This rocket-ship shaped glass skyscraper made its mark on the City of London skyline in the early Noughties after plans to build a much taller building on the site were shelved.

The award-winning building stands on the site of what was the late Victorian-era Baltic Exchange which was extensively damaged by an IRA bomb which went off in the neighbouring street, St Mary Axe (for more on the origins of the street name, see our earlier post here), in 1992.

It was initially proposed that a 92 storey building, to be known as Millennium Tower, be built on the site – it would have been the tallest building in Europe. But the plan was shelved after both Heathrow and London City Airports objected to the interference it would have on flight paths while others pointed to the rather dramatic impact it would have on the City skyline.

The site was subsequently sold to reinsurance giant Swiss Re who then commissioned Sir Norman Foster (Foster + Partners) to design a building for its UK headquarters. The resulting 41 storey, 180 metre (591 foot) tall skyscraper – which features some 24,000 square metres of glass and was said to be the first environmentally sustainable skyscraper in London – was eventually completed in late 2003 and opened in 2004.

The glass dome which sits at the top of the building offers panoramic, 360 degree views of the surrounds and is said to be a reference to the glass dome that once sat over part of the ground floor of the Baltic Exchange.

Interestingly, the nickname for the building, The Gherkin, is actually an abbreviated form of a name first coined by some design critics  who described the building as an “erotic gherkin”, according to The Guardian. Some wags have also used the nickname ‘Towering Innuendo’ for the property.

PICTURES: Top – Samuel Zeller/Unsplash; Right – David Adams.

 

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This church in the shadow of 30 St Mary Axe (aka The Gherkin) is all that remains of a Benedictine nunnery that was founded here during the reign of King John in 1210.

St-Helen's-BishopsgateEstablished by one “William, son of William the goldsmith” after he was granted the right by the Dean and Chapter of St Paul’s Cathedral, the priory was built to the north of a previously existing church with a new church for the nuns to use built right alongside the existing structure (thus accounting for the rarely seen side-by-side naves of the current building).

While the new church was built longer than the existing church, the latter was then lengthened to give them both the same length. A line of arches and a screen separated the nun’s choir and the parish church.

The church which stands today has been much altered over the centuries and what we now see there largely dates from the 14th and 15th centuries (although the bell turret which sits over the west front is an 18th century addition).

One of the priory’s claims to fame in medieval times was that it apparently was once home to a piece of the True Cross, presented by King Edward I in 1285.

The nunnery was dissolved in 1538 during the Great Dissolution of King Henry VIII and the buildings, excepting the church, sold off to the Leathersellers’ Company (all were eventually demolished by the 18th century). The screen separating the nun’s choir and the parish church, meanwhile, was removed, leaving the main body of the church as it can be seen today.

The now Grade I-listed church, which was William Shakespeare’s parish church when he lived in the area in the 1590s, survived both the Great Fire of London and the Blitz but was severely damaged by two IRA bombs in the early 1990s leading to some major – and controversial – works under the direction of architect Quinlan Terry.

Inside the church today is a somewhat spectacular collection of pre-Great Fire monuments including the 1579 tomb of Sir Thomas Gresham, founder of the Royal Exchange, the 1636 tomb of judge, MP and Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Julius Caesar Adelmare, and the 1476 tomb of merchant, diplomat, City of London alderman and MP, Sir John Crosby.

It was also once the site of the grave of 17th century scientist Sir Robert Hooke but these were apparently removed from the church crypt in the 19th century when repairs to the floor of the nave were being made and placed in an unmarked common grave. Their location apparently remains unknown.

WHERE: St Helen’s Bishopsgate, Great St Helens (nearest Tube stations are Aldgate, Bank and Liverpool Street); WHEN: 9.30am to 12.30pm weekdays daily (also usually open Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoons but visitors are advised to telephone first); COST: Free; WEBSITE: www.st-helens.org.uk.

GherkinIn an unusual ‘Famous Londoners’, this week we’re looking at a former inhabitant of London who we still know relatively little about.

The remains of the teenaged girl – believed to have been aged between 13 and 17 years – were found in 1995 when the conically-shaped skyscraper at 30 St Mary Axe, fondly known as the Gherkin (and then formally known as the Swiss Re Tower), was being constructed.

The girl, whose skeleton was unearthed where the foundations now stand, was buried sometime between 350 and 400 AD in what appeared to be an isolated grave which would have lain just outside the edge of early Roman Londinium.

