Auld London

We’ve been on a quest to find the oldest constructions of note in the capital, including the oldest church, pub, restaurant, shop and tube station.

London has suffered two major catastrophes throughout its history; the Great Fire of London of 1666 and the Second World War. Both events took with them a large proportion of the city’s homes, historical buildings and businesses, with huge damages suffered by many others. We’ve been on a quest to find the oldest constructions of note in the capital, including the oldest church, pub, restaurant, shop and tube station.

Westminster Hall is the oldest parliamentary building, constructed in 1097. At the time it was the biggest, grandest building of its kind in the UK, and advisors to William II, who ordered its construction, questioned why he needed a hall of such scale. Unfortunately it was partially destroyed by London’s second great blaze in 1834 and sections of it had to be rebuilt, but care has been taken to preserve its original features so that its current guise is pretty close to the original. Once used for courts of law and public events, over the last hundred years it has seen official ceremonies like coronation lunches, veteran parades, and the lying-in-state of the bodies of Winston Churchill and the Queen Mother.

There are various claims to being the oldest church, depending on whether you take into account successive rebuilds and renovations. In terms of the age of the site, it is All Hallows by the Tower. Founded in 675, a piece of Roman pavement has miraculously managed to survive within the building, proof of its grand old age, however much of it was destroyed during the bombing of World War II. The beheaded bodies of several high profile characters was brought here after their execution at Tower Hill, among them Thomas More, the writer and chancellor charged with treason by the court of Henry VIII, and Archbishop William Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1633 to 1645, also a victim of the charge of high treason.

St Bartholomew the Great is another contender. The Anglican/Episcopal church was founded in 1123, however it has been used continuously as a place of worship since 1143. Its dramatic interior has several claims to fame, appearing in Four Weddings and a Funeral, The Other Boleyn Girl and Shakespeare in Love.
Baker Street tube station is the oldest underground station in London, opened in January 1863. The Metropolitan line was the first tube line, and was considered a huge success in the beginning however, transporting thousands of passengers to work in speeds that were previously impossible. It is ironic then, that today it has a reputation for rattling, painfully slow trains.

The bricked terraced houses at 52-55 Newington Green, N16 9PX, are the oldest of their kind, built in 1658. The Grade I listed building was once home to the poet Samuel Rogers, and the properties have remained residential save for a shoe repair and key cutting shop. Their age has meant that huge efforts have been poured into preserving them, including their listed status and substantial restoration in the 90s thanks to a grant from English Heritage.

London’s oldest pub is a hotly debated contest with landlords clamouring for the status. The exact age of many of the competing pubs is often muddied by rebuilds and changes in ownership, therefore no one can really know for certain which was the first drinking hole to ever exist. What we do know is which are the longest standing pubs, and among them are Rules is London’s oldest restaurant, opened in 1798 by Thomas Rule. Remarkably it has been owned by just three families throughout its 200 year history. The menu is faithfully British, with dishes lifted from Mrs Beeton’s school of cookery. A hit with tourists, unsurprisingly, it’s well worthy of a visit due to the exceptional quality of the ingredients used – Rules owns an estate in the High Pennines rearing its own game and beef.

The oldest public park in London is not Hyde Park or Regent’s Park. In fact it is Finsbury Circus, the largest open space in the City but small by any other standard. The park started development in 1600, and became open to the public six years later. Unfortunately it’s currently closed due to the Crossrail construction work, with local workers having to retreat to nearby Bunhill Fields during their lunch hour instead.

The Old Curiosity Shop, opened in 1567, is thought to be the oldest retail establishment in London. It’s certainly the oldest shop that still stands after 400 years. Owners claim the shop's magical decor inspired Charles Dickens’ novel of the same name, but the fairytale interior could certainly be lifted from a fantasy. Today the shop sells handmade shoes, with ranges by Eley Kishimoto and Comme des Garçons.

Fortnum and Mason is the city’s oldest department store, growing from provider of candles to Queen Anne in 1707 - she required fresh candles every night, hence founder Hugh Mason managing to amass sufficient money to expand into a luxury outlet.

Author: Leila Hawkins