An urban view — 09 November 2010

I had been on the Knowledge for two years and was starting to gain confidence in my ability to navigate around the City of London, when on an appearance my examiner handed me a pamphlet. “You’re to learn these for when you come back in 28 days”. Well, if I hadn’t already been sitting you could have knocked me down with a feather, everything to do with traversing the City, that my brain seemed to refuse to remember was now obsolete.

There was now only 19 ways to enter or leave the City with two-thirds of all streets that lead into the City closed to traffic. Described at the time as the ‘ring of plastic’ on account of the plastic bollards used, it made for instance Southwark Bridge redundant overnight, with only bikes able to enter the City from the south via Queen Anne Street. Born out of fear after the Bishopsgate bomb when the IRA was attacking the mainland these 19 entry points were manned by armed police and all very visible.

Enclosing London with a defensive parameter is not new; the Romans built a two mile long wall in the late 2nd century, 18ft high, its outer face was protected by a 6ft deep V-cut ditch approximately 10ft wide. Entry points denoted by familiar places in the modern City; Bishopsgate, Newgate, Ludgate, and as the ditch was noted for its bad odour from being used as a dump for rubbish and dead dogs, you would be well advised only to enter the City via these gates.

The curve in Gresham Street follows the line of the Roman fort that was incorporated into the wall and modern day London Wall approximates the wall’s northern extremity.

It was not until the mid-16th century that the City began to spread substantially beyond these walls, presumably after clearing the rubbish tip that the parameter had become.

Our ring of plastic has now been replaced with more harmonious landscaping, chicanes with manned police kiosks, two CCTV cameras at each entry point, our blocked roads are now adorned with water features and plants pots strong enough to prevent car-bomb attacks and many places that were once streets are now private property staffed by security guards.

The 6.5 mile parameter has now been documented by photographer Henrietta Williams and cartographer George Gingell, their study entitled Panopticon: A Study of the Ring of Steel  has come to some surprising conclusions.

Traffic entering the City can be controlled by just 80 policemen; photography is discouraged; and as new buildings are designed for the parameter they tend to be large block size to complete this unbroken wall.

Not since the Tudors has the City been defended with such rigor, it will not of course deter pedestrian terrorists, but revival of some dead dogs might just keep them away.

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