The body lay with the girl’s head to the south and the arms folded across. Pottery was found associated with the body which provided dating information.

After being exhumed, the skeleton was housed at the Museum of London for some 12 years before in 2007 it was reburied near the new building. The burial featured a ceremony at nearby St Botolph-without-Aldgate followed by a procession to the gravesite where a dedication took place which included “music and libations”. Among those who attended was the Lady Mayoress of the City of London.

There’s an inscription in honour of the girl on a stone feature outside the building in both Latin and English while a stone set in the pavement decorated with laurel leaves marks the (re)burial spot.

Other recent Roman remains found in London include the skeleton of a young Roman woman, believed to date from the 4th century, which was found still inside its sarcophagus at a site in Spitalfields and a series of two dozen Roman-era skulls which, likely to date from the first century A, were found during excavations for the Crossrail project in 2013. It has been suggested they may have been Britons executed for their role in the famed Queen Boudicca’s rebellion against the Romans in 61 AD.

The-Leadenhall-Building• Open House London is finally here with some 800 buildings across the city – some of them rarely accessible to the public – open for free this weekend, from grand historical institutions and modern skyscrapers through to ‘green’ schools, engineering projects, parks and gardens, and private homes. The weekend – which is being run this year under the theme of ‘revealing’ – also includes a programme of walks, engineering and landscape tours, cycle rides, a bus tour, childrens’ activities and expert talks as well as a moonlit ‘culture crawl’ through London on Friday night and into Saturday morning (a fundraiser for Maggie’s Centres). Among the buildings opening their doors in the festival – created by London-based architecture organisation Open-City – are the ever popular 30 St Mary Axe (aka ‘The Gherkin’), the Foreign and India Office in Whitehall, the Bank of England, Portcullis House and City Hall along with everything from The Leadenhall Building (aka ‘The Cheesegrater’ – pictured), and Temple Church in the City to the Admiral’s House in Greenwich, the Dutch Embassy in Kensington and the steam coaster, the SS Robin, in Tower Hamlets. As mentioned in a previous week, some visits required pre-booking so make sure you check the programme before heading out. For a full copy of the programme of events, see www.londonopenhouse.org. PICTURE: © R Bryant.

A major new exhibition focusing on China during the “pivotal” 50 years of Ming Dynasty rule between 1400-1450 opens at the British Museum in Bloomsbury today. Ming: 50 years that changed China features some of the finest objects ever made in China – loaned from institutions in China and elsewhere – as it explores some of the “great social and cultural changes” that saw Beijing established as the capital and the building of the Forbidden City. It includes objects from the imperial courts along with finds from three regional “princely tombs”. Four emperors ruled during the period and the display will feature the sword of Yongle Emperor, “the warrior”, the handwriting of the Hongxi emperor, “the bureaucrat”, the paintings of the Xuande emperor, “the aesthete”, and portraits of the regents who ruled while the Zhengtong emperor was a boy. The exhibition runs until 4th January. Admission charge applies. For more, see www.britishmuseum.org.

The work of 19th century artist John Constable and its debt to 17th century masters is the focus of a new exhibition opening at the V&A on Saturday. Constable: The Making of a Master – which features more than 150 works including celebrated pieces by Constable like The Hay Wain (1821), The Cornfield (1826) and Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows (1831) as well as oil sketches, drawings, watercolours and engravings – will juxtapose his works with those of 17th century landscape masters like Ruisdael, Rubens and Claude. Among those of their works on display will be Rubens’ Moonlight Landscape (1635-1640) and Ruisdael’s Windmills near Haarlem (c.1650-62). The exhibition runs until 11th January. Admission charge applies. For more, see www.vam.ac.uk/constable.

And don’t forget, Totally Thames continues to run throughout this month which an extensive programme of river-related events. Those on during the coming week include Londonist Afloat: Terrific Tales of the Thames, a series of discussion sessions on aspects of the River Thames being held aboard the HMS President and London’s River – The City’s Ebb and Flow, a guided walk along the river (held on every Saturday and Monday during September), and Hospital and Troop Ships – Transporting the walking and wounded in the First World War, an exhibition held aboard the HQS Wellington (open Sundays and Mondays in September). For the full programme of events, see www.totallythames.org.

Send all items for inclusion to exploringlondon@gmail.com.

