IN 1666 LONDON BURNT LIKE ROTTEN STICKS
Between Sunday September 2nd and Wednesday September 5th 1666, the old medieval City of London was devastated by a blaze that proved so destructive that history now remembers it as The Great Fire of London.
On this tour we follow the conflagration's trail of destruction from its first, seemingly unthreatening, sparks in a Baker's shop in Pudding Lane, to the western quarter of the City, where it was finally brought under control having blazed a swathe of utter devastation across the streets you will walk through.
History doesn't come more exciting than this, as you get to hear the breathtaking story of the Great Fire of London in the streets in which it was played out, and through the eyewitness accounts of the men and women who lived through it and who tried so desperately to dodge the flames and bring the firestorm under control.
THE MONUMENT TO THE GREAT FIRE
We begin our Great Fire Walk alongside the Monument that was later erected to remember the destruction that blazed across London in 1666.
Having covered a little of the Monument's history, we journey back, in narrative at least, to the evening of the 1st September 1666 and head for Pudding Lane, a decrepit London thoroughfare which, according to one chronicler, was nothing more than a "little pityful lane!".
However, unbeknown to its residents on that early September evening, this nondescript thoroughfare is destined to be catapulted to the forefront of the City's history, and will become indelibly ingrained into the consciousness of Londoners, who will remember it long after more affluent and well known thoroughfares have been raked into the ashes of what is about to occur.
The Baker's Dozin'
Making our way to the site of the Baker's shop owned by one Thomas Farynor, we will picture him and his family as they retire to bed, perhaps casting a backward glance out at a medieval cityscape that has hardly changed in centuries, but which is about to vanish forever.
The City they would have looked out at was made up of wooden houses that were crammed together in streets, so narrow, that it was, in some cases, possible to climb out of bed in the morning, open your bedroom window and shake hands with the person who lived opposite!
The people to whom that City was home were still recovering from the horrors of the Great Plague of 1665, and their mood had not been improved by the fact that the summer of 1666 had been a long, hot and dry one, which had made everyday living conditions even more stifling than they usually were in the summer months and which had, crucially for what was to come, left the wooden frames of the houses tinder dry.
And so Thomas Farynor bade his household "goodnight" and climbed into his bed "leaving his providence with his slippers," as one commentator has so eloquently put it.
Dozing off, the soon to be notorious baker, remained oblivious to the fact that, in the bakery below, the oven fire had not been completely extinguished and, as he slept, sparks from the dying embers sprayed into an adjoining basket, which was piled with wooden faggots in readiness to light the ovens when baking again commenced.
THE FIRE BEGINS
Shortly before 2am Farynor's manservant was awoken by a choking sensation and, climbing from his bed to investigate, he found the house to be full of smoke, and he raced to rouse the family.
Farynor, his wife, daughter and manservant made quick their escape via a garret window and, by means of a roof gutter, reached a neighbouring house.
Sadly, history doesn't report the reaction of the next door household as the four refugees came clambering into their home through an upstairs window!
However, the Farynors maidservant, being afraid of heights, remained behind and became the first victim of the Great Fire of London.
A CHALLENGE TO HISTORY
At this point we'll consider the oft-toted claim that the death toll from the fire was relatively light, as only six verified deaths were reported.
Irrespective of the fact that the deaths of the poor were not recorded, and that the flames may well have incinerated any physical traces of many others who were, therefore, not recorded as victims, there is still the fact that many people probably died later, from injuries received or from lung damage caused by smoke inhalation, and the fire left many people homeless forcing them to endure the cold winter that followed in makeshift camps where many, doubtless, died of exposure and hypothermia.
It's an important point, perhaps a little pedantic, but one that is often overlooked in accounts of the Great Fire's "miraculously low" death toll.
A MEDIEVAL STREET
Heading off from the seat of the fire, we rage our way through a warren of narrow streets that still follow the pattern of the medieval lanes.
They will deliver us to a true, and remarkable, survivor - a cobbled, sloping hill that is, in many ways, reminiscent of the streets of the medieval city that the Great Fire was about to destroy.
It makes for the perfect location at which to picture those pre-fire streets - dank and reeking, lined by tottering, timbered houses, the gabled façades of which cast the noisome and unwholesome walkway below into perpetual twilight as they almost touch each other across the streets.
In short, the perfect fodder to feed the flames of a conflagration such as that which is now taking hold just a few streets away.
MR. PEPYS AWAKES
It is here we meet with the man who is going to be our main guide to the events as they unfold over the next few days. His name is Samuel Pepys and, at the time, he was residing in the Navy Office on nearby Seething Lane.
