What are London's oldest bits?

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In the course of its 2,000-year history, much of London's tangible past has been lost, if not to the Great Fire then to the Blitz or redevelopment. But that just makes the survivors even more venerable. Here, then, is Time Out's definitive list of the oldest everything - buildings, artefacts, institutions and features - in the capital...

  • What are London's oldest bits?

    London's oldest tree © Rob Greig

  • What oldest bits are we missing? Statue? Street sign? Petrified dog-turd? Post your candidates in the comments below – if they check out, we'll add them to our list.

    Tree
    | Loos | Boozer | Church | Clock | House | Shrub | Restaurant | Thing

    London's oldest… Tree

    The notion of ‘oldest’, especially applied to a city whose roots lie as deep and as knotted as London’s, can be a tricky one to untangle. Take London’s oldest tree: if we’re talking Paleozoic-era old, the city’s most wizened arboreal relics can be seen cluttering up the east lawn of the Natural History Museum – sections from a fossilised tree trunk that paleobotanists reckon lived around 330 million years ago.

    But the capital’s most senior living citizen is the magnificent ‘Ancient Yew’ in St Andrew’s churchyard in Totteridge, a tree that’s been estimated to be knocking on 2,000 years old by some experts, including one who’s been around almost as long, David Bellamy (the vicar can show you the certificate). So as a sapling this yew may well have overlooked the Romans building a fort three miles to the west at Brockley Hill – which, in AD45, would have been just four or five hours’ march along the ancient highway of Watling Street from the brand new settlement of Londinium.
    St Andrew's Church, Totteridge, N20 8PR (8445 6787, www.totteridge.church.btinternet.co.uk).
    Natural History Museum, Cromwell Rd, SW7 5BD (7942 5000, www.nhm.ac.uk).

    Tree | Loos | Boozer | Church | Clock | House | Shrub | Restaurant | Thing

     

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    Waste outlet on the Tower of London's White Tower

    London's oldest… Loos
    Londoners’ lifestyles and habits have changed in countless ways over the centuries, but one thing they’ve always had to do is poo. Hard evidence for this can be seen on the north and east walls of the Tower of London’s central White Tower (London’s oldest intact building, FYI, built between 1075 and 1101), where spill-holes for a rudimentary Norman drainage system survive. Inside, the log flume connects to six ‘garderobes’, chamber-wall recesses with squatting-holes where one would squit one’s medieval business, and which doubled as foul-airing cupboards for clothes (in the hope that the smell would ward off moths).

    Castles are all very well, but the capital’s most antiquated lav in a private residence – and quite possibly the East End’s first bit of exposed-plumbing chic – is at Sutton House in Homerton, whose Tudor widdling place dates from 1535. The austere brick alcove is fitted with a lead pipe to dribble one’s privy matter into a cesspit beside the home – not too much of a problem in rural Hackney at the time, but according to Jerry White, author of new history of the capital ‘London: The Story of a Great City’, within the walls of the city, ‘there’d be shit everywhere. Even Westminster was as smelly and foul as parts of the City or the East End. Until London’s 3,000 or so cesspools were closed and connected to drainage from about 1848 to 1860, there was no part of London that didn’t stink of sewage.’
    Sutton House, 2-4 Homerton High St, E9 6JQ (8986 2264, www.nationaltrust.org.uk/main/w-suttonhouse).
    Tower of London, EC3N 4AB (0844 482 7777, www.hrp.org.uk).

    Tree | Loos | Boozer | Church | Clock | House | Shrub | Restaurant | Thing

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    The Olde Wine Shades

    London's oldest… Boozer
    The argument over which pub deserves the title ‘London’s ye oldeste’ is bitterly contested. At the risk of being barred from The Lamb & Flag (Covent Garden), Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese (Fleet Street), The Prospect of Whitby (Wapping) and about 15 others, we’re plumping for The Olde Wine Shades on Martin Lane. While technically a wine bar, it’s been rosying Londoners’ cheeks continuously since 1663, and is the City’s only groggery to have survived the Great Fire of 1666.

    ‘This is likely to have been among the better sort of tavern,’ says White. ‘In the Restoration period, pubs played an important part in the lives of middle-class men, where they would go to have business meetings and set up companies.’ Much like the clientele of a modern Square Mile wine bar, then – except for one tradition that, sadly, appears to have lapsed: ‘They were often ready to come to blows, and since many of them had swords, that could be a very dangerous thing.’
    The Olde Wine Shades, 6 Martin Lane, EC4R 0DP (7626 6876).


