The Great Fire of London in 1666 was a cataclysmic event for the city, changing the face of the capital forever. Just five years later, at the place where it started, a monument was built to commemorate the event and to celebrate the re-building of the city. Designed by renowned architect Sir Christopher Wren who played such a huge part in re-building the city, this single column with a viewing platform is still open to visitors who can climb to the top to admire the views and learn more about the event.
A Brief History of the Monument
As most people know, Pudding Lane is where it all began, when a fire started in a bakery shortly after midnight on 2nd September 1666. Due to the overcrowding of largely wooden buildings, a strong easterly wind and the inaction of the Mayor, the fire spread swiftly throughout the city and soon engulfed most of the buildings within the Roman city walls. It took some time for people to demolish buildings to create firebreaks, by which time the fire had burned for 4 days.
The fire destroyed nearly 20% of the buildings within the city, including St. Paul's Cathedral, 87 churches, 13,500 homes, prisons, city gates and countless other buildings.
As part of the re-building, it was decided to build a permanent memorial to the event near the place where it began. Sir Christopher Wren, the King's Surveyor and architect who rebuilt St. Paul's Cathedral and 51 of the churches, joined forces with Dr. Robert Hooke and together they designed the monument.
It is a single Doric column of Portland Stone, with a spiral staircase of 311 steps which lead to a viewing platform, which is topped by a drum and copper urn with flames coming out, to symbolise the fire. It is exactly 61 metres tall, which is the distance between its base and where the fire started out.
It originally had a dual purpose and was intended to be used as an observatory and for scientific experiments as a giant zenith telescope. There is a small laboratory underneath the entrance but the vibrations from the endless traffic in the area meant that they had to stop, and so it became just a memorial and visitor attraction. Sadly the laboratory is not open to the public.
Visiting the Monument to the Great Fire
You can't pre-book your visit, you just show up when it is open and join the queue. There is a limit on how many people they can allow in at any one time as space is so limited, and the stairs are so narrow, but you are unlikely to find huge queues and can always wander off to look at other things while you wait for the queue to diminish.
The stairs are narrow and quite a tough climb; by the end I was one of a few people having to rest, puffing and panting, before we could continue on. The interior is very plain, just smooth stone walls and steps with a single iron handrail. There are a few small windows and several arched recesses where you can 'pull over' to rest or to allow others to pass. Keep an eye out for some old graffiti if you can - the oldest I found was 'THD' who hacked out his initials in 1792.
It is worth the climb once you get to the top, with some interesting views over the city. The whole platform is covered in a wire net though, so you have to stick your camera through the gaps to take decent photos of the views. The viewing platform used to just have a mid-height balcony around it, but it led to several deaths, one by accident and the others by design. The final suicide of Jane Cooper, a servant-girl, in August 1842, led to the construction of a wire cage around the viewing platform, which is what surrounds you today.
Although the immediate views tend to be of some rather boring office blocks, slightly further away you can also see the Thames, Tower Bridge, the Shard and the 'Walkie-Talkie' building which has its own viewing platform in the Skygarden.
After you have descended the spiral staircase, you are presented with a certificate as you exit. The outside of the monument is interesting too - the south side has a frieze showing the destruction of the city with Charles II and his brother James II directing the restoration of the city surrounded by representations of science, architecture and liberty.
The other sides have inscriptions. On the south side is a lengthy inscription in Latin glorifying Charles II and his munificence in rebuilding St. Paul's and London better than before, 'whilst the ruins were yet smoking [he] provided for the comfort of his citizens, and the ornament of his city; remitted their taxes, ... passed an Act, that public works should be restored to greater beauty. ... Haste is seen everywhere, London rises again, whether with greater speed or greater magnificence is doubtful, three short years complete that which was considered the work of an age."
The East panel is a list of the Mayors who were in office during the building of the monument.
On the north panel is a detailed description of the fire, where it began, how much was lost, how long it lasted, 'Merciless to the wealth and estates of the citizens, it was harmless to their lives, so as throughout to remind us of the final destruction of the world by fire.'
Ten years after its construction an extra line was added at the end of the inscription, blaming the start of the fire on a Popish plot, "But Popish frenzy, which wrought such horrors, is not yet quenched." This was the conspiracy theory of the day, that of a Catholic plot to kill Charles II. Instigated by one man, the conspiracy led to the execution of 22 others before the hysteria subsided. The last line was finally removed from the inscription in 1830.
There is a plaque on the wall showing the approximate place of the original bakery that started it all. Owned by Thomas Farriner who lived above it, he was woken up by smoke coming under his door and realised that his house was on fire. He and his daughter escaped through the window but his maid refused to follow and was the first casualty of the fire. The plaque was installed in 1986 by the Worshipful Company of Bakers.
The exact spot of the oven where it started was discovered in 2016 by archaeologists. It is in the southern lane of what is now Monument Street, about 60ft east of Pudding Lane, but which was once a part of the original Pudding Lane.
Incidentally, the Pudding in Pudding Lane does not refer to sweet treats, but to blood pudding - the offal from butchers cuts. The lane was in the centre of the meat district and was the route used to take all of the offcuts to the waste barges on the Thames.
There is also a plaque to St.Margaret Fish Street Hill, one of many churches which was destroyed in the fire. It was once famous for the amount of relics it held, which were said to include 'fragments of “the bush of Moses”, “the rod of Moses wherewith he divided the Red Sea”, “the manger that our Lord Jesus Christ was laid in”, “the clothing of St Mary the Mother of Christ Jesus” and “the stone whereon Mary Magdalene did her penance”. (source) The church was never rebuilt, the congregation merging with the nearby St Magnus the Martyr.
A recent addition to the area are some stone benches with the words of the famous rhyme 'London's Burning' engraved on the sides. Rather concrete and utilitarian, they nevertheless provide a good place to sit to admire the monument.
Visiting the Monument to the Great Fire of London
Postcode: EC3R 8AH
Nearest tube station: Monument
Opening hours: 9.30am - 6pm. (It closes for an hour at lunch - 1-2pm)
Prices: Adult: £5.40, Child (5-15 years): £2.70 Under 5s: Free