In the autumn of 1984 I arrived in London, leaving behind a wild and dreamy childhood of huge oak trees in rural Warwickshire. I was 18 and ended up staying in a tiny bedsit at the top of a building on Carter Lane in the shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral. It was spectacularly exciting. After clocking off late at night from my waitressing job in west London, I would cycle to Fleet Street, in awe of the beauty of that street – the contrasts of scale, every building studied, the night buses and lights – and I would end up having a regular cup of tea with the night watchman at the sumptuous, glamorous Express Building, then still home to the newspaper. After midnight my boyfriend would turn up from his restaurant job and we would take long, meandering cycle rides, as he wanted to show me London.
A true love flourished for the City of London. I spent nights exploring in wonder the stone and marble, the granite and wood, the domes and lanterns, niches, windows, enormous doors, slender columns, merchant banks, dwarfed parish churches, alleys and courts, wide handsome Victorian streets, pocket parks, the intimidating and majestic Barbican complex (wishing for a magic key to enter within) and, of course, Smithfield Market – then unenclosed and open 24 hours a day, so we could wander down Buyers’ Walk amid all the drama, noise and smells in the middle of the night.
This year’s lockdown felt like going back to those night explorations – the majestic City empty and silent”
Elsewhere at that time, the City was a place of distinct patterns of day and night: it was either on, or off. In the morning, the commuters surged in. But come night, it was silent. As I crossed Ludgate Circus after my late-night cup of tea, I felt like the two of us were the only people there. This year’s lockdown felt like going back to those night explorations – the majestic City empty and silent, but without its daily lifeblood of people and commerce.
I ended up settling here and have a deep affection and curiosity for lines through the City, from the formal processional route linking the palace to the cathedral along Fleet Street to the metabolic patterns of movement and activity through day and night. I am fascinated by the City’s multifarious land-uses, and the layer upon layer of history, some paper-thin and hidden, some memorialised in the public realm, all embedded and fragile. And of course, the hidden natural landscape across and below, not silent when you cock your head outside Ray Street and hear the Fleet river rushing beneath.
And now, as ever, the City is changing. In Smithfield, the Museum of London is moving to the general market, Barts Hospital continues to be repaired and developed, CrossRail will provide a great crossroads linking four out of five of London’s airports, and the Fleet valley will again meet a glorious, celebrated Thames.
I feel lucky to have been involved in some bold and ambitious civic strategies for the City, including setting the Area Strategy for the Barbican and Golden Lane Estates and the vision for Culture Mile, and sitting on panels for major design competitions.
The Barbican – a courageous vision of new ways of living made manifest by architecture – has matured in its half-century, and is more relevant than ever”
When the much loved and sadly recently deceased Tony Elliot’s Time Out dedicated its 50th birthday edition to London’s most iconic places, its two top spots went to two of mine – the Barbican and Postman’s Park, home to George Frederic Watts’ ‘Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice’ – surely deserving of new commemorations for frontline workers who lost lives to Covid.
In lockdown I did dream of faraway places, but I also yearned to walk my niece and her fiancé, who were due to be married at St John’s Gate, on a line through London, up and down levels, to the intimacy of a rarely-glimpsed early sixteenth-century red chestnut staircase in the Gate’s west tower, through the Charterhouse museum, along the podium planted by landscape architect Nigel Dunnett and into the Barbican.
The Barbican – a courageous vision of new ways of living made manifest by architecture – has matured in its half-century, and is more relevant than ever. The playfulness of its landscapes and the generosity of the embrace of the arts centre’s phenomenal programming for all people has been adopted by a younger generation, with over 70,000 members aged between 14 and 25.
The difference from when I was a young person is that the City can and is embracing diversity, and the different experiences and perspectives of citizens who will cherish and challenge it as their own, giving new critical insights to an ever-changing urban landscape, and drawing their own lines of memory and discovery.