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Wednesday, 24-Nov-2004 00:00 Email | Share | Bookmark
Little Britain

Entrance to St Bartholemew's church
Little Britain - western end
St Barts - Gloucester House
Little Britain - central section
Little Britain - western section
Little Britain
Little Britain actually exists. It's a quarter-mile long street in the City of London, just to the north of St Paul's Cathedral, named after the Dukes of Brittany who once used to own the land round here. The street's unusual because it's split into in three very distinct sections, two very quiet either side of one rather busy.

Little Britain begins as a cycle path outside Smithfield Market, the site of carnivorous trading for more than 800 years. The vaulted market hall is 150 years old and, if you can manage to drag yourself there at 5am, it's well worth a butchers. Hidden behind a Tudor gateway lies St Bartholemew's Church with its fine 15th century tower, and round here was also the site of London's annual Bartholemew Fair, a late-August medieval three-day knees-up. One further Bartholemew is St Barts Hospital (London's oldest hospital, founded 1123) which dominates the western third of Little Britain. It's all very functional and austere, especially Gloucester House which looks like the very worst 1950s social housing, but this is still very much a thriving hospital.

Little Britain then bends south, for a few metres only, to become a busy main road. Head north on the one-way system from St Paul's Cathedral (for example on the number 56 bus) and you'll pass through here on your way to the Barbican. This is a brief modern intrusion on an ancient street, edged by Barts Anaesthetics Department on one side of the road and LA Fitness on the other.

But turn left and the street ends as a quiet narrow backwater flanked by a motley terrace of tall townhouse offices. This used to be the centre of London's publishing industry. London's first daily newspaper, The Daily Courant, was printed in Little Britain in 1702, as was the very first issue of The Spectator. A young Benjamin Franklin once lodged here (for three shillings and sixpence a week) while trying to make his living as a printer, Samuel Johnson stayed here as a sick three year old child, and Brothers Charles and John Wesley converted to Methodism in one of the houses here in May 1738. It's quite a street. I found Little Britain to be an unexpected mix of old and new, and just as charming as the TV series.


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