As I staggered away from Eileen Atkins’ magical one-woman show as Ellen Terry at Shakespeare’s Globe earlier this week, I strolled thoughtfully along the South Bank towards London Bridge. I am often glad that the Globe is not nearer to a tube stop. The opportunity to be alone with one’s thoughts for any time in London is a rare gift.
I looked to my left, across the river and towards the brightly-lit dome of St Paul’s, dominating the skyline of the City. From Bankside, of course, the skyscrapers are far downriver and just behind you, giving you an uninterrupted view of the Square Mile. St Paul’s was the dominating architectural feature of Shakespeare’s London as well. Even before Christopher Wren’s impressive seventeenth century construction replaced it after the Great Fire in 1666, the spire of the Old St. Paul’s was easily the highest point in view.
But St. Paul’s was a very different place in Shakespeare’s day, as well as being a different building. It was a hub of business and exchange. Sitting as it did between the trade markets in the East, and Westminster and the Court to the West, the nave of St Paul’s was a noisy, bustling place, full of people exchanging news and gossip. Much of the city’s book trade was based in and around St Paul’s and thus it was frequented not only by merchants and men of business, but also by artists, men of letters and socialites hoping to pick up something on the grapevine. The Bishop does not seem to have taken exception to this.
An insult of the time was to be called a ‘Paul’s-walker’, meaning that all you did with your time was walk up and down the aisle of St Paul’s, trying to be noticed and attempting to overhear people’s conversations. Of course, as many people as will have found this an insult will have worn it as a badge of honour.
Modern London has its versions of the nave of the Old St Paul’s, of course, but the metropolis has become so spread out that there is no one place to go to in quite the same way. Given that there are reports of live animals being kept and sold in St Paul’s (chickens mostly), I can’t imagine it was a terribly refreshing place to hang out, but if Shakespeare ever visited, I’m sure he’ll have picked up a story or two.