At three in the morning he was woken by a servant who told him of a fire seen in the City.
"So I rose", he later noted in his diary, " and went to her window and thought it to be on the backside of Mark Lane at farthest; but being unused to such fires as followed, I thought it far enough off; and so went to bed again, and so to sleep."
Pepy's reaction illustrates the fact that Londoners had long grown used to coping with fires and so, at first nobody saw this one as any different to the numerous fires that they had been forced to contend with for as long as anyone could remember.
HISTORY'S LEAST PROPHETIC RISK ASSESSMENT
Indeed, our next player in the unfolding drama illustrates this to a tee.
Thomas Bludworth was the City's Lord Mayor that year and, at around 3am, it was decided that he should be informed of the fire. He was duly roused from his bed and he made his way to the scene, somewhat miffed that his slumbers had been interrupted.
Gazing upon the fledgling flames, he quickly dismissed the fire as unimportant and uttered one of history's rudest and, as it transpired, least prophetic risk assessments, one that you will hear in all its glory, so, if you are of a sensitive disposition, you may wish to cover your ears at this point on the walk!
AND THEN IT HAPPENED
What neither Bludworth nor Pepys had anticipated was that, just as the flames reached the nearby riverside - where, in cellars, sheds and warehouses, tallow oil, spirits, hemp and numerous other combustibles were being stored, whilst on the adjacent open wharves were piled vast quantities of hay, timber and coal - the wind would pick up and start fanning the flames back across the narrow streets of the City.
The Great Fire of London had begun.
IN PEPYS'S FOOTSTEPS
When Samuel Pepys awoke that day his maidservant informed him that "300 houses have been burned down to-night by the fire we saw" and so he set out to see for himself the destruction that the conflagration had wrought on the City.
For on the spot reporting, his diary cannot be betterred. He captures perfectly the mood of the people, the horror of the dawning realisation that this is a fire unlike any that London has ever before witnessed, and the helpless confusion that engulfed the City on that long ago Sunday.
"Everybody endeavoring to remove their goods and flinging into the river.. poor people staying in their houses as long as till the very fire touched them, and then running into boats, or clambering from one pair of river stairs by the waterside to another... and nobody, to my sight, endeavoring to quench it, but to remove their goods, and leave all to the fire... and the wind mighty high and driving it into the City; and everything, after so long a drought, proving combustible, even the very stones of the churches..."
WE'RE ON OUR OWN FOR A TIME
Pepys will leave us for a time, as he has important tasks to preform, such as digging a hole in which to bury his "Parmezan cheese, as well as my wine and some other things."
So, left to our own devices, we will snake our way through the old streets of the City and follow the fire's trail of destruction as we picture ourselves weaving around and through the moving human mass with their bundles and carts who are fleeing the flames and blocking the very lanes and streets we are walking through, making them impassable for firemen and carriages.
A RARE SURVIVOR
And yet, even today, almost 350 years later, the City can still yield up a remarkable, and surprising, survivor.
For, turning a corner and ascending a narrow, cobbled hill, we find ourselves blinking in disbelief at a timbered building, built in 1663, that, somehow, managed to evade the ravenous flames as they raged past.
It is a rare example of a pre-fire structure, and is nothing short of a true time capsule!
Best of all, you will be able to make a mental note to return here and visit this building at a later date, or even after the walk, as it is now one of the City's most traditional, and least changed, hostelries!
A FAINTING WOMAN
Picking our way through another series of atmospheric City streets, one of which squeezes between the high walls of an ancient burial ground, we encounter our old friend Samuel Pepys once more as, his cheese now safely buried, he seeks out the Lord Mayor, Thomas Bludworth, to convey a message from the King, Charles 11, that he was to start pulling down houses in order to create fire breaks.
He finds him "like a man spent, with a handkerchief about his neck", trying to coordinate the fire fighting efforts.
In response to the King's message Bludworth cried "like a fainting woman;" that he had been pulling down houses; "but the fire overtakes us faster than we can do it."
But, even the pulling down of the houses had unforeseen consequences that aided the fire's progress.
For, as another chronicler reported, "quickly the flames cross the way by the train of wood that lay in the streets untaken away, which had been pull'd down from houses to prevent its spreading..."
This same writer goes on to provide a breathtaking account of the carnage wreaked by the inferno:- "...and so they [the flames] lick the whole street as they go: they mount up to the top of the highest houses; they descend down to the bottom of the lowest vaults and cellars; and march along on both sides of the way, with such a roaring noise, as never was heard in the City of London; no stately building so great as to resist their fury."
