London: The City

“IT’S AN odd thing how most tourists who go to London never actually visit it,” says City worker Patrick Johns. “Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus, the West End, Changing the Guard… these are all in the City of Westminster. Even Londoners consider the City of London a place apart.”

To understand London, you have to understand the City of London, the Square Mile near the Tower of London that is better known as the financial district. It is run by a Corporation, with its own Lord Mayor (not to be confused with the Mayor of London), of whom even the Queen has to ask permission to enter, although it is never refused. I enter from below, via the busy Underground station at Bank, but for centuries the only way in through the gates in the high city wall. That wall no longer stands, although you can see remnants, but a pair of silver dragons still marks every place where a gate once stood.

The dragon of St George is the symbol of the Corporation of London, which still pays for and maintains the five bridges in central London, including Tower Bridge. It runs its own school and the Guildhall School of Music, among many other entities within the boundaries of that former wall.

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Norman invader William the Conqueror started building the Tower of London in 1066, just inside the ancient Roman Wall, to keep an eye on the City. The Tower and St Paul’s Cathedral, both on its edge, are as close as most visitors come to exploring this original heart of London. That is partly because much of it once shut down outside the working week, something the City’s planners have been working hard to change.

Bank Station sits in the shadow of the Bank of England, and The Square Mile (it covers an area only slightly larger) was long associated with the image of a bowler-hatted banker hurrying to work across London Bridge, briefcase in one hand, furled umbrella in the other. Crowds of commuters from the suburbs still flow across the bridge every morning and ebb away at night but, while many more are now women and the attire a bit more varied, some distinct characteristics remain.

“There is a lack of children, elderly and infirm,” says Johns. “That does create a sense of detachment. Even the commute helps to create the feel of ‘somewhere else’. One disappears into the Underground in one world, the suburbs, and emerges to a look and feel that exists nowhere else.”

Entering the City across London Bridge is to walk in the footsteps of Londoners through the centuries. As London’s first bridge, this was the only entry point across the river from Roman times until Blackfriars was built in 1769. The utilitarian present design, replacing the one transplanted to the desert of Arizona, is a shadow of past constructions. Inside St Magnus the Martyr Church, which stands on the approach to the medieval bridge, an intricate scale model shows how the bridge was once lined with lively seven-storey houses and shops.

Those caught outside its gates at night could console themselves on the South Bank with entertainment that was banned inside the City walls: cockpits, bear baiting, brothels and theaters. That area is still an arts center, with the rebuilt Shakespeare’s Globe as its showpiece. So congested was London Bridge that a fire in 1212, having started at both ends, killed 3,000 people trapped in the middle. It could take an hour to cross and the Lord Mayor dictated in 1722 that all traffic had to keep left, as it still does on Britain’s roads, in much of its former empire – and on London’s escalators.

WHERE are all those commuters going? Most people would still say banks. “Every time the TV news has a story about banking or a financial crisis, they scan across the City skyline,” says Johns. “Yet none of those tall buildings are banks.” Lloyds of London is the world’s largest insurance marketplace. The Gherkin is occupied by one of the world’s largest insurance companies, Swiss Re(insurance). The Willis Building is home to the world’s third largest insurance broker. Insurance company Aon lease much of Richard Rogers’ “Cheese Grater” building on Leadenhall Street opposite his Lloyd’s building.

In short, the City is now dominated by the insurance industry, looking after our homes, cars and pensions. This sector contributes more than $18 billion in taxes and represents 26 per cent of the UK’s net worth. The main weight of banking has moved to Canary Wharf in the former docklands to the east, leaving several magnificent banking halls that have now become fine pubs, or high-ceilinged restaurants.

Once upon a time, the City was all about trade and the training of people doing those trades, coupled with import and export. “But then came the realization that the cargoes are not as important as the insurance and finance that underpins them,” says Welsh-born Peter Wynne Rees, who retired as City of London planning officer after 29 years. “In the 13th century, goldsmiths from Lombardy brought banking to London, to Lombard Street, which is still a time capsule of hanging signs from the days before most people could read.” Until the 1980s, the street held the head offices of most of the UK’s major banks but, symbolically, 1 Lombard Street is now a fine-dining restaurant.

