Keats, wormwood, gates and health springs

This day in London history: on 18 December, 1795, the poet John Keats (who was born on 31 October) was baptized in the church of St Botolph-without-Bishopsgate. The church is mentioned as early as 1212, when it was called Sancti Botolfi Extra Bishopesgate, though worship on the site dates back to Roman times. Edward Alleyn was also baptized here, as was an infant son of Ben Jonson.

Bishopsgate takes its name from the ‘Bishop’s Gate’, an entrance to the city for the Bishops of London, and probably named for St Erkenwald, Bishop of London in the 7th century.There were seven original ‘gates’ as part of London Wall: Aldgate, Aldersgate, Bishopsgate, Cripplegate, Ludgate, Moorgate, and Newgate.

The churchyard adjoining the buildings runs along Wormwood Street, also part of the route of the original London Wall. At one time the land here was kept free of houses, and the land along the line of the old London Wall was allowed to grow wild. One of the wild flowers that grew here was wormwood; this herb, used to flavour vermouth and absinthe, was said to have gained its name because it grew up in the path followed by the serpent when he was evicted from Paradise.

Although Keats went to medical school in London, his heart was that of a poet, and he finally abandoned the studies that would enable him to become a member of the Royal College of Surgeons. He moved to Hampstead (where the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge also lived) and lodged initially in Well Walk.

Well Walk takes its name from the medicinal waters of Hampstead, which was once the health centre of London: in the 18th century it was still very much a rural area and waters from the Chalybeate Springs, for the wealthy Londoners, were every bit as good as those in Bath. The springs are still there, no longer potable, however, and covered over. Legend has it that the springs arose on the spot where a monk, who was carrying a bottle of the Virgin Mary’s tears, tripped and spilled his precious cargo.

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