At The Monument
If you lay The Monument on its side to the West, the flame hits the spot in Pudding Lane where the fire broke out in Mr Farriner’s bakery during the early hours of 2nd September, 1666.
One of my earliest London memories is climbing to the top of The Monument with my dad when I was around four years old. I remember clearly pushing through the turnstile and dodging through people’s legs to reach the enticing black marble staircase that spiralled up through the centre of the column.
I could not wait to get to the top and see the view. Once we were up there and my dad lifted me onto his shoulders – so that I was even higher than everyone around us on the narrow stone platform – the thrill was electrifying. Yet I doubt ‘Health & Safety’ would allow that these days, even though the top of The Monument is now securely caged as a protection against pigeons, and a deterrent to potential suicides. (There were a few of those in the past.)
When I was four, I raced up those three hundred and eleven stairs but returning - in the company of Spitalfields Life Contributing Photographer Alex Pink - forty-six years later, I make the ascent at a much more leisurely pace. In fact, I stop several times and lean against the curved wall of cool Portland stone. Ostensibly, this is to allow an excited party of school children to pass as they loop back down the narrow stairs but, actually, I pause because the muscles in my legs are crying out for mercy and I am beginning to wonder if there could be an oxygen cylinder around the next turn of the stair.
Guide Mandy Thurkle grins as I gasp for breath. “You could say it keeps us fit. There are always two of us here on duty and, between us, we have to go up four times a day to make our regular checks. They say the calories you’ve burned off when you reach the top is the equivalent of a Mars Bar – not that I’m tempted. I’m not that keen on them.” She stands aside in the narrow entrance through the plinth as another party of school children jostles into the little atrium at the foot of the stairwell. There is an ‘ooh’ of excitement as they cluster together and crane their necks to look up at the stone steps coiling above them. “I love working here,” Mandy says, “I love the interaction with the visitors, seeing their reactions and answering their questions – the children’s are usually the best.”
Built to commemorate the rebuilding of the City after the Great Fire of London in 1666, The Monument – still the tallest isolated stone column in the world – attracts more than 220,000 visitors a year. Designed by Robert Hooke under the supervision of Christopher Wren, it was one of the first visitor attractions in London to admit paying entrants. Back in the eighteenth century, early wardens and their families actually lived in the cell-like basement beneath the massive plinth. This room was originally designed to house Hooke’s astronomical observatory – he dreamed of using the new building as a giant telescope while Wren saw it as a useful place to conduct his gravity experiments.
It is easy to imagine those first wardens welcoming a succession of bewigged and patch-faced sightseers eager to view the newly-rising city from the finest vantage point. Once, The Monument was a towering landmark, clearly visible from any angle in the City, now that it is confined by ugly, boxy offices, its former significance is obscured by walls of glass and concrete. In any other great European capital, the little piazza in which it stands would become a destination in itself, flanked by coffee shops or smart boutiques, but these days you come upon this extraordinary building almost accidentally.
French-born Nathalie Rebillon-Lopez, Monument Assistant Exhibition Manager, agrees, “In France, I worked for the equivalent of English Heritage and they would never have allowed a building like this to be hemmed in. There is a rule that development cannot take place within fifty metres of an important site.” She shrugs, “But then, Paris is sometimes like a giant museum. You have to move with the times and things have to change. I often think London is good at that – it is very open to creativity and eclecticism, it is always alive.”
Of course, Nathalie is right but as we speak in the little paved square it is hard not to feel oppressed by the sheer scale of the new ‘Walkie Talkie’ building lumbering ever upwards in the streets beyond. Where The Monument is all about elegant neo-classical balance, the ‘Walkie Talkie’ is a cumbersome affront to the skyline – a visual joke that is not very funny. Monument guide Mandy, who has worked at the building and at its sister attraction Tower Bridge for twenty-three years, shares my misgivings. “I get a little bit upset at the top sometimes,” she confides, “I look down and see all the tiny old churches and their spires completely lost amongst the new buildings and it seems wrong.”
Not surprisingly, given that the Great Fire of London is a component of Key Stage One on the national curriculum, many of The Monument’s visitors today are under ten-years-old. They all receive a certificate on leaving to prove that they have been to the top. “Usually they are very well behaved,” says Nathalie approvingly,“We have to monitor stickers on the walls and things like chewing gum and even the odd bit of graffiti, but generally with those unwelcome additions, adults are more likely to be the offenders!”
The interior of The Monument – all two hundred and two feet of it – is cleaned by a team of regulars who come in three times a week at night when the visitors are gone. They must be the fittest cleaning crew in London! “They use simple mops and buckets to clean the marble stairs from top to bottom,” Nathalie explains, “We have to treat the building very, very gently because it is Grade One listed. We cannot make any changes or alterations without consulting English Heritage – even our turnstile, which we no longer use, is listed.”
When I first visited The Monument back in the sixties, it was black with soot and pollution. Today, after the major conservation work, the creamy Portland stone gleams almost as brightly as the gilded flame at the very top.
“We welcome visitors from all over the world and a surprising number of Londoners come here too,” says Nathalie, “It’s important to people – it’s part of the fabric of the city. It has a good feeling and it’s a very romantic place. For a fee, we allow people to come here after hours and propose with the whole of London spread out below them. Imagine that!” Standing on the viewing platform at the very top of the column, it is not hard to see why that would be appealing. Despite the development taking place in every direction, the view is simply breathtaking. Here at the very heart of old London you can look down on the streets below and still see, quite clearly, the imprint of the ancient, incinerated city that The Monument was built to commemorate.
Once I manage to catch my breath, I ask if people ever give up before they reach the top and the spectacular view. Nathalie laughs, “That’s quite rare. Once they’ve started most people are very determined. Just occasionally we might have a visitor who can’t make it because of vertigo, but we always give them a refund.”
For my money, whether you are a tourist or native, the best three pounds you could possibly spend in the City of London is the the entry fee to The Monument. And if you visited regularly you could ditch the gym membership!
(In September, Kate Griffin’s first book for children ‘The Jade Boy ‘ will be published by Templar – a dark tale of sorcery, secrets and what really caused the Great Fire of London.)
“my legs are crying out for mercy”
The view from the top photographed by Alex Pink
The view from the top photographed fifty years ago by Roland Collins
The Monument seen from Billingsgate.
In Pudding Lane
Mandy Thurkle -“You could say it keeps us fit. There are always two of us here on duty and, between us, we have to go up four times a day to make our regular checks.”
Sean Thompson-Patterson, first day of work at The Monument.
The reclining woman on the left is the City ‘injured by fire.’ The beehive at her feet represents the industry that will help to rebuild the City. The winged creature behind her is Time which will help the City to regain her feet again. Charles II stands on the right in a Roman breastplate, putting things to rights. At his feet Envy is disappearing into a hole, while Peace and Plenty float on a cloud above the scene.
Photographs copyright © Alex Pink
The Monument, Fish St Hill, EC3R 6DB . Open daily. Summer (April – September) 9:30am – 6pm. Winter (October -March) 9:30am – 5:30pm.