I want to start a new little segment. The Old, the New, and the Wonderful. There’s so much to do in London and you’d need a lifetime to do it all, so to help out all of my fellow Adventurers, I’ll be putting together three things at a time: one old, one new, and one a little bit unusual. And what’s better is that I’ll make sure they’re always within walking distance of each other!
Today we’re focusing on the area in and around Cannon Street.
Cannon Street is in the City of London, the oldest part of London, so it’s bound to have some great history. London was founded 2,000 years ago as Roman Londinium. It once had a city wall running all the way around, remnants of which you can still see in London today. If you’re interested in seeing it, the best example of the Roman wall is just outside the Tube station at Tower Hill.
The City of London is now London’s financial sector, full of fancy high rises and equally fancy suits, so it’s only natural that some of London’s trendiest venues have also found a home there. And Fenchurch Street in the City of London is where you can find one of the newest additions to the rooftop garden craze sweeping the capital at the moment. In fact, this weekend, on Saturday 20th and Sunday 21st July, it is the National Park City Rooftops weekend (organised with Open House London) and they are opening several of London’s lesser known rooftop gardens to the public.
Starting off with the Wonderful: the London Stone
Head out of Monument Station and start walking down Cannon Street. Before you leave, you might want to swing by the actual Monument just by the station. Apparently the tallest isolated stone column in the world at 62m tall, it was designed by architects Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke to commemorate the devastation of the Great Fire of London in 1666. It’s hard for us to imagine the horrific scale of the fire nowadays: the worst of the fire ravaged London for four days, but parts of the city continued to burn for months. It’s estimated that about 1/3 of the City was destroyed and 1/6 of Londoners made homeless.
Nowadays the column is a popular viewing platform. Despite the glass and steel high rises which now slightly dwarf this once-dominating monument, if you can stomach the 311 steps to the top, there are still some lovely views of London (and you get a certificate, so what’s to lose?).
Now, back on track. Heading down Cannon Street, you’ll eventually spot the station of the same name. Just before you get there, however, you might spot a little alcove in the wall on the right hand side. Yep, that’s the one. That all the commuters are just whizzing past. You’ve just stumbled upon the only thing standing between London and chaos. The magical heart of London – a block of limestone. If the stone is ever destroyed, the city will fall. So yeah, maybe take a couple of steps back. We have records of the stone dating back to Saxon times when it was referred to as the ‘Lundene Stane’. Over the years, some have said it came from an ancient sacred altar, others said that it was the stone that once held King Arthur’s sword Excalibur, legend had it that it was part of a statue from far off Troy in Greece, brought to Britain and used by a made-up leader, Brutus, to found the city of London. If you want to be boring, one theory is that it was possibly a Saxon central milestone from which to measure distances (but where’s the fun in that?). It’s been featured by Shakespeare, survived the Great Fire and the Blitz during World War Two. In 1450, Jack Cade led a rebellion against the government of Henry VI and struck the stone with his sword, which he claimed made him the “lord of the city”. I mean, this wasn’t exactly a thing yet – there was no precedent for it, and even contemporary chroniclers were a bit confused, but he’d still identified the London Stone as an essential focus point for the city. So while it’s slipped under the radar a bit in recent years, we should all sleep easier at night knowing that it’s still standing guard for us at the heart of ancient London.
And if you don’t believe how cool the London Stone is, that’s a picture of three very excited tour guides who were thrilled to see the Stone back in its home on Cannon Street earlier this year.
Just a little way down from the London Stone is the Old (the very, very old): the London Mithraeum.
Now, for this one, you’ll need a little bit of preplanning. While the Mithraeum is free, you will need to book a slot in advance just to ensure you get in. Also, please be aware that at the moment, the site is closed until 24th July. Tucked away underneath the Bloomberg Building (an impressive specimen in its own right), is an ancient Roman temple! The Romans settled in London from 47 AD and made their home there for over 450 years. Evidence of Roman London is right beneath our feet. If you imagine that, over the centuries, we have constantly built on what has come before, so Roman London is roughly 7m under modern London.
