Wednesday 22 February 2012

What have the Romans ever done for us? Well, given us Cycle Superhighway 7, for a start

It wasn’t until recently that I discovered why, on a good night, I was able to cycle so fast for a lot of my journey home. I’d previously noticed only that south London boasted a striking number of wide, straight roads that let me, when traffic was light, put my head down, slip into higher gears and cruise at around 30 kilometres an hour. Then I happened in Nikolaus Pevsner’s Buildings of England: South London on a casual reference to Kennington Park Road’s having started as a Roman road. When my bike’s wheels rolled along Cycle Superhighway 7, I realised, they were going where legionaries once marched in plumed helmets between the camps of Londinium and Sussex.

It has been one of the joys of my ten-and-a-half years of cycling in London to have gained a far clearer sense of how the city fits together. When I arrived mole-like at my destination from the underground, I used to peer myopically at each area in isolation from its neighbours. As a cyclist, I no longer feel Covent Garden is cut off from Holborn or Old Street from Bank.

Cycling has also, however, led me to encounter so many ghosts from the city’s past – from its foundation under the Romans to its last hundred years of struggle against adversity - that it feels almost human to me. Londinium, Lundenwic, Lundenburh or London has been knocked down, slaughtered by disease, moved, neglected, shaken by violence, burnt and bombed. But it has consistently struggled back – a stubborn, punch-drunk heavyweight willing himself back into the ring.

The story began in periods of history that archaeologists’ trowels are only slowly unearthing. It has continued up until events that I have witnessed and reported upon. It will continue in all likelihood when I am as forgotten as the millions of others who have come to London to make something of themselves, enjoyed the city’s excitements, cursed its frustrations and died.

Westminster Abbey: inspires awe, but
not much reverence
It’s probably fitting that I never come across much from a while after the era of London’s Roman founders – they were the dark ages, after all. Nor do I get particularly worked up about the great monuments from just after 1066’s Norman conquest. Westminster Abbey certainly fills me with the intended awe. The oddness of my pedalling past the still-solid, 900-year-old Tower of London – a fortress built amid a still not wholly-tamed England – occasionally strikes me. But it’s the less obvious monument of Charterhouse Square, by Smithfield Market, that gives me the fullest sense of encountering my medieval London forebears.

I often swing to the right near the square when returning to the office from north of the City. It’s one of the tranquil, genteel oases still hiding among the office towers and bustle of the world’s leading international financial district. But the square has properly occupied my attention only since I read, a few months ago, about its role in the Black Death. The site of the square, I discovered, had been a mass grave, filled in 1348 with the bodies of tens of thousands of  Londoners. Half the city’s inhabitants died.

The Barbican:full of Black Death ghosts
trapped, possibly, in the impossible-to-navigate
I was seized with a mental picture of some prosperous woman, just widowed but feeling the disease’s first symptoms herself, knowing she might have as little as a day to write her will. The story didn’t play out in my mind, however, among the muddy, chaotic streets of plague-ridden, 14th century London but somehow amid the 1970s concrete of the Barbican Centre, just across Aldersgate Street from the plague pit.

The city would heave itself up on the ringside ropes after the Black Death, nevertheless, suck in more newcomers and carry on. The neat Tudor brickwork of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lambeth Palace, which I swoop past on my way from home to central London, reminds me of a high point – when England’s new self-confidence first led the country to look far beyond its shores.

Yet the ghosts of the people have more power to surprise my unwary emotions.

St Paul's churchyard:look closely and the New Model Army is
trudging up the hill towards you

It was outside my son’s nursery that I suddenly found myself amid the English Civil War. I haul him most mornings in a trailer to the nursery, in a Clapham church. I detach the trailer for his nanny to bring home, kiss him goodbye and prepare to head off. Then, as I retrieved my bike one morning, my eye happened on a new notice. It explained how the churchyard had received the area’s plague dead. It had also subsequently expanded to hold the Roundhead dead from the Civil War battle of Battersea marshes.

Battersea Power Station: art deco amid Civil War ghosts
I could see from where I stood modern Battersea, below the hill I sometimes freewheel down en route to Chelsea. The famous power station casts its art deco bulk over the whole area. The Telecom Tower punctuates the skyline. I could nevertheless suddenly sense the parliamentary army’s remnants slogging their way up the hill towards me, their breath hanging in the air over their severe, round helmets, their dead piled in carts behind. This place – the first dry, flat place they reached – would not permit a very dignified burial for the fallen. But it would have to do.

It’s not the only reminder of 17th century tragedy I encounter. A pedal up the steep cobbles of Pudding Lane brings me to the monument to the Great Fire, the destroyer of vast tracts of the city. In 1665, the year before the fire, the bubonic plague for the last time had killed thousands of Londoners en masse.

