SEEN has lived in London for half her life, yet I often think how little I know about the specific history of parts of London, so it was with great interest that SEEN took to the streets of London’s financial quarter in the learned company of SideStory guide Sophie Campbell, who led us through the highways and byways of the bustling Royal Exchange, Guildhall Art Gallery, Leadenhall Market and many curious narrow little alleyways, all the while encouraging us to pick out the details on walls and arches. I can guarantee that if you take this walk you will never look at the city in quite the same way again.
Despite disasters like the Great Fire or the Plague, London always manages to pick itself up. Financial London was shaped and influenced by the many guilds, whose mysterious rituals still hold sway. There has always been rivalry between the City of London and the City of Westminster. Even Her Majesty the Queen is not allowed into the City on formal occasions until the Lord Mayor has offered her the Sword of State. Sophie explained to us the significance of the figures high above us on the porticos of the Royal Exchange; the figures we take for granted have a highly codified symbolism that harks back to London’s origins as an outpost of the Roman Empire. Anyone can go in the Royal Exchange and admire the architecture. You can even get a coffee in there and seek out the murals around the perimeter, which though not great works of art in themselves highlight points in London’s history.
Leadenhall Market still has a flavour of old London to it. Animals were driven to it for sale, sometimes from as far afield as Lincolnshire. Sophie told us how the geese had their feet dipped in warm tar and sand so that they could make the long march. We spotted the Mercer’s Maiden who, as a symbol and coat of arms of the Mercers’ Guild, is to be seen all over the financial district and also in Covent Garden.
The best part for SEEN and definitely the best-kept secret is the art and history contained in the Guildhall Art Gallery (free to the public) that also houses the remains of a Roman amphitheatre, rediscovered during redevelopment of the gallery in 1985. The remains are very atmospheric. On the upper storeys there is a fantastic picture of the Lord Mayor’s procession from 1888 (the year of the Ripper) that tells a fascinating story, giving as it were, a snapshot of the living conditions of all classes in the city.
Architecture buffs will revel in the many different styles that jostle for space here: Churches from centuries past; Brutalist architecture from the sixties; and the resolutely modernist style of 1 Poultry, will not be to everybody’s taste, but it is quite extraordinary to stop art certain junctions, look up and realise how clever architects have been, by keeping to a law that no new buildings must interrupt the view of St Paul’s, hence why the Cheesegrater Building leans the way it does. Or the Rogers building for Lloyds London, very similar to the Pompidou in its outside-in construction. Love it or loathe it, somehow it all works.
Sophie was a mine of interesting facts about the city and passionate about her subject, the ideal companion for a walk such as this. London is above all a place of constantly evolving history. SEEN recommends that you try SideStory for the insider perspective on this great city. Just make sure you’re wearing comfortable shoes.