diamond geezer

 Sunday, July 09, 2006

Random 'borough' (10): City of London (part 1)

Four problems...
• The City of London isn't a true London borough, it's a corporation. That's because it dates back to the 12th century and not the London Government Act of 1963. But I'm ignoring this rather inconvenient fact.
• The City of London is the tiniest administrative district in the entire country (it's not called the Square Mile for nothing), with a resident population even smaller than London, Ohio.
• The City of London closes at the weekend. All the suited and booted City types stay at home, most of the buildings close and all the shops shut. And I visited on a Saturday.
• I've been to the City of London before, and written about it, loads of times. I've done the "Oranges and Lemons" churches, I've made a trip to the top of the Gherkin, I've visited Little Britain and Postman's Park, I've reported back from the Museum of London and I've explored the River Fleet. I've even waved at the Lord Mayor.

So, was there anything left to report on? Thankfully yes. The City of London is probably the most concentrated slab of fascinatingness in the entire country, so I was still spoilt for choice. I even went back to a couple of places I've visited before - please try not to notice. Here's where I went...

Somewhere famous: The Bank of England
Only one bank in the entire City of London was open on Saturday - how convenient that it was the Bank of England. This is the esteemed national institution to which we all belong but from which we can never draw money. And it's only open to the public twice a year, once for the City of London Festival and once for Open House weekend, so you're going to have to wait until September for your peek. Believe me, it's a rare treat to be allowed inside.

From outside the Bank of England looks more like an administrative fortress [photo]. A high windowless curtain wall of Portland stone encloses its perimeter - all that remains of Sir John Soane's original Georgian building. Seven storeys are visible above ground, with another three levels of basements and vaults hidden away beneath. The bank's staff enter through tall black iron doors on Threadneedle Street [photo], whereas we mere mortals were admitted through the insignificant side entrance. There weren't many of us, and the few tourists who'd stumbled along seemed wholly unaware that this was a very special opportunity not usually available to the general public. We were searched by top-hatted security gents wearing pink frock coats (it wasn't easy to take them seriously) and then ushered through the lobby to begin our guided tour. A long corridor stretched off into the distance, its floor covered by painstakingly precise mosaics loaded with numismatic symbolism. Everywhere the craftsmanship was excellent, at least in the areas we were allowed to see. Nevertheless the current building is of 1930s vintage and so had a 'town hall' feel in many places, with 'lift block' lobbies, payphone kiosks and wide stone staircases. Most of the back rooms, we were assured, look instead like any other faceless modern office with computer terminals and divided-off desks.

The Governor's Room is a mix of the grand and the utilitarian. Current boss Merv has a big desk with two monitors, a civil service issue desk-tidy and three artworks depicting London scenes on his wall. To one side is an old brown table used by every governor since 1694, and up on the mantlepiece a commemorative cricket ball and a signed Aston Villa football. He also looks out into the inner Garden Court, planted with mulberry trees cut from the churchyard which used to stand on this site. Upstairs the rooms are grander still. The First Floor Ante Room boasts red silk wallpaper and an intricate 18th century globe. The Court Room, retained from Sir John Soane's original building, has an opulent ceiling dripping with gold detail (and a matching carpet). We also got to stand in the octagonal Committee Room where the Monetary Policy Committee met last Thursday to determine UK interest rates (4.5% again? OK).

After 45 fascinating minutes we rounded off our visit in the Bank's museum (which is open to the public). It's surprisingly big, which means lots of in-depth displays about banknotes, the bank's history, banking, bankers and general bankiness. It's not somewhere to bring a 5-year old, but budding accountants and bank clerks would find much of interest. And you get the opportunity to handle a genuine (and surprisingly heavy) gold bar - worth either 28 pounds or 137 thousand pounds depending on whether you're weighing it or buying it. How many other banks offer this level of service to their customers?
by tube: Bank

Somewhere pretty: St Dunstan's in the East
Most of the City of London isn't pretty, not unless you like office blocks. Some of these are dead impressive, but the great majority are merely bland and functional [photo]. Every weekend the City is abuzz with construction workers and cranes [photo], knocking down the old stuff (15 years is old round here) and erecting something dazzling in its place. But scattered inbetween all these financial temples, if you know where to look, are several tiny oases of green. Small gardens where office workers can eat their lunchtime sandwiches before slipping back indoors for another hard afternoon of profit accumulation. One of the largest is Finsbury Circus, which is big enough to contain its own perfectly manicured bowling green, but most are considerably titchier. There's usually a bench or two, and maybe a strip of grass or some flower beds, and (useful tip, this) they're also the only places in the City with litter bins.

One of the most unusual, and utterly charming, small gardens in the City is that of St Dunstan's in the East [photo]. The early medieval church here was severely damaged during the Great Fire of London in 1666 and then rebuilt (with a new Wren steeple), only to be severely damaged again during the Blitz in 1941. The steeple survived along with a few walls and arched doorways, and the site left derelict until the Corporation of London decided to turn the ruins into a garden in 1967. And what a garden. Vines and climbers have overtaken the remaining walls, and several secluded areas of shrubbery have been created between new twisting paths. There are flowerbeds and compact lawns where the pews used to stand, and a squat fountain in the middle of what was once the nave. Palm trees flap above the lower lawn where, on Saturday, smiling couples sat lazily soaking up the city sun. Who'd have thought that so much could be created out of so small a space? You could walk round the entire garden site in one minute flat, but I guarantee you'll stay longer.
by tube: Monument  by bus: 15

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