diamond geezer

 Saturday, September 03, 2016

LINE OF FIRE: 1666-2016
A walk around the edge of the Great Fire of London
Part 1:
Temple to Holborn Bridge

To commemorate the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London, I've taken a walk around the edge of the area that burned. We know the fire's extent quite accurately thanks to a fantastic map named 'A Plan of the City and Liberties of London Shewing the Extent of the Dreadful Conflagration in the Year 1666', completed by John Noorthouck in 1672. What's a bit trickier is translating his map onto modern day London, although in many places the street pattern has survived pretty much unchanged. I'll therefore be walking very close to but not necessarily along the dividing line, and I'm not going to walk the southern edge along the Thames foreshore (been there, done that). Instead I'm heading from the westernmost point near Temple to the easternmost at the Tower, and dividing the journey up into three parts.

The Great Fire spread much further to the west than the east, thanks to a strong prevailing wind. By the final day it was threatening the Temple, and London's legal finest were out demolishing buildings to try to prevent the remainder of their site being destroyed. Then the wind finally dropped, ensuring that the remaining flames became easier to extinguish, and the threat to properties upstream along the Strand was also lifted. The riverside limit was around the Inner Temple Garden, approximately where Crown Pier and the Temple Avenue bus stop stand today. Of course the Victoria Embankment wasn't here at the time, that's a Victorian addition, and the river would have lapped some metres beyond the existing garden railings, to where a change in gradient can be clearly seen. And for one weekend only the fire's western limit has been marked by a particularly appropriate sight - a wooden city on a barge.

This is Watch It Burn, a floating sculpture by a Californian artist who more normally does this kind of thing at the annual Burning Man Festival. Under David Best's instruction a 120 metre-long re-creation of the 17th century city has been built, complete with gabled townhouses, church spires and a model of St Paul's. A chain of circular shields surrounds the densely-packed highly-flammable construction, which is already in position should you fancy taking a look in advance. And on Sunday evening it's going to be set alight, both for the amazement of a few people who manage to cram onto the Embankment, and for a much larger audience online. You can enjoy this wooden city's death throes live-streamed here at 8.30pm, or watch on BBC4 the following evening.

To start my walk I'm heading up Middle Temple Lane, the legal enclave's sole connection to the river, and one of the more peculiar streets in the City. A gatehouse watches over the Embankment end, closed out of hours, before the lane rises gently into the Inns of Court with legal quarters to either side. Behind each doorway the problems of the world are being untangled, at a price. Few tourists wander this far into the warren of courtyards and alleys, although many come to see (and enter) the Temple Church, built by the Knights Templar in 1185 and made especially famous by The Da Vinci Code. It's one of a very small number of existing buildings in the City to predate the Great Fire, although it was heavily firebombed in the Blitz so the interior's not what it was.

Take the alleyway past the circular nave and another Fire survivor can be found immediately above the exit into Fleet Street. This is Prince Henry's Room, known to Samuel Pepys as the Fountain Tavern, and originally dating back to 1610. The half-timbered frontage juts appealingly above the pavement, behind which is a Jacobean plaster ceiling with a Prince of Wales design, although you now have to be on the City of London's guestlist to see it as public access terminated several years ago. More specifically the Great Fire was halted three doors down from St Dunstan-in-the-West, thanks to serious waterbucket action from the Dean of Westminster, although the current church on this site is a Victorian replacement.

Fetter Lane marks the continuation of the boundary, the fire consuming all the buildings as far as about halfway up. The road may be medieval although the modern view is anything but, with various bland office blocks curving around the bend, one resembling a giant waffle, another an advent calendar in concrete. A statue of John Wilkes marks the point where New Fetter Lane breaks off, this now the more important thoroughfare (and the start/finish of the A4 to boot). Everything to the right was lost in 1666, and has been lost again much more recently with the creation of New Street Square. This major office development wiped away the previous street pattern and has replaced it with a work'n'retail buzz surrounding an anonymous part-private piazza, where office workers slip out to buy lunchtime burritos, security guards watch over the vandalproof benches and bonuses are cemented on the bistro terrace. I'm no fan, if you hadn't guessed.

And there's a lot more of this kind of stuff going up all around, which unless you're a builder or a shareholder makes for a somewhat unexciting stroll. Deloitte dug in a few years back with a consultancy fortress, further identikit stacks stand opposite, while on the far side of Shoe Lane a vast tract of demolished land has risen again, thus far only to liftshaft height. The edge of the Great Fire's destruction passes diagonally across Goldman Sachs' future office development, whereas what's now Holborn Circus and all points northwest survived the blaze. Here St Andrew's Church was only a couple of hours from burning down before the wind turned, but the medieval structure was so ancient that Christopher Wren rebuilt it anyway, and it's his Baroque replacement we see today.

We've reached the River Fleet, which city elders in 1666 hoped would provide a natural firebreak, but on the third day of the blaze they were proved wrong. More precisely we've reached the site of Holborn Bridge, then the main crossing point hereabouts, an annoyingly narrow span with hills rising to either side which horse-drawn traffic found quite challenging. Two centuries later Holborn Viaduct would span the valley, incontrovertibly London's first flyover, its gradient-free passage much easier for motorless vehicles to cross. Christopher Wren's post-Fire plans had been to widen the river to the south of this point, taking advantage of the overnight disappearance of the slums to either side. Instead a more Venetian-style channel called the New Canal was created, although failed to find favour with Londoners and over the next 100 years a street market and then a major roadway were overlaid on top. [today's 8 photos]

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