Third Prize Winner of the 2014-15 Writing Contest
THE CONSTANCE OF THE PAST BY ERIN HART
Around 43 AD, two years after the assassination of Caligula and one year after Paul’s conversion to Christianity, the Romans established a small settlement on the banks of a river the Celts called Tamesas. They named this settlement Londinium. Over the next two millennia, the city that would one day be London grew, breaking out of first the Roman and then the medieval walls, over the centuries absorbing towns that are now thought of only as neighborhoods: Westminster, Hampstead, Shoreditch. Today, London is so expansive its boundaries are hard to define. Inner London covers 123 square miles; Greater London, pushing at the green belt, spans 607. Thirteen and a half million people live inside the 3,200 square miles classified as the metropolitan area. But it all began in that single square mile on the banks of the Thames, in an area now known as the City of London.
My time in London, too, began with the City. Still jet-lagged from the eight-hour flight, my flatmates and I woke up in the late morning the day after our arrival and rode the Jubilee Line to Southwark, blue Oyster cards in hand, remembering to stand on the right of the escalators. After a meal of sausage rolls and chips at a pub called The Anchor, we crossed the river to the City on the Millennium Bridge, which I recognized as the bridge the Death Eaters destroyed in the sixth Harry Potter movie.
Ostensibly, our walking tour was themed around Shakespeare and Dickens, but that was only a loose framework through which we would explore the City. We wound through streets that never bowed to a grid system, bearing names of the industries that once monopolized them—Bread, Wood, Milk, Threadneedle. We saw buildings that had survived the Great Fire of 1666 and sites where buildings had been lost in the Blitz of 1940. Among towering new office buildings we found remnants of the medieval city walls. The year was 2014, but I felt like I was living in many times at once.
It was this feeling that kept drawing me back to the City and made it one of my favorite places to wander. Today, the City is associated with London’s attempts to become modern. It is home to the flashy skyscrapers that are giving the capital more of a skyline. The City is used metonymically to refer to British finance; the Bank of England sits squarely in the center, above a Tube station known for its size and labyrinthine nature. For many, the City is about profits and progress. For me, it is about the past. Here is where the full scope of London’s history is unfurled. Here is where the 21st century exists, not on top of the previous centuries, but side by side with them.
The whole City surges with this feeling, but it was most apparent to me at Christchurch Greyfriars Gardens. This was actually not a part of our official tour; I discovered it while we were waiting for our guide on Newgate Street, behind St. Paul’s. I noticed, across the street, a tower and one and a half brick walls, partially encompassing a garden. Naturally, I had to see what it was. Reading the sign posted in front, I learned that the tower and walls were all that remained of Christ Church Newgate, designed by Christopher Wren in the late 1600s and destroyed by German bombers on the 29th of December, 1940. Decades after the war, the still-standing ruins of the church were converted into a public garden. Where there were once pews, there are now roses; where there were once stained-glass windows, there are merely metal frames; where there was once a tall arching roof, there is cloudy London sky. On one wall, burial markers remain, names carved into stone, the corresponding people long since turned to nothing. A sign in a window of the tower advertises a dentist’s office.
Standing among the ruins, I wondered why they were still there. A third of the City was destroyed in the Blitz, mostly on the 29th of December, the same night Christ Church burned. Most of those ruins are gone, replaced by shiny new office buildings and testaments to London’s future. Christ Church itself is surrounded by these sorts of developments. Open lots are hard to come by in a square mile; Christ Church has had seven decades in which it could have been built over, its large piece of property given to something more “useful.” Yet it remains, a tangible, constant reminder of London’s past.
My time in London ended with a bombed-out church, as well, this one also in the City but discovered a bit less by chance—I’d read about it in Time Out. I doubt I would have found it otherwise; Christ Church sits among busy streets, in the shadow of St. Paul’s, but St. Dunstan-in-the-East Church Garden is hidden on the edges of the City, hemmed in by buildings and away from a thoroughfare, between the Monument and the Tower but not close enough to either to draw in passersby. When I went there, on one of my last days abroad, it was quiet. A businessman sat on a bench, eating a Pret sandwich. I trod carefully, as if an aura surrounded the building, liable to crack if I disturbed it.
More remains of St. Dunstan’s than Christ Church. Walking among the palms, feeling the jagged edges of the stone entryways, I could trace a path through the church that was: following the bells that called in the masses each Sunday, passing through the small entry corridor, then turning the corner and seeing the magnificence, a high ceiling and sunlight through stained glass. I can only imagine what it must have looked like, though; I can find no images of St. Dunstan’s former life. Instead I’m left with the photos I took, images of faded tombstones resting against green-stained walls. I felt almost sacrilegious each time I pointed my camera, but I couldn’t help it. I wanted desperately to retain the feeling I had there: of sadness, of marvel, of a past still present. I look at those photographs often now, but they feel insufficient.
Leaving St. Dunstan’s, I walked along the river on my way to the Tube station. At one point I stopped and leaned on a railing, getting as close to the murky Thames as I could, London Bridge to my right, the Tower Bridge to my left. Behind me were the ruins of St. Dunstan’s; across the river from me was the Shard, the tallest building in Europe. Everywhere was that feeling.
My eyes began to water. Ten weeks is not nearly enough time for 2,000 years.