The City of London: a refreshing break from mayhem
London. The weekend. Hoards of people bumping down Oxford Street buying the same tat that you can buy in the same chain stores all across the globe. Or shuffling through the neon of Soho, casting guilty glances at the sex shops and questionable bars. The West End offers no respite from jostling crowds, loud music and street entertainers after your attention and your cash.
And yet, barely three miles east of this grim circus, the real City of London lies dormant at the weekend, like an empty museum waiting for the crowds to return on Monday morning. I’m hesitant to give away this well kept secret, as when you thread your way through the hotchpotch of streets with names which beg you to wonder more about their history (Cheapside, Poultry, Threadneedle Street) and how they’ve morphed from their obvious beginnings (Ropemaker Street, Silk Street) you feel that the Square Mile and the streets just beyond belong to you alone.
Whether you want to take in the whole of this area or have a more niche interest, there’s something for everyone here.
If history is your bag, this tiny portion of the UK’s capital is throbbing with significance from every age. You can explore the area, starting in Pudding Lane, where the Great Fire of London wreaked havoc in 1666. Be sure to take in the statue of The Golden Boy of Pye Corner, situated at the corner of Giltspur Street and Cock Street where the fire stopped and – if you’ve got a head for heights – Monument by London Bridge, built to celebrate the rebuilding of the devastated city.
If you’re more of a bookworm you can bring to life the streets depicted in Dicken’s novels. Smithfield, Snow Hill, Chancery Lane and Cheapside are all regular locations in his books and as you wander down the little backstreets around here you can still imagine the downtrodden heroes and heroines living out their small dramas here. Dickens’ obsession with the lawmakers led him often to write about the Inns of Court, which are just near Chancery Lane tube station. If you get the chance to walk through here, it is like going back to another age and you expect Mr Tulkinghorn (Bleak House) to walk round the corner any second! You could even visit “The Old Curiosity Shop” on Portsmouth Street but best to remain sceptical over whether this really is the inspiration for one of Dicken’s most famous novels!
Or maybe economics is more your thing. Well you’re at the heart of Britain’s financial centre so you can take a rollercoaster ride through Britain’s financial history from the stable Old Lady of Threadneedle Street to the unique Lloyds insurance building with the lifts running up and down the outside – not for the fainthearted, even from ground view.
And if you’re not sure which part of London’s history you want to explore, you could do worse than start your day off at the Museum of London which is a fabulous guide to London’s story, from its origins in Roman Britain right through to today, and a truly fascinating day out in its own right. To my shame, I’d been living in London for 20 years before I visited this little gem and I left seeing my city in a completely new light and filled with a reinvigorated pride for it.
An overlooked bite-sized gem
If you prefer to take your cities in with a more general view, appreciating the various ages and styles of architecture, districts and, possibly, the odd pub or two, The City is eminently walkable in a day. You can, of course, plan a route that takes in all of the major sights but for me the best way to fall in love with this part of London is to ramble through the drunken network of streets, some clearly laid as thoroughfares of a major European Capital and some which feel like a passage to Narnia and don’t seem to belong to a place that from Monday to Friday throbs with thousands of people shouting into phones, cramming onto buses, reading IPads as they rush along or dodging traffic clutching a Pret A Manger bag with lunch to go.
St Paul’s Cathedral is a good place to start or finish, as this is one of the most spectacular sights in the whole of London and deserves a good amount of time to admire. St Paul’s is on the edge of the Square Mile and right by the Millennium Bridge, with Tate Modern on the south side of the river (for one of the best views in London, be sure to walk over the bridge towards St. Paul’s from the Tate). Naturally you won’t escape numbers of other tourists here but there’s something more relaxed and genteel about this particular tourist hotspot – a sense of space that you don’t find in the other, more claustrophobic areas like The Tower of London or Covent Garden.
From St Paul’s, I’d suggest wandering first north to Smithfield (the market doesn’t run at the weekend but it’s still worth a visit to admire the building and read more about its history) and Barbican. Any number of routes in a general South Eastwards direction will lead you to the Financial District. This is the area where you’ll see the least people and be the most amazed at why – the Natwest Tower, The Bank of England on Threadneedle Street, the weekend ghost town that is Leadenhall Market and The Gherkin are all must sees and fabulous photo opportunities, but just the streets themselves give you a sense of historical importance – both past and present.
Head South for a little while and you’ll come to the river. You could end your city foray either by skirting the edge of the Square Mile heading West again on the north side of the river towards St Paul’s or head away from your day of tranquillity over any one of the stunning bridges leading to the south bank with its own charm.
For me, walking through these almost deserted streets is the perfect day, but if your wallet is itching, don’t think that just because you’ve stolen a day away from the West End means there’s no shopping opportunities. It’s true, if you want to go home with a completely new wardrobe, this part of town wouldn’t be top of the list to visit and there’s nowhere near the discombobulating choice of further west, but there’s certainly shopping to be had on a Saturday (you’ll be much more hard pushed to find anything open on a Sunday). I recently spent a very relaxing two hours (and many more less relaxing pounds) in Gap and M&S on Moorgate where I saw less than ten other shoppers the entire time I was there. And yet the staff are no less attentive or polite and, in fact, there is a refreshing lack of teenage fitting room assistants loudly discussing last night’s antics, as seems to be the case in every store in the West End. Liverpool Street station is a hidden gem of shops selling everything from cheeses, clothes and specialist soaps to the usual essentials such as McDonalds and Boots.
And lastly, for when your feet have finally given up, you’ve earned a spacious, music-free pint! You won’t find a pub, restaurant or fast food place on every corner, but nor will you need to walk more than ten minutes to find any of them. The Jugged Hare on the corner of Chiswell Street and Silk Street is my particular favourite as one of the few London pubs that, when you walk in on your own, the inhabitants don’t look for the rest of your party. The staff are polite, well-dressed and extremely knowledgeable about their wines, beers and menu. As long as the vast array of taxidermy adorning the walls doesn’t put you off, I would heartily recommend it but you’ll never be far from a watering hole where polite staff will welcome you in a peaceful atmosphere with a choice of seats to rest your weary feet.
Whether you’re visiting London from within the UK or abroad, it’s a fabulous city with a wealth of culture and entertainment to offer. But whereas the rest of the tourist highlights may be more for speed dating – photos taken and souvenirs bought – I urge to build a relationship with The City and learn to love it as I have.
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