Evidence suggests that London was founded before the Romans conquered Britain in 43 CE but, in any case, they developed a major walled settlement that became the capital of Roman Brittania; and up to the 18th century the majority of the population lived within the city’s walls. From the 1800s onwards, London expanded rapidly in all directions, carrying most of the City’s population with it and leaving the area a predominantly commercial district and the country’s financial capital.
Along with the depopulation of the City and subsequent conversion of many residential areas, two major events in particular during the City’s history have caused distinctive changes to the appearance of the district today; they are the Great Fire of London in 1666 and the German bombing campaigns of World War II. During both these periods, large sections of the City were devastated.
We start our walk in the heart of the City. On leaving the Underground station, we find ourselves at Bank junction, dominated by the pillared 19th century Royal Exchange and the imposing and austere Bank of England.
The Royal Exchange was founded in 1565 by Sir Thomas Gresham as a commercial centre for medieval London. His crest – the grasshopper – can be seen acting as weathervane on the clock tower at the rear of the building.
Facing the Royal Exchange the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street, as the Bank has been nicknamed since at least the 19th century, is responsible for setting UK interest rates and maintaining the country’s financial stability. On a weekday, here and indeed the entire Square Mile, as the City is also known, will be packed with office workers: hundreds of thousands work within the City’s boundary, most of whom will have commuted in from elsewhere. By contrast, less than 10,000 people actually reside within the area and at the weekend the place can feel eerily deserted.
From here we pass the 18th century Mansion House, the official residence of the Lord Mayor of London (a ceremonial post and not to be confused with London’s city mayor). Heading south-east, St Stephen Walbrook is one of the fifty one churches Wren built in the City; and particularly interesting for its dome and interior, which is based upon Wren’s original and unbuilt design for St Paul’s Cathedral and well worth a visit if open.
Returning to Queen Victoria Street, we reach the Albert buildings. Built in 1869, it is notable for being one of the few surviving buildings that originally lined this street. Queen Victoria Street is one of the Victorian London’s “improvement” schemes: the improvement to the Victorians’ eye being the demolition and clearance of the local neighbourhood’s slums and dilapidated housing. If we look west from here, we can get a glimpse of St Paul’s Cathedral, designed by Sir Christopher Wren to replace its burnt out predecessor in the Great Fire of London.
Leaving its exploration to another walk, we now head away from St Paul’s and back towards the site of the London Stone, a block of limestone whose existence has been recorded since around 1100 and is said to have been used as a marker by the Romans from which to measure road distances during their occupation. From the London Stone, our path heads south towards the river: we pass Laurence Pountney Hill, which contains some fine and rare examples of early 18th century houses, and the Victorian riverside towers of the original Cannon Street station.
London Bridge marks the site of the oldest river crossing in London and is the location of arguably the first, albeit quite short to the modern eye, skyscraper in London: Adelaide House. From here, it is only a short distance to the Monument to the Great Fire of London. It commemorates the inferno which broke out on September 2 1666 and is presumed to have started in a bakers nearby in Pudding Lane. By the time it was finally extinguished three days later most of the medieval City of London had been consumed by the flames, including the homes of an estimated 90% of the City’s residents. Original plans to rebuild the City involved the construction of grand boulevards in a style similar to Paris. However, in typical Anglo-Saxon fashion, the haggling of property rights took precedence and this never happened: the streets maintained their medieval layout as, mostly, they still do today.
The next stage of our tour takes us past the most modern parts of the City. We head first to 20 Fenchurch Street – also known by the moniker of the Walkie-Talkie. From the free ‘sky garden’ on the top floor (remember to book in advance) one can see superb views across London. A short distance north lies one of the oldest markets in London. Leadenhall Market has existed since the 14th century and marks the centre of Roman London. Underneath the decorated 19th century rooves and cobbled floor lie the remains of the 2nd century roman basilica, the civic centre of Roman London.
On the edge of market is the Lloyd’s building, regarded as one of most influential buildings in late 20th century architecture, and the home of London’s huge insurance business. Opposing it on Leadenhall Street is the Leadenhall Building, nicknamed the Cheesegrater, while opposite on Lime Street is the Scalpel: one of the latest additions to the City's skyline. Continuing, we reach the tower of 30 St Mary Axe, colloquially (and self-evidently) called the Gherkin and since its construction an iconic building in London. Our route then takes us to the 46 storey Heron Tower, which is currently the tallest tower in the City, and to Tower 42 which although being the first tower built in the area’s boundaries in the 1970s still remains today the second-tallest.
As you may now have realised, nearly all of the City’s towers reside in a relatively small area and adopt a range of distinctive shapes. The reason for this is a prosaic result of conservation and planning laws. Many parts of the City was heavily damaged by German bombing raids during World War II and in the decades that followed the surviving buildings were given progressively more protection from demolition and major alteration. Additionally, even before the war the areas just around St Paul’s Cathedral in the west of the Square Mile were subject to building height restrictions. After its conclusion, both the cathedral and the Monument were given more protection in the form of Protected views, whereby there must exist clear lines-of-sight to both from specific places in the London suburbs. As a result, only a small section of the district can accommodate high towers and erected structures must often adopt unusual profiles so as to not infringe these protected views.
The Guildhall dates to 1411 when it was a medieval great hall; it still boasts its original entrance. The site’s use for public gatherings far predates this however: the largest Roman amphitheatre in the country was here, later followed by a Saxon hall (speculated as being a “Gild-hall”, where the citizens would pay their taxes). The remains of the Roman amphitheatre can be seen in the basement of the adjoining Guildhall Art Gallery and its imprint can be traced in the black circle marked on the courtyard’s paving. Nowadays, the Guildhall and its associated office buildings are used as the administrative and ceremonial centre for the City of London.
Heading west, we approach Goldsmith’s Hall, the headquarters of the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths, one of the livery companies in the City of London. There are 110 livery companies in the City, granted their title by Royal Charter and so-called after the formal dress or livery associated with a specific trade or craft. The companies developed from the medieval trade guilds, which regulated and controlled the practice of different crafts in the City and behaved as proto-modern combinations of trade unions and cartels. Today, especially for those such as the Girdlers (or belt makers) whose trades have died out, they mainly support the work of the City of London’s governmental administration. However, new livery companies continue to be formed in the modern age and represent trades undreamt of in medieval times: for example, the Worshipful Company of Management Consultants.
A short distance from Goldsmith’s Hall lies a surviving section of London’s city wall on Noble Street, first built around the 2nd or 3rd Century and rediscovered due to German bombing in 1940. The wall also traces the edge of the Roman’s large London fort.
The final stage on our tour is the Barbican Estate, a large residential estate built in the 1960s and 1970s on an area also devastated by bombing in World War II. The estate is home to approximately 2,000 flats, as well as other public buildings, the most of notable of which is the Barbican Centre, a major performing arts centre and the largest of its type in Europe. The visual attractiveness of the estate has always divided opinion but nevertheless it is regarded one of London’s foremost examples of concrete brutalist architecture.
We’ve reached the end of our tour, and it’s a short stroll through the Barbican’s raised walkways to Barbican Underground Station.