Sunday, October 09, 2016

350 Years of The Great Fire of London: A Walk Through London City, in BLink

Early September was when what is now known as The Great Fire of London started in the house of a baker on Pudding Lane in London. This year marked the 350 years of the fire that destroyed nearly four fifths of the old City of London. Today the area is the financial hub of the country. 

I have walked A LOT in London these past few months that I was there. (More on that later). I did a self guided walk that took me through the sites that were important as the fire spread and the City burned without mercy. I wrote about it for The Hindu Business Line's BLInk supplement here

Or see below.


A flâneuse in London on the eve of the deadly inferno’s 350th anniversary

Later, much later, when the fire had eaten its way through all but one-fifth of the medieval City of London (a neighbourhood), they would talk of signs and ill-omens, that it was the hand of god, that England had been called to account for its sins. They would say that it was divine retribution for the sin of gluttony that Londoners were guilty of. Much later, a wooden statue of a cherubic boy, painted gold, would be erected at Pie Corner, where the fire finally went out after five days and five nights. The statue would warn the coming generations of what could happen, they hoped.

Three hundred and fifty years, nearly to the day, I stand under this statue and look up at this little old boy looking out ahead, in the direction of Pudding Lane, where the Great Fire of London started one summer night in 1666. Although this perceived direction of his stare is only my best guess, I cannot tell my south from my east, my map-reading skills are non-existent, and getting lost is a recurring motif in this self-guided walk I am on. I take pictures and nod slightly at the couple of others with the walk pamphlet, avoiding a direct eye-to-eye, thus employing my newly acquired local custom of stiff manners and very reluctant sociability (while in Rome… and all that). But wait, we must begin at the beginning.

I have been in London for a couple of months now, and am nearing the end of my stay. Predictably, I have fallen in love with it. It is easy to forget that London has dressed up for summer, that this is only a disguise before the trademark greys sweep the skies. I have walked everywhere and spent much of the rest periods between walks reading about walking, or writing my own little bits about it. Predictably again, the likes of Virginia Woolf, Rebecca Solnit and, lately, Lauren Elkin — all flâneuses (a ‘female stroller’, ‘a person who saunters around observing society’) — have kept me company as I walked. As the date of September 2 drew closer, it began to appeal to the history nerd in me — a newfound interest I didn’t know I had gathered — to do the Great Fire of London walk, following what the map confidently said was ‘the trail of destruction left by the most famous fire in history’.

“Afterwards, Thomas Farriner was always quite clear about one thing. The events of that Saturday night were not his fault.” Thus begins historian Adrian Tinniswood’s essential guide to the Fire that I had picked up some days ago.

It was in the house of Farriner, a baker on Pudding Lane, that the fire started on the night of September 2, 1666.

Apart from a summary of the sequence of events from that fatal night and thereafter, the book includes extracts from the diaries of Samuel Pepys, a politician and a diarist, whose accounts of the fire were among the most accurate and meticulous of them all. These freshly-read facts in my head and a charted map in my hand, I start from the Tube station next to St Paul’s Cathedral.

The eveningers are murmuring that summer is over already; I notice the wind getting chillier when I begin to take these notes on a bench behind the cathedral.

A woman sitting on the next bench is talking furiously into her phone, in what I wildly guess to be Russian or an East European language. The day’s forecast is for rain in the afternoon, but the weather is more fickle than anything I could compare it with. Everyone talks of the weather all the time.

“In a society where most houses were timber-framed, in an age when every home had several open fires and every chamber was lit by naked flame, house-fires were not unusual,” explains Tinniswood. Losses of hearth and possessions were common, casualties were surprisingly rare though. Among the elaborate, and largely effective, ways of fighting fire — ringing the church bells backwards, using buckets and waterwheels to pump water from the Thames and suchlike — was the pulling down of houses next to the site of fire to ensure it didn’t spread along the street was an oft-used measure. But on the night of the breakout on Pudding Lane, one crucial decision, or rather the absence of it, was to destroy 13,200 houses and 87 out of 109 churches, and leave 100,000 people homeless. It would take the next 50 years to rebuild the City again.

I walk along the Thames Path, busy that Saturday with large groups walking for charity. Across the river, the new building of Tate Modern has the words ‘Art Changes, We Change’. Appropriate, I think, seen through rear-view mirrors or as a way forward. Up the path along the Thames and under the London Bridge I go, the only bridge across the river until 1729. Crammed with houses during the time of the fire, it was too narrow to allow people to use it for escape. St Magnus the Martyr Church, the second to burn that night, houses a fragile wooden model of the bridge.

As I cross the churchyard, the bells begin to toll, theatrically.

Across the road is Monument, the 202-ft structure that commemorates the fire. Right across, exactly 202 feet away, is the site on Pudding Lane where Farriner’s shop and house above would have stood. A plaque identifies the place; someone has left a handful of sunflowers below it. “Pudding was a medieval word for entrails or bowels.” The filth of the hogs flowed down this way towards the river back then, giving it its name.

The drastic but commonly employed measure to pull down houses along the fire’s path needed the approval of Sir Thomas Bludworth, the chief magistrate of the city. But Bludworth is infamous, for having been a weak man without “…the leadership skills or the natural authority to take command of the situation”.

‘A woman could piss it out,’ he is reported to have said, and went home to bed. By the time the authorities decided to start pulling down houses, it was too late. Standing by the river in Southwark, on the other side, the well-to-do watched the city burn while “Samuel (Pepys) broke down and cried for his city”.

Tracing the route the fire took is a strange endeavour in 21st-century London. Nearly nothing of the Old City remains, except for parts of the Roman wall. The Old City is now the heart of the British banking and financial sectors.

The buildings are glass, very tall and bear down upon the walker. Eerie is the other word I think of. I reach Guildhall, home of the City of London Corporation, centre of the city government since the Middle Ages and the only secular stone building dating from before 1666.

A lazy drizzle has begun. The gallery within is showing Claes Jansz Visscher’s incredibly detailed 1616 engraving of the city, one of the few visual records of London before the fire, alongside Robin Reynolds’s drawing of the way it stands now, 400 years later.

The two churches I visit have weddings going on; I am not sure I can, or want to stay and gape like a tourist. Back at St Paul’s. It was thought of as a safe refuge, being built of stone, and was filled with rescued goods, including thousands of books.

But three days into the fire, the Cathedral burst into flames. When it was rebuilt in 1710 by Sir Christopher Wren, the lead architect, it turned into a symbol of hope and strength. And so it continues to stand, majestic. In the back lanes is the golden boy statue, where the fire finally stopped.

The walk has taken me four hours, against the two the map claimed. But it hadn’t accounted for my bad map-reading skills, or that I stop long and often to make detailed notes, fancying myself a chronicler of some sort. By the end, my feet are deliciously tired and I am just proud I haven’t used Google Maps despite many temptations.

“And then, somehow, by chance, I learned that all that walking around, feeling intensely, constantly moved to scribble what I saw and felt... all that I did instinctively, others had done to such an extent that there was a word for it. I was a flâneur.” — Lauren Elkin

It all began with the fire, thus — my flâneuse-ing and the modern age for the City of London.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated September 10, 2016)

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