Float down to the Liberty of Norton Folgate

I’m being haunted by the sounds of Madness. Fortunately, the scary voices in my head are coming down little white wires, backed by an infectious ska beat, overlaid with the hurdy gurdy jangle of carnival.

Norton Folgate (with gherkin)

One of my earliest music memories was jumping up and down to Madness’ Baggy Trousers at the school disco, aged 11, still blissfully unaware that my blue corduroy flares would cost me socially in the months to come. So I’ve been a fan for 30 years, long convinced that their self-consciously zany image disguised a bunch of fantastic musicians, with a lot to say about London.

When they returned from retirement to bang out the big hits at Wembley, I smiled nostalgically, but didn’t take much notice. Until last year, when they released one of the best new albums I’ve heard for ages.

The Liberty of Norton Folgate is all about London. And the title track takes you straight to the heart of one of those time-slip places where, despite change all around, a tiny sliver of outlaw land has persisted down the centuries. The Liberty of Norton Folgate was a place of illicit pleasures in the East End of London, just outside the walls of the City of London – so, crucially, not subject to city laws.

Norton Folgate, rather amazingly, still exists as a street name, linking businessy Bishopsgate with the scruffy but trendy Shoreditch. The sleeve notes for Madness’ album celebrate the constant ebb and flow of immigrants to the area, from Flemish weavers to European Jews, to the Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan residents of today.

It wasn’t just immigrants who were sited without the city walls. On Liverpool Street you can see the plaque marking the original site of Bedlam, where the unfortunate insane were displayed to the public.

But it was also where London’s first purpose-built theatres, then known as playhouses, were built, by Elizabethan entrepreneurs like James Burbage and Philip Henslowe. Where you have playhouses, you have playwrights, like William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe, both known to have lived in the area.

I took Madness’ invitation to ‘float along to Norton Folgate’, in search of ancient theatrical limelight.

Beyond the oppressive cliffs of glass and steel that make up Bishopsgate, runs a scruffy row of boarded-up shops, seedy-looking bars, sauna and massage establishments and grubby cafes. The side-streets, behind noisy bars and clubs, reek of urine. Not much, in other words, has changed in Norton Folgate. It’s still a place where you can get away with things that would be frowned on in the city proper.

Blue plaques, street names and churches hold the keys of memory in London. Curtain Street is a reminder of The Curtain, the playhouse built alongside James Burbage’s The Theatre. Of course, The Curtain was named for the district, once the outer walls of a priory, not the other way round. There was no swish of the curtain at the Elizabethan playhouse, any more than there was a proscenium arch.

I found no sign of The Theatre itself, which was just a few hundred yards’ north, although I did spot Burbage Buildings. Later I discovered The Theatre was at the corner of Curtain Street and New Inn Yard, a noisy corner now cut through by Great Eastern Street, where a lively clothes shop called A Child of the Jago echoes a later literary era.

I found no sign of Hog Lane, where Chistopher Marlowe (surely one of the most troublesome playwrights ever born) was arrested in September 1589, fighting in a brawl with Bishopsgate innkeeper William Bradley. Bradley was then stabbed and killed by Marlowe’s friend and fellow-playwright, Thomas Watson. Hog Lane is now the more seemly Worship Lane, and leads west from Curtain Street towards the Finsbury Fields, now shrunk to Finsbury Square.

If you do take a walk along Norton Folgate, look out for Folgate Street itself. The row of Georgian houses is modest yet perfect, extraordinarily untouched by the Blitz that levelled so much of this part of London in the second world war. Denis Severs’ house is here, periodically open to the public. And drop into the Water Poet, a lovely old-fashioned pub.

If you can’t get to Spitalfields (short for hospital fields, named after the nearby Bedlam) in person, try the Spitalfields Life blog, one of the best blogs there is about London and Londoners.

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