diamond geezer

 Tuesday, December 29, 2015

75 years ago today, much of the City of London burnt to the ground. The worst night of the Blitz began just after 6pm on 29th December 1940, as Heinkel and Dornier bombers rained down their cargo of more than a hundred thousand bombs. By morning an area larger than that destroyed during the Great Fire of London was ablaze, from Cheapside to Moorgate and from Aldersgate to Cannon Street. Nineteen churches were destroyed, along with almost all of the City's guild halls, although St Paul's Cathedral famously survived, its dome somehow still visible above the firestorm.

The German plan was tactically brilliant. A Pathfinder squadron would be first across the Channel, its job to light up the target before the first wave of bombers arrived to saturate the area with incendiaries. A second wave would arrive later in the evening, laden with high explosives to raze the City's weakened buildings. The raid should take place on a Sunday because the buildings would be unoccupied, and locked, increasing the chances that rooftop fires would spread. The Thames ought to be at low tide, making it difficult for the Fire Brigade to raise water to their pumps. And low cloud was needed so that the bombers could slip across the Channel unseen before dropping their surprise cargo onto an unsuspecting City. All of these factors came together on the evening of Sunday 29th December, and the Luftwaffe duly swept into action.

St Paul's Cathedral: Twenty-eight incendiary bombs landed on St Paul's that night, most quickly extinguished by cathedral staff and volunteer firewatchers. One particular magnesium cylinder landed in a hard-to-reach spot on the dome, where its heat started to melt through Wren's lead covering, but thankfully loosened and fell outwards (onto the Stone Gallery) before catching light. At Churchill's behest the cathedral's survival was given top priority, and this attention paid dividends when just after midnight the All Clear was sounded. Poor weather across the Channel had forced the cancellation of the second wave of bombers, the planned bombardment of explosives deferred, and by such meteorological good fortune the total destruction of the City was prevented.

Paternoster Row: Immediately to the north of St Paul's Cathedral, Paternoster Row was not so fortunate. As the centre of London's book trade it burned fiercely, with an estimated five million books lost in the conflagration. It took until the early 1960s to rebuild the area, in an architecturally undistinguished style which was itself replaced at the turn of the century by something almost as unpleasant. The new Paternoster Square is a sweeping glitzy piazza, home to food outlets and the Stock Exchange, with one of the most virulently unfriendly access policies in London. According to a sign at the entrance every public entry is technically a trespass, the owners giving limited consent for access to "offices, retail units and leisure premises" which can be revoked at any time. Such are the unfortunate repercussions of a single night's bombing, even 75 years on.

Christ Church Greyfriars: To the north of Paternoster Square, on the corner of Newgate Street and King Edward Street, lies the footprint of a twice-destroyed church. The Great Fire took the thirteenth century version, while Wren's replacement was burnt in the Blitz. Once important enough for royalty to be buried here and for Mendelssohn to play, its congregation had long been in steady decline, hence a decision was made after the war not to rebuild. The tower survives, with ornately worded memorials still in situ on the northern face, while the rebuilt vestry now houses a dental surgery. But the nave has become a rather pleasant rose garden, paid for by Merrill Lynch whose offices overlook the site, with two lines of wooden frames where the pillars used to be and a stubber for the benefit of cigarette smoking bankers.

St Alban, Wood Street: Another Wren church which suffered a similar fate lies a short distance to the west in Wood Street. The first St Alban's was founded over a thousand years ago, with Wren's building not the first replacement, and George Gilbert Scott adding an additional apse in the 1850s. Again all that survives is the tower, the ruins of the remainder having been cleared away after the war, leaving a ninety foot anachronism in the middle of the road. The tower is now a private dwelling, overshadowed by office blocks and itself overlooking the City of London Police HQ alongside. If you were writing a list of London's 100 strangest houses, number 35 Wood Street would almost certainly feature.

St Lawrence Jewry: So named because it stands beside the old Jewish ghetto, this Wren church wasn't quite destroyed by the 29th December firestorm. But the damage was bad enough for the Oxford college who owned it to lack sufficient funds for restoration, so the building was transferred to the Corporation of London who use it now as their official guild church. Alas it's closed until next Monday, if you're planning to take a look inside and be wowed.
The Guildhall: Across the piazza, the most high profile casualty of the Second Fire of London was the Guildhall's medieval Great Hall. The roof burnt quickly, as did the oak statue of Gog and Magog below, although the original 15th century stone walls survived. Sir Giles Gilbert Scott's magnificent 1953 roof is the fifth in the building's history, and I suspect fools many a visitor into believing it's properly old.

Barbican: Nowhere in the City suffered more that night than the ward of Cripplegate, its infrastructure of rag trade workshops and narrow streets almost entirely wiped from the map. What to do with the area proved a post-war challenge, the ruins left largely undeveloped until the 1960s when construction of the Barbican estate began. A 35 acre Brutalist complex now covers the site, combining concrete flats with a much-loved arts centre within an enigmatic maze of walkways. It's probably the finest example of postwar regeneration anywhere in Britain, thanks in part to the City's bottomless pockets, but mostly to the brave decision to create an unashamedly modern community on an epic scale. Had the firestorm of the 29th December 1940 never happened the City might still be a heritage warren rather than a blank canvas for wealth generation, repeatedly reinvented for a more prosperous future.

Fire engines (and a fireboat) will be holding an anniversary event today, outside St Paul's and on the river, culminating at 6.05pm with the sounding of an air raid siren and a parade. [report from Caroline]
Two commemorative walks set off at 11am this morning.

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