There's one part of London which would rather you didn't come visit. If you work there, great, come make lots of money. But if you fancy driving in, or passing through, a hidden barrier has been erected to try to keep you out. That place is the City of London, surrounded by its own Ring of Steel. This weekend I took a tour to take a closer look.
Security paranoia hit the City in 1993 after the Bishopsgate truck bomb blast. This must never happen again, they said, and hastily constructed a surveillance cordon around the central financial district. First it was policemen with traffic cones, then a more permanent technological solution was imposed involving chicanes, cameras and checkpoints. The number of entry points into the "Traffic and Environment Zone" was restricted, and roads remodelled to better suit perceived safety needs. So the IRA promptly drove their next truck to Docklands and exploded it there, to prove how pointless the whole thing had been. Today that Irish threat may have faded but the risk of international terrorism never goes away, so the Ring of Steel is still there. It's no longer manned, except at times of heightened alert, and has been expanded morethanonce to incorporate an even greater proportion of the City. Indeed, far from disappearing it's now so fully ingrained that we may never get rid of it.
My tour was organised as part of the This Is Not A Gateway festival - a small-scale urban gathering based in a Spitalfields hall. Leading the walking group was George Gingell, a London architecture student who's researched the roadblocks in considerable depth, and made for a most enthusiastic tour guide. There wasn't a date, location or strategic realignment he didn't know, so it seemed, as he bounced off through the streets with fifty of us following behind.
First to Brushfield Street which runs along the south side of Spitalfields Market. It used to run all the way through to Bishopsgate, but now there's a row of bollards in the way so only bikers and pedestrians can pass. Many towns and cities have bollards, admittedly, but this set are part of a remarkably well thought-through plan to keep unwanted motorists out. As many as 46 streets have been sealed off around the border of the City security zone, leaving fewer than 20 accessible entrances. Each is watched over by electronic sentries, with one camera for automatic numberplate recognition, another to take a photo of each driver and their passengers, and a big bright light to make sure everything still works after dark. Much cheaper than hiring policemen to ask questions of every driver passing through, and more efficient too.
George handed out a map showing the resulting network, with the whole thing resembling a maze complete with one-way exit points and umpteen dead ends. There are, for example, only four entrances to the eastern edge of the security zone - one at Tower Hill, two at Aldgate and one coming down from Shoreditch. Attempt to gain entry via any other road and a deliberate physical blockage will stop you. And it's not only bollards. Flowers are a favourite, with big chunky planters strung out across the road as scenic barriers. To everyday eyes it looks like an endearing attempt at pedestrianisation, but in reality it's part of a grand scheme to lock central London down.
The best example of imperceptible fortification that George had to offer was Vandy Street, at the very northern tip of the exclusion zone. This used to be a short and insignificant sidestreet, whose only crime was that it connected to two other sidestreets immediately behind. So the City of London killed it off. They sold Vandy Street to private developers when an adjacent plot was redeveloped, who promptly set about turning it into an ex-road. Google Streetview caught them mid-revamp, with the road half dug-up awaiting its new fate. Most of the street was relaid with turf, with a paltry low hedge at either end and a series of big black planters filled with greenery along one side. Legally this is still a right of way so a path was provided where one of the pavements used to be, but made of light gravel so it's awkward to walk down. The whole thing looks like a very amateur garden centre display, but the overall effect is sufficient to keep the public at bay.
Until fifty of us walked straight down it. We hopped over the hedge, strolled across the squidgy lawn and trampled the gravel pathway, reclaiming Vandy Street as our own. And then we stood in the soulless grey courtyard at the far end where Snowden Street and Finsbury Pavement used to be - two more sidestreets sacrificed on the altar of protectionism. George explained how one day an even bigger building would probably be built, covering Vandy Street for good and strengthening the Ring of Steel still further. He didn't notice the security guard who'd grown increasingly nervous at 50 weekend visitors standing precisely where they shouldn't, and who'd wandered over to confront us all. The guard urged us to move on, somewhat earnestly, while we simply laughed at this perfect example of creeping security paranoia. And then we moved on.
The City of London's had a wall since Roman times, but this modern barrier is electronic, manipulative and insidious. London's financial institutions may feel better protected from IRA-style vehicular threat as a result, but terrorism moves on, so expect far more risk-led city planning in the future.