Walking Through the City of London

Exploring and learning about the history of London through walking is not a new idea. People have always used walking around the city to learn more about it and nowadays walking has become a common way for people to see and experience the city through tours and guides that give an insight into the past and what London was once like, for example walking tours around popular historical areas. However, although these tours can teach people a lot about the city they usually just focus on common landmarks that are seen to be the most significant areas of London. This does not mean that the other areas of the city aren’t just as significant, and walking around and exploring less known areas of the city can give you an insight into the history of these areas that may not have been as obvious if you had just driven through or Googled the area. When deciding on an area to walk around I wanted to go somewhere familiar so that although I’d know where significant landmarks were, I would be able to look at it in a different way and learn something new about an area that I had previously thought I’d known. I focused on the City of London, which contains famous places such as the Barbican Centre, Smithfield Market and St Bartholomew’s Hospital, but also has a lot of hidden history.

I started my walk down the road from Chancery Lane station and walked up Charterhouse Street towards Smithfield Market. It was strange as it is such a vast area but because I was walking at three o’clock in the afternoon there were hardly any people around. Whereas if I had been there in the early hours of the morning when the meat market that takes place there would have been in full swing, it would have been full of people looking to buy and sell meat. When walking through Smithfield Market I noticed signs giving an insight into the past of the area showing that there was more to it than just being the biggest meat market in Europe. The area of Smithfield has accommodated many other events and activities throughout history. In the 12th century it was a popular recreational area where jousts and tournaments took place and later became the location of Bartholomew’s Fair. This fair included three days of dancing, selling and music and later became the most debauched and drunken holiday in the calendar, lasing almost 700 years before being closed in 1855 (www.smithfieldmarket.com/the-market/history-of-the-market). Smithfield had obviously always been a centre of life for many people with these events that were such a big part of people’s lives providing entertainment and a reason to all come together. However, because of the kind of people that these fairs and executions attracted the area became known as one of the roughest in London, highly disliked from outsiders, because of its reputation from pickpockets and muggers.

One of the most interesting things that I found out about the Smithfield area, including the area around St Bartholomew’s Hospital, is that it was a popular location for the execution of criminals. There are numerous plaques on the side of one of the walls of St Bartholomew’s as a memorial for some of the people who were executed in this area, such as William Wallace. Wallace was a Scottish hero who fought for the independence of Scotland from English rule (http://www.educationscotland.gov.uk/scotlandshistory/warsofindependence/williamwallace/). After numerous crimes, such as killing English soldiers and repeatedly fighting against the English army, Wallace was outlawed and became a hated enemy of King Edward I, resulting in his gory execution at Smithfield after being dragged though the streets. After being hanged, drawn and quartered parts of Wallace’s body were sent to different areas of the country and his head was spiked above London bridge as Edward thought this would deter other rebels and cause people to forget Wallace, but it did the opposite as many Scots passed his story down through generations (http://www.educationscotland.gov.uk/scotlandshistory/warsofindependence/executionofwallace/index.asp) . The fact that there is still a plaque remembering his death 700 years later demonstrates that if anything, his execution only made him more memorable and a heroic symbol for the Scottish people. When I saw the plaque there were flowers around it and the Scottish flag draped over the railings in front of it, reinforcing this idea of what he means to Scottish people even to this day. The fact that this area was such a common place for executions was something that almost surprised me because what was once an area that was famous for public deaths is now a large meat market and they have both always been next to a Hospital, a place we would associate with healing, which seem like contradictory things with the contrast of life and death.

After walking through Smithfield I walked through some backstreets towards Barbican, one thing I noticed about these streets were their names such as Cloth Fair and Cloth Street, reflecting the trading of cloth that had been an important part of Bartholomew’s Fair. When I got to Barbican station I crossed the road towards Golden Lane Estate, which was built in the 1950s as part of a project to renew this area of the City of London that had been nearly obliterated by the bombing of World War One. The Golden Lane Estate symbolises the beginning of the improvement of this area and how it became a modern model for social housing and urban living and the success of the Brutalist architecture that was later used for the Barbican Estate (http://www.barbicanlifeonline.com/history/golden-lane-estate/). It also signified a new way of building housing in London as the building in the centre of the estate, Great Arthur House, was the first residential tower block in London that was over 50 metres in height, and also the first building to breach the 100 ft. height limit in the City of London (www.skyscrapernews.com/building.php?id=2391).

The Golden Lane Estate is north of the iconic Barbican Estate with its residential tower blocks that are a prime example of Brutalist architecture and are major landmarks on the London skyline. The estate was build after the Golden Lane Estate in the 1960s, however it also replaced an area that was heavily bombed in the Blitz. One of the things that I find most interesting about the Barbican estate is the walkway system that allows you to walk above areas of the city to get around the estate so it is more peaceful as you are isolated from the rush of the city (http://www.barbicanlifeonline.com/history/barbican-estate/). This suggests that after the Blitz the architects of the Barbican wanted it to become a residential area even though the City of London is famous for financial offices and banking. They have turned a notoriously business oriented area into somewhere where people can live comfortably with a sense of not even being in the city because of the calming atmosphere that it promotes.

The Barbican is an area that I am familiar with and have been to numerous times but have never actually walked around and properly looked at it. However, from wandering around the high walkways I experienced the area in a different way because I felt the community atmosphere and also got to look at the architecture more closely and understand why it was built in the way it was. Walking through the City has helped me to understand the history of the area in a way that I have not previously experienced it because I focussed on things like what happened in the area itself instead of just looking at the buildings and knowing what they are used for now.

Sources:

http://www.educationscotland.gov.uk/scotlandshistory/warsofindependence/williamwallace/

http://www.educationscotland.gov.uk/scotlandshistory/warsofindependence/executionofwallace/index.asp

www.smithfieldmarket.com/the-market/history-of-the-market

http://www.barbicanlifeonline.com/history/golden-lane-estate/

http://www.barbicanlifeonline.com/history/barbican-estate/

www.skyscrapernews.com/building.php?id=2391

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