London’s ‘Square Mile’, the city within the city, is the oldest part of London. It consists of the original Roman settlement up to London of the Middle Ages, the original Medieval layout of the old city remaining almost unchanged to this day. It was in this part of the city that famous architects such as Christopher Wren envisioned remodeling the City after the Great Fire of London in 1666.
Today the City is the world’s leading global financial center, but to me it shall always be the art historical center of London.
If you care to take a walk down London’s historic center, I would suggest starting at the Aldwych end of Fleet Street. Here you can visit the Knights Templar Temple Church and the Prince Henry Rooms, one of the few buildings to have survived the Great Fire of London.
Cross the road and on your left is St. Dunstan in the West, one of the City’s oldest churches having been built in the 10th century. The church that stands here today is a remodeled 19th century version of the original medieval church. Surviving Historical features include the 17th century clock with figures representing Gog and Magog, the ancient guardians of London. Surviving also is a 16th century sculpture of Queen Elizabeth I, the only standing outdoor sculpture of the queen. This little gem is definitely worth a visit.
St. Dunstan in the West, Fleet Street
The only surviving outdoor sculpture of Queen Elizabeth I – St. Dunstan in the West
As you walk up Fleet Street, stick to the left of the road and you’ll pass Sweeny Todd’s barber shop, where he cut the throats of helpless victims in order to give the bodies to his lover who then made meat pies out of the meat. Nice.
Look up and you shall come face to face with Sir Christopher Wren’s masterpiece, St. Paul’s Cathedral.
St. Paul’s and its Catholic dome
Christopher Wren was raised in medieval London, he would have been used to the chaos of the ancient layout of the City. A lover or mathematics, harmony and architecture, Wren studied astronomy at Cambridge University. After the Great Fire, he was commissioned to produce a new plan for London, one that would have put London at the center of European culture. Wren’s works were never realized, though the original ground plans can still be seen today. However, many of his churches, including St. Paul’s were commissioned. There were people who despised Wren for his rather Catholic looking masterpiece, though this was the people’s church and in a time of religious reform Wren won the hearts of the public with this harmoniously Classical work of art.
Close to St. Paul’s Cathedral is the famous Monument, which marks the spot of the beginning of the Fire of London. It is believed that the fire began at a bakery on Pudding Lane. Much of medieval London was destroyed, which gave way to the development of a more modern and forward thinking City. From then on, buildings were no longer allowed to be built in wood.
Today visitors can climb all the way to the top of The Monument for a fantastic view of London.
My favorite part of the Square Mile, which most people don’t know about (shhh it’s a secret), is the historically rich church of All Hallow’s by the Tower. Situated meters away from the Tower of London, this little beauty of a church houses centuries of London history dating back to the Roman settlement.
Founded in the 7th century this is London’s oldest church. All Hallow’s features an original Saxon arch which was constructed using recycled Roman building material. An early Roman settlement (with surviving Roman mosaics) can be seen in the crypt, which also houses the church’s museum. It is said that Richard I’s heart is buried somewhere within the church walls, the church also later gained royal connections due to it’s proximity to the Tower of London. It was rebuilt, enlarged and modified over centuries and survived the Fire of London. Samuel Pepys is famously said to have climbed the tower in order to watch the destruction of London during the Great Fire. It was bombed during the war though its original outer walls thankfully survived.
With such a rich history (of which I have merely brushed over the surface) how could you possibly miss such a spectacle of London history? If you are visiting the Tower of London, be sure to stop off at All Hallow’s on your way in or out. The church staff are knowledgeable and friendly and are happy to guide you around the church on a free tour.
All Hallow’s by the Tower
Layers of history as you walk up the nave
So, start at Temple (nearest tube station: Temple) and make your way down the City, peeling through layers of London history on your way. Enjoy!