Abchurch Lane, EC3
Running between Lombard Street and Cannon Street, Abchurch Lane is cut into two by King William Street. The lane is first mentioned in records in 1291 as Abbechurche Lane, the church being at the southern or Cannon Street end. It is thought that the name derived from aa corruption of Upchurch as the church is on a slight incline. An alternative theory is that the original church was dedicated to one Abbe or Abbo, but this is probably unlikely. Given its location the lane has a long pedigree – excavations for a sewer in 1855 there revealed a stretch of Roman ragstone wall eleven metres long.
At its corner with Lombard Street stood Mr Edward Lloyd’s coffee shop which had relocated from Tower Street in around 1691. The nascent insurance industry and the brokers and traders it attracted ensured that the lane had a plentiful supply of coffee shops.
Over the centuries the lane was the place to go to eat. Early in the 18th century its principal attraction, at least according to John Webster’s Northward Hoe of 1607, were the cakes sold by Mother Wells from her shop there. A century later you would find the esteemed French eating house, Pontack’s, which was patronised by the likes of John Evelyn, Christopher Wren and Jonathan Swift. The hallmark of the restaurant was good food and wine at reasonable prices which the patron, Monsieur Pontack, was not shy in pointing out to guests as Swift relates in his Journal to Stella, “I was this day in the City, and dined at Pontack’s ..Pontack told us, although his wine was so good, he sold it cheaper than others; he took but seven shillings a flask. Are these not pretty rates?” Pontack’s hosted dinners of the Royal Society until 1746 when they moved to the Devil Tavern in Temple Bar.
And if you didn’t want to eat you could buy a cure for worms in the form of a powder made and sold by John Moore who lived in the street. Moore was on the receiving end of Alexander Pope’s wit and satire but at least the lane got a namecheck, “Oh learned friend of Abchurch Lane/ Who sett’st our entrails free/ Vain is thy art, thy powder vain/ Since worms will eat e’en thee”.
But the real jewel in the lane’s crown is to be found at the Cannon Street end where you will find the marvellous Wren church of St Mary Abchurch. The original church was destroyed by the Great Fire of 1666 but was rebuilt under Wren’s supervision between 1681 and 1686. It is built of red brick with a four storey 51 foot tower with leaded spire. Inside the ceiling is a dome pierced by four windows, decorated with stunning paintings by William Snow culminating in a centrepiece with a golden glow and the name of God in Hebrew script.
The piece de resistance, though, for me is the wonderful altar piece by my favourite wood carver, Grinling Gibbons, pace St Paul’s, the only example of the craftsman’s art to be found in a London church. The original high box pews on three sides of the church are also worth seeing. The church was hit during the Blitz, the dome taking most of the blast, but, thankfully, it has been restored to its former glory.