Favourite Places – Tour guide Imogen Pasley-Tyler on the City of London’s contrasts

August 9, 2019

Imogen Pasley-Tyler, program manager and guide at Context Travel, explains why she’s fascinated with the City of London’s contradictions…

Born a Londoner, I’ve been through several incarnations in this city, lived in all corners and cycled most of the bits in-between. It’s a seemingly limitless source of discoveries, surprises and contradictions. From the river to the canals, the relentless urbanity to the abundance of parks and green spaces, the juxtaposition of ancient and modern, London is somehow simultaneously disarming and a little abrupt.

However, nowhere encapsulates this contradiction with quite the intensity that the ancient City does. As with much of this island, and its inhabitants, its charm might not be immediately apparent, however, penetrate beneath the surface of the surly urban throng and you’ll be rewarded with palpable layers of history and curious, unexpected encounters.

To provide a brief historical context, the physical ‘square mile’ known as the City of London is built on the site of the original capital, the Roman Londinium. Fast forward to the late 17th century and the medieval evolution of the city was largely decimated by the Great Fire of 1666. Christopher Wren was commissioned to rebuild the city, as part of a flamboyant  propaganda scheme for the recently ‘revived’ monarchy. The project lacked funds and was consequently built on the existing medieval foundations, hence the bizarre and entirely illogical network of streets and alleys. The resulting Roman ruins, medieval ‘patterns’ and baroque playfulness that sit alongside the contemporary metropolis of Norman Foster’s Gherkin and Richard Roger’s ‘Bowellist’ Lloyd’s building can leave any visitor initially discombobulated.

City of London, city of contrasts. PICTURE: Jaanus Jagomagi/Unsplash

It’s in the seeking out of the city churches of Wren and his protégé, Nicholas Hawksmoor, that the beauty and mystery of this district starts to reveal itself. Each of Wren’s churches has its own unique character, spire, weathervane and architectural vocabulary, thanks to the liberated flamboyance of the baroque vernacular. St Stephen Walbrook, thus named for the stream that ran under this site in Roman times, has an unprepossessing exterior, bar a relatively intricate tower that’s the only indication of the delight within. The interior, by contrast, is a luminous domed structure that has a sense of timelessness, an almost modern quality, that feels like it could happily accommodate any and all religions and was allegedly Wren’s ‘practice run’ for St Paul’s Cathedral. The nearby St Bride’s, of Fleet Street, has a spire that is claimed to be the inspiration for the evolution of the tiered wedding cake. And then there’s the elegant symmetry of Hawksmoor’s Christ Church, Spitalfields, that dominates the eastern reaches of the city, the monumental scale of which is a marked contrast to the delicate playfulness of Wren’s constructions.

Every churchyard is a lush jungle, where nature seems to be overruling the interruption of modernist architecture and the sheer intensity of this financial hub. A bronze likeness of William Shakespeare is hidden amongst the foliage at St Mary Aldermanbury on Love Lane. The war-bombed remnants of St Dunstan in the East is a tragic testament to the impact of World War II but also a moving memorial to this period; an extraordinary skeleton of a Neo-gothic structure, now tangled with wisteria and general verdant abundance.

This square mile has been witness to every great event in London’s history and bears the mark of most of these, in some shape or form. It is this palpable sense of buildings that have endured  and lives lived that makes it so compelling and enigmatic. To truly explore you must either know precisely where you’re going or surrender to this haphazard maze and relish the subsequent surprises. Most importantly, and ultimately the real function of these churches, is the reminder to look up!

 

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