The Monument to Great Fire of London, England

Posted on June 15, 2012 by

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Today’s enlightening blog is by Deb Wiles at the ‘Got Soil?’ blog, it focuses on Celia Fiennes (7 June 1662 – 10 April 1741) who was a pioneering English traveller and a visit to The Monument. Deb is a Horticulturist and aspiring Garden Historian.

Celia Fiennes was an intrepid lady traveller in the early 17th century and the first recorded woman to visit every county in England. Her travel diary, not originally intended for public consumption, was published in part nearly 200 years later, with a more scholarly version coming to light in 1947. She lived in London during the last years of her life but obviously visited many times previously as she records the coronation ceremonies of James II (1685), William and Mary (1689), and Anne (1702) as well as the funeral processions of both Mary (1695) and William (1702). She describes the processions, the pomp, and the finery in quite a lot of detail.

She also described the city of London, its architecture, notable buildings, government, etc. Although I’m studying garden history and am on a quest to visit the country house gardens she writes about, I decided to have a look at London through her eyes. I went to The City on a fine, sunny day and had this odd thought: I think I’ll climb The Monument. I entreat you now, if ever I have the odd thought of climbing 311 stairs inside a 15-foot wide, 202-foot high free-standing fluted Doric column just for the fun of it, please slap me.

Of The Monument Celia says: There is alsoe at ye Bridge a Great Monument of stone worke…this is of a Great height 300 stepps up and on ye top gives ye view of ye whole town. This was sett up in memory of Gods putting a Check to ye Rageing flame wch by ye plotts and Contrivance of ye papists was Lighted. There is a Large Inscription on it all round mentioning it, and alsoe of ye popish plott and ye gun powdr treason and all by ye papists.

The Monument, or The Monument to the Great Fire of London, commemorates the Great Fire of 1666 which wiped out most of the Medieval City of London within the ancient Roman city walls.

A Plan of the City and Liberties of London,
Shewing the Extent of the Dreadful Conflagration in the Year 1666 by John Noorthouck 1772 (mapco.net)

Christopher Wren, one of the most highly acclaimed architects in history, designed The Monument. He also designed the new St. Paul’s Cathedral, worked on a number of royal palaces, Westminster Abbey, the Greenwich Naval Hospital, and is generally credited with rebuilding London after the fire. Being also well-read in science, Wren designed the structure to double as a scientific instrument. The winding staircase’s central shaft can be used as a zenith telescope (a hinged lid on the top of the structure covers the opening to the shaft).

As I climbed, huffing and puffing, I kept trying to imagine what it would have been like to attempt this monumental feat (pun absolutely intended) in a long skirt, petticoat, bodice, and corset (don’t even get me started on the shoes), with no light but the knifes of sunlight through the slitted windows in the building (the steps are black, by the way, and even with modern lighting it’s dark and dangerous up there!). The mind boggles. Still, I did it, and when I reached the top I was entertained to see climbers of yore had left their mark.

Antique graffiti (the top says, “RD 1794”, the bottom, “THD 1792”)

Celia was wrong, though, it’s not 300 steps to the viewing platform 160 feet up, it’s 311 and I climbed each and every one of them. She doesn’t specifically state that she climbed to the top (she could have heard it from someone else) but I bet she did so we’ll give her the benefit of the doubt. The view is still spectacular, but other than a few remaining landmarks, I don’t think Celia would recognize the city.

The Tower of London was there in Celia’s time but the iconic Tower Bridge wasn’t begun until nearly a century later, in 1886.

Looking south toward London Bridge. The London Bridge Celia knew was burned twice then demolished in 1831 when the new London Bridge was built. That was replaced by the present bridge, which opened in 1973. The tall building on the left is The Shard, currently the tallest building in the European Union.

The dome of St. Paul’s (just visible behind the protective wire cage) wasn’t complete until 1711 so depending on when Celia climbed these steps, she may or may not have seen the dome.

I didn’t scratch my name in the wall, but I did receive a nice commemorative certificate when I successfully made it back down (at which point my entire lower half turned to jelly). I spent about half an hour recovering on a bench conveniently located midway between The Monument and the spot at which the Great Fire started, at a baker’s shop in Pudding Lane. If the management had any marketing sense, there would be a bakery there now instead of an ugly modern office building, selling Monument cakes and meringues shaped like Doric columns with little flames on top in yellow marzipan or edible gold leaf. Perhaps they could serve a refreshing and restorative draught called ‘Fluted Fizz’ which the public would appreciate, I’m sure, after such an exhausting accomplishment.

On three sides of the 40-foot high pedestal are inscriptions in Latin and a bas relief sculpture by Caius Gabriel Cibber depicting the destruction and resurrection of the city. And the bit about the Papists starting the fire – well, that has to do with the Popish Plot, an imaginary anti-Catholic conspiracy cooked up around 1678 and 1781 that had the country in a bit of a frenzy. The last words of the inscription on the Monument that Celia refers to were added after the fact, in 1681, and erased in 1830.

On the left side of the sculpture is The City of London, represented by this fallen female figure sitting on ruins and her hand lying on her sword in an attitude of exhausted defeat. Supporting her is Time and another female figure whose sceptre points upward toward two goddesses (below). Beneath is the dragon of the City of London with a shield bearing the arms of the city.

On the right side is King Charles II in Roman garb, with three attendants heroically coming to the aid of The City of London. Behind Charles is his brother, the Duke of York (and future King James II), holding a garland with which to crown the City and an uplifted sword in her defense. Behind the Duke are the figures of Justice and Fortitude, holding the reins of a lion. Below the foot of the King is the figure of Envy, munching on a heart and emitting noxious vapours from her underground den. Above them are workers rebuilding the city.

Above are two goddesses, one with the cornucopia of Plenty and the other with the branch of Peace. It’s hard to tell in the photo, but beneath her foot is a beehive denoting Industry.

After that climb I was ready for a nice long sit and a cup of tea. It’s been a few days and my thighs still scream when they encounter a staircase so I might wait a bit before attempting something like this again. Still, if you’re one of those who likes to tick boxes on a list then a climb to the top is a must when you’re seeing the sights of London. If Celia and I can do it, so can you!

After your adventure, head to Borough Market on the south end of London Bridge and treat yourself to a coffee and fresh pastry or cake. You’ve already worked them off!

Entry Fee: £3 adult / £2 concessions

Location: Junction of Monument Street and Fish Street Hill, London, England

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