Cheapside, London’s commercial street since the Middle Ages

One of the most fascinating aspects of London is that we can be walking down a street like Cheapside and be blissfully unaware of its past as a bustling medieval market.  It is hard to imagine members of the London guilds and stall holders making and selling their wares. The noises must have been loud and the smells, pungent.

Nowadays, Cheapside is still a centre for retail within the City of London with office buildings, high-end stores, cafes, restaurants, an even an eight-storey shopping mall, One New Change.     

Where is Cheapside?

Located in the heart of the Square Mile, as the City of London is also known, Cheapside runs roughly west to east, linking St. Martin’s Le Grand -the continuation of Aldersgate near Postman’s Park- with Poultry. Poultry is a short street located in the financial centre of London near Bank Junction.  

Bank Junction

Let’s walk   

We start our walk at Postman’s Park, bordered by King Edward Street, Little Britain, Angel Street and St. Martin’s Le Grand.  As well as enjoying the peace and quiet of the beautiful gardens, have a look at the Victorian memorial plaques. They are dedicated to the people who sacrificed their lives in order to save someone else’s.

Now we walk towards Aldersgate Street and use the church of St. Botolph’s Without Aldersgate as a guide. We turn right onto Aldersgate, which becomes St. Martin Le Grand. Don’t miss the Penfold post box, a green hexagonal pillar box. This replica of a Victorian post box is outside the old General Post Office Headquarters.

We keep left at the fork and continue onto Cheapside. We can explore the magnificent St. Paul’s Cathedral and its gardens, even maybe Paternoster Square behind it. Or keep walking along Cheapside and try to get a glimpse of St. Paul’s through the One New Change shopping mall.

If we look at the names of the cross streets, we’ll hear the echoes of one of the busiest medieval markets in London. These streets were named after the product sold there, such as Milk or Wood Street.  

About halfway down Cheapside, on our right, we’ll find the church of St. Mary-le-Bow. The current building, designed by Sir Christopher Wren, replaced the medieval church that burnt down during the Great Fire of London of 1666. The whole area was badly affected. It is said that anyone born within earshot of the bells of St. Mary-le-Bow is a true Cockney.

St. Mary-le-Bow

At its eastern end, Cheapside becomes Poultry at the junction with Old Jewry. More medieval themes here. Jews lived in this area after the Norman Conquest until they were expelled in 1290.

We are now a skip and a hop from Bank Junction. Some of the landmarks here are Mansion House, the official residence of the Lord Mayor of London, the Bank of England and Bank Station.

Cheapside today

In line with its beginnings as a large produce market in the Middle Ages, Cheapside is a centre for retail. The street is lined with high-end shops, luxury clothing stores, restaurants, cafes, office blocks and an eight-storey shopping mall. At one point, Cheapside was the centre of the gold trade in London.

The are took a big hit in 1666, when the Great Fire burned down a large portion of the city. Tiny medieval alleyways and lanes were removed and, as a result, Cheapside became wider and straighter.  Cheapside also recovered from the economic effects of the fire in the 18th century. By the late 1800s, blocks of offices with retail space replace most of the existing buildings.

The area sustained extensive damage during the Blitz, especially in late 1940 in what was called the Second Great Fire of London, caused by a particularly destructive air raid. Post-war architecture replaced the genteel 18th and 19th century buildings. As a result, more office and retail space was created. Nowadays, Cheapside still retains its commercial nature with echoes of its distant and near past still ringing in our ears.

2 thoughts on “Cheapside, London’s commercial street since the Middle Ages

  1. Thank you for a concise account of Cheapside’s history. A distant relative moved from the far North West of Scotland to become a silk manufacturer in Bread Street, then in Friday Street, Cheapside. Circa 1815 to 1855. His area of Friday St. destroyed by the bombing in 1940-41. Now war again, in Ukraine…

    Like

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