Stuart era London has long been a fascination of mine; it was a time of real change for the city and one which is still fairly evident today. Seeing as 2016 marks 350 years I decided that I would try and trace the path of the ultimate force for change in early modern London, The Great Fire.
Fire seems to me to be an endless source of human curiosity, since the first human creation of fire it has always played a prominent and somewhat sketchy role in civilized society, whether it be in its practical application, for cooking or heating a home, or as a weapon or punishment.
I think it is important to remember just how much of London’s landscape and history has been shaped by the power of fire. Beginning with the Iceni tribe’s razing of ‘Londinium’ by fire and bloodshed, this history is physically burnt into the soil of London and has been effectively used as evidence for archaeologists. (Wallace,2014, pp.22-24)
The city’s subsequent rebirth as a metropolitan outpost of the Roman empire is just the first in a long line of fires where a new city has risen from the ashes of the former.
When I investigated the fire I discovered that the city of London had been regularly plagued by fires throughout history and so this created a foundation for me to build on. Interestingly enough, many of the fires all started in the same area and so tracing their path would not be difficult.
I was intrigued by the various accounts from prominent diarists of the time, mainly the accounts of John Evelyn and Samuel Pepys. The pair gave such richly detailed accounts of their experience during the events that with some planning it was possible to trace a path that followed in the footsteps that the pair themselves tread. I used Pepys’ work as my foundation and used Evelyn’s work as a way of gaining a different perspective on the events.
My starting point would be Southwark Cathedral, on the south bank of the Thames and a gateway into the city from London Bridge, where John Evelyn first reports seeing the fire breaking out (Interestingly this was where the Great Fire of 1212 began.) When you are on the bridge in the middle of the crowds of tourists you get a sense of how terrifying it must have been to be trapped on there with no escape from the inferno, or in Evelyn’s case, trapped there whilst you watch your city burn.
Seeing as I was starting at a cathedral, I thought I would end at a church too. They ended up being something I kept going back to all along the walk.
The city of London is a constantly changing landscape and the fire in 1666 wiped away much of the medieval landscape of the old city, I was interested to see what remained from before the fire as well as what remained from the city that was rebuilt immediately post fire. There were many churches that survived the fire or were rebuilt shortly after.
Several of the buildings I visited were rebuilt by the architect Christopher Wren, this to me seemed significant as his work epitomizes the look of much of what remains today of early modern London, from the smallest building to St Paul’s Cathedral. The final stop of my journey was the church of St. Ethelreda’s in Ely Place. This is because it marks one the boundaries of the fires reach.
At Southwark Cathedral, I lit a candle, and I planned to light one to mark the end of my journey also. It seemed fitting on the anniversary year of the fire that this action is often associated with the act of remembrance, but also served as a morbid reminder of the path of destruction that flames as small as these brought upon London.
I crossed over London bridge and walked along the bank of the Thames using the Thames pathway route until I reached Tower Bridge. I was struck by how quiet it was compared to Borough Market and Southwark Cathedral where I had just visited. Other than a couple of fellow walkers and a few pigeons there was very few people about. This is the same area which Pepys describes during the Great Plague in 1665 : “Thence I walked to the Tower; but, Lord! how empty the streets are and melancholy”
It seemed oddly similar to my own experience,though thankfully there was less plague this time around.
When I arrived at Tower Hill I was suddenly thrust from the quiet pathway into the hustle and bustle of London’s tourist epicentre. This is one of the first places Pepys mentions visiting when the fire broke out, it was interesting to me that the flames never penetrated the walls of the tower, and that it stood strong whilst London burned .
I didn’t stop long outside the Tower, it started raining so I ducked into a church that was advertising an exhibition related to the Great Fire. It turned out to be All Hallows By The Tower, the oldest standing church in the City of London and one which,among its many fascinating rooms, held a crypt containing a roman road, and other objects from prehistory evidence that London has been a city marred by disaster, and that despite it all,has carried on growing.
I left the church and headed up into the heart of the city of London, and to the heart of the fire’s path of destruction. The route itself was relatively easy going, and because it was the weekend in the City it was very quiet, so it was easy for me to retain at least a little of the air of nonchalance that I found throughout Pepys’ accounts of walking through the city. Or at least I tried to.
I was fascinated by the differences in the accounts by Pepys and Evelyn. They are almost the opposite of each other in their individual approach to the aftermath of the fire. I haven’t found that Pepys, whose diary I ended up referring to the most on the walk, was much too concerned with the rebuilding of the city post fire, and have only found one entry in his diary that even references and regeneration efforts, and it was written over a year after the fire in December 1667 . He writes about his personal encounters and is so relaxed in its delivery that it is hard to gleam anything other than street names.
Evelyn was much more empathetic with the dire situation many found themselves in and provided a much more robust account of the social effects of the fire and its aftermath but he was much less entertaining to read, and I had a handy copy of Pepys to carry around with me in true Flâneuse style so I relied on his work much more.
It was difficult to stick to any definite planned route because of the way that the city operates. I ended up wandering much more than I had planned, and by wandering I mean ignoring the route I had meticulously laid out in favour of a more freestyle amble around the approximate areas I was supposed to visit.
The nature of the city of London is not one that is built to be walked around in any fashion besides rambling, there is no linear pattern to the streets like there are in New York or Paris. This is a city of alleyways and constant turning corners. One which I became aware would have been even more impossible and impassable to navigate around when it was burning, the oppressive nature of being closed in by buildings and passageways and the ash and embers raining down from buildings above must have been particularly distressing to anyone navigating the city at that time.
Had I not been walking I know that I would not have had the same experience as I did, I would never have thought about visiting churches and I would never have felt the real rhythm of navigating around the city. Despite this, I think I may have struggled to have a truly immersive walking experience based around the great fire, as the city of London today is completely different to Pepys’ London. I walked the route of the fire but I found it difficult to see past the modern office blocks and convenience stores to the history that lay beneath their facades.
After all it is somewhat hard to imagine the raging fires and exploding stones on the roof of St Paul’s when you are waiting at a pelican crossing.
Ackroyd, Peter, London The Biography (London: Vintage, 2001), pp. 221-222
Pepys, Samuel, The Great Fire Of London (London: Penguin Books, 2015)
Wallace, Lacey M, The Origin Of Roman London (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), pp. 22-24