Secret London: scratching beneath the surface

“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” – Samuel Johnson

The quotation above is in danger of becoming tired itself it is so often repeated. But, as with many clichés, it has gained its status by being so accurate.

I am perhaps not well-travelled enough to be justified in making such a bold statement, but I believe London is the most incredible city in the world. It would be difficult to claim that it was the most beautiful city in the world, it is obviously not even close to being the oldest (Jericho and Damascus tend to be rivals for that title), and nor do I think it is the friendliest place to be, but its diverse richness of culture and history make it the most interesting place to live. Also:

  • London is the largest, and most populous, urban zone in Europe
  • Over 300 languages are spoken by people living in London
  • The London metropolitan area generates around 30% of the UK’s total GDP
  • London is not actually ‘one’ city, but an urbanised area containing the City of London and the City of Westminster. The old ‘City of London’, which is now largely the financial centre, gave its name to rest of the sprawling mass officially called ‘Greater London’.

But most people know all of this. Everyone also knows about Big Ben (even if they do confuse the name of the Bell with the Westminster Clock Tower itself), Buckingham Palace, and the dreadful Leicester Square (can anyone tell me the point of Leicester square other than as a place to stage film premières?). But there is much of London that remains hidden and unknown, even to many of us who have lived here for years.

It is this ‘secret’ London that I intend to occasionally uncover through photography. There is no time like the present, so here are some photo-trivia to get us started…

The City Walls

There was almost certainly settlement activity around London’s part of the Thames long before the Romans (in fact recent archaeological finds suggest there was a bridge across the Thames in 1500BC(!), but the first significant settlement that we know of was built by the good old Romans in 43AD (only 10 years after they had crucified a rather well-known Jewish carpenter at the other end of their empire).

As we know from other parts of the country, the Romans liked to build walls to stop the baddies (or locals as we might call them) from getting in.

The old Roman walls have largely been built over, or incorporated into, the foundations of newer walls and so can’t be seen, but the Blitz exposed some of these ancient structures. In the photos above (from left to right) you can see the archaeological site with WWII-ruined Victorian walls on top of the old Roman walls [digression: you can also see one of the Barbican towers in the distance and the modern building on the right is my former office]. In the middle you can see the stone outline of a fort built into the city wall. Finally, there is a close-up showing clearly how Victorian brick was built directly on top of the old Roman walls.

London’s burning

Only 17 years after Londinium was settled by the Romans, one of those locals/natives/baddies, Boudica the queen of the Iceni (sometimes called Boadicea), got a bit stroppy and burned the whole place to the ground. The Romans didn’t give up though and re-built it with some bigger walls (like the ones shown in my photos) to deter such unpleasantness. The fire was so comprehensive and destructive, that archaeologists still use the layer of ash in the earth as an accurate date-line.

This was not the only time London was to burn. Under the great wall-builder, Emperor Hadrian, the city was almost completely wiped out again (122AD). There were big fires in 675, 982 and 989 under the Saxons. In 1087 under William II another huge fire destroyed the original St Paul’s Cathedral amongst other things. In 1135 and 1212 there were two more enormous fires which are believed to have killed thousands of Londoners who, nevertheless, continued to live crammed in to rickety wooden houses until the ‘Great Fire of London’ in 1666.

Immediately after the Great Fire of London, some poor mad French chap foolishly confessed to starting the fire. He was promptly executed before people worked out that he wasn’t even in London when the fire started. Astronomers and Catholics also got blamed for the causes (in a karmic, rather than literal, way) of the fire until the City elders decided that the sin of gluttony was to blame. To make their point, they put up this chubby little golden chappy below on the corner of the aptly named Cock Lane:

As nearly everyone knows, London didn’t burn so comprehensively again until the Germans dropped firebombs on London in the Blitz of the Second World War. What a lot of people don’t know is that, if you look carefully enough, the scars of war are still present in London 70 years later:

On the ruined Christ Church at Greyfriars (left), you can still see the scorch marks after the church took a direct hit from a bomb in 1940. On the right are two examples of many shrapnel holes in St Bart’s hospital after bombs fell nearby.

Thanks for reading! I promise to make future updates on ‘London’s Secrets’ more about the photos and less about me babbling on. I think I got a little overexcited with all the history. I am going to have a little lie down now.

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