London walks: The money trail
From Chancery Lane to Fleet Street, a circular tour around the City of London boundary
Duration: 3 hours
By Stephen Emms
The City of London: not just a mere borough, but the smallest UK county (since 1132), the second smallest British city in population and size (after St David’s in Wales) and the richest square mile in the world.
But why walk perimeters at all? Isn’t it a bit recessionista, the whim of the cash-pressed flâneur, the indulgent appreciation of hard architecture with soft ideas – what Hitchcock would term a MacGuffin? Only one way to find out. On an icy Saturday morning we start the six-mile walk at a north-west corner of the City: Chancery Lane (S).
View The money trail walk in a larger map
Sunrays pierce the windows of office blocks, and pillows of cloud shadow our steps as we pass Smithfield Market (1), named after the ‘Smooth Field’ outside the city walls. In a nod to its infamy as former site of execution, a butcher flashes a smile, cleaver in hand, while across the road, couples swish past to brunch, broadsheets under one arm.
The Barbican tower
Built between 1965 and 1976, the Barbican tower (2) looms above Farringdon like a dirty fishbone, and we’re soon pattering around its adjoining forest of concrete, the City’s largest residential area (4,000 people in 2,000 flats). Lesser known is Golden Lane Estate (3), to the north, built earlier by the same architects (Chamberlin, Powell and Bon), with striking panels in primary colours. And along the shops, we smile at the Barbie-like pink font of Barbican Greengrocers.
Yet it’s all so silent. If, in the countryside, silence is the sound of rest, or isolation, in the city it possesses an ambiguous quality, and the empty streets around Moorgate (4) provoke eerie, other-worldly thoughts about the layers of dead beneath our feet, the plagues, bombs, tube crashes, fires (the Great Fire of 1666 destroyed four-fifths of the City). In the depths of recession, all this seems to underline our transience.
The north-eastern tip of the perimeter brushes against Hackney. We stroll down the brief Norton Folgate, where playwright Christopher Marlowe lived in 1589, and on to Bishopsgate (5), the beauty of Hawksmoor’s Christ Church (6) rising in the far corner of Spitalfields, just beyond our boundary. (All the while Liverpool Street station (7) yawns on our right.)
‘There’s a real sense of the old City wall,’ says my partner Russell, as we snake around Middlesex Street, Widegate Street, Goodman’s Yard. London Wall was built by the Romans in the late second century but has largely disappeared, while the current boundary has expanded over the years. Near the Tower of London (8) (itself in the borough of Tower Hamlets) we spy two surviving sections (the others are near the Museum of London and St Alphage).
The City’s boundary runs bang down the centre of the river, though it controls both Blackfriars and London bridges, so we race over to find the black bollards with trademark dragon insignia that mark its southern tip. On London Bridge (9), families with pushchairs survey the saturnine view and, as clouds sail above the water like steamships, I imagine the Monday morning rush hour, observed by TS Eliot so clearly in ‘The Waste Land’:
'A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, I had not thought death had undone so many. Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled, And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.'
Oscar Wilde was blunter still: ‘To me the life of the businessman who… catches a train for the city… is worse than the life of the galley slave. His chains are golden instead of iron.’
We make one diversion away from the perimeter up to the City’s only Hawksmoor church, the elegant St Mary Woolnoth (10), built in 1716 from the proceeds of coal tax. As trains rumble deep into the clay beneath its foundations, we admire its belfry, rising up like the prow of a boat.
At the western boundary (with Westminster) two wonderful dragons (11) stand on either side of the Embankment, defiant against a sudden blue sky. A bronze plaque informs us that they represent a ‘constituent part of the armorial bearings of the City of London’ and were mounted above the entrance of the old coal exchange, demolished in 1963. Even more ornate is the entrance at Temple Bar on Fleet Street (12). We’re back at Chancery Lane three hours after we started, and about to dive into the cavernous Cittie of Yorke pub. I glance over at the cranes perched like question marks over the City’s future prosperity. As Iain Sinclair argues in ‘London Orbital’, ‘gradually, landscape induces confidences’. For that reason alone, our quest must continue.