diamond geezer

 Sunday, September 04, 2016

LINE OF FIRE: 1666-2016
A walk around the edge of the Great Fire of London
Part 2:
Holborn Bridge to London Wall

To commemorate the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London, I'm taking a walk around the edge of the area that burned. Here's the second of three parts, approximately following the old Roman wall.

During the Great Fire Holborn Bridge would have been a major traffic blackspot, packed with City dwellers and their belongings trying desperately to escape. It fared much better than Fleet Bridge to the south, which melted in the flames, but only narrowly escaped destruction as the fire pressed down to the eastern bank of the river. Today we cross the Fleet valley with considerably more ease, but if you look down from Holborn Viaduct you can still see the foot of Snow Hill, which used to be on the main route to Newgate and the City. Snow Hill is far less important today, a one-way filter down to Farringdon Road, sandwiched between Amazon's glass-fronted HQ and the crumbling Smithfield fishmarket. By 2021 this characterful relic will/should/might have been reborn as part of the new site for the Museum of London, and in the meantime a squadron of Crossrail hardhats hang around outside when a fag break permits.

Branching off just before the police station is Cock Lane. Yes, do titter, because the name means exactly what you hope it does, this being the location of several legal medieval brothels. The Great Fire burned all the houses on the south side of the lane but spared the north, coming to a halt at the junction with Giltspur Street. At the time this was known as Pye Corner, hence the oft-made claim that the Great Fire started with Pudding and ended with Pye. Many in 1666 saw this as 'firm evidence' that the conflagration had been sent by God as punishment for the sin of gluttony, so a small wooden statue of a chubby boy was erected as a memorial. Since painted gold, it originally hung from the exterior of a lively pub called The Fortune of War, finally demolished in 1910. But The Golden Boy of Pye Corner remains embedded in the wall of the replacement office building, now the HQ for City and Guilds, with lengthy explanatory chiselling underneath.

We've reached the northwestern corner of the City walls, in 1666 still protecting those within from those without. Back then there were only seven gates, or public exits, another reason why fleeing the fire with one's possessions proved so problematic. But the walls also helped prevent the fire spreading further, so from Newgate to Moorgate my walk will (pretty much) follow the Roman city boundary. This means crossing into the grounds of St Bart's, the famous City hospital which dates back to 1123 (the same year as the neighbouring Priory Church, another Great Fire survivor). I'd not walked through the updated central area before, past emptying ambulances and milling elderly visitors, and was surprised by the extensive cluster of modern buildings behind the heritage façade.

The ambulance run ends opposite Postman's Park, a staple of Quirky London Lists thanks to its enchanting Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice, a wooden loggia beneath which the posthumous details of 54 great deeds are displayed in tiled form. I had hoped to inspect the latest addition, a paean to reprographic operator Leigh Pitt's Thamesmead canal rescue, but an office worker eating lunch underneath growled me off. The park was created out of the churchyard of St Botolph without Aldersgate, yet another religious building to squeak through the Great Fire only to fall into disrepair later and be replaced by something contemporary. Had it been "within Aldersgate", rather than without, it would have burnt for sure.

Also fractionally outside the city walls is the Museum of London, where a major exhibition called Fire! Fire! is currently underway. One lower gallery has been taken over with 'interactive exhibits', 'immersive displays' and a sample of burnt bits, which you can find reviewed here and here. But I failed to turn up 'off-peak', it being the school summer holidays, so was deterred by the £12 admission price and headed instead to the main gallery. Here the usual display of Great Fire memorabilia has been boarded over, so I went and sat in front of the Museum's original 1666 immersive display and watched that. The ancient City model still lights up, but the focus is now firmly on the audiovisual screening behind, which I'm pleased to report brings the tale of the Great Fire firmly to life.

You can see the old Roman wall through one of the museum's windows, although the best stretch borders Noble Street to the south. But what I'd never tried to do before was follow the remains of the wall north, where a patch of lawn is unexpectedly accessible through a gap beneath the Highwalk. I found the area was being well-used by those in the know, including sandwich-eaters, shorts-wearers and yoga-stretchers, taking up position between the ruins of Hadrian's fort and the Barber Surgeons' herb garden. A path continues to the bastion on the corner, where a reflective pool of water begins, complete with ducks and several thin concrete pillars rising to an equally concrete overbridge. This is the edge of the Barbican, an area beyond Cripplegate ironically untouched by the fire, but entirely devoured by the Blitz three centuries late.

Only residential keyholders are allowed further, to enjoy the subsequent wallside stretch and the benches inside the fourth and final tower. For the rest of us a long detour winds back round Monkwell Square, up to the Highwalk and into the 1960s development at first floor level, and a residential block called, appropriately, Wallside. Opposite is St Giles-without-Cripplegate which survived the blaze by being without rather than within, so is one of the City's few remaining medieval churches, at least regarding its shell. Alas it's currently impossible to follow the Highwalk to the east while a new office block called London Wall Place takes years to be built, although a new footbridge was installed across the main road over the bank holiday weekend, so long term there's hope. [today's 10 photos]

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