Woken up at 6:30 this morning by a fire alarm. Good morning, London.
The rest of my shared room decided they might as well get up, so after a failed attempt to go back to sleep (and mind you, I didn’t get to sleep until after 1 a.m.), I get up, too. We might as well get started.
I have many things scheduled for upcoming days, but nothing for today. This is deliberate. Today is just for the City.
For those not familiar with its history, a brief primer: London the city is a sprawling monstrosity, but the City of London is a tiny thing, approximately one square mile, and back in the Elizabethan era, it was all there was. The City; some suburbs beginning to burst out of its walls; Westminster upriver, connected by a thin thread of development; Southwark across the Thames, connected by the one and only London Bridge. I’m staying in a hostel near St. Paul’s because I wanted to be in a place that existed back then, and where I could walk the City.
There’s almost nothing here that dates back to the sixteenth century, though. The Great Fire saw to that in 1666, and what it missed, the Victorians got. I have to scrounge to find Tudor-era buildings; that’s what the next few days are for. But the City is still here, and that’s what today is for. Many of the streets are still right where they used to be, even if now they’re lined with Starbucks and Pret. Sir Christopher Wren had grand ideas after the fire for how to redesign the city into a more harmonious pattern, but while he was busy planning, Londoners were busy rebuilding — right where everything had been before. I walk different road surfaces than my historical characters did, but the roads themselves are often the same.
So today was a wandering day, and what you get is a wandering journal.
The hostel is right by Blackfriars, so that is where I begin: Blackfriars Bridge, where I can say hello to the Thames. It’s quite likely impossible for me to overstate the importance of this river to London; I had to begin with him, with Old Father Thames. The tide is going out when I show up, bleary-eyed but wakeful, at eight in the morning, and I watch it for a bit. There are still boats on the river — barges and sightseers — but far fewer than the hundreds (even thousands) that plied it in Elizabeth’s day. One cannot simply flag down a wherry like a water-taxi to get across to the south bank, but there’s no longer any need; bridges span the Thames’ width every few hundred feet, it seems. (An exaggeration, but not by much.)
I faff about for a bit until learning my first lesson of London geography: stairs. The city isn’t all that hilly, but there is a grade in places, and more importantly, there’s accretions of occupation until you find walkways bridging buildings, and what you thought was a ground-level street (by which I mean Holborn Viaduct) is no longer any such thing. Stairs lead from Blackfriars down to the accumulation of pedestrian roads called the Thames Path, which grant me my wish: to walk along the river from Blackfriars to the Tower. Construction gets in my way occasionally, but from Paul’s Walk onward, I mostly keep to the water.
The various steps are gone, that led down to the water’s edge back when river travel was a daily occurrence. (I may venture eastward to Wapping, where I think one can still find some.) And Queenhithe’s been filled in, it seems, the small dock that used to exist along here. Once upon a time there was a drawbridge in London Bridge, and ships would sail upriver to unload at Queenhithe, but I think even by Elizabeth’s time that had ceased; Queenhithe mostly took in shipments from points further west. Somewhere in here I pass Walbrook Wharf, recalling the first of London’s lost rivers. (I still mean to go out on Blackfriars Bridge and see if I can spot the outflow for the buried Fleet.)
Construction forces a brief detour up to the Monument, then down again to Lower Thames Street. I’m following the path the characters of Memento once took, chasing a solimond toward the Tower.
I see the New Globe, across the water in Southwark, and then I’m at London Bridge. It’s a disappointing sight, as I knew it would be. (The thing that gets photographed all the time is the far more photogenic Tower Bridge.) I spend a moment standing there, though, trying to envision the old medieval bridge, crowded with shops and houses along its length, with the twenty? (I think twenty) arches supporting it across the Thames. As the arches became choked with debris, I can understand how “shooting the bridge” became a dangerous proposition, even in a wherry.
The Tower sneaks up on me, hidden behind other buildings. I’ll come back here tomorrow, and give it some real time then.
Minories and Houndsditch now, following the line of the old, vanished city wall. The places remember the names of features now lost; I’ll pass all the gates by the time I’m done, though none of them are still there. I spot ward names, too: Portsoken this, Cordwainer that, and occasionally an office for ward administration. I think the ward boundaries have changed only as much as the streets have, which is to say not much. Across Bishopsgate, and a sign points north to Finsbury Circus; the green fields that used to be there and at Moorfields are long gone, though the City seems to be waging a determined program to cram microscopic little gardens and parks in wherever it can, which give me places to stop and rest my feet. I’ve been going for an hour and a half, maybe two hours, when I hit Moorgate, but I’ve also been stopping frequently, and taking various detours. It’s still worth noting, though, as a measure of travel time.
