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Fire of London and The Blitz on our Walks

Monday, September 28th, 2009

2,000 years ago the Roman’s established a trading port on the banks of the River Thames at a point where the river could be bridged.

Ever since then, that port, which they called Londinium and we call London, has been a major trading city. We have several London walks that explore the streets of the city tracing it from its Roman origins to the present day.

London’s history has not always run smoothly. Almost from its beginnings it has faced down triumph and disaster. In AD60 the Iceni Queen, led a revolt that almost saw the end of Roman occupation in England.

Leading a swarming army of angry tribes folk she swept into London, fired its buildings, and slaughtered in the region of 70,000 Romano-Londoners.

To this day, about 18 feet below the current street level there is a level of red ash, known to archaeologists as the Boudica layer, that remembers this first major disaster in London’s history.

It seems also that at some stage in the 120′s the city was again destroyed by fire.

The Romans departed these shores between AD407 and AD410 and since their departure London has seen many fires. The two most notable were in 1666, when the Great Fire of London destroyed the medieval City of London (we actually do this on our Great Fire of London walk) and again in the 1940′s when the bombs of the London Blitz razed the City once more.

This latter destruction is covered in great detail on our Blitz London walks, which tells the story of how, between September 1940 and May 1941, the bombs rained down as the Nazis tried to obliterate the financial powerhouse of the British war effort, demoralize the the population and destroy the historical centre of London. A huge amount of damage was inflicted on the City, thousands were killed and thousands more made homeless.

But the spirit of London stood firm. “London can take it” was the can do attitude that the people adopted and, spurred on by their great wartime leader Winston Churchill, London did indeed take it.

After the war, with much of the City a wasteland of destruction, London did what it has always done when faced with fire. It rose from the ashes, stronger and more vibrant. But, as happened so many times in it past, little pockets of the old city were left and still survive today, sometimes hidden away behind the new gleaming offices of the 21st century financial hub that the City of London has become.

This is the City that our London walks set out to explore and on our tours you can see Roman remains, medieval walls, ancient street patterns and lovely old churches, some in ruin, some still standing proud.

And on every street to the left of the street name you will see the coat of arms of the City of London, the emblem of  the white shield with the red cross of St George. In its top left corner the short sword of St Paul, the patron saint of the City of London and the City’s motto emblazoned beneath it Dios Dirige Nos – O Lord Guide Us.

So why not join us on one of our London walks that explores this historic heart of the city where 2,000 years of fascinating history are just waiting to be discovered and uncovered.

Exploring Wren’s London on Our Walks

Monday, September 14th, 2009

In our earlier blog we looked at how many of the streets we see on our London walks were the work of one of London’s most prolific architects, Sir Christopher Wren.

Wren’s opportunity to transform the London skyline came about in September 1666 when the Great Fire of London destroyed virtually all the medieval City.

With the embers of the fire still smouldering, Sir Christopher Wren approached King Charles 11 and presented him with a comprehensive plan to rebuild the City on a grid-pattern that would consist of spacious streets, squares and elegant piazzas.

In truth, since the plan ignored the property rights of all those who had lost buildings in the Great Fire of London it had little chance of ever becoming a reality.

What it did do, however, was persuade the king that this enthusiastic young man was just the person to supervise those parts of the necessary rebuilding that could be undertaken by the Crown and the public authorities.

Wren was, therefore, made one of the three Royal Commissioners for the rebuilding and was employed almost continuously from then until his retirement in 1718.

You can see evidence of his genius on so many of our London walks. From the mighty splendour of St Paul’s Cathedral, to the graceful simplicity of his lesser known churches such as St Anne and St Agnes in Gresham Street.

According to the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, commenting on Wren’s achievement in 1932, ” There is no finer monument to his genius than the character that he gave London…”

Indeed, as Wren himself observed “architecture aims at eternity” and his vision is still apparent to us today as we make our way around the streets of the City on our London walks.

He designed 51 City Churches, four Royal palaces, Royal Hospitals at Chelsea and Greenwich, not to mention numerous minor commissions both within and without London.

When he died in 1723 at the ripe old age of 91 he had transformed London and was, fittingly buried in the crypt of his greatest achievement, St. Paul’s Cathedral beneath a simple black slab that urges “If you require a monument look about you..”

