Cloth Fair’s Smithfield entrance yields an unpromising view but anyone who cares to venture a little further down the street will be rewarded. Victorian brick quickly gives way to ancient stonework as the magnificent church of St Bartholomew the Great looms into view. Slip through the gate in the railings and you find yourself in a shady churchyard where the bustle and noise of the nearby market dulls to a distant murmur. Here, a straggly collection of trees and shrubs frame a strangely timeless view of 41-42 Cloth Fair – its fine gabled projections and glinting leadlight windows tantalisingly hinting at a history that stretches back into a time long forgotten.
Over the centuries, 41-42 Cloth Fair has weathered many storms as all around it, history unfolded. Its inhabitants witnessed events that moulded Britain into the country that it is today. They saw plague, fire and war. They struggled through financial crises, religious strife and commercial revolutions. They are our ancestors and through their own personal stories, we can learn how world-famous events affected ordinary people like us. Names of former residents such as Henry Downing, Elizabeth Witham and Paul Paget don’t loom large in the history books but they nonetheless have incredible stories to tell: The first was an eye witness to the English Civil War and the great plague of 1665, the second was a key figure in the foundation of the Methodist movement and the third was responsible for saving some of London’s most iconic buildings after the ravages of World War Two. It is hoped that their stories, along with many others, will go some way to prove that every property in Britain has its own, unique history – you just have to look for it. Even 21st century houses stand on land old as time itself that holds myriad secrets waiting to be uncovered.
Today, public interest in Britain’s architectural heritage is at an all-time high but nevertheless, not a month goes by without a much-loved building being sacrificed in the name of progress. As the story of The Oldest House In London shows, it is not only mansions and palaces that have extraordinary histories. Homes built for ordinary people can be equally fascinating. It is up to us to preserve the buildings we love by exploring their past and, most importantly, divulging their secrets to others.
By Fiona Rule