Posted on Jul 30, 2002 – 03:12 PM by Bill McCann
Now existing unhappily in two parts between Cannon Street and Lombard Street this little London Lane was once famous for its cake shops. After that, it gained great popularity as THE place in London to sample authentic French Cuisine. For one or two guineas a head you could have an authentic French meal and the accompanying flask of Bordeaux claret would only set you back by seven shillings!
Etymology: First mentioned in 1291-92 as Abbechirchelane, that is, by the church of St Mary Abchurch which is near the south end of the Lane. As the church is built on slightly rising ground, is possible that abchurch is a corruption of upchurch but this is not known for certain.There are very few references to the Lane from the mediaeval period and it is not until the early 17th century that we read of a reputation associated with it. This was for cakes! Abchurch Lane was the place to go to for fresh-baked cakes in this period. It found its way into the Comedy Northward Hoe by Webster and Dekker as the place where Mother Wells had her shop.By the end of the century the cakes had been supplanted by French Cuisine – the most famous and frequented eating House being Pontack’s Head, run by the eccentric François-Auguste de Pontac which was well known to Evelyn, Wren and Pope. Pontack was well read in philosophy and could speak several languages. Evelyn acidly described him as an “eternal babbler” and claimed that much learning had made him mad. The sign for his eatery was a portrait of his father, which was probably enough to convince contemporary Londoners that he WAS mad.The father, Arnaud de Pontac, was the richest and most influential man in Bordeaux, and first president of its Parlement and the owner of Château Haut-Brion from 1649 until his death in 1681. Haut-Brion was Bordeaux’s first grand cru and, also, the world’s first “cult wine.” As early as the 1660s, de Pontac was selling his wine to fashionable London taverns and coffee houses, where it was known as “Ho Bryan.” As far as is known, this was the first wine to be sold under the name of the estate where it was produced, rather than the name of the parish of origin or the estate owner. Most wine of that day was simply referred to as claret.Of course, Samuel Pepys tried it. On April 10th 1663, he records:Off the Exchange with Sir J. Cutler and Mr. Grant to the Royall Oak Tavern, in Lumbard Street, where Alexander Broome the poet was, a merry and witty man, I believe, if he be not a little conceited, and here drank a sort of French wine, called Ho Bryan,that hath a good and most particular taste that I never met with.A member of the de Pontac family was also said to have an interest in this tavern.The roaring success of Pontack’s Head, was undoubtedly due to the fact that de Pontac had brought along Haut-Brion’s chef to create more elaborate cuisine than could be had in mere taverns. In 1697 a meal here would have cost one or two guineas a head and, in 1711, Swift paid seven shillings for a flask of claret from Bordeaux. Until 1746, the Royal Society held their annual dinner at Pontack’s. On his death, the establishment was acquired by a Mrs Susannah Austin who is said to have made a considerable fortune from the business. Certainly, in her day it was a byword for gourmandising with house specialities of “ragout of snails” and “chickens not two hours from the shells”.Perhaps related and perhaps not, Abchurch lane was also the place to buy worm powder. This was immortalised by a resident of the Lane, John Moore, who penned the lines:Oh learned friend of Abchurch LaneWho sett’st our entrails freeVain is thy art, thy powder vainSince worms will eat ‘een theee.Between 1831 and 1835 the present King William Street, connecting the Bank with London Bridge and which forms part of the main artery connecting Islington with South London, was constructed. This cut Abchurch Lane in two and virtually destroyed its character. Today, its two nondescript halves join King William Street to Lombard Street to the North and Cannon Street to the south. It only real function now seems to be that of a short-cut for savvy commuters arriving in the City at Cannon Street Station on weekdays.