The London Apothecaries Hall

Penelope Corfield delights in the traditions and splendours of the Apothecaries Hall in the capital.

London, like all great cities, lives on and amongst its past. Its urban form is created by the rival pressures of dynamic change, on the one hand, and the forces of preservation on the other. As a result, the old and new everywhere mingle. Old field patterns lie under modern estates. Old buildings sit shoulder to shoulder with new. The past lies round every corner.

All this keeps the historian busy, as he or she walks around town – in the recommended style, with eyes open, senses alert, and notepad at the ready. Postmodernists may sweepingly claim, with Jacques Derrida, that 'there is nothing outside the text'. But for urban historians the visible city is itself a prime source of study. Its built environment carries its own messages, that are complemented and enhanced hut not replaced by the documentary record.

One point of entry into London's complex past can be found in what looks like unpromising urban terrain just north of Blackfriars Bridge. Here cars hurry past on major routes. Trains clatter across the river from Blackfriars Station. It all appears rather impersonal. But pause awhile! The historian is here standing in what was the west end of Roman Londinium. In medieval times, the site was built over by the Black Friars Priory, with its grounds running down to the River Thames. And after the Reformation, a maze of tenements, streets and alleyways housed the high-density development of the Elizabethan City of London.

Among these narrow lanes, there stands a big, discreet four-storey dark brick building. It dates from the later seventeenth century. Its style is imposing enough. But it is clearly not a palace. It is a working building, grouped around a secluded courtyard, built for use rather than adornment.

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