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by Guardian.co.uk” width=”140″ height=”45″ />This article titled “Alone in the City: a Christmas Day walk around London” was written by Alan Franks, for theguardian.com on Sunday 25th December 2016 06.30 UTC
Head straight for the belly of the sleeping beast. The place is deserted, which is a once-in-a year situation. Start at the Tower of London since so much else does, including the Wall and therefore known history itself. You may have been this way before but been pushed for time and for space, preoccupied by whatever and generally kept at bay from the surroundings by their mighty cordon of noise.
But at a time when much of industry – and transactions – are happening at the hearth and in the kitchen, this place is taking a breather and you can almost feel it exhaling with the pleasant surprise of quiet and clarity. This is not just the baseline of a city but of the City. As a name, this is a little like a historically eminent football side calling itself the Team, and getting everyone else to refer to it that way.
A few paces towards the DLR station stands one of the highest remaining sections of the Roman wall. In such a realm of skyscrapers, its 10 metres is nothing, just a squat linear scrap of rubble fit to be cleared. Look a little closer, as you have time to do now, and you see that the stonework changes dramatically about four metres from the ground. It goes medieval, the rows now more linear and ordered.
This is an evocative monument for sure, site of the nation’s last execution by beheading (Lord Lovat, 1747, treason), but it is also emblematic of what happens throughout this walk: accretion all the way, in the highways and the hidden courts, the churchyards and the meeting points; ages clambering on their forbears; and masonry bearing out the line in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys about history being one bloody thing after another.
Already such a stroll on such a day is stealing the clothes of the country ramble in two ways. First by unfolding amid such truly monumental tranquillity; second by banishing distractions so that you can see some of the strata on which the present scene resides. If you want to stay with the line of the Wall, you can do so by way of Aldgate to the north, then west via St Botolph’s Church and the road called London Wall towards Cripplegate. But the idea is to go through the City’s heart while it’s not looking.
You’re barely under the line out of Fenchurch Street and you’re skirting America Square with its mighty conference centre at Number One – where else? If the precinct sounds new in comparison with such neighbours as the Minories (named after the nuns of a 13th-century order) and Crutched Friars (from Fratres Sanctae Crucis), this too is deceptive, as the square was built in about 1760 and dedicated to the American colonies.
Down Jewry Street (William the Conqueror encouraged Jewish immigration); over Aldgate, into Duke’s Place and past the Sir John Cass’s Foundation Primary School, named after the 17th-century merchant and philanthropist. Cut left down the narrow Creechurch Lane, then right into Bury Street, and the full bulbous majesty of the modern City rears up and fills almost every inch of the sky ahead. There stands 30 St Mary Axe, better known as the Gherkin, one of the many controversial bulks to have redrawn the skyline in the past 20 years.
Sheer and shiny it may be, but this too has arisen from a point of historic conflict, for it stands on the ground once occupied by the Baltic Exchange and the Chamber of Shipping, blown up by the IRA 24 years ago. Seen from the corner of St Mary Axe and Leadenhall Street, with the venerable form of the St Andrew Undershaft church dwarfed in the foreground, the view encapsulates as graphically as any in the Square Mile the enforced proximity of violently different times and worlds: the old sanctities of faith and the towering proximity of wealth.
Today these juxtapositions can take on the air of an old monarchy and a looming presidency. This particular church, whose strange name came from the shaft of a nearby maypole, survived not only the blitz but also the Great Fire of London.
The last time I walked through the City on a Christmas Day was before the arrival of the huge and controversial shapes of Heron Tower in Bishopsgate, 20 Fenchurch Street (the Walkie Talkie) or 122 Leadenhall Street (the Cheesegrater). Conservationists may fear that all is lost, yet to be a pedestrian in this most peculiar corner of the kingdom is to be acutely aware of two completely distinct scales: the little old one of alleys with endless right angles, coffee shops and gentlemen’s outfitters; and the vast new one sculpting wild shapes in the heavens. Sometimes they seem so far apart that they are not even in competition.
Head straight down Threadneedle Street, still a fine narrow valley walled by some of the City’s most venerable presences: the Merchant Taylors’ Hall, Berenberg, the world’s oldest merchant bank; the Bank of England itself, sitting on thousands of gold bars in its subterranean vaults. Catch the Bank, the hub of a six-spoked junction, in this rare stasis, then head straight on down Queen Victoria Street to Mansion House, right into Cannon Street and past St Paul’s Cathedral, 40 years in the building and, hard to believe, the highest in London until 1967.
Ludgate Hill, then over Farringdon Street, once a kind of boundary road between the old domains of wealth and the word. The Fourth Estate, as Edmund Burke dubbed the press in 1787, is now long gone from Fleet Street, leaving the thoroughfare void of journalists. A few doors down, to your right, is one of the best remnants of the street’s heyday, the old Daily Express building, at the age of just 84 a relative upstart among listed buildings, but preserved as one of the best examples of art deco architecture in London.
Savour the broadening emptiness of the Strand, then swing left after Somerset House on to Waterloo bridge and over to the South Bank in order to head back to the starting point by way of Denys Lasdun’s National Theatre building, Shakespeare’s Globe, Southwark Cathedral and Tower bridge. That way you get to go parallel to the stretch through the City and catch the broad perspective of its restless, momentarily frozen skyline. It’s a route that country walk planners term circular. William Wordsworth may have been standing further up the river, on Westminster bridge, when he trained his nature poet’s eye on the townscape and declared that “all that mighty heart is lying still”, but the point stands, and never more so than today.
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