City Thameslink Station, Newgate Street
It Tolls for Thee
“’Tis Saint Sepulchre’s bell. It tolls alas for human guilt.”
Sunday: tavern, solo drunken, More’s the reason, more’s the pity. Evening: cavern, so low sunken, Pondering slices of the City: What a strange place for a station, West, the hidden Styx of Wen; Between, the fall of civilisation; East, the stony hold of men. Headlines from the house of doom: Captain John saved by the Belle. Body snatched from holy tomb. Outlook: an unsettled spell. Relentless escalator daily. Don’t need a ticket to get on board. You’re going to die, say the bells of Old Bailey. Great Tom tolls for thee, m’Lud. Hey! You suits on Monday morning, Macintosh will take his toll. Don’t ignore the prophet’s warning: Profit versus loss of soul. The tunnel is my secret shadow. Jesus Christ! I need a piss. Solitude, before an echo Joins me from the black abyss. What’s that rushing sound, mine host? A rapid driving rainstorm, pray? Will it drown the Holy Ghost? Will water wash my sins away? Two hundred tons of metal chunder, Thrown up from the bowels of hell. Spewing noise like clapping thunder. Nick and I ain’t feeling well. As the streaky serpent surges Close towards me, I can see The driver’s face as it emerges: A demon laughing maniacally. Haunted by hallucination, Hurls the master of my fate To my final destination, Croydon, thirteen minutes late.
City Thameslink Station
Snow Hill tunnel carries a railway line under the northern edge of the City of London. It was completed in 1865 during the rebuilding of Smithfield meat market. Snow Hill station operated in the tunnel from 1874 to 1916 before the line was eventually abandoned.
In 1986, the tunnel was restructured to run south from Farringdon Station for about a third of a mile, burrowing under Smithfield, Newgate Street and Ludgate Hill. The line emerges near the River Thames to climb one of the UK’s steepest railway inclines to Blackfriars station.
In 1990, a new station opened in the tunnel. It was eventually named ‘City’ Thameslink in reference to London’s financial district. It had entrances at two sites that were once principal access points in the old city wall, Newgate and Ludgate. Between them, under the surface, lay the longest underground railway platform in London.
After last bells were called in one of the few pubs open on a Sunday in the Square Mile, I staggered down the escalators of the station to catch a train home. Alone. The sole pilgrim waiting in the underworld: ‘It Tolls for Thee’.
Running parallel to the west side of the station, the River Fleet flows underground on its journey towards the Thames. On its east bank, before it was closed in the mid-nineteenth century, stood the infamous Fleet prison.
Parallel to the east side of the station loomed another notorious prison, Newgate. Hidden below it was a hellhole, a dank, dark dungeon known as the ‘Stony Hold’ or ‘Limbo’. Many visitors to Newgate would have alighted at the original Snow Hill station. The prison was demolished and replaced by the extension of the Old Bailey criminal court in 1904.
Next door to the Fleet prison, the first daily English newspaper, the Daily Courant, was created in 1702. It was published in a building facing the entrance to Fleet Street, which would become the spiritual home of London’s newspaper industry.
Opposite the station’s north entrance stands the church of St Sepulchre-without-Newgate. Founded in 1137, it is the largest parish church in the City of London. In the seventeenth century, the church was linked by an underground tunnel to Newgate prison opposite. On the night before an execution, the sexton would walk through the tunnel and ring the ‘Bell of Doom’ outside the condemned prisoner’s cell to signal imminent death and implore repentance. The bell is still in the church.
The explorer Captain John Smith was buried in the church of St Sepulchre in 1631. He was the leader of the Jamestown colonists, the first permanent English settlers in America. While there, he was condemned to death by the chief of a Native American tribe but famously saved from execution by the intervention of Princess Pocahontas.
When the celebrated Pocahontas and her retinue visited England in 1616, where else could the Virginia Company lodge them but at the famous Belle Sauvage Inn? This hostelry once stood opposite what is now City Thameslink station’s south entrance on Ludgate Hill.
Written records of an inn called Savage’s Bell date back to the fifteenth century. William Savage, thought to be the original proprietor, was recorded living locally in Fleet Street.
Sir Thomas Wyatt, during his failed rebellion against Bloody Mary in 1554, rested at the inn when he was shut out at Lud Gate. In 1579, it was recorded as one of six inns of London that could be used as a playhouse. Shakespeare may well have been a regular; the Blackfriars Playhouse, a theatre owned by his company, was just yards away.
A spooky legend was created during a 1632 performance of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus at the Belle Sauvage theatre. It was claimed that the actual Devil himself was conjured up on stage.