St Paul's: Sir Christopher Wren gives
possibly the finest two-finger salute in history to fate
However, London not only recovered from those twin catastrophes but showed it with the monumental bulk of St Paul’s Cathedral. I cycle in its shadow to meetings with the City’s bankers and lawyers, marvelling at how my forebears showed such a magnificent two fingers to fate.

Then again, a lot of what I encounter from the next two centuries reeks of audacious confidence. The neat Georgian terraces I cycle between on Kennington Road; the mile after mile of Victorian villas I pass with my family at weekends: they all suggest a robust optimism about the future impossible to imagine feeling now. The wonder is perhaps that it survived so long in a Victorian London occasionally swept by cholera and continually disgraced by some inhabitants’ poverty.

The Cable Street mural commemorates the battle: you have
my permission to think it sentimentalises a complex event.
The buildings constructed after the shock of the first world war puff their chests out far less. A mural that I pass on my way down Cable Street towards Canary Wharf is a reminder of how the clouds started gathering again afterwards. It commemorates how Communists and other anti-fascists in 1936 violently resisted efforts to push through the mainly-Jewish East End a march by fascist blackshirts. I still come across partially unhealed second world war wounds. Whole communities were smashed. In exchange for their ruined houses, they got either the grim, poorly-built postwar housing I often cycle past, or exile to new towns.

Nevertheless, it’s the smallest scars – the points, like the ones on my own street, where one or two post-war houses intrude into a Victorian terrace – that bring home the human drama. As I pedal past such spots, I imagine how  a bomber, full of frightened young men desperate to make it back to Germany, dropped its unused bombs there to escape faster. On their tails would have been young British or Polish or Canadian fighter pilots – just as scared, presumably, but fired up with the need to defend Europe’s last big, free, democratic city. It must have been impossible for the bereaved not to wish that the bomb had fallen somewhere else, on a house not full of their loved ones or their possessions.

Those events are easier to understand, of course, because they remain in living memory. A video showing at the Museum of London includes one woman’s account of how her 12-year-old brother went to buy a drink in the local Woolworth store in New Cross in 1944. He was one of 168 killed when a German V2 rocket hit it. “They didn’t find much of him,” she says, sadly. An older friend has told me how her house was destroyed by a German bomb – and the disorienting sensation of seeing her bedroom exposed to the elements.

But I appreciate the past traumas all the more because of a memory of my own. I was standing in the street by Edgware Road underground station, my bicycle in one hand, peering at a television in a shop window. I had been assuming, as I cycled over there to investigate reports of explosions on the underground, that they were down to some problem with the underground’s power. Immediately I saw a bus had exploded, I knew instantly, in my head and my stomach, what must be going on. Near me dead in the underground station lay seven of my fellow Londoners – a handful of the 52 who would die – and Mohammad Sidique Khan, one of four suicide bombers.

It made me warmer towards London, I think, to cycle round that day and take in the dazed looks on my fellow Londoners’ faces amid the echoing sirens and the beat of the helicopters overhead. London’s tolerance of diversity may be expressed in a cool, arm’s length fashion rather than a fuzzy embrace. But, as more cyclists joined me on the roads in the coming weeks, scared of the underground or facing disruption from line closures, I valued the city’s live-and-let-live tradition all the more for knowing how others hated it.

This isn’t, I hope, to sentimentalise a city that’s probably been hard work since the Romans first spotted a good place to cross the Thames. Londoners rioted murderously against giving Roman Catholics civil rights, backed the blackshirts as well as the resisters at Cable Street and used sometimes to hang signs reading “no dogs, no blacks, no Irish” in boarding house windows. Many of my fellow Londonders, as I’ve argued before on this blog, currently need to revise their attitude towards cyclists.

But, even when the streets teem with the super-efficient bikes of the future, such a big, intense city will never achieve perfection. There were, presumably, rows once between Roman wagoners and charioteers over priority in Londinium’s cramped streets. The first cyclists, I imagine, were abused for scaring the horses.

Yet, if it’s a flawed work in progress, it’s at least a work in progress built by now on the rich experiences of tens of millions of my forebears, people whose traces are there for anyone who pays attention to see. I shall look around, next time I’m the target of some taxi driver’s or white van man’s rage, for such a sign and imagine the person who left it. “Forget it,” he or she will tell me, “the city will long outlive you both.”


  1. My commute takes me along London Wall. On foggy nights you can hear the tramp of the Roman legions...

    1. What a beautiful picture, Rosamundi. Thank you so much for that comment. It makes me realise I hadn't really thought about the sounds...

  2. Replies
    1. Dee,

      Thank you. I can honestly say this is quite my favourite kind of comment.



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