Wandering Thoughts

May 19, 2009


Filed under: Going Places — terence @ 8:00 pm
Tags: ,

a writing course exercise…

In 1666 a bakery blaze became a firestorm that swept across London. It destroyed Saint Paul’s Cathedral, razed the homes of bankers, and burnt the slums of the poor. The army fought it by blowing up buildings and pulling down houses with grappling hooks. It sparked a refugee crisis and led to the lynching of unfortunate French and Dutch. On the continent it was claimed as divine retribution. It may have put paid to the plague.

I knew none of this when I got off at the wrong Underground station in 1996 and, acting on a whim, decided to go for a walk.

It was autumn and the sky was held together by concrete coloured clouds. Stranded by changing seasons and changing travel plans, I was wearing borrowed clothes, cold in the wind, and struggling, without really knowing, to come to grips with the city I’d found myself in. Everything cost so much. The footpaths were packed, and walking meant weave and bluff, weave and bluff. It wasn’t Wellington, and it was stranger than Kuala Lumpur and Medan because it wasn’t meant to be. It was flat and formless, and run through with congested streets. It never seemed to end.

I was walking with my head down, thinking about places I’d rather be, when the street I was on spilled into a square. A stone column stood in its centre. It was carved and ornate with fluted sides and capped with a golden crown. It struck up at the sky and stuck out from the buildings around it. I guessed it had to be old. I walked over. A plaque at its base explained.

A monument to the great fire of London, built between 1671 and 1677. 202 feet high and 202 feet from where the fire first caught. Designed by Christopher Wren, the architect who remodelled London in the wake of the blaze.

For half an hour I forgot about being cold and lost, and marvelled at the history in front of me, wandering off eventually. I didn’t even think it might be possible to climb the tower as well as read about it.

That discovery was M.’s, made the following spring. We met in the travellers’ house where I lived. She was black haired and pretty, and joked she was the palest Californian I was ever going to meet. We liked the same music and worried about the same things. We wandered around London together. I took her to the Monument wanting to show off this thing I’d found.

She discovered the entrance and we deposited our two pound coins, climbing the spiralling stairs, hands trailing on the hand-worn rail. At the top, we stood together on the almost empty viewing platform.

We were looking out at London from a tower that was built just after Abel Tasman set sight on New Zealand and before the first Spanish settlers reached LA. We were looking out at a city that was at least as old as the Romans, which had been captured by Vikings, and which became the heart of an empire. Above us, blue and grey shared the sky. And out front the metropolis sprawled off, held up by cranes. The Thames curved in and out, dodging buildings and ducking bridges. High rises, churches’ steeples and motorways jostled for space. And the suburbs shrank away.

What way do you think we’re looking?
I don’t know. I wonder, are those hills or clouds?
I think the buildings stop eventually.


That day has its share of stories. How close we stood; what we did, and what we didn’t do. The one that remains most tangible now is less complicated though. Simply, the way the city – stacked up on all that history, and laid out in front of us like a map – became more manageable as we stood there together, eyes straining, wondering if we could see to its limits.

monument tower panorama cam

From the Monument Tower Webcam at Sunset


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