“When the embodied living being controls his nature and mentally renounces all actions, he resides happily in the city of nine gates, neither working nor causing work to be done”
In Vedic literature, the “city of nine gates” is a metaphor for the human body. There are nine entrances, or gates, to our bodies; two eyes, two nostrils, two ears, one mouth and two openings down below for urine and poop. Accordingly, the secret to mental and physical health is to control what enters and exits through these gates – what you see, what you eat, what you listen to and how regular your bowel movements are.
London traditionally has seven gates – openings in the Roman wall which controlled what entered and exited the medieval city. Their names are well known. Moving Clockwise they are Ludgate, Newgate, Aldersgate, Cripplegate, Moorgate, Bishopsgate and Aldgate. But there are actually two others which open onto the River Thames, and which I like to think of as mapping to the two in our nether regions. They are Billingsgate which was the old market where fish were landed, and the infamous Traitors Gate in the Tower of London.
This walk takes you around all 9 of them. Since they are gates in the old Roman wall your path will largely follow the line of those ancient defences. In the 1980s, the Museum of London created a London Wall walk which had 21 plaques for you to follow on a self guided walk to see all the remains. The plaques for the walk look like this (below) but sadly only 11 of the original 21 remain. If you want to follow that route I recommend you go to Valerie’s Blog which gives a very detailed description with photos of each step. Her google map can be found here.
My “Nine Gates to the City” walk follows a slightly different path. You can do it in either direction and if you are in a touristy mood you can take in visits to the Tower of London and St Pauls on the way. I will describe it clockwise.
Starting either at Blackfriars or St Pauls tube stations make your way to the front entrance of St Pauls Cathedral and then walk a little way down the hill towards Ludgate Circus. Half way down you will come across the church of St Martin within Ludgate on the right. This church was just inside the city wall where you could conveniently get a blessing before setting off on your journey. Fixed to the wall on the left above the door you should see the plaque (see picture below). The name comes from the Old English “Hlid-geat” meaning postern gate.
Turn right to walk up Old Bailey, past the central Criminal Court and the site of the old Newgate Prison. Once you reach Newgate Street you should see the Newgate plaque on the wall of the Old Bailey (see picture). Newgate Street turns into the A40 which goes all the way to Fishguard in Wales. Although it is called “New gate” it is actually very old dating back to Roman times when to stood over Watling Street – the main Roman road from the old Forum in the centre of the city that lead to St Albans (Verulamium) and beyond.
Now walk east towards the ruins of Christchurch Greyfriars and turn up King Edward street until you get to the entrance to Postman’s Park. This park, which commemorates heroic self sacrifice by Londoners, was formed by combining the burial grounds of three churches; Christ Church Greyfriars, St Leonard Foster Lane and St Botolph Aldersgate which still stands on the edge of the park. Three other churches at London gates were dedicated to St Botolph who was the patron saint of trade. They were located at gates so that tradesmen could ask for a blessing before making a commercial trip. Go through Postman’s park to come out on Aldersgate Street where you will find the Aldersgate plaque on the wall next to the Lord Raglan pub. The names comes from the Old English “Ealdredesgate”meaning the gate of Ealdred, presumably some Saxon noble.
Now walk south and turn into Gresham Street and then turn left into Noble street past the site of the lost church of St John Zachary and the church of St Anne & St Agnes. In Noble street, you will find an exposed section of the old Roman Wall and some very informative plaques to help you visualise what it originally looked like. Then go up to London Wall past the site of the lost church of St Olave Silver Street. When you get to Wood street cut up toads the Barbican and you will find the plaque to Cripplegate on the wall of Roman House. The area around here was almost completely destroyed by bombing in the Blitz of WW2 and redeveloped in the 1970s by the Barbican Estate. The name Cripplegate might stem from the Anglo Saxon word “crepel” meaning covered passageway or from the cripples who used to beg there. Note that the nearby ancient church in the centre of the Barbican is dedicated to St Giles who was the patron saint of cripples.
Walking back towards London Wall, you will go past the remains of the church of St Alphage until you come to the main crossroad of Moorgate and London Wall. The Moorgate plaque is on the northeast corner of this intersection in a covered area slightly hidden by a pillar. Moorgate was one of the smallest gates and takes its name from the Moorfields. This was a marshy area, fed by the lost River Walbrook, just outside the city walls where Finsbury Circus and Finsbury square are now situated.
Continue down London Wall until you get to Bishopsgate street and the looming Heron Tower skyscraper. You can’t miss the massive red circular advert for the sushi restaurant at the top. Sadly there is no plaque to mark the site of the actual gate named after the 7th Century Bishop Earconwald. There is, however, a bishop’s mitre on the wall above Boots which you will see if you walk up towards the church of St Botolph Bishopsgate. The road here is actually older than the gate since this is Ermine street – the famous Roman road that goes all the way north to Lincoln and York. It is now the prosaically named A10. The road existed in the 1st Century AD while the wall and the gate were not built until late in the 2nd Century.
Now walk down Camomile street and Bevis Marks and you will find the church of St Botolph Aldgate. There are various suggestions for the origin of the name – either “Old Gate” or “Ale Gate” after a nearby pub or maybe “All Gate” meaning the gate was free to all. You will find the commemorative plaque also above a branch of Boots on the other side if the road from the church. This gate also guards an important Roman road that leads to Colchester – the original capital of Roman Britain, known then as Camulodunum.
From Aldgate walk down Jewry Street and then Crutched Friars under the Fenchurch Street Railway bridge and into Cooper’s Row. This will bring you out by Tower Hill tube and some impressive chances of the Roman Wall along with a statue of the Roman Emperor Trajan. As I write in the summer of 2021 the Covid restrictions have created a one way pedestrian system around the Tower of London at the moment so you can not roam as freely as you should. Whichever side of the Tower you end up walking past you will find Traitors Gate on the banks of the Thames right in the middle of the wall of the Tower. Through this water gate, condemned traitors were led before imprisonment and execution in the Tower. Sir Thomas More and Queen Anne Boleyn and amongst the more famous names to have passed through this gate prior to their beheading.
It is then just a short walk west along the banks of the Thames to get to Billingsgate. There is no plaque here either for Billingsgate landing or for the lost church of St Botolph Billingsgate but at least there is a street sign named Old Billingsgate Walk and the majestic building of the abandoned old fish market. You can still see the gilded fish on the weathervanes at the top of the building as reminder of its function. This was water gate in Roman times on a wharf where goods were landed. In Medieval times it was a general market for goods carried on ships that were too big to pass under London Bridge. In 1699, it was established as a specialised fish market. This market lasted up to 1982, when it was relocated to Canary Wharf and the building has become an entertainment venue. The market is about to be moved again further down the Thames to Barking Reach as land in Canary Wharf has become so much more valuable over past 40 years.
So there you have it. The Nine Gates to the City walk is complete and it only remains to take care of the metaphorical Nine Gates to the Body and stroll over London Bridge to Borough Market for some much needed sustenance – maybe ale and fish to echo your recent explorations.