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With a capital C!
The City of London (England)
Member Name: caro
The City of London (England)
Date: 08/01/02, updated on 08/01/02 (343 review reads)
Advantages: History, , endless contrasts, atmosphere, lots for free
Disadvantages: Deserted on weekends, overcrowded at lunchtimes
The City is not to be confused with the city! Also known as the ‘Square Mile’, for the obvious reason that that’s its approximate size, the City is small in area but is in some ways the heart of London.
It used to be the whole of London, confined by city walls, until the establishment of a market just outside its walls around Covent Garden and a palace and abbey at Westminster started the process of extending the metropolis until it reached its current vast size. Even in the seventeenth century, most of the population lived here: the Great Fire in 1666 centred on the heart of this area. The City has never altogether lost its autonomy, and still has its own police force and Lord Mayor. However, the City is now barely populated and is instead the financial heart of London. For this reason, it is best visited on weekdays during office hours: in the late evenings and at weekends, it is almost deserted.
Given its long history, it is unsurprising that the City contains some major tourist attractions of which the best known are the Tower of London and St Paul’s Cathedral. That there are not more is perhaps in part a reflection of the Great Fire, which destroyed most older buildings including many churches. Many more historic buildings were damaged or even destroyed in the bombing of World War II.
However, there are a huge number of places of interest, less well-known than the Tower or Cathedral. Better still, and perhaps surprisingly in an area devoted to the making of money, many of them are free. Here are just a very few of my favourites.
Nobody is sure what the original purpose of LONDON STONE was. Theories include that it was a Roman milestone, of mystical importance, or of legal significance. Apparently, all distances to London were once measured from this stone. What is certain is that it was used as the site for events such as legal proclamations, it is mentio
ned by Shakespeare, and it was used for various functions including the smashing of substandard lenses and frames by the seventeenth-century Company of Spectaclemakers! Sadly, its more recent history is much less illustrious. It’s had a rather turbulent time: it used to be much taller, but only a piece remains. Originally on the site of Cannon Street Station, it was moved across the road in the eighteenth century and set within the wall of St Swithin’s Church. That church was bombed in World War II and the stone is at the same location, set into the Overseas Bank of China. It sits behind a grate, floodlit and almost totally ignored by passers-by.
If you’re feeling really fit, you can climb MONUMENT and get wonderful views over the city. There is an admission charge (£1.50 for adults); frankly, with that many steps – 311 - they’d have to pay me to climb it! As well as offering a splendid vantage point, this Wren-designed structure is a memorial to the Great Fire. It is 202 feet high, representing the distance from its base to the site of the baker’s on Pudding Lane where the fire started, and topped with a golden basket of flames. Apparently, the original plan was for a statue of Charles II on top, but he objected as he didn’t want to be associated so closely with the fire.
LEADENHALL MARKET is a beautiful structure, with its small shops and arched, ornate walkways roofed in wrought iron and glass. Established in the 14th century, and rebuilt after the Great Fire, then again in 1881, it was originally known for its meat, fish and poultry but now houses more cafes and fashionable shops than butchers. Perhaps best visited outside the lunch hour, when it’s crowded with City workers.
The MUSEUM OF LONDON, in the Barbican complex, has recently opened new galleries. It’s a wonderful place, chronologically narrating London’s history right from its prehistoric beginnings
, and regularly featuring London-themed exhibitions. You can even see one of the few remaining fragments of the old city walls. Entry is now free, so you should definitely try to visit!
You’ll be agreeably surprised by the BANK OF ENGLAND MUSEUM, tucked inside the Bank. It much more interesting than you might imagine – there are fascinating displays, including a reconstruction of a trading hall from Sir John Soanes’ original building as well as films, exhibits and documents setting out the history of the Bank (including the South Sea Bubble, riots and crime). You can even try your hand as a stock market trader. Yet again, admission is free.
You can’t go into the halls of the OLD BAILEY itself unless you’re involved in a case. Although the old part of the building is lovely, it’s not worth a life of crime to see it! Forget the architecture and instead, watch a trial from the public galleries. Courts tend to sit between 10 or 10.30am and 4.30pm, with a break for lunch between 1 and 2pm.
Still in legal London, although strictly speaking right on the border of the City, TEMPLE was originally the home of the Knights Templar. However, their property was confiscated when their power and wealth threatened that of the king, and this area later became home to two of the Inns of Court (four societies; all barristers in England and Wales must belong to one of these): Inner Temple and Middle Temple. Just off Fleet Street, the sudden quiet and calm is almost shocking. Originally, barristers would live and work here; now they mostly just have their chambers (offices) here, most of the buildings dating from the 18th century (with rebuilding to repair bombing damage). Fountain Court is a particularly lovely place to sit for a few minutes, and there are also gardens although these are not open to the public (just gaze longingly through the railings…). Middle Temple Hall was used for the first perfo
rmance of Twelfth Night. Temple Church, now used mainly by barristers, was built by the Crusaders in the 12th century.
Back on Fleet Street, look across the road to a sight familiar from the news: the marvellous nineteenth-century ROYAL COURTS OF JUSTICE. Unlike the Old Bailey, these are fully open to the public and the building is well worth a look. There are displays about its history and an exhibition of judicial dress. Nearby is Temple Bar, one of the boundary stones of the City topped with a dragon.
Above all, though, just walk around this amazing area. The mixture of old buildings (a few even pre-date the Fire of 1666) and new skyscrapers, the contrast between busy main streets and tiny cobbled alleys, guild halls and Guildhall, the historic pubs and markets, stratospherically expensive shops, and numerous churches, all make this an amazing place to explore.
London Stone: Cannon Street, opposite the station – cross the road and it’s a little way on your right.
Monument, Monument Street: admission £1.50 for adults.
Leadenhall Market, off Leadenhall Street. Open weekdays.
Museum of London: follow the signs from Barbican underground station. Admission free.
Bank of England Museum, Bartholomew Lane (Bank underground station). 10am – 5pm Monday to Friday. Admission free.
Old Bailey: St Paul’s underground station. Be prepared for security checks.
http://www.londontourist.org/city.html has lots more great information. Andrew Duncan’s book ‘Walking London’ has two great routes to follow around the City.