A former car breaker’s yard in Hackney has reopened as a “pocket park” of “installations and hidden spaces” following an extensive transformation project. Located next to the National Trust’s Tudor manor house, Sutton House, Breaker’s Yard incorporates elements from the site’s history including car tyres, a bus greenhouse, bespoke metal gates made out of more than 1,000 toy cars donated by celebrities, locals and artists, and a multi-storey caravan sculpture, The Grange, created by landscape designer Daniel Lobb who also designed the park in collaboration with arts-based educational charity, The House of Fairy Tales. The flower-filled park also features an ice-cream van, decorated by Rose Blake – daughter of Sir Peter Blake, which will act as a “playful shop”. The park is one of a 100 ‘pocket parks’ created under a $2 programme by the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, in this case in collaboration with the National Trust and a host of volunteers. Entry to the park is free but admission charge applies to the house. For more on the park and Sutton House, see www.nationaltrust.org.uk/sutton-house/.

A photographic exhibition, Exploring London’s First World War Memorials, is running at City Hall near Tower Bridge in Southwark. Organised by the Mayor of London with aid from the War Memorials Trust, English Heritage and others, the exhibition is centred on new images of war memorials by London-based photographer James O Jenkins. As well as more traditional monuments, the memorials take the form of everything from fountains to paintings, buildings and landscape features. Entry is free. Runs until 12th September. For more, see www.london.gov.uk/events. Meanwhile, the Guildhall Library is showcasing images taken by photographer Simon Gregor for the Remembrance Image Project. Runs until 12th November and is part of a series of World War I commemorative events the library is running. Others include an installation by artist Rebecca Louise Law called Poppy made up of 8,000 paper poppies from the Royal British Legion. For more on World War I commemorative events at the Guildhall LIbrary follow this link.

Open House London’s programme is available for download from tomorrow (Friday, 15th August). The event, which will be held over the weekend of 20th and 21st September, will this year be conducted under the theme of ‘revealing’ and will feature more than 800 buildings, from Open House “favourites” like The Gherkin (aka 30 St Mary Axe) and the Foreign and India Office through to lesser known properties like Wandsworth’s Quaker Meeting House or the Butcher’s Hall in the City (some of which have to be booked before the weekend). There will also be a free programme of neighbourhood walks, engineering and landscape tours, cycle rides and talks by experts. To see the programme, head to www.openhouselondon.org.uk.

Send all items for inclusion to exploringlondon@gmail.com.

Tower 42_external It’s finally here. Open House London kicks off on Friday and with more than 800 buildings opening their doors, the only difficulty you’ll have this weekend will be choosing what you end up doing! This year’s theme is ‘celebrating architecture, people and place’ and among the highlights will be the opening of landmark structures like Battersea Power Station, Tower 42 (pictured), and the Gherkin (30 St Mary Axe) as well as 100 private homes, architects’ homes and “ground-breaking” housing developments and everything from the Shri Swaminarayan Temple in Brent to Horse Guards in Whitehall (certain buildings, like 10 Downing Street and The View from the Shard, are only open to people who won tickets in an earlier ballot). This year’s festivities also include a moonlit “culture crawl” through London on Friday night. If you haven’t ordered a hardcopy programme, you can check the listings online at www.openhouselondon.org. There’s also an Open House iPhone app available from the appstore.

A series of works by Yinka Shonibare – including some never before seen in the UK – went on display at Greenwich yesterday, thanks to Royal Museums Greenwich. The works, which explore notions of “Britishness, trade and empire, commemoration and national identity”, can be found inside and around buildings including the Queen’s House, National Maritime Museum and Royal Observatory and include Fake Death Pictures – a series of five vision of the death of naval hero Vice-Admiral Lord Nelson, Wind Sculpture – a gravity-defying object located on the Queen’s House lawn, Cheeky Little Astronomer – a specially commissioned sculpture located in the Flamsteed House at the Royal Observatory, and Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle – last seen on Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth. Yinka Shonibare MBE at Greenwich, which is supported by a range of talks, debates and tours, runs until 23rd February. For more, see www.rmg.co.uk.

Bankside will be transformed this weekend as artists will be transforming disused hoardings and derelict buildings with original artworks as part of the Merge Festival. The work’s include Candy Chang’s Before I Die, Alex Chinnick’s Miner on the Moon, and Marcus Lyall and Mark Logue’s House of Pain. Until 20th October. For more on the festival celebrating Bankside, see www.mergefestival.co.uk.

