Stroll across from St Paul’s Cathedral towards Paternoster Square, and you will find a treasure rebuilt.
A Londoner may recognise it from all the old engravings in which it took centre stage. It is Temple Bar, distinctive and ordered, unlike so many of our gruff flint thuggish city 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 business any longer.
The City of London Corporation acquired powers to reach beyond London’s walls and charge tolls to merchants who were technically outside.
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 one of London’s chief city gates 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.
Exploring the area round St Paul’s. 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?
This is a repost: Temple Bar is one of my favourite London stories. If you’re ever in London: do pop along to see it…..