Saturday, 5 November 2011

Sights, heights and lights

Our last family walk, which I wrote about here, was on a warm and golden autumn afternoon. We used the fabulous book London Adventure Walks for Families again this Saturday, and it couldn't have been more different; cold and drizzly and very, very grey. Despite the uninspiring weather, we had a marvellous time. We followed the walk from the chapter Out of the Ashes as my son's current school history topic is the Great Fire of London, and our adventure began at St Paul's Cathedral pictured above.

Looking up, we were wowed by the cathedral's vastness and its distinctive dome. We listened as Daddy read out how the fire of 1666 raged through this very spot and how, despite being made of stone, the cathedral that stood here was destroyed. Designed by architect Sir Christopher Wren, this was one of the most extraordinary new buildings to emerge out of the ashes, and it took 35 years to build.

But it was the scene at ground level that stole the show: the tents of the Occupy London encampment surrounding the cathedral, and the protesters in their hundreds - either handing out flyers or sitting on the steps listening to a constant stream of amplified speeches. What a sight! Buddy and Daisy were of course intrigued; we explained, as best we could, who the people were and why they were there.

After getting their faces painted in this almost festival-like atmosphere, we ventured into the cathedral itself and, with the aid of the children's audio guides, found out more about the effects of the Great Fire. Then we decided to get some height on the situation. Could we do it? Could we climb the 257 steps to the Whispering Gallery? Could we go even higher to the Stone Gallery - another 119 steps? And could we, should we attempt to make it all the way to the Golden Gallery; the very top of St Paul's famous dome? That would mean climbing 528 steps altogether, and put us nearly 100m above the ground. Gulp.

Well, after much huffing and puffing, and stopping to take in the views at each level - we made it. On the last stretch (a wrought iron, spiral staircase) I had to button down my burgeoning vertiginous butterflies. We also had to keep Buddy and Daisy happy, motivated and climbing. And the way we did this? By singing. London's Burning to be precise. We changed the word engines to buckets when Buddy pointed out "there were no [fire] engines in 1666." [We have since found evidence of 17th century 'fire engines' here]. Its call and response structure was just what we needed to keep our spirits up as we stepped onwards and upwards. It worked a treat.

London's burning
London's burning
Fetch the bucket
Fetch the bucket
Fire! Fire!
Fire! Fire!
Pour on water
Pour on water

At the top we were rewarded for our efforts with this great view - an impressive skyline despite the rather murky conditions.

Back at ground level the book led us towards the very street where The Great Fire began - Pudding Lane. This was the motivation Buddy and Daisy needed; to reach the source of the blaze that practically razed London to the ground nearly 350 years ago.

The walk guided us through a very interesting part of town where the numerous churches built after the fire (many designed by Wren) sit proudly with, if somewhat dwarfed by, the shiny new buildings of the city. Our book reminded us that one of the churches we passed, St Mary-Le-Bow, features in the nursery rhyme Oranges and Lemons. We reached Pudding Lane just as it was getting dark, and there, stunningly lit as if to say well done was Wren's Monument to the Great Fire: a 61m Doric column.

We could have easily finished our walk there but we noticed that the column was still open to visitors for another 15 minutes. Could Buddy and Daisy climb another 311 steps? Could I hide my vertigo twice in one day?

As the photograph above is of the inside of the column, you can probably guess the answer: we did! Thank goodness for being reminded of the rhyme Oranges and Lemons earlier because this was the much needed motivational song for this last climb of the day.

Oranges and Lemons
Say the bells of St Clement's

You owe me five farthings
Say the bells of St Martin's

When will you pay me?
Say the bells of Old Bailey

When I grow rich
Say the bells of Shoreditch

When we that be?
Say the bells of Stepney

I do not know
Says the great bell of Bow

And at the top we were once again rewarded with fantastic views of London. This time the view was against a darker sky and hundreds of twinkling lights decorated the cityscape - it was absolutely spectacular.

So there ended our walk, one that was rather more about the sights, heights and lights of London today than tales of flames and rebuilding in the 17th century. However, the certificate we all received for climbing Wren's Monument reminded us of the original reason for our outing. Both children have since taken their certificates to school to show their classmates - and are very proud of their climbing credentials.

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