Here, where the traffic emits a deafening roar as it races past an array of undistinguished corporate classical architecture lining the street, there is no sign of the ancient structures still standing hidden within these modern carapaces. Yet there are wondrous 17th-century paneled rooms constructed shortly after the Great Fire, built upon the remains of the medieval Hall, where a different atmosphere prevails.
The Court Room of the Vintners’ Company, dating from 1671, is one of London’s oldest continuously-used rooms. Lined with chocolate-dark panelling, adorned with richly-carved swags of foliage and hung with luxurious 17th-century paintings in golden frames flanked by shadowy mirrors in gilt surrounds, it is one of the few surviving fragments of the Hall.
The old master paintings gleam and the sombre paneling recedes to create a charged space that evokes how it all might have been, once. Inside this majestic chamber, it is also possible to deduce how the rest of this structure was configured – because this room comprised the west wing of a symmetrical building with the Hall at the back and a courtyard at the center. Although the site has been whittled down since the building of Southwark Bridge took a slice off the eastern side and the widening of Lower Thames St pared away a sliver from the northern aspect, and although the courtyard has been built over, much of the current building follows the earlier ground plan.
From the Court Room, you can look through the lobby past Mr Woodroffe’s handsome carved staircase of 1673, to the Hall itself which was rebuilt upon its medieval foundations after the Great Fire. There is a breathtaking change in scale as you enter this unexpectedly huge room where gargantuan chandeliers descend upon ropes from the ceiling far above.
As I arrived, flunkies were covering tables that extended into the distance with crisp white cloths, placing chairs in immaculate array and carrying in dozens of identical arrangements of fresh flowers, while the caretakers were polishing up the venerable silver collection and displaying it in lit display cabinets built into the paneling.
There is almost no plate that predates the Fire, because the Vintners had to sell it all to pay for the rebuilding. Just a Tudor coconut cup and a stoneware jug mounted in silver gilt survive since they contain so little precious metal, yet the cup dating from a time when the exoticism of a coconut warranted setting in precious metal carries its own bizarre poetry today.
The ambiance of this extraordinary hidden Hall is palatial with an overtone of a religious order and just the hint of an educational institution. And in unlikely and intriguing contrast to all this proud display, five 17th-century carved women’s heads illustrating the degenerative effects of wine peer down upon the diners, as a warning against over-indulgence.
Upon the next floor, in the lavish withdrawing rooms, I came upon a deed for the hall site dated 1352 and signed by Geoffrey Chaucer’s father, John, who was a prominent Vintner. It was the granting of the Royal Charter of 1363 that gave monopoly upon the importation of wine from Gascony, when it was under British rule, thereby making the fortune of the Vintners' Company.
One relic that speaks of the wealth of this era is an elaborate embroidered coffin cover given in 1543 by John Husee, Chamberlain of London, for the use of deceased members of the company. St Martin the Patron Saint of Vintners is depicted at either end, while recurring upon the sides are jaunty images of Death personified as a skeleton holding a coffin. It manifests the paradox of the Vintners’ Company, a body existing in the long shadow of its own history yet dedicated to wine that, by its nature, delivers an intensified experience of the present moment.
After walking through the Court Room, climbing the three hundred year old staircase and exploring the Hall, I was eager to descend to the “Bin” – as the vaulted room, where the wine is uncorked and decanted, is called. Relieved to return to a space with a purpose that was self-evident, I found wine waiters busily at work uncorking bottles from the Vintners’ cellar prior to decanting it to breathe before that evening’s dinner.
At the center of the flagged floor was a large table where the decanters would spend the day. This was the center of it all, because having been in the game for more than eight hundred years, if the Vintners cannot serve wine in an exemplary fashion nobody can.
"Spitalfields Life" by The Gentle Author, is published by Saltyard Books, priced £20 ($31). You can read more on the author’s blog: www.spitalfieldslife.com.