150 years ago, a deep sloping road in Central London was replaced with a marvelous bridge — the Holborn Viaduct.
The viaduct solved a problem that the east-west roads in this part of town crossed the deep valley of the Fleet river — which while long since covered over and now Farringdon Road still presented an annoying encumbrance to road traffic.
It was decided to leap over the valley with a grand Victorian bridge, and while just part of wider works, the Holborn Viaduct is the centrepiece.
However, now that road traffic could pass over Farringdon Road without going down and back up again, the pedestrians still wanted to cross between the two levels. Thus four grand staircases were built, one on each corner.
This was both of practical use, and also, the City embedded the staircases into four modest sized offices, so it could earn some rent. Each of the four pavilion buildings was named after a suitable City gentleman, and while the two southern staircases are original, thanks to post-war rebuilding, the two on the northern side are in fact modern replicas.
The south-eastern stairs
This pavilion building is named after, and has a statue of Sir Thomas Gresham, the man who left a huge legacy to the City of London, although recent research suggests he wasn’t anything like as rich as the legend suggests.
This is the most original looking of the four, with its deep brick-vaulted stairs and the remains of an old gas lamp in need of dire attention and restoration.
Old handrails line the walls, while red and gold trim has been added to the balustrades along the top of the stairs.
The south-western stairs
This pavilion building is named after Henry Fitz Eylwin (also spelt Henry fitz Ailwin) who was the first Mayor of the City of London. In office from about 1189 until his death in 1212, he was also the only mayor to hold the post for life.
He wasn’t the Lord Mayor of London — the title changed in 1354 to Lord Mayor of London, and again in 2006 to the Lord Mayor of the City of London.
He’s an interesting character though as his father was probably the portreeve of London, essentially the King’s representative, and when the City gained more freedoms from the Monarchy and he was chosen to replace the role with the title of Mayor, and as he was inheriting his position, he could have pushed for the job to be hereditary.
Fortunately, the City decided to elect Mayors instead.
The stairs themselves are wide and the space they fill is tall, this is the most impressive of the two Victorian-era stairs, nice and light and airy.
The head of Old father Thames greets visitors at the bottom entrance.
The north-western stairs
This pavilion building is named after Sir Hugh Myddelton, who was a self-made man, goldsmith, banker, and mine owner — but best known for building the New River, which bought fresh water into the City of London.
This building is a recent one though – being a replica of the original which was destroyed in WW2. A rather bland office block used to stand here, but in 2014, as part of the condition for building replacement offices, the developer had to also replicate the staircase building.
The staircase then is the newest of the lot, and has that sort-of-old but is actually new look to it. Underlit handrails which are terrifically popular with heritage restorers at the moment and the lower half has a very deep chasm effect which I quite liked. It makes the space seem more intimate.
The north-eastern stairs
The last of the four is named after Sir William Walworth, also a former Lord Mayor of London, who is best known for killing the leader of the peasants revolt, Wat Tyler.
So within London, he was very popular, if rather less so elsewhere.
The building looks like the other four but is also a replica. After the original building was destroyed in bombing raids, a very late 1950s building was erected on the site, Atlantic House, which did retain a set of stairs, but obliterated the original design of the building above.
However, in 2000, that was finally torn down and this modern replica erected, but with a twist.
The classic brick stairs were replaced with a very modern staircase running around a glass brick elevator shaft. If I didn’t know it was from 2000, it would almost look 1960s.
More dramatically, a giant mural from a print of the construction of the viaduct runs around the lower half of the staircase.
Under the viaduct
If wandering around, do take a look under the viaduct. While the top gets most of the attention with it’s mighty statues, underneath is to my mind much more impressive, showing off the ironwork and the decoration that is so utterly Victorian and wonderful.
Article last updated on November 27th, 2020 at 09:56 am