The “Father of English Banking” was Sir Thomas Gresham, who served Henry VIII and was also Lord Mayor of London. Emerging from Bank tube, I look up to the roof of the Royal Exchange, which Gresham founded in 1565 as a place for businessmen to meet, opposite the Bank of England, to see the golden grasshopper weather vane from his coat of arms. Legend has it that the founder of the Gresham family, Sir Roger, was abandoned in long grass as a baby but the chirruping of grasshoppers brought a rescuer who adopted him. Present day London is full of these tangible links to the past.

“You can still find a flavor of the old City in the alleys off Cornhill, such as Bengal Court, Cowpers Court or Castle Court,” says London Blue Badge guide Mark King. “Fascinating places hidden there include The George & Vulture, still a traditional chop house today but linked to The Hellfire Club and to Charles Dickens. The men-only Pickwick Society meets there every December to remember him. There’s Simpsons Chop House, and the Jamaica Wine Shop built on the site of London’s first coffee house: Pasqua Rosée’s Head in 1652. Samuel Pepys was among its earliest patrons.”

Stockbrokers were soon banned from the Royal Exchange as they were too disruptive and moved to the coffee houses. Down the tiny Change (Exchange) Alley just across the road, I find a ceramic blue plaque marking the former Jonathan’s Coffee-House, founded in 1680. This was such a center for stock dealing that the first London Stock Exchange, built in 1773, was originally called New Jonathan’s. Many of the banks had also grown from pubs in these little alleyways.

“If you wanted to borrow money, you got an introduction to someone with lots who spent most of their time sitting in a pub somewhere in the City,” says Rees. “If he thought you were sensible, he would lend you some money and agree a rate of interest.” He suggests these roots are why so many of Britain’s bank logos resemble pub signs. Barclays started at the sign of the Spread Eagle, Lloyds Bank is the Black Horse. Insurance, like the stock exchange, also started in coffee shops (staff at Lloyds are still called “waiters”).

WE MIGHT bemoan the growth of Starbucks but by 1708 London had 3,000 coffee shops, their customers busy with the business of banking, stockbroking and insurance. Finance has proved the perfect business for an offshore island. But Rees, thinking in historical terms, takes nothing for granted. “Whatever we plan,” he says, “has to be flexible enough to cope with a future with or without banking. Many of the trades the City was once famous for have left. Fleet Street was the center of the printing trade but there are now no newspapers left there. The City was once the center of the fur trade. That’s gone.

“On the other hand, all the pubs in the City once closed at 8pm, now some bars are open to 4am,” he adds with a smile. That last is part of a goal to return to those days when people meeting in bars and coffee shops underpinned the City’s phenomenal growth. That’s why new developments such as the sleek One New Change opposite St Paul’s by cool French architect Jean Nouvel has retail space on its ground floor, including a $7million Gordon Ramsay brasserie. On its roof is a viewing gallery with views over the City that reveal how much is still unchanged despite the towering new developments. I can see Church spires and redbrick buildings standing their ground amid the maze of streets.

After an era when office buildings deterred the casual visitor with echoing atriums and mirrored glass, Rees pushed for a return to designs that provide space to relax, shop for groceries to take home at night, or share an evening meal. “The fashion for shopping malls is starting to wane,” he says. “In Cheapside we put back a good old-fashioned shopping street which also has Wren churches and historic buildings. You can come at weekends on public transport which is empty outside the working week, or park for free, as the City doesn’t charge then.”

The City is empty at weekends because only 11,500 people actually live in it, many of them in the brutalist Barbican, where one-bedroom apartments are now heading towards $1.5million. Holding Europe’s largest arts center, its name refers to its position near a former tower on London’s wall. At the Barbican’s fascinating Museum of London, which features such treasures as the Lord Mayor’s coach, a cell from Newgate Prison and an ornate sword the City presented to Admiral Nelson, I look out on a section of the Roman Wall.

Some other surprising remnants of Roman London also survive. Under the Guildhall Art Gallery, I see the part of the Amphitheatre, only discovered in 1988. The Temple of Mithras sits a short distance from the Bank of England. The most poignant reminder is a carved headstone near the base of the Gherkin marking the grave of a Roman girl, discovered while foundations were being excavated. She must have been an important figure to have been buried inside the walls and hence she was reinterred with proper Roman funeral rites once construction finished.