You may have heard of the most well-known Roman gods, such as Jupiter or Mars or Minerva, but many Roman soldiers worshipped a mysterious god called Mithras. Temples like these appeared from the 1st C AD, when the cult of Mithras first developed in Rome and then proceeded to spread across the empire over the next 300 years. This temple in London was built in the 3rd C AD, it existed for about 80 years before it was rededicated to Bacchus, God of Wine.
Jumping forward over 1,000 years, the temple was rediscovered in 1954 and is now open to public viewing. Even though not that much of it remains, there’s an aura of mystery around the whole thing (certainly helped by the light and sound effects) and it’s fascinating to have a look at some of the 600 objects on display (of over 14,000 artefacts actually found on the site). Included in the collection is a writing tablet with the first known reference to London, as well as the earliest financial document found in the City of London. One of my favourites is a minuscule gladiator helmet amulet made of amber – see if you can spot it.
Before we head to our last stop, take a moment to look at the sculpture by Christina Iglesias which commemorates the lost River Walbrook. There used to be (and still are) many rivers other than the Thames which ran through London. The Walbrook started to be covered over in 1440 and unfortunately now it runs completely underground and is part of London’s sewer system. Glamorous. Iglesias’ Forgotten Streams remembers the Walbrook as it would once have been, all natural banks and clean water.
Last but not least is the New: the Garden at 120.
Now, walking away from the Walbrook and forgetting the Forgotten Streams, head up towards Bank Junction and find Lombard Street. Walking down Lombard, you’ll see St. Mary Woolnoth (1727), St. Edmund’s church (1679) and the much more modern Walkie Talkie (2014). At this point, you will be on Fenchurch street, and a little bit further on you will arrive at Fen Court. At the top of Fen Court is the Garden at 120. You can access the 15th floor garden via a stunning LED screen ceiling display and a lift. At the moment the display is Botanic by Jennifer Steinkamp as part of Sculpture in the City, an annual outdoor art display in City of London. This lovely rooftop space opened February this year and one of the best things about it is that you can get gorgeous views of London without having to spend a penny. At the moment there’s no charge and also no booking process – you can just show up! It’s open Monday to Friday and now that it’s summer the garden has fully come into its own.
However, if all of that is too new for you then rest assured that this modern building is still sitting on the very old. During the development of Fen Court, they uncovered some exciting archaeological finds, including a medieval chalk wall, a Roman glass vessel and oil lamp, and even older, a prehistoric flint arrowhead, illustrating how the history of London goes back way further than Londinium.
But back to the 21st century…
I love this garden because it gives you some beautiful and, I think, more interesting views of London than many of the other viewing platforms. You’ve got your big ticket items like St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Tower of London and Tower Bridge, the Gherkin and the Shard, but there are some exciting alternatives as well. There’s a great view of Leadenhall Market (if you think you don’t know it, just give Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone another look), the Neo-Gothic Minster Building, a wonderful view of the deconstructivism Lloyd’s of London (the hispters might be deconstructing food, but it was the 1980s who were deconstructing buildings long before), and even a far off view of the old Truman Brewery in Shoreditch.
Before I sign off, if you need somewhere to grab a bite to eat after all that excitement then slightly further down Fenchurch Street is the Three Tuns pub. It’s got a lovely little roof garden and sells delicious pies from the one and only Pieminister. I discovered them several years ago in Oxford and fell in love (the way to my heart is definitely gravy). Since then I’ve been trying to go dairy free, so today I tried their vegan mushroom, quinoa and tomato pie and it was just as tasty!
So get out there and off the tourist track! It’ll just take you half the day and apart from transport costs, it’s free! Jump from around 200 AD to 2000 AD while exploring foundation stones and lost rivers along the way.