    Tree
    | Loos | Boozer | Church | Clock | House | Shrub | Restaurant | Thing

    London's oldest… Place of worship
    There are a few candidates for London’s oldest holy place, depending on: whether you’re a completist – parts of St Bartholomew the Great in West Smithfield have been in use since 1143, though its original structure has been all but lost through renovations and partial demolition;  on whether you believe in reincarnation – Jerry White credits good old St Paul’s, in its various guises since it was founded in AD604, as the capital’s oldest church on a continuous site; or on who you pray to: Bevis Marks, founded in 1702, is the capital’s longest-serving synagogue, while its first purpose-built mosque, the ornate Fazl Mosque in Southfields, was inaugurated relatively recently, in 1926.

    But pre-dating all of these is the second-century AD Roman Temple of Mithras, whose ruins were dug up in 1954 by builders near Mansion House, and now reside above a car park in Queen Victoria Street. Mithras was the Persian god of light, and, explains White, ‘the workers also found statuettes of other gods there. Whenever the Romans invaded a place, they incorporated the local gods into their pantheon, so people could choose who to pray to.’ That spirit of respect is about to be reciprocated with Walbrook Square, a new Norman Foster super-development that includes plans to restore the temple to its original site, where it will go on public display.

    Tree | Loos | Boozer | Church | Clock | House | Shrub | Restaurant | Thing

    London's oldest… Clock
    According to Rory McEvoy, curator of horology at Greenwich’s Royal Observatory, ‘we think the oldest clock in London is an anonymous Burgundy spring clock which would have been made in the mid 1400s, which is at the British Museum on loan from the V&A.’

    He cites the capital’s oldest public clock, meanwhile, as being the one that juts from the tower of Christopher Wren’s St James Garlickhythe (a church whose parish records also happen to be the oldest in England, going back to 1535). Though the dial is a replica of the original, which was destroyed in World War II, its mechanism has been in motion since 1682, the same year a famous cosmic pendulum, Halley’s Comet, visited the capital’s skies and was observed by, among others, Isaac Newton, Edmund Halley himself and the Astronomer Royal John Flamsteed – who saw it from Greenwich Observatory.
    St James Garlickhythe, Garlick Hill, EC4V 2AF (7236 1719, www.stjamesgarlickhythe.org.uk ).

    British Museum, Great Russell St, WC1B 3DG (7323 8000, www.britishmuseum.org).

    Tree | Loos | Boozer | Church | Clock | House | Shrub | Restaurant | Thing

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    41-42 Cloth Fair, EC

    London's oldest… Lived-in house
    One of the City’s great survivors, dodging the Great Fire, German bombs and developers’ bulldozers alike, is its oldest continuous residence: 41-42 Cloth Fair, in West Smithfield. Tributes to the house’s pedigree can be seen scratched into the windows in the living room on the second floor – the etched autographs are a litany of luminaries and aristos who have visited the site since 1929, including the Queen Mother, several Lord Mayors, Winston Churchill and the poet John Betjeman, who used to come to the house to work because he liked the view.

    The place was built between 1597 and 1614, when, says White, ‘Cloth Fair was a street of shops. You’d have had a shop on the ground floor, with the shopkeeper living upstairs with his servants and family. Smithfield itself was quite a mixed area at that time,’ he continues, ‘though if you moved west a little, to Holborn and Clerkenwell, you’d be in some of the worst slums in London.’ Four centuries later, and you can snap up this middling Jacobean artisan’s home, recently put on the market, for a stately £5.5 million. That’s £220,000 in stamp duty alone. Which, incidentally, is also an unlikely survivor from the seventeenth century, initially levied in 1694 as a four-year emergency tax to fund a war with France. Thanks, France.
    41-42 Cloth Fair, EC1A 7JQ. For viewings call Savills estate agents on 7730 0822.


    Tree | Loos | Boozer | Church | Clock | House | Shrub | Restaurant | Thing

    London's oldest… Shrub
    Out in the suburban wilds of Chiswick there lives a wisteria that’s been blooming every spring since the Regency period, and is thought to be the longest-surviving specimen in the UK. Coincidentally, the wall it’s been scaling since it was brought over from China in 1816 belongs to London’s oldest beer-makers, Fuller’s, which was formally established in 1845 – though ales and porters have been brewed on the same site since Elizabethan times.
    The Griffin Brewery, Chiswick Lane South, W4 2QB (8996 2000, www.fullers.co.uk).

