diamond geezer

 Monday, September 05, 2016

LINE OF FIRE: 1666-2016
A walk around the edge of the Great Fire of London
Part 3:
London Wall to the Tower

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 last of three parts, cutting across the City's financial district and back to the Thames.
[map] [simplified map]

Heads up, this is the least interesting of the three sections of the walk, mainly because there's been the most redevelopment along the way. We're starting off on London Wall, a major City road named after the ancient boundary it replaced. From here, between Barbican and Moorgate, the line of fire breaks away from the former fortifications leaving an outer segment of the inner City untouched. The Great Fire never reached Moorgate or Aldgate, although the Guildhall and the current empire of the Bank of England were swallowed whole. The top of Basinghall Street already looks fairly well consumed, in this case by the compartmentalised premises of various businesses, livery companies, enterprises and institutes. A highwalk to currently-nowhere threads through, linking upwards from a contemporary environment of raised paving, young trees and higgledy bollards.

At weekends all is quiet, but the streets come alive in the weekday rush, and bloom during the lunchtime peak. Over a couple of hours the occupiers of unnumbered desks flood out into the fresh air in search of a sandwich, or more likely a plastic tub filled with overseas cuisine, to munch on a bench or take back and eat. The alleyways where mastercraftsmen once plied their trade now brim with catering opportunities, their 21st century occupants more likely to be operatives of the Worshipful Company of Baristas and Baguette-stuffers. The fire's approximate boundary weaves eastward through a maze of courts, lanes and passageways whose irregularity still reflects the past rather than any Manhattan-style grid. We pass though Great Swan Alley, Copthall Avenue, Angel Court and Austin Friars... the latter an unexpectedly off-circuit Georgian cul-de-sac curled round a Dutch church.

The road junction where Austin Friars bursts out into Old Broad Street is a precise Great Fire boundary point - everything to the northeast of the Tesco Express survived. Next comes Adams Court, a zigzag cut-through that's easily missed, despite the grandeur of the gate and arch at either end. Poor Threadneedle Street, While the Bank of England and Royal Exchange remain as anchor tenants at the far end, this narrower eastern section was once home to the headquarters of the main High Street banks. Administrative technology has long since moved them on, a lone branch of Lloyds excepted, their magnificent banking halls taken over by a succession of hotels and restaurants. Once-familiar names remain chiselled into the stonework outside, but the services industries holed up inside now serve lobster, fine wines and (in one inexplicably jumped-up case) Jamie's Italian.

At the foot of Bishopsgate is another easy-to-find road junction on the Great Fire periphery - the Cornhill side burned and the Leadenhall Street side survived. Leadenhall Market was particularly fortunate in this respect, set apart on the second day of the conflagration thanks to a concerted effort by traders and aldermen, and also its stone construction. The glorious wrought iron and glass design we see today dates back to 1881, the roof not only wildly photogenic but also instrumental in keeping the elements out and allowing suited traders to dine al fresco throughout the year. Many will have poured out of neighbouring Lloyd's of London - voyeurs can watch staff rise and fall in the external glass lifts. Lloyd's themselves didn't start trading until a couple of decades after the Fire, but London's first fire insurance company - The Sun - was set up rather more swiftly in response to a suddenly-obvious need.

Skyscraper-watchers might be pleased to hear that if the destructive footprint of the Great Fire were to be repeated today the Gherkin would remain standing and the Walkie Talkie would fall. The dividing line runs about halfway between, across Lime Street, past several wine bars and down to Fenchurch Street. Specifically it runs to the enormous building site where the endless cycle of City replacement continues... a 1920s Portland-fronted block demolished and amalgamated to create a 15 storey tower for an investment management company. But there is a medieval remnant across the street, in sight of Fenchurch Street station - the church tower of All Hallows Staining. The odd part of the name is a medieval word for stone, to distinguish the church from every other All Hallows in the City made of wood. Construction materials and location helped this church to outlive 1666, but alas its foundations were undermined and everything bar the tower collapsed five years later.

Other than this one tower, my word Mark Lane is bland. I walked down it hoping for interest and character as my walk neared its end, but saw only lofty offices two generations of architects must have thought looked whizzy on their drawing boards, and now look tired. This was the first unburnt street east of Pudding Lane, much to the delight of Samuel Pepys, who lived in Seething Lane which runs parallel beyond. Had the wind turned we might never have read his masterful account of the conflagration, and the blaze might instead have wiped out the slums beyond Aldgate rather than the City's beating heart.

And finally, now only a couple of roads back from the Thames, a walk down Tower Street. The first part still takes vehicles, but beyond the gash of Byward Street (and the new E-W Cycle Superhighway) the road's been pedestrianised instead. All Hallows-by-the Tower was yet another church to remain just outside the flames, and Samuel Pepys used the tower as a viewpoint to scan "the saddest sight of desolation". All Hallows is also the oldest church in the City of London, first established in 675 and still boasting one Saxon arch within. Opposite is Tower Place, two 21st century office blocks linked by a monumental glazed atrium, thankfully half the height of the older development they replaced. And all leads down to the Tower of London, where the moat (and a hastily demolished firebreak) halted the Great Fire's eastbound progress, which is just as well otherwise our modern capital would be one hugely important tourist attraction down.

But everything between the Tower and Temple burned, that's the entire mile and a half of waterfront, plus up to a square mile of hinterland beyond. Only the Blitz comes close in terms of London's destruction, and that took rather more than four days across a less concentrated area. Intriguingly it's probably the waterfront that's most under threat in modern times, this time from short- or long-term inundation, considering the amount of damage to properties, basements and electrics a widespread flood could do. And it wouldn't just be the City, contours make the South Bank far more susceptible, plus the spread of the capital puts Newham, Hammersmith and Wandsworth at considerable risk. What this weekend's anniversary should remind us is that although we live in quiet times, a long-remembered destructive shock might lurk just around the corner. [today's 10 photos]

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