of zebra’ – really! No wonder the money didn’t last…

    Seriously, though, I enjoyed this story, Kate.

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