diamond geezer

 Friday, September 02, 2016

350 years ago today, just after midnight, the oven at the King's bakehouse in Pudding Lane caught alight. Roused from sleep, Thomas Farriner's family promptly escaped through a neighbour's upstairs window, although their maid was too scared to leave and became the Great Fire's first victim. Over the four days that followed, only half a dozen other Londoners are known to have suffered the same fate. But almost 90% of the City's residents lost their homes, and a vast swathe of medieval buildings was swiftly wiped away.

Actually, sssh, it wasn't 350 years ago today. The date was indeed Sunday 2nd September 1666, but Britain was still using the Julian Calendar at the time, some 13 days behind the calendar we use today, so technically "350 years since the start of the Great Fire" means Thursday 15th September 2016. But let's not go there.

It could have been an insignificant blaze, as were dozens of other household fires in post-Restoration London, but two meteorological factors conspired to make this the conflagration every schoolchild knows. Firstly, 1666 had been a exceptionally dry year with little rain since the previous autumn, so London's wooden buildings were tinder-dry and the Thames uncharacteristically low. Secondly, an easterly gale blew up from the Channel at precisely the wrong time, toppling chimneys all over Kent and Sussex on the Saturday evening, and reaching the capital in the early hours of Sunday 2nd.

And then there was the Mayor, Sir Thomas Bloodworth. He was soon summoned to the scene by parish constables who feared the worst and wanted to demolish adjacent buildings as a firebreak. But he overruled them, indeed he thought the fire of little consequence, famously exclaiming "Pish! A woman might piss it out!" By now embers from the fledgling fire had crossed to Fish Street to reach the head of London Bridge, and were about to spread along the wharves of Thames Street setting their combustible contents alight. With an inexhaustible supply of fuel and the gale in full flow, London's catastrophic destiny was now sealed.

A gap in the buildings along London Bridge prevented the flames from jumping across the river to Southwark. But the north bank was nowhere near as fortunate, with narrow alleys aiding the fire's transfer and forcing residents to flee their houses. Escaping with one's possessions soon proved problematic, with carts and watermen's barges in very short supply, available only at extortionate cost. By Sunday afternoon the pre-conditions for a firestorm were achieved and the conflagration spread west and north, although only a relatively small portion of the City was affected thus far.

Monday 3rd was worse. The fire spread along the majority of the waterfront as far as Baynard's Castle, the Tower of London's western counterpart (at the mouth of the River Fleet), which was completely consumed. The main financial district was also destroyed, the moneymen of Lombard Street and the Royal Exchange fighting to move their treasures elsewhere. But Tuesday 4th was worst of all, with the affected area more than doubling as the fire reached out to the City walls, and to the west beyond them. St Paul's Cathedral was the highest profile casualty of the day, thanks to temporary wooden scaffolding conveying the flames to the roof timbers.

Only on Wednesday 5th, when the wind finally dropped, did official firefighting activities succeed as fresh firebreaks prevented the blaze from spreading further. By now tens of thousands were camped out on Moorfields as refugees in their own city, topping off an apocalyptic 18 months of plague and fire. As for Samuel Pepys, whose diary remains the best first-hand account of the Great Fire, his home lay a few streets outside the eastern boundary of destruction and had been saved solely by a quirk in the direction of the wind.

Grand plans to rebuild the city afresh came to nothing, existing property rights making it impossible to carve out a new network of grand boulevards. Instead the priority was business as usual as quickly as possible, but with wider streets to improve fire safety, and buildings constructed of brick or stone instead of wood. It would be three centuries before the Blitz would wreak similar random destruction upon the capital, wiping out several of Christopher Wren's 50 replacement churches. But these blank canvases might just be one reason modern London has become so commercially successful - the City has so few proper heritage buildings getting in the way of building new stuff.

St Paul's aside, London's prime memorial to those four fiery days is the Monument, a fluted Doric column erected in the 1670s and topped by a gilt bronze flaming urn. It was built on the site of the first church to be destroyed by the flames, St Margaret's, and is deliberately located as far from the source of the fire as it is tall. A plaque marks the site of Thomas Farriner's bakery in Pudding Lane, the latest occupant of the site being a drab concrete office block of little consequence. Pudding Lane itself hasn't fared much better, sloping down towards the Thames through a canyon of postwar development, and accessible by elevated Pedway at its southern end.

The Monument remains one of London's unsung tourist attractions, originally designed as a scientific laboratory but soon passed over to public access after problems with vibration. It still rises above the immediately surrounding buildings, presumably thanks to some long-term planning restriction in the neighbouring streets. But the all-round panorama's nowhere near as clear as when it was originally built, and the mesh cage at the top makes the taking of photographs somewhat tricky.

I would show you what I mean, indeed I paid my £4.50 earlier this week and started up the 311 spiral steps to the observation deck. But after barely a couple of revolutions an irrational voice kicked in, eyeing up the swirl of cantilever stairs with doubt, then fear, and I had to sit down in a recess to recover. A procession of foreign tourists, families and small children strode past, confirming the patent ridiculousness of my vertiginous concern. But I simply couldn't push myself to proceed, even though I've been right to the top before, so eventually slunk back down (and refused the congratulatory certificate offered to me on the way out). Meh.

I'm in good company, apparently. Biographer James Boswell suffered a panic attack halfway up in 1763 when he visited the Monument, then the highest viewpoint in London. But he persevered, not that he enjoyed the experience, declaring it "horrid to be so monstrous a way up in the air, so far above London and all its spires". You'd be fine getting to the top I'm sure, indeed this anniversary weekend might seem the ideal time to try. Even better, to celebrate the occasion all tickets for today, Saturday and Sunday are free, but alas needed to be pre-booked to regulate demand, and despite extended 8am-10pm opening hours they've all sold out. Best go some other time, once all the hoohah's died down, to remind yourself of our capital's fragility in the face of unforeseen peril.

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