A DISTURBING DEVELOPMENT
With the flames consuming all in their path, and with stray sparks setting alight houses and buildings that weren't even anywhere near the path of the flames, many citizens came to see the fire as an act of terrorism and began seeking out scapegoats on whom to vent their fury and frustration.
Foreign nationals, living and working in the City, were attacked and abused by rampaging mobs, who also took advantage of the confusion to indulge in a little, light looting.
It quickly became apparent that, not only was the City burning down, but that order was also breaking down and, to combat the civil unrest, trained bands of militia were despatched onto the streets in a desperate attempt to restore order.
In the ensuing chaos our old friend, Thomas Bludworth, threw in the towel and left the City.
THE DUKE OF YORK TAKES COMMAND
Thus we follow the fire's course into the Monday, as it gathered momentum and raged into the City's financial centre where the bankers on Lombard Street gathered their gold, and rushed it to safety before the intensity of the heat could melt it.
By late afternoon, the Royal Exchange had erupted into flames and a general malaise had taken hold, as the people tried to come to terms with the devastation being wrought around them.
Diarist and courtier, John Evelyn, was on hand to capture the mood of the populace as they began to comprehend the utter hopelessness of their situation. "The conflagration was so universal, and the people so astonished, that from the beginning, I know not by what despondency or fate, they hardly stirred to quench it, so that there was nothing heard or seen but crying out and lamentation, running about like distracted creatures without at all attempting to save even their goods, such a strange consternation there was upon them."
As darkness fell, if it was at all possible for darkness to fall with the glowing intensity of the flames, Charles 11 overrode the City authorities and sent his brother, James, Duke of York, to take charge.
James and his life guards began patrolling the streets, organising men into bands of firefighters, rescuing foreigners from the angry mobs, blowing up buildings to create the much needed fire breaks, and gradually restoring order.
As one witness put it "The Duke of York hath won the hearts of the people with his continual and indefatigable pains day and night in helping to quench the Fire,"
HOLY SMOKE - ST PAUL'S IS ALIGHT
And so our tour continues through the narrow City Streets, following in the footsteps of the firefighters as they attempted to prevent the inferno's westward spread.
But, on the Tuesday night, they suffered a massive psychological blow.
Everyone had thought that St Paul's Cathedral, with its sturdy stone walls and wide surrounding open plaza, would be immune from the flames. Indeed many of the items rescued over the course of the previous few days had been crammed inside it.
The printers and booksellers had so much faith in it as a safe haven that they had packed their books tightly into its crypt.
But, the Cathedral was undergoing restoration and its exterior was, therefore, clad in a dense covering of wooden scaffolding.
As darkness descended on that Tuesday night, witnesses as far away as Westminster watched in horror as flames licked around the Cathedral's exterior and, moments later, the scaffolding was ablaze. Soon the inner beams had caught, and the roof lead began to melt. Flames poured down into the crypt and, suddenly, the books stored therein erupted and, with a mighty roar, a wall of fire shot up into the night sky.
Diarist John Evelyn described what followed in words that still make you recoil from the heat just reading them. "The stones of Paul's flew like grenades, the melting lead running down the streets in a stream, and the very pavements glowing with fiery redness, so as no horse, nor man, was able to tread on them."
THE WIND DROPS
As we circle the modern St Paul's, we will picture the woeful sight of its predecessor, blazing away against the night sky.
But, no sooner had the Cathedral been reduced to a ruin than the wind dropped and, by Wednesday morning, the fire breaks created by the bands of firefighters had begun to take effect.
For the Londoners who had lived through the horrors of the last three days the immediate danger began to recede.
Standing in the shadow of the Cathedral we will look back across the City and consider the devastation wrought by the Great Fire of London, a devastation that you will have relived through the first hand accounts of the many witnesses who watched it unfold.
And, as the last embers of this thrilling walk fade and die, we will picture Samuel Pepys as he climbs the tower of a City church, looks across the City towards the spot on which we will be standing, and beholds "the saddest sight of desolation that I ever saw."
YOU MIGHT NEED TO QUENCH YOUR THIRST
Having enjoyed such an eventful walk reliving the events of the Great Fire of London, and having crammed its four day rampage of destruction into a mere two hours of breathless narrative, you might well find that your throat is somewhat parched.
So, how about ending your walk with a visit to an historic tavern, where you can mull over the events that have unfolded before you, whilst quenching your raging thirst with a steadying, cooling and refreshing beverage of your choice?