ROMAN LONDON was once burnt down by Queen Boudicea, whose statue stands opposite Big Ben, but London’s real Year Zero was the Great Fire of 1666, which left it a smoking ruin. Ambitious plans were drawn up by energetic court architect Sir Christopher Wren for a new city of wide avenues but the people moved back to their homes and rebuilt on the existing congested street plan: there was work to be done.

“London is a commercial city and immediately after the fire everyone’s only concern was to get it up and running as soon as possible,” says historian Dr David Starkey. “There was no time for grand vision or noble vistas – lovely though they would have been. But the City is always rebuilding – it is like a slow-motion film, rising and falling. The City depends as much on bust and destruction as it does on boom.”

The most famous structure to arise from the ruins was Wren’s St Paul’s Cathedral, one of 51 churches built to replace the 86 lost in the fire. St Paul’s was the center of church law, which was once the only law. It attracted scribes to write petitions for the illiterate and their permanent desks near the cathedral’s walls gave us the words “stationery” and “stationer’s”. The growth of the legal profession in this area led to young lawyers staying in inns nearby, and the so-called Inns of Court are another feature of City life.

Of the four Inns, Middle Temple and Inner Temple are “liberties” of the City, meaning they are within its boundaries but not subject to its jurisdiction. Secluded behind high walls and gates, they are actually open to the public. I walk in, mingling with the lawyers and barristers who wheel black cases carrying court papers, wig and gown. At the Old Bailey, which the Corporation also looks after, I sit in the public gallery to watch a court case unfold in slow, methodical detail.

Wren also built the Monument, a memorial to the Great Fire, its 61 meters of height being the distance from its base to the bakery in Pudding Lane where the fire started. Still the tallest freestanding stone column in the world, I climb its winding staircase of 311 steps to enjoy the panoramic view. It is hard to imagine the impact that seeing this gleaming white column rising out of a sea of black ash must have had in the 1670s.

“It is self-consciously monumental,” says Starkey. “It is a deliberate statement of the new commercial grandeur of the City: the biggest, richest city in Western Europe.” He suggests the modern equivalent of the Monument is the rash of towers at Canary Wharf. “It’s a case of ‘My column is bigger than your column’. It’s like medieval cathedrals – bishop competing with bishop, now it’s bankers.”

REES IS NOT A FAN of tall buildings for their own sake. ”There’s only one reason for building tall,” he says. “It’s when you run out of space. Dubai may have the world’s tallest building but people in the future will look at it in the same way we look at the Pyramids and wonder what it was for.”

He is more interested in those spaces around and between buildings and recreating the alleyways of old. He points out that 90 percent of all journeys in the City are made on foot. One of his proudest achievements was demanding that a sleek new building at 100 Wood Street by architect Sir Norman Foster incorporate a curving frontage to preserve an ancient tree. It is all about keeping the City human.

“To the outsider, the City is busy, brusque and anonymous,” says Johns. “To the time-serving city professional, it is much more layered. At times it feels more like a village. Famous landmarks become offices you visit, faces become familiar colleagues, ex-colleagues, clients, service providers and friends. The longer you work in the City, the more it becomes a small and intimate place.” Wander the City’s alleyways and you stumble on quiet corners that seem more like a small village than a major world city. Then eat in lunchtime City haunts such as Leadenhall Market or take a drink in one of the many pubs during the working week and you can see this bonhomie as office workers gather to socialize.

Rees recognized that financial dealing is no longer conducted in pubs and coffee shops; the sums involved and the risks are much too high. “The pub crawl has been replaced by the audit trail,” says Johns. But for a new generation of creatives, where ideas are the currency, such venues may be just as important as they once were to the financiers. Sitting in a City coffee shop, you can still make connections but, with free wi-fi and a laptop, it now might be with someone on the other side of the globe. And, as the energy flows around the world, the City hopes for a share of the action.

“The City has a pulse of its own,” says Johns. “Constant, determined and focused. Many who leave yearn to return. Yet who would be fooled by their place in this buzzing hive of financial activity? No one who leaves causes a missed beat.” Pubs have become banks. Banks have become pubs. The City changes, yet somehow remains the same.


Published by Kieran

Travel writer

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