London Footsteps

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As the new office blocks currently going up re-shape the City skyline, it is worth reflecting on those who in past centuries have, in their own way, been a part of London's remarkable 2000-year rise to prominence.

Only a fraction of them appear in history books but that doesn't mean we should forget them. Many have contributed in some way to the wealth, influence and reputation of the City. Millions have lived, worked and died in the capital sometimes in poverty and squalor to be consigned to a pauper's grave or plague pit.

Close to the towering Gherkin in Bury Street  is an inscription which should remind us that everyone in some way or other, no matter how minimal, must have made some contribution.  Simple words but they acknowledge what has gone before.  "To the spirits of the dead the unknown young girl from Roman London lies buried here". 


It's that time of the year when children from my local Primary School make the rail trip to London to find out more about Samuel Pepys and the Great Fire of 1666.   What always amazes me is how much they know already. That's a credit to the teachers who introduce the youngsters to this important period of London history.

Over four days, these six and seven year-olds were fascinated by what they saw and heard.  They were a credit to their school and for me it proved yet again that history has got a lot to offer if the children can get out of the classroom.

We were, in fact, walking with history.  First we stepped inside St. Olav's Church where Mr Pepys and his wife Elizabeth are buried.  We saw where he lived and worked, now a park, then went on to St. Margaret Pattens church which was rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren after the Fire.  It was also an ideal place to relax and enjoy a snack courtesy of the Rev. Hugh Thomas who invited us into his church on each of the four days.

Then onto Pudding Lane, the site of Thomas Faryner's Bakery and the Monument.  Then it was onto  St. Magnus Martyr to see the model of London Bridge and down to the steps of old Billingsgate Market for yet another stop - and more food.  Lunch this time. Finally it was back to Fenchurch Street station via the scaffold on Trinity Gardens - the gory stories always go down well - and then back on the train home.  The waiting Mums and Dads were mightily relieved to see their little 'uns returned safely.

And the guide?  Very weary I can tell you.  There are always questions and more questions and some that are not always easy to answer.  But these children were a joy. Very well behaved and eager to listen to my stories.  If only we could persuade more schools to come to the capital.


When the party is over, the fun has faded and the crowds have gone, will London feel and look a different place? Certainly the Olympic Park will be a visitor attraction as more and more people come to see how a derelict, overgrown and neglected part of East London has been transformed into a remarkable multi-stadium sporting venue.

It has also given me some ideas for new walks which should be popular with those who are interested in the transformation of this great City. If only Sir Christopher Wren and Sir Horace Jones, the renowned Victorian surveyor and architect, could return to see what has been created in the 21st century. 

They would surely be impressed but their contributions in previous centuries - St. Pauls Cathedral, Greenwich Royal Naval Hospital and the City of London churches, all Wren creations, and the markets of Smithfield and Leadenhall that bear the trademark of Jones, have not been overshadowed by what we now have at Stratford or the Shard, the Gherkin, the Pinnacle, the Heron Tower and other high-rise buildings.

London has always been a city of change in so many ways.  The skyline today is totally changed from the one of 1948 when the Olympics were last held here and the City was struggling under the weight of austerity.  So when the 2012 Games are over and the Olympians and Paralympians have gone it will be a chance to discover more by taking a fresh look at London.

That's an opportunity for those who like walking the streets of the capital to see what the LONDON FOOTSTEPS programme has to offer for late Summer and Autumn.  It will soon be available.


Wat Tyler has never had a good press but at this time of the year he deserves a bit more coverage.  Alright, so it was on 15th June 1381 that he was snuffed out by the Lord Mayor of London, Sir William Walworth, during a heated protest meeting in Smithfield but maybe this up-front Essex lad should be remembered for the cause he represented rather than the murders and criminal activity which earned the Peasants' Revolt a prominent place in history.

There is some doubt about whether Tyler came from Essex although he certainly went to Kent and inspired the peasants to march on London as a protest against their stifling working and living conditions and the infamous Poll Tax.  After the Black Death of 1348-50 had decimated the population of England and the continent, the labour shortage threatened the long-established power of the landowners.  Now the serfs had a chance to hit back against the oppressive aristocracy and land-owning classes - which is exactly what they did.