Those who join us on our City of London walks will see that it is not just a reference to St Paul’s Cathedral but to his graceful church towers that still dot the London skyline.

Christchurch Rebuilt – more London walks

Sunday, September 13th, 2009

Over the past few days we have been looking at a church that features on several of our London walks Christchurch Newgate Street, also known as Christchurch Greyfriars. Yesterday, we left it a smoke blackened ruin which had been destroyed by the Great Fire of London in 1666.

Today, we look at how it was rebuilt by the great architect Sir Christopher Wren, a figure who looms large on many of our London walks.

As the rebuilding of London began in the aftermath of the Great Fire of London. Christ’s Hospital School was rebuilt, and Sir Christopher Wren commenced work on the rebuilding of Christchurch between 1667 and 1687.

The rebuilt church was the most expensive of all his London churches (many of which are featured on our Sir Christopher Wren London walk) and cost the, for those times, astronomical sum of  £11, 778 9 shillings and 6 pence. It was a very wide church with huge sloping galleries for the pupils from Christchurch to sit in during services. The galleries,  so it is said, were designed thus to enable the Master to keep an eye on his charges during the services.

The Tower itself was built in stages and wasn’t actually fully completed until 1704.

By the 1930′s the church was surrounded by buildings of the post office. Then, on the night of 29th December 1940, the church was again destroyed by the bombs of the Blitz. As it blazed two postmen from the nearby post office raced into the furnace and managed to rescue the intricately carved font cover, which had been the work of Sir Christopher Wren’s master wood carver Grinling Gibbons. This now resides inside the nearby city church of St Sepulchre’s, which we cover on our Historic City of London walks.

After the war the Corporation of London wished to widen the curve at the junction of Newgate Street and thus the eastern wall of the churches was pulled down it position marked by a series of large concrete blocks at the side of the road.

In 2005 Kate Renwick, an Irish-American lady, purchased the Tower and converted it into a magnificent 11 floor family home.

The Blitz in London Continued.

Tuesday, August 11th, 2009

Our report on the night of the 29th December when London was devastated as the Blitz got underway continues. Our London walks blog yesterday ended with the area around St. Paul’s Cathedral going up in flames.

Before the war Paternoster Row had been the centre of the publishing trade in England.

Indeed, back in the Great Fire of London in 1666, when Paternoster Row was burned down for the first time, 500,000 books went up in smoke.

On this evening in December 1940 fifteen million volumes were to make a similar exit. The offices and stores of twenty-seven publishing firms were destroyed.

The employees of the publishing firms were members of St Paul’s fire watch, running on ropes around the cathedral dome hacking out IBs as their own workplaces burned down across the street.

After this night, publishing moved out, mainly to the Bloomsbury area around the British Museum, and has never returned.

By 6.30pm, fire-watchers on St Paul’s were reporting ‘fires out of control’ in the buildings without fire-watchers in the area.

By 6.30pm New Change opposite St Paul’s was a continuous blaze. Carter Lane (covered on our Dickens London walks) to the south of the cathedral was an inferno, and on the cathedral itself the fire-watchers were now using wet sacks to put out flying sparks landing from other conflagrations.

At 6.39pm St Paul’s Fire Watch phoned Cannon Street Fire Station to report that the dome was on fire. This was true but turned out to be no real threat. An IB had punched into the lead of the dome and was blazing away.

The blaze lit up the whole dome and shone through the windows at the base of the drum. The IB was only partially embedded in the lead and its own heat melted the lead, causing it to fall to the floor of the Stone Gallery where it burned on harmlessly.

It was this bomb that gave rise to Ed Morrows’ CBS broadcast to America that night.

Morrow was watching the bombing from the roof of the Press Association building in Fleet Street, and, as was his habit, was holding his microphone aloft to catch the sound of the bombs as they fell around him, conveying a vivid impression to his listeners back home in the States.

Morrow said, ‘And the church that meant most to Londoners is now gone. St Paul’s Cathedral, built by Sir Christopher Wren, her great dome towering over the capital of the Empire, is burning to the ground as I talk to you’. Morrow was understandably wrong.

At the same time Prime Minister Winston Churchill had sent out an order to the London Fire Brigade: ‘At all costs save St Paul’s’. Divisional Officer Cyril Demarne responded, ‘He didn’t need to tell us that’.

Our London walks and the Blitz blog will continue tomorrow.