Monday, 30 April 2012

Anyone for crocodile?

It’s a Wednesday morning, and here begins one of my more unusual City walks.
My clients have set their alarm clocks early enough to arrive at our meeting point by 6.45am ………
Surprisingly, everyone pitches up bright eyed and eager to start. Most are finishing off the lattes and cappuccinos bought en route. They exchange stories of their dawn-breaking commute to the heart of London.  Our group includes a  gentleman from Slough, a couple from Essex, a retired New Zealand sheep farmer, two residents of the nearby Barbican Towers, a handful of City workers,  an American family in London for the week, and an author who will shortly publish the latest in her series of crime novels about the area.
A brief introduction from me and off we go, crossing the street already busy with taxis and lorries (in the City, we always “have the builders in”). But we immediately leave the main road and disappear into a narrow alleyway with the intriguing name of Cloth Fair. This place did what it says on the tin: it was the site of England’s greatest cloth fair, attracting traders from all over Mediaeval Europe.
 We progress along the narrow street with an eye out for any silent cyclists speeding on their way to work. We pass the Hand and Shears, the tavern where the Lord Mayor would open the local fair by cutting the first piece of cloth. We stop to admire a different type of fabric - that of the oldest church in the City.  Either side of the alleyway are reminders of 2,000 years of history. We are now following the path of the old Roman Wall.  Involuntarily the group treads with more care when I mention that we are walking over ground where the Romans buried their dead.
At the end of Cloth Fair we come to a unique house. Built at the end of the sixteenth century, it is the only domestic residence in the City which has outlived the Great Fire of London of 1666.  In recent years it has been lovingly restored by two local architects. 
We then emerge into an open tree-lined area, surprisingly large and once known as Smoothfields. Centuries ago this was the site of a horse market. Did the merchant find a sturdy animal to draw his cart?  Was there a little ambler for the knight’s lady friend?
Turning right we reach our destination. Smoothfields has given its name to Smithfield, the imposing building which houses London’s Central Meat Market.  We enter through the East Market’s huge colourful gates, 25 feet tall and 15 tons apiece. Early in the day for us, but Smithfield has already been trading for seven hours.
 As well as the more conventional items, the market will sell you crocodile meat, zebra, kangaroo, wild boar. There is Royal steak on offer from the Prince of Wales’ Scottish estate. Or would you care to casserole one of the thousand sheep’s heads that the market sells every week?  
No end of fascinating sights and stories await our group as we begin to make our way along the Buyers’ Walk ………
Answers to May’s “Do you know?”
1. c,   2. b,   3. a,   4. c,   5. b,   6. c,   7. a,   8. c
 How good is your knowledge of the City’s Livery Companies? Try this month's quiz on

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