The City of London is a very different place to London the city, it’s a city within a city. A real city, not a royal enclave like Beijing’s Forbidden City. This is where global finance gathers to do business; where people from all over the world come to work in the financial markets. A commercial hub for a thousand years, it is the most ancient and historic part of London. Here is a wealth of Guild churches, some dating from the 12th Century, built with the profits from global trade. God and money go hand-in-hand in the City.
The City of London is the ancient heart of the sprawling mass that London has become. The one-time centre of global commerce, where goods from all over the world were traded, and where extreme poverty rubbed shoulders with extreme wealth. From Roman times, the City was founded on the north bank of the River Thames, and flourished. Scratch the surface, and chances are you’ll uncover many layers of history.
It was the City, and the poverty-ridden East London slums that were attached to it, which Charles Dickens brought so vividly to life. Where there was wealth, there was corruption, moral and physical. Oliver Twist is set amidst a sea of filth, disease, crime and prostitution. While some lived a hand-to-mouth existence, and the vicious regime of the workhouse sucked the life out of the poor, others lived in opulence.
Things haven’t changed much, the filth has gone, but poverty and crime remain. Judging by the number of ‘Call Girl’ flyers in the phone boxes, so too does prostitution. In Dickens’ day it was Fagin and his gang of talented pickpockets; today it is international finance, and its gang of voracious and mercenary bankers and hedge fund managers. The crime is white collar, the pockets picked, much deeper.
Living on the fringe of the City, I’ve spent a lot of idle hours wandering its fascinating streets and alleys. Walking routes familiar from literature, passing churches and public houses that are hundreds of years old, is best done at weekends when the streets are free of suits. Much more recently, the City has been transformed by monstrously sized, steel and glass corporate Towers of Babylon. Built not to speak to God, but to communicate corporate power.
Buildings in the City have always been constructed with an eye to the power and influence of trade and commerce. Almost all the churches here are home to trade guilds, built to the glory of a God, who was clearly a big fan of international commerce. These wonderful buildings still have the power to impress today, yet they seem almost naive set against the giant structures currently being built. The inhuman scale of the Shard, Gherkin and Cheese Grater, while wildly dramatic and strangely beautiful, is a reminder of the cult of money and power.
The contrast, between the old and the startlingly new, has been played out in London many times. The constant renewal and reinvention fascinates me. For seven years I daily walked past the construction site of the Shard. First it was a giant hole. Then the metal frame was built and the glass exterior bolted on. The building progressed until, finally, it towered over the streets below and dominated the skyline.
The Shard is in Southwark, south of London Bridge, but the history of Southwark and the City are intertwined. On the other side of London Bridge, stands the Monument, a marble tower topped with a bronze sculpture, commemorating the Great Fire of London, 1666, which destroyed 87 of the City’s 109 churches. The climb to the top is up a cramped spiral stairway, before you come to a platform offering terrific views; well it would, were it not for the buildings which now overshadow it.
A short distance away, the Walkie Talkie is being constructed. Unintentionally, its concave shape acts like a giant magnifying glass, concentrating the sun’s rays and beaming them onto the street below with enough power to melt plastic. It casts its shadow over several medieval churches, including the Guild Church of St. Margaret Pattens, which sits up an alleyway off Eastcheap. The current church was built by Christopher Wren between 1684 and 1687, but the earliest recorded church on this site dates from 1067.
The church is dedicated to St. Margaret of Antioch, a Christian convert persecuted by the Romans. The name ‘Pattens’ comes from a local industry of wooden shoes mounted on an iron ring. They were worn beneath traditional shoes to keep them clean on London’s muddy streets. The Worshipful Company of Pattenmakers has been associated with the church for six hundred years. The Worshipful Company of Basketmakers is also strongly associated with St. Margaret’s.
As I wandered the streets I came across a monument to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, set in the grounds of a former church, St. Gabriel’s Fenchurch. Its hard not to dwell on the great wealth many of the worshippers in these churches acquired from their active participation in the slave trade. Indeed, its hard not to reflect on the role Christianity played in justifying the slave trade. I imagine not many of the sandwich-munching city workers were giving it much thought the day I was there. Still, surprises like this are what make a walk through the City worthwhile.
The way history, and historical places, rub up against the ever changing cityscape of London is one of its most remarkable features. It could be seen as callous disregard for the past – not improbable in a place where people seem only to care about profit. In reality, the contrast between old and new adds a dynamism to the City of London which suits it.