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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In a special Favorite Places to mark Remembrance Day, Mike Paterson, director of London Historians, talks about his favorite war memorials…

At this time of year, the focus is inevitably on Lutyens’ Cenotaph in Whitehall. Version 1, in wood and plaster,  was hurredly constructed in just two weeks in time for the 1919 victory parade. The version we know today was unveiled on 11th November the following year and is a plain, austere and fitting tribute to all our lost service personnel, the centre of the nation’s attention every Remembrance Sunday.

It is estimated there are over 70,000 war memorials in Britain. As a nation we have, let’s face it, a bellicose history, and London in particular has been intimately involved in both World Wars. No surprise then, that as you walk the streets, you happen upon something referencing conflict around every corner. In addition to memorials themselves, we have dozens of now largely forgotten field marshals, generals and other martial leaders.

But the best, I believe, are the ones celebrating the common soldier. I have some favourites. The City of London Regiment infantryman atop a tall plinth in Holborn by Albert Toft (1922), dramatically standing tall, his rifle by his side, bayonet fixed. In Borough High Street there is a fine statue by P Lindsay Clark (1922), remembering the men from St Saviour’s (pictured, right). It is of a soldier, rifle slung, purposefully leaning forward as he trudges through the mud. A very recent statue unveiled by the Queen in 2000 is of a five-man tank crew, in Whitehall Place very near Embankment Station. By Vivien Mallock, it gives a very strong feeling of cameraderie and I always find it uplifting when walking by.

But of all the memorials to the rank and file soldier, by far the most outstanding is, for me, the Royal Artillery monument on Hyde Park Corner, unveiled in 1925. It commemorates the 49,000 artillerymen who lost their lives in the Great War.

The piece comprises a massive Portland stone plinth mounted by a 9.2 inch howitzer gun, augmented on all sizes by statues in bronze of gunners in various poses. One of these men – controversial at the time – is dead, covered by his great coat; you can see his hand and part of the side of his face.

The memorial (pictured, right) was designed by Charles Sargeant Jagger (1885 – 1934). Lionel Pearson constructed the stone parts while Jagger himself sculpted the soldiers.  Informally posed, they are all exquisite examples of the sculpor’s art.

The most striking is that of the artillery driver, leaning back onto the plinth and resting his outstretched arms on it. His cape – stretched from wrist to wrist – hangs down limply. In fact, the man rather resembles a crucified figure without the cross. I was delighted some months ago to discover a maquette (small working model) of this figure at the Honourable Artillery Company HQ in the City.

Jagger – a First World War veteran himself – was an outstanding memorial sculptor. If you’re waiting for a train at Paddington and have a little time on your hands, do check out his memorial to the fallen soldiers of the Great Western Railway. It’s a deeply poignant depiction of a squaddie – his coat draped over his shoulders and wearing a long, home-made scarf – reading a letter from home. You can find it on Platform 1, and I defy you not to be deeply moved.

PICTURES: Mike Paterson

In the first of a new series looking at some of the favorite historical places of Londoners, Lynne Connell, a host at the Museum of London, nominates Greenwich…

“When I was a child my grandparents took me to Greenwich for the day.  I remember being very impressed with Admiral Nelson’s uniform (complete with blood stains) and the haunted tulip staircase in the Queen’s house. While we sat and ate cheese and onion crisps in front of the Cutty Sark, my Grandmother (who was a little eccentric) told me ‘there is so much history here you can feel it’.

“So what can you see in Greenwich today?

“You can visit the Greenwich Observatory, stand on the Meridian line and know you are in the centre of the world! Admission is free there, as well as the National Maritime Museum and the Queen’s House. You can also see the magnificent Wernher collection at Ranger’s House (free to members of English Heritage) and don’t forget the tiny Fan Museum.

“A favourite lazy Sunday morning, includes a stroll in the Royal Park to visit the deer enclosure, a leisurely coffee in one of the two cafes and a visit to the craft market.

“The remains of a Roman villa can be seen in the park and you can visit Princess Caroline’s bath. Don’t miss Queen Elizabeth’s oak, Henry VIII is reputed to have courted Anne Boleyn under the boughs of his ancient hollow tree. It fell during high winds in the 1990’s and is now slowly rotting away.

“Look down from the Observatory Gardens upon the magnificent Royal Naval College and go to visit the beautiful painted hall. Remember, beneath the college lie the remains of the Royal Palace of Placentia, birth place of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.

“It is easy to get to Greenwich by over ground train, DLR or (to really pick up the atmosphere) by river boat.

“It is more than 40 years since my introduction to the history of Greenwich, and perhaps I am becoming a little eccentric myself, but my grandmother was right, you really can ‘feel the history’.”

PICTURE: Greenwich Park, © Anne Marie Briscombe (Royal Parks)