On Now: Michael Peto Photographs: Mandela to McCartney. This new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery just off Trafalgar Square features a previously unexhibited photo of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, taken at the beginning of their love affair. It’s one of 10 portraits taken by the late Hungarian-born photographer Michael Peto in London during the 1950s and 1960s – others feature Samuel Beckett, Jennie Lee, Paul McCartney and Ian McKellen. Admission is free. For more, see www.npg.org.uk.

There’s several stories behind the rather odd name given to this narrow street which runs between Houndsditch and Leadenhall Street in the City of London – now famous for the gherkin-shaped skyscraper located within it.

St-Mary-AxeIt’s generally agreed that street’s name comes – at least partly – from a former church which it has been suggested once stood where the building known as Fitzwilliam House now stands.

Known as the Church of St Mary Axe (although its full name was apparently the somewhat longer Church of St Mary, St Ursula and her 11,000 Virgins), the medieval building was apparently demolished in the 1560s and the parish united with that of St Andrew Undershaft (this church still sits on the corner of St Mary Axe and Leadenhall Street).

The reasons for the church to be so named remain a matter of speculation. The most interesting version (and the one that would explain the church’s longer name) has it that the name was given due to an axe that was once on display in the church.

The axe had apparently come from Europe where legend says it was one of three axes used by the Huns (some say the three included Atilla himself) to slaughter 11,000 handmaidens who had been travelling in Europe with St Ursula. St Ursula herself was fatally shot with arrows by the Huns’ leader.

How and why the axe came to be on display in this particular church remains something of a mystery but so well did the church become identified with the gruesome relic that it became known as the church of St Mary Axe.

Another version we’ve come across states that the church took on the name because its patrons were the the Skinners’ Company who used such axes. Yet another suggests that the street was named after the church of St Mary and that of a nearby tavern which operated under a sign bearing the image of an axe (but it’s possible the tavern had such a sign because of its proximity to the church in the first place).

These days, as well as being the location of St Andrew Undershaft (now part of the parish of St Helen’s Bishopsgate) and the building known as the Gherkin (it’s official name is 30 St Mary Axe), St Mary Axe is also the place where, on 10th April, 1992, an IRA bomb exploded outside the Baltic Exchange, killing three people.

PICTURE: The Gherkin with St Andrew Undershaft in the foreground.

It’s Open House London weekend and that means your chance to enter scores of buildings not normally open to the public. More than 750 buildings are taking part in this, the 20th year the weekend has been held and there’s also an extensive program of free talks, walks and specialist tours. Among the buildings open this year are the iconic Gherkin building in the City (formally known as 30 St Mary Axe, pictured), Heron Tower in Bishopsgate, numerous livery company halls including that of the Apothecaries, Fishmongers and Carpenters, government buildings including Marlborough House, Westminster Hall, and the Foreign Office and numerous historic residences from the Mansion House, home of the Lord Mayor of London to Osterley Park House in west London. Among the events on offer is a moonlit hike through London tomorrow night to raise money for Maggie’s Cancer Caring Centres and rides on the new Emirates Airline cable car as well as boat tours to the Thames Barriers. If you didn’t order a guide, you can see the program online at the Open House London website – www.londonopenhouse.org. PICTURE: (c) Grant Smith/VIEW Pictures

A 16th century wooden tankard, found by a mudlark on the Thames foreshore near Ratcliff in London’s east, has briefly gone on display at the Museum of London Docklands. The large vessel, capable of holding three pints, has the initials RH inscribed on the base. It’s unknown for what purpose it was used, perhaps serving as a decanter rather than for individual use and may have been used on a ship. The vessel will be on display at the museum only until 27th September. For more, see www.museumoflondon.org.uk.

On Now: Renaissance to Goya: Prints and drawings from Spain. Opening at the British Museum today is this new exhibition featuring important prints and drawings by Spanish and other European artists working in Spain and spanning a period from the mid 16th century through to the 19th century. While all the works are drawn from the museum’s collection, many have never been on display before. The artists represented include Diego Velazquez, Alonso Cano, Bartolome Murillo, Francisco Zubaran and Jusepe de Ribera as well as Francisco de Goya. Held in room 90. Admission is free. Runs until 6th January. For more, see www.britishmuseum.org.