It was a bloody and terrifying uprising which moved from the villages of Kent and Essex to the streets of London.   Wat Tyler with Jack Straw and John Ball led thousands of rioters into the City and demanded a meeting with young King Richard II and his nobles and lords.  They demanded concessions and were intoxicated with their power but in the end it was to be their downfall.

Tyler was just a bit too loud-mouthed and aggressive for his own good.  At a big and what he thought would be a triumphal meeting in Smithfield, Tyler appears to have disregarded  the King's status and acted with contemptuous arrogance.  It was too too much for Walworth.  He lunged in with his dagger and Tyler was mortally wounded.  The rioters were stunned and the King's superiority was restored.  The Peasants' Revolt ended with the land-owners and the aristocracy firmly in control.

The dagger that killed Wat Tyler can now be seen in a display case at the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers on London Bridge while Essex has honoured its mediaeval revolutionary with a Thameside park named after him near Grays.  Yet although Tyler is remembered for leading such a brutal and ill-fated uprising most historians now agree that this was the beginning of the end of serfdom. 


Not long to go now. It will all be there for millions to see.  Just out of reach. The fireworks, the razzmatazz, the smart suits, smug corporate smiles, congratulations all round, a mega MacDonalds. Where do you  start and where do you stop when trying to imagine the opening of the London Olympics?  It will be all glitter, back-slapping and hand-shaking as sport and showmanship come together in what we are told is the world's greatest television show.

Back in 2005 I was there, at Stratford East London, cycling along the Greenway to take a few pictures of stagnant rivers and canals, supermarket trollies in the water, burned out cars, derelict buildings, run-down factories, scrap yards, herons, swans, anglers.  Get the picture?  It wasn't pretty but somehow it said a lot about the history of London.   The promise was that all this would be gone - and good riddance - and the spirit and character of the East would survive.

How naive are we to believe stories and promises like that.  The East End of London will never be as many remember it but in the name of progress we are offered change - change for the better.  This is a rich and intriguing part of the capital which has seeped into the lives of many millions over the centuries.   Will future generations forget what has gone before - and only remember the days when the fireworks lit up the sky with the message - Welcome to the 2012 Olympics?


I caught up with Grinling Gibbons in Oxford this week - or should I say that it was his remarkable lime and pearwood reredos at the Chapel of Trinity College that confirmed for me that this was a man who made such an important contribution to the rebuilding of the City of London after the Great Fire in 1666.

Gibbons was 19 when he came to England from the Netherlands and soon after was spotted working by candlelight in a Deptford cottage by the diarist John Evelyn.   At the time, Sir Christopher Wren was gathering together some of the best craftsmen he could find as he set about rebuilding many of the City churches that had been destroyed.  Gibbons was a sensation and soon he was earning commissions from the rich and famous including Charles II who was one of his patrons.

The 'cascade' of flowers, fruits and animals on altar screens are the trademark style of Gibbons.  His intricate and detailed carvings can still be seen in churches and stately homes around England.  And you can  step inside some City churches notably All-Hallows-by-the-Tower and St Mary Abchurch, to admire the intricacy and detail of his work at closehand.

Gibbons, who had 12 children, was appointed Master Carver to William III.  He died in 1720 and is buried close to some of his greatest work - in St. Paul's Cathedral.



The shelves of bookshops and libraries are groaning under the weight of books that explore, discover and enlighten all of us about the history of London.

Here's one more - just published - and it should be on the shopping list of everyone who enjoys learning more about London life.  "DIAMOND STREET" is a fascinating portayal of Hatton Garden, the renowned jewellery centre of the capital.  But that's not all.  Rachel Lichtenstein, a well-informed author from Leigh-on-Sea who has already taken a perceptive, in-depth look at East End life in previous books, now switches her attention to an area of London which has always deserved closer investigation.

Rachel is just the person to do this.  She understands the multi-cultural and multi-ethnic mix of such a vibrant place.  In "DIAMOND STREET" she pieces together a picture featuring the growth and history of the area around Hatton Garden.  Her hours spent sifting through libraries and archive collections have unearthed some real 'gems' as far as stories are concerned.  The reader is in for a treat.