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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Sculpture in the City has returned to the Square Mile for summer with 17 contemporary artworks by internationally renowned artists located in public spaces across the City of London.
 With the event now in its sixth year, this year’s sculptures include Jaume Plensa’s seven metre high cast iron work Laura (located at 30 St Mary Axe (aka The Gherkin), it’s pictured above), Matt Collishaw’s work, Magic Lantern Small – a grand scale “zoetrope”, one of the earliest moving image machines (located in Bury Court, it’s pictured below), and Huma Bhabha’s work, The Orientalist (located in Fenchurch Avenue, it’s pictured far below). Other works can be found in locations including St Botolph-without-Bishopsgate Gardens, The Leadenhall Building and St Helen’s Bishopsgate Churchyard. A map of the SITC trail and extra commentary on the individual artworks can be accessed by downloading the SMARTIFY app for Apple and Android devices and then scanning any of the sculptures. There’s also a map and information available at www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/sculptureinthecity. PICTURES: Nick Turpin

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A showcase of flora inspired by the gardens of the City of London, The City Garden features fresh flowers which, entwined with copper wire, hang from the ceiling of the newly opened gallery and exhibition space known as The City Centre. The work of East London-based artist Rebecca Louise Law, the display is the first public art installation at the premises – located next to the Guildhall at 80 Basinghall Street, it’s being managed by New London Architecture on behalf of the City of London Corporation – and the flowers can be seen there as they dry out until 25th September. The exhibition also features two films on the City of London’s gardens as well as a map of those that inspired the artwork (this is also available in an app which details some of the history, horticulture and design of some of the Square Mile’s most iconic gardens). For more, see www.thecitycentre.londonPICTURE: Courtesy of The City Centre.

City-of-London-FestivalThe City of London Festival kicked off last Sunday and runs for the next month in what is being billed as an “extravaganza of music, dance, art, film, poetry, family and participation events” in the Square Mile. Among the highlights of this year’s festival – the 51st – is a series of musical performances at St Paul’s Cathedral and a range of other locations including livery halls, churches and Mansion House – home of the Lord Mayor of London – as well as walks and talks including a two-day conference this Friday and Saturday, Worlds in Collision, which will explore questions surrounding the healing power of music in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorders resulting from conflict. There’s also a range of free events such as a family day on Hampstead Heath celebrating Northern Irish culture and heritage and artistic installations such as that by artist Konstantin Dimopoulos which this week saw the trees of Festival Gardens near St Paul’s turn bright blue. Trees around Devonshire Square are also expected to be ‘coloured’ and both sites will form part of a ‘Tree Trail’ in the square mile which is aimed at revealing the ‘secret stories’ of some of the city’s trees and the locations they inhabit. The festival, which runs until 26th July, will be reflecting on a number of significant historical landmark anniversaries taking place this year, including the 400-year relationship between the City of London and the Northern Irish community of Derry-Londonderry, the 300th anniversary of the Treaty of Utrecht and the 100th anniversary of the birth of composer Benjamin Britten. For more information and a full programme of events, see www.colf.org. PICTURE: London Symphony Orchestra at St Paul’s Cathedral, © City of London Festival/Robert Piwko

The next month represents the last chance to visit Kew Gardens’ historic Temperate House – the world’s largest surviving Victorian glasshouse – for five years. The Grade I-listed building is about to undergo a five year restoration project, funded by a £14.7 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. It is home to Kew’s rarest plant, the South African cycad Encephalartos woodii while other rarities include the St Helena ebony (Trochetiopsis ebenus). The Temperate House will close on 4th August and won’t reopen until May 2018. For more, see www.kew.org.

On Now: Vermeer and Music: The Art of Love and Leisure. Opened yesterday, this landmark exhibition at the National Gallery explores the motif of music in Dutch painting, in particular in the works of Johannes Vermeer and his contemporaries. Displayed alongside actual examples of 17th century virginals, guitars, lutes and other instruments, visitors will be able to see for themselves how accurate the painters were and discover why they may have taken artistic liberties. At the centre of the exhibition are three works by Vermeer – A Young Woman Standing at a Virginal and A Young Woman seated at a Virginal (both of which form part of the gallery’s collection) and The Guitar Player (on loan from Kenwood House). A fourth Vermeer, The Music Lesson, has been loaned from the Queen. Other artists featured in the exhibition include Gerard ter Borch, Gabriel Metsu, Jan Steen, Pieter de Hooch and Godfried Schalcken. Live musicians from the Academy of Ancient Music will be playing at the gallery three days each week. Runs until 8th September. Admission charge applies. For more, see www.nationalgallery.org.uk.

• The City of London today kicks off Celebrate the City – four days of mostly free music, art and cultural events.The events include musical performances in many of the City’s churches, walks and talks at various locations around the Square Mile, new exhibitions including Butcher, Baker, Candlestock Maker – 850 years of Livery Company Treasures at the Guildhall Art Gallery, Livery Hall and historic building openings, family entertainment at the Cheapside Street Fayre at Saturday (including free ice-cream and tuk-tuk rides for children) and activities at the Barbican Centre and the Museum of London. The celebrations start in Guildhall Yard (pictured) at 6pm tonight when musicians from the Guildhall School of Music & Drama perform Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, complete with firing cannons. Among the many other highlights will be the chance to play golden street pianos, to join in the Midsummer street part at the climax of the Spitalfields Music Summer Festival, to enjoy a sunset from the Tower Bridge walkways and to see the transformation of St Helen’s Square into a sculpture space. The weekend will also host the Open House Junior Festival, London’s first ever child-friendly City architecture festival. To see detailed listings of what’s on, head to www.visitthecity.co.uk/index.php/celebrate/.

• The Museum of London will next week launch its annual community and training dig at Syon Park in Hounslow. The dig, which will be open to school and community groups, will run from 25th June to 7th July and will focus on the area of Sir Richard Wynne’s house. A Parliamentarian, in 1659 he was implicated in a Royalist insurrection and was imprisoned. The house, which featured in the Battle of Brentford when Royalist troops advanced on Parliamentary forces in London in 1641, was later purchased by the Duke of Northumberland and demolished to extend Syon’s parkland. For more, see www.museumoflondon.org.uk.

• We couldn’t resist mentioning this one: Westminster City Council has released a top 10 list of the strangest objects people have dumped on London’s streets. They include an inflatable Margaret Thatcher and other inflatable dolls, wedding dresses, stuffed animals and a range of film props. The council say that, on average, enough litter is picked up off Westminster’s streets every two days to fill the entire 864 cubic metres of Marble Arch. They add that if just half of the annual waste collected off the street is recycled properly in the correct bins it would save them nearly £1million.

• On Now: Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands. The major summer exhibition at the British Library, it explores how the last 1,000 years of English literature have been shaped by the country’s places. The exhibition  features more than 150 works with highlights including John Lennon’s original lyrics for The Beatles’ song In My Life, JK Rowling’s handwritten draft of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, JRR Tolkein’s original artwork for The Hobbit and original manuscripts from the likes of Jane Austen, William Blake, Charlotte Bronte, Arthur Conan Doyle, JG Ballard and Charles Dickens. As part of the exhibition, the Library is inviting people to “Pin-a-Tale” on an interactive map of Britain, that is, take a literary work and pin it on the map along with a description of how the work links with that particular location – head to www.bl.uk/pin-a-tale to take part. The exhibition runs until 25th September. Admission fee applies. For more, see www.bl.uk.