Through the streets of London

Click to follow
The Independent Online
'DEPEND on it, Sir,' the Grand Cham said, 'When a man is tired of London, he is tired of sitting in superjams, dodging beggars, avoiding touts, suffering the vulgar sarcasms of acne-splashed policeboys and skating on the squashed mess of vast, ill-disciplined yob-dogs.'

Dr Johnson's famous remark was as true in the late 18th century as it is today. London - vibrant with diversity, dense with historical echoes - is the eternal sump of metropolitan life.

Come with us on Walk No 6, through the City of London, where the intricate streets are drenched with tradition.

We begin at Ludgate Circus, where earthworkers have been renovating the road since the early 12th century. Here, groups of men in traditional white Ford vans cry out to one another the cheery gynaecology of working men. This practice dates back to the semi-mythical King Lud, the Yob King of pre-Roman London, whose habit of driving his chariot through the streets, throwing V-signs and aiming at old, female, or incompetent pedestrians was widely seen as being one of the better things about the Romans' invasion of England (they stopped him doing it).

Outside the city walls in front of the Lud Gate flowed, in Roman and medieval times, the Fleet River. Its reputation as an open sewer, carrying the vilest pollutions and excrescences, made it a natural centre for the newspaper industry of the day.

As we walk up Ludgate Hill we will see groups of traditional young people jostling with tourists. Mind the lady lying on her side who is holding her head.

You may not understand immediately what she is saying because she is speaking in a local dialect that dates back many hundreds of years. 'Mah barga basta ya farger grah, Ah staff ya facka ahze]' is what we can make out, roughly translating as: 'Please don't touch my Sainsbury's bag - it contains all I own.'

Past Seacoal Lane, on the north side of the hill, we come to Old Bailey, the street that housed the establishment known as Newgate Prison, the dread place where public executions were carried out until 1867.

Only recently has this practice been revived on a less formal basis. The avenue of pleached limes was cut down in 1894, but there are still regular meetings of pleached louts who congregate to celebrate ancient cider rituals after the busy city workers have retired back to their suburbs. In 1902 Newgate jail was demolished. The louts are demolished on Wednesdays.

Just to the east of the entrance to Old Bailey stands the church of St Martins-within- Ludgate. No one knows the origin of the name, but the church was designed by Sir Christopher Wren as a haven for Satanists of the 17th century.

Its purpose now has reverted to the more conventional practices of the Church of England. It contains an interesting double chair, designed for the church wardens. Because we do not really know what use it was put to, there are guides outside the church who will tell you in return for a small gift of money. 'Farghin arssyagat,' they say.

Further up the hill again we come to St Paul's Cathedral, finished in 1699 after 24 years of construction. The west front is approached by a broad flight of steps. It has a lower colonnade of 12 columns and is flanked by two towers, a group of German schoolchildren, four French au pairs, two tired prostitutes, a psychiatric outpatient, a graffiti artist and a 14-year-old girl with bruises on her throat and a baby she doesn't know exists. There is also an upper colonnade of eight columns.

The statue of Queen Anne is interesting for the fact that the republican artist Francis Bird rendered the august monarch in this sculpture without underwear. Vandals frequently attempt to remedy this omission. The carving of the phoenix in bas-relief over the south portico was the logo of a chain of fast food chop houses of the time. The bird is the symbol of resurrection, as well as of the 'rare'n' springy Turkey burger', which became popular towards the end of the 17th century.

The whispering gallery is famous for its acoustics. If you listen hard, above and beyond the hiss of the blade-skaters and the scratching of the personal stereos, you can almost hear the echoes of history dim in the distance as the fabric of time vibrates to the centuries-old whisper: 'Hargh barga farga starger ya haebargers]'

Miles Kington is on holiday.

Comments