    Tree | Loos | Boozer | Church | Clock | House | Shrub | Restaurant | Thing

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    Rules restaurant, Covent Garden

    London's oldest… Restaurant                
    Rules, on Maiden Lane in Theatreland, booms its ‘London’s oldest restaurant’ credentials from its awnings. Its founder, Thomas Rule, began selling oysters here in 1798, when, according to White, Londoners were yet to cotton on to the idea of dining out: ‘The word “restaurant” only appeared in London in the eighteenth century; a few “French ordinaries” – as they were known – began popping up in Soho after 1685, with the first wave of Huguenot immigrants, but right up until the 1890s, eating out had a slightly foreign and louche feel about it.’

    British-run Rules would have been unusual, then – and possibly not the regal Georgian dining experience today’s heritage-rich decor and menu (heavy on game, shellfish and gin) imply: ‘Restaurants were very masculine places to be, not at all romantic,’ says White, ‘and some, like St James – or “Jimmy’s” – in Piccadilly, were famously haunts to pick up prostitutes.’
    Rules, 35 Maiden Lane, WC2E 7LB (7379 0258, www.rules.co.uk).


    Tree | Loos | Boozer | Church | Clock | House | Shrub | Restaurant | Thing

    London's oldest… Thing
    So what’s the ultimate, indisputably oldest thing in the capital? It’s to be found – where else? – in the Natural History Museum: a rock that bears the fossil imprint of cyanobacteria, one of the Earth’s earliest life forms. It was discovered in Western Australia in 1993 and dates from 3.5 billion years ago, making it more than three-quarters the age of the Earth itself – something to console yourself with the next time you’re waiting for the Northern Line to Old Street.

    Tree | Loos | Boozer | Church | Clock | House | Shrub | Restaurant | Thing

  • Add your comment to this feature

British-run Rules would have been unusual, then – and possibly not the regal Georgian dining experience today’s heritage-rich decor and menu (heavy on game, shellfish and gin) imply: ‘Restaurants were very masculine places to be, not at all romantic,’ says White, ‘and some, like St James – or “Jimmy’s” – in Piccadilly, were famously haunts to pick up prostitutes.’Tree | Loos |Boozer |Church | Clock | House | Shrub | Restaurant | Thing So what’s the ultimate, indisputably oldest thing in the capital? It’s to be found – where else? – in the Natural History Museum: a rock that bears the fossil imprint of cyanobacteria, one of the Earth’s earliest life forms. It was discovered in Western Australia in 1993 and dates from 3.5 billion years ago, making it more than three-quarters the age of the Earth itself – something to console yourself with the next time you’re waiting for the Northern Line to Old Street.Tree | Loos |Boozer |Church | Clock | House | Shrub | Restaurant | Thing

Users say

1 comments
David
David

This is poor. I get that it's another consumer-oriented jaunt but seriously, no mention of Charterhouse, nor St Bart's Gate, nor the shores of the Thames (once called "the largest open-air archaeology site on earth")? I'm glad reference was made to the horrific destruction our Victorian ancestors committed against the medieval parts of the city, but a lot more horrendous damage was done in the past two decades to our pubs. The best example I can think of is the damage done to The Spaniard's Inn, easily the most important pub in London's history. I've been going to that pub since I was a child and the fact that the landlord got away with what they called a "refurbishment" which turned the place into yet another awful, awful "gastro bar" is just terrible. London's pubs need far more protection granted to them by the law in order to prevent these acts of vandalism. A landlord comes into a pub like the Lamb & Flag and thinks he's the boss; it's "his" pub. The truth is that he's merely passing through - he's just another short-term tenant with no rights over London's historic sites. And no mention of The London Stone or the Clerk's Well in Clerkenwell?? No reference to the Templar Church in Temple?! I'd strongly advise anyone who wants to know London properly to head to Tottenham Court Road tube station after reading Ackroyd's "Biography of London" and ust head east on foot - zig zag through the streets seeing as much as you can until you reach The Museum of London in the Barbican and then go in there for a bit.