I stumble, quite by accident, on what’s left of the Wall. Chasing a route to the other side of a fenced-in-thing that turns out to be a ruined bit of the Church of St. Alphage, I find a fragment of the old Roman/medieval wall. (It does not, as one might expect, lie along the London Wall road.) There’s other fragments, too, and some plaques. There are supposed to be twenty; the first I see is number 12. That leads me to 13 and 14, but I fail to find 15, and wonder whether all of them are even still around; I haven’t seen others on my perambulations, though I keep my eyes open after this.
The Museum of London, around Aldersgate. Almost nothing on the Tudor Era (just the Dissolution, really), but I hit the jackpot in the store: a book with a giant, panel-by-panel reproduction of Agas’ sixteenth-century woodcut. Finally, a map of the City big enough for all those bitsy things to be legible.
Take Newgate too far, onto Holborn Viaduct, but it means I find the Church of St. Sepulchre, and a pub called the White Swan along Farringdon Street. Must eat lunch there (and do). Chatty Australian waitress gives me tips to a couple of neat places I might check out. Backtrack up (literally) to Holborn and Newgate; take Old Bailey south, and thus to Blackfriars again. Back up Farringdon until I find and climb Ludgate Hill, crossing my own tracks. If I had bothered to look left from the intersection where Old Bailey became Paternoster Something-or-other, I would have seen the cathedral. The churchyard is still a gathering place; now it’s tourists and other people sunning themselves on the steps. (I join them for a while.) But Wren’s monument to mathematics contains no vestiges of its predecessor, not even in the pamphlet, and admission is pricy, so I move on. We’ve done the perimeter; now it’s time to explore the interior.
Eastward along Cannon Street to Eastcheap. Detour down Pudding Lane; no plaque I can find for the actual site of Farynor’s house and the start of the fire, but I climb the Monument, all 311 steps, in honor of Philip Merriman. (Memento geekery has been ongoing all day; I’m listening to the soundtracks on shuffle, and queuing up appropriate tracks as needed.)
My feet are beginning to hurt enough to take notice of.
Seething Lane, complete with a Walsingham House (technically on Pepys Street) that is certainly not his actual house, and maybe not even in the right spot. Was St. Olave’s his parish church, when he lived there? It’s right across the street, with a tiny and charming cemetery. But no mention of him in their list of famous parishioners; the nice old man who might have been the rector checked. (For the second time today, someone refers me to the Guildhall Library. That place may eat my Monday.) If I were truly badass, I would find the Papey, Walsingham’s other house — but I’m not that good.
Crutched Friars (I love these street names) to Crosswall (whose name seems self-explanatory) to Vine Street, heading north. Now we’re just wandering gratuitously, until my feet give out. Aldgate, Fenchurch; Lombard is narrower than expected, and not the only street to be so. Turning onto Cornhill means I find the Royal Exchange, but of course it isn’t the original building. Onward to Leadenhall, and then onto Mitre Street, to see if it’s the location of that Old Mitre pub the waitress from the White Swan told me about, that dates back to the sixteenth century. (No dice.) Cut through to Duke’s Place. I wonder how many pairs of shoes John Stow wore out, researching his Survey of London — and find myself staring at the John Stow House, on Bevis Marks. Again, not the actual building, but it proves the lasting power of names here. Camomile Street takes me to Bishopsgate, then Threadneedle; there’s the Royal Exchange again, this time from the other side. (Serious foot pain now. How many pairs of feet did Stow wear out?) Only a little further to go. Poultry to the misleadingly-named Cheapside, now crammed with banks on the east end instead of goldsmiths on the west. (I do find one, though, near Glitter Lane. How apt.) St. Paul’s from the north side, with more people hanging out in a little park tucked away around the back; with the sun setting on the far side of the cathedral, I think I get some decent pictures.
It’s only 4 p.m. at that point, but I’m toast. Shooting pains in my left foot send me back to the hostel — fortunately, I aimed to end up near it — and now I’m typing this up. I’m afraid to calculate how far I walked today. Good thing tomorrow will involve a small amount of walking, followed by sitting on my butt for several hours.
The City is both smaller and larger than I thought. I walked its circumference by lunchtime, with much inefficiency; I walked most of its major roads by the later afternoon. But you can pack a surprising number of people and buildings into that space, a fact which is easy to forget when one is used to wasteful American use of space. It’s important to remember that many of the buildings here now probably occupy a larger footprint than earlier structures did; I passed countless little lanes, courts, passages, and alleys that merited street signs despite being six or ten feet wide, and there were probably more back in the day. And even important streets might be the size of my home alley back in Dallas. No wonder Agas’ woodcut is a labyrinth of bitsy little things.
I’ll upload pictures later. That’ll be more work than I feel like dealing with right now, and besides which, I’m hungry. Time to connect to the internet and post this, then limp off in search of food.