In literature, the inn featured in Dickens’s Pickwick Papers (Sam Weller’s father lodged there) and Sir Walter Scott’s Kenilworth. It has also been depicted many times by artists.
As a large coaching inn (an advertisement of 1674 states it had forty guest rooms and stabling for a hundred horses), it remained a busy transport hub for several centuries before a new transport system, the railway, sealed its doom. It was demolished in 1873 to make way for a viaduct, built directly above the current Snow Hill tunnel.
The graveyard of St Sepulchre became a notorious haunt for body snatchers, particularly in the early nineteenth century. Such tomb raiders were also known as the ‘resurrectionists’. One wonders if they were aware the church was named after the holy tomb in Jerusalem, the site of Christ’s resurrection.
The four weathercocks on the church tower have a habit of giving four different opinions on wind direction.
The escalators at City Thameslink station are on a high-speed setting – the fastest in London; the City commuters don’t have time to hang around! Also, for a long time after the station opened, it was the only one in London without ticket barriers: a generous reflection on City commuter honesty.
The main bells of St Sepulchre are more famously known as ‘the bells of Old Bailey’, the ones which claim the debt in the nursery rhyme ‘Oranges and Lemons’. These would also toll the hour of execution, signalling a debt repaid to the Grim Reaper.
When it initially opened, City Thameslink station was named St Paul’s because of its proximity to the great cathedral at the top of Ludgate Hill. However, this was soon changed to avoid confusion with the tube station of the same name. At the cathedral there is another famous bell. It’s known as ‘Great Tom’ and is tolled every hour, and on the death of certain dignitaries, such as the Lord Mayor of London.
Ludgate Hill is believed to take its name from the pagan King Lud. Indeed, some claim London itself is named after this Celtic warlord.
The visible symbol of the City is a dragon, which appears in boundary markers, coats of arms and street signs. No one is sure of the origin of this representation. The dragon is certainly an ancient Celtic emblem, which may link it with Lud. However, in Germanic and Norse literature, dragons were the greedy guardians of gold, which may serve as an unflattering embodiment of the City of London as monetary powerhouse. It may also be noted that the motif of St Margaret, the parish saint of Westminster (representing the rival seat of political and religious power), is a holy figure holding a cross and forcefully emerging from a dragon.
Other guardians, traditionally bound to the City’s mythical founding, are the totemic giants Gog and Magog. The Book of Revelation warns that the dragon, as Satan, will be released from his thousand-year imprisonment, and gather together from the lands of Gog and Magog the vast armies of darkness for the great final battle. Ezekiel 39:6 reads, ‘I will send a fire on Magog and those that live independently on the isles shall know that I am the Lord.’ According to Genesis, Magog and Lud are grandsons of Noah.
The City’s symbols may identify it as a pagan institution, yet its citizens have been worshipping at St Paul’s for over 1,400 years, negating the ‘godless’ insinuations aimed at the City.
In October 1986, as the Snowhill Tunnel was being re-bored, another event of earth-shaking magnitude was occurring in the City: the deregulation of the London stock market. Referred to as the Big Bang, it essentially combined brokering and dealing, with trading moving from floor to computer. It led to greater stock volumes, faster transactions, and the meteoric rise of the IT department. It also saw an end to the traditional stockbroker’s uniform of pinstriped suit and bowler hat. It is said that the Big Bang immediately created 1,500 millionaires in the City.
‘Macintosh’ refers to the personal computer and the coat. In Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray, Lord Henry recalls how he heard a street prophet in a macintosh at Speakers’ Corner proclaim Christ-like to a crowd, ‘What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?’ In James Joyce’s Ulysses, a spectral figure in a macintosh appears at a funeral and is pegged as the Grim Reaper by Leopold Bloom. When counting the number of mourners, he remarks, ‘The chap in the macintosh is thirteen. Death’s number.’
Just before the trains enter the north end of the station, they pass under Cock Lane, aptly named as the place where the only licensed brothels in the City were located. In 1688, a decade after completing Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan collapsed and died here during a rainstorm. In the early eighteenth century, contemporary poets Jonathan Swift and John Gay both describe the torrents of water at Snow Hill caused by rainfall.
During the 1760s, there were reports of a poltergeist haunting a property in Cock Lane belonging to the parish clerk of St Sepulchre. The clerk’s lodger had supposedly murdered his own sister-in-law in the house. The manner of the haunting, although likely to have been a tool for petty revenge – as noted in Charles Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds – was never satisfactorily explained. The American author Washington Irving briefly stayed in Cock Lane while researching for his own ghost stories.
London’s first public drinking fountain was installed next to the railings of St Sepulchre in 1859. It is still there.
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