The Pheonix Walk: The City of London Rises

A walk by Sophie Campbell

This walk across the Square Mile is a tribute to the City’s remarkable capacity for survival and reinvention. Be it plague, fire, or pandemics, the Blitz, Big Bang or Brexit, the old financial quarter picks itself up, shakes its skirts and keeps carrying on.

As energy returns to the Square Mile, from bars and banks to offices and pocket parks, it’s a reminder that the City has weathered centuries of fires, wars and yes, pandemics.

What better symbol of resilience than its churches, with their spires, towers and bells? They stand tall, despite sometimes catastrophic events, minister to their parishioners, as they always have done, and offer a warm welcome to all.

This walk takes 45 minutes, excluding visits, and links five true survivors, each in itself a metaphor for renewal.

Please check opening times, particularly at weekends and make a donation if you can.

Start: St Olave Hart Street

Corner of Hart Street and Seething Lane, EC3R 7NB. Nearest Tube: Tower Hill.

This Great Fire survivor has one door on Hart Street and one into the churchyard on Seething Lane. Exit via the latter, looking up at the daisy chain of skulls over the gate: the church register for 1665 contains the red ‘P’ for plague, but we know St Olave as the parish church of diarist Samuel Pepys, an administrator at the Navy Office next door. Inside is his memorial to his young wife Elisabeth. They are both buried here.

Cross diagonally right into Seething Lane Garden to see Pepys’s bust and paving carved with scenes from his world (find the plague flea and the forceps used to remove his bladder stone). Back on Seething Lane, walk down to busy Byward Street. Use the crossing to your left to reach the church opposite and walk along to the main door.

All Hallows by the Tower

Byward Street, EC3R 5BJ. Nearest Tube: Tower Hill.

At an impressive 1,300 years of age this venerable foundation predates even the Tower of London, although much that you see today was triumphantly rebuilt after the Blitz. The bombing not only revealed a Roman pavement in the crypt; it also provided the church with its distinctive green spire, built in the 1950s. The brick tower is original, and its small door was used by Pepys to climb up and see the extent of the Great Fire.

Walk around the church tower and towards the Tower of London. Turn right on the piazza, walking down to Tower Millennium Pier. Bear right along the River Thames and continue until some blue railings. Walk between them, passing Custom House, Old Billingsgate Fish Market, and office buildings. At the curved stone bench, turn up to St Magnus the Martyr. Circle the church anti-clockwise to reach the porch at the far end.

St Magnus the Martyr

Lower Thames Street, EC3R 6DN. Nearest Tube: Monument.

This church occupied a key position on the approach to Old London Bridge, some 100 metres east of the current bridge (there’s a scale model inside). It succumbed early to the Great Fire of 1666, which started at the bakery of one of its own parishioners, one Thomas Farriner. His unmarked grave is under the aisle of Sir Christopher Wren’s fine rebuild. Look for the blue plaque near the porch gate and the chunk of Roman wharf.

Walk back through the gate and cross Lower Thames Street at the traffic lights, walking up Fish Street Hill to the base of The Monument built to commemorate the Great Fire.

The Monument

Fish Street Hill, EC3R 8AH. Nearest Tube: Monument.

No, it’s not a church, but this 60-metre-high Doric column topped by a flaming urn and viewing gallery was completed in 1677 by Sir Christopher Wren and the great scientist Robert Hooke. Circle the base: if you can’t face the 345 steps, look on the opposite side for the allegorical relief showing the triumphant rebuilding of the City of London (shown as a drooping female figure, lifted from her despair by Father Time).

With the relief behind you, walk up Monument Street, turning right on London Bridge and crossing two sets of lights to go diagonally left up King William Street. Walk up to the end, turning left at Bank Junction and passing the six huge stone columns of the Mansion House. Then turn left onto Walbrook for a fine view of St Stephen’s church. 

St Stephen Walbrook

39 Walbrook, EC4N 8BN. Nearest Tube: Bank Junction or Mansion House.

This parish church, with its fine interior geometry and airy dome, was the first to be rebuilt by Wren after the Great Fire. It can trace its roots to AD1090 and before that may have been on the site of a Roman temple, the Mithraeum, now open for visits beneath the Bloomberg Building opposite. Look for the pulpit sounding board and exterior plaque to its vicar, Chad Varah, who founded The Samaritans in 1953.

With your back to the church, walk diagonally right on Bucklersbury, passing the beige Bloomsburg Building to turn left opposite stripey No 1 Poultry. Follow Queen Victoria Street downhill, past Mansion House Tube and St Nicholas Cole Abbey to reach St Peter’s Hill (pedestrianised) on your right, with a magnificent view of St Paul’s. 

St Paul’s Cathedral

Walk up the hill towards the south front of cathedral (particularly lovely in afternoon light), looking high up above the side porch for a semi-circular relief of a phoenix: the bird that, as every Harry Potter fan knows, regenerates through fire. Wren used it as a symbol of hope on his masterpiece of the English Baroque, rising out of the ashes as a Christian symbol of resurrection, life overcoming death, and God’s kingdom to come.

Inside St Paul’s, itself the greatest triumph to arise from the destruction of the Great Fire, you will find a monument to the firefighters who saved the cathedral, the first dome of this scale in England, and an extraordinary collection of contemporary art commissioned by the cathedral, exploring themes of death, life and reconstruction.

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