Monday, 29 April 2013

Preview: St Paul's Cathedral

In 1666, some straw in a bakery caught fire. It soon grew somewhat bigger - the city was suddenly ablaze. This was the Great Fire of London, and although loss of life was minimal - officially down at just six people - the city was devastated. Over 13,000 homes, 87 churches, numerous halls and offices in the City of London were incinerated; among these was old St Paul's Cathedral, a version of which had stood on the spot since the 7th Century. The diarist Samuel Pepys passed by a few days after the fire and wrote, "Walked thence, and sae the town burned, and a miserable sight of St Paul's church, with all the roofs fallen and the body of the Quire fallen into St Fayths". It was beyond repair. A new city and a new St Paul's would have to be built. King Charles II entrusted it to one man - Christopher Wren.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Preview: The Houses of Parliament

On the 16th of October, 1834, Parliament was burning. It was nothing to do with Guy Fawkes and his Gunpowder Plot - that had been over 200 years earlier and had failed. And although Ireland and its incorporation into the United Kingdom was a source of tension and even violence - the IRA would set off a bomb at the corner of Westminster Hall almost a century-and-a-half later - it was unconnected with this 1834 fire. No, the fire in 1834 was caused by wooden sticks. Tally sticks - an obsolete means of debt collection - had been building up, and for some time had been used as firewood in the House of Lords' furnace. That afternoon a particularly large pile was loaded, just to get rid of the damn things really - and the sooty flues and chimneys of the venerable building couldn't cope. By 6pm, fire was raging, and by 3am it was all gone. Some over-zealous burning of sticks in a dirty furnace did what terrorism could only dream of.

There that evening to watch Parliament burn, along with half of London, were two men: Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin. In the Hollywood film of their lives, at some point while watching the fire one would have accidentally brushed past the other, both would have excused themselves, and a riveting gentleman's conversation would have begun. At the very least, they would have stood near each other for a convenient single camera shot, their faces lit up orange by the burning building. The reality though is that there is no evidence nor indication that the two men had yet met; they were just two men of a large crowd gathered to watch the show. But less than a year later, they would be working together to not only rebuild it, but to entirely redefine it, and make the Houses of Parliament the grand, ornate, and immediately recogisable edifice the world knows today.