Circling the square – psychogeography in the City

The ‘Eastern Cluster’ of towers in the City, part of the City Centre’s model of the City of London

Last night I have a talk at the first ever City of London Showoff called Circling the Square. The event was put on by the City Centre, a fantastic organsiation right at the heart of the City that hosts a fascinatingly detailed 3D model of the City of London.  I had been asked to say something entertaining and interesting about engineering in the City. I thought this was a great opportunity to try out and talk about my new hobby, psychogeography. The folllowing is a transcript of my talk (my full data log see my post Dérive #2 – City of London – Logbook)

As an engineer I love going on unconventional journeys: using odd means of transport, exploring forgotten paths, seeing the new from different perspectives. In his book, a Road of One’s Own, Robert Macfarlane instructs us to:

…unfold a street map. Place a glass rim down anywhere on the map and daw round its edge. Pick up  the map, go out into the city and walk the circle, keeping as close you can to the curve. Record the experience as you go, in whatever medium you favour: film, photograph, manuscript, tape. Catch the graffiti, the branded litter, the snatches of conversation…Log the data stream…Be alert to the happenstance of metaphors, watch for visual rhymes, conincidenes, analogies, family resemblances, the changing moods of the street. Complete the circle and the record ends. Walking makes for content; footage for footage.

Robert Macfarlne – a Road of One’s Own, cited by Merlin Covereley in ‘Psychogeogrpahy’

So I put a compass on a map, and draw the largest circle I could fit with in the boundaries of the square mile. It turns out that the Square Mile is not very square. The largest circle that you can draw in a perfect square coveres roughly 3/4 of the area of the square. But because the City is not in fact square, and is actually elongated, the largest circle I encompassed less than a third of the total area.

I caught a bus to the edge of the circle. I went to flip a coin to decide whether or not to go clockwise or anti. I didn’t have any change so I Whatsapped a friend to get her to do it for me. The answer came back ‘heads’: clockwise.

The circle begins at the junction of Moorgate and London Wall. At Copthall Lane deep metallic groans sound out from behind these hoardings. I assume the core of the building is being demolished, and the sound is the building complain.

The circle leads straight into the offices of Black Rock. I enter the revolving doors and walk through a long dark lobby past whispering clusters of suited men and women. I emerge blinking onto a much quieter street, Tower 42 in the distance.

The circle passes straight through the Angel Court building. I attempt to walk through the underground loading bay but I’m turned back by security. He wasn’t interested in psychogeogrpahy. There are some places you really aren’t supposed to go.

I emerge from a tunnel onto a cold east-west street. City workers huddle in doorways smoking. Again the circle leads me straight into the loading bay of a tower, again my path is barred. Trying to stay true to my curving line, I slip into a gap between buildings into what turns out to be a dead end. Metres away the stoneworked facaceds are gleaming white; here the walls are featureless and grey. It’s warm too standing in the exhaust plumes of the buildings. Cameras spy me.

The circle crosses the road and goes straight through the side entrance of the Royal Exchange. Inside the covered courtyard, shoppers can buy diamonds and oysters sheltered from the elements. No time for shopping, I cut straight across and out the other side.

Cornhill. Lloyds of London and the Cheese-grater gleam in the distance – two of my favourite buildings in the City.

Change Alley slips between the white-tiled backs of buildings. The only doorway is to a private members club. It feels seedy.

Abchurch Lane looks like a dead-end, but at the last minute it does a left-right and emerges in front of St Mary’s Abchurch, a church Wren re-built church with a stunning dome inside. Inside a man gives me a brief history of the architecture and the wooden carvings behind the altar. Outside concrete is pumped into the huge hole in the ground which will be the extension to Bank station.

I walk under the bowels of Cannon street station I’m the responds to great forces that shape it. First the railways that crossed the river, then the Tube, now Crossrail. The Great Fire cleared the way for reconstruction. Bomb damage too: the Barbican occupies the space of a bomb-damaged block. The Gherkin stands on the spot of the former Baltic Exchange destroyed by an IRA bomb.

My circle leads me down another road I wouldn’t have chosen. I’m not sure if I’m allowed to be here. Lorries idle as they queue to get diesel from what looks like a municipal fuel station. Suited lovers sneak a kiss in a doorway. I walk passed barriers but no one seems to mind. I turn a corner and suddenly there is the Thames.  I am standing next to a gantry crane, the only remaining cargo dock in the city. It’s for taking out waste by boat.

Fruiterers passage – In the tunnel under Southwark Bridge I look at designs for bridges.

The southern-most point of my circle is in the middle of the Thames.To stay as close as possible to the line without getting wet, I go South over southwark bridge, and out onto bankside riverboar pier, which gets me some way into the water. The pier is emppty, the incoming tide rushes underneath me and the whole structure clangs against the columns that hold it in place. This corner of the city feels wild.

Back north across the Millennium Bridge, . The bridge is designed so that nothing obstructs the view, and I really do feel on top of the world.

In front of the guild of bricklayers I see a sundial with a plaque next to it that informs that noon at this location occurs 24 seconds later than it does at Greenwich.

My circle curves north through a behmouth concrete structure the bridges upper thames street. I follow a path that says no through route and try my luck. It winds up and down through the structure and deposits me on the other side. It’s as if someone took one of the Lego buildings I made as a kid and actually built it.

Apothecary street. Up and down more stairs, this time over the Thameslink lines which weave an unlikely route through the city to connect north and south. The city is more up and down than I realised.

Farringdon Road. For several hundred metres the curve follows this wide street. It is my regular communting street, There are new faceless office blocks replacing old ones. and predictable fast food chains. This is my regular experience of the City. This is the route most travelled, the route we are meant to travel, and it is the most depressing part of my journey.

There is no way through Turnagain Lane. I should have guessed. More CCTV cameras and grotty corners.

Up more stairs to get on top of Holborn Viaduct. I’ve always thought it funny that a city as flat as london should have a viaduct in the middle of it.

My curve leads me straight down the spine of Smithfields meat market. I cross it every day, but I have never ventured down its aisles. It turns out they are open to the public. You too can see hundreds of hanging carcasses behind plastic curtains ready for lunch.

The Barbican. Feels like home turf. My Dad worked here and I played here as a kid. I know all the secret corners and cut-throughs. Other people feel lost here but I feel at home. It feels very calm. In this distance I can see the chaos of new towers in the financial centre, that are like a 3d extrusion of higgledy-piggledy streets. Here the buildings were raised to the ground and a more ordered city was possible. But it’s got soul, not like the new-builds along Farringdon road.

I have a headache and the city is starting to bore me. Realise I haven’t eaten for hours. I refuel by the lake in the barbican and the city too seems re-fueled with interest.

Outside the Guildhall school of music, different pieces of music being played in different practice rooms weave into one. In a tunnel below I see a man kneeling behind a skip to pray. I look back a moment later and he is gone.

My circle almost complete my path is blocked by a huge excavation for CrossRail. The city renewal continues.

I am back at the start, but not where I started for I am three hours older and wiser about the City, and hopefully you are too.


Thank you to Steve Cross at Science Showoff for inviting me to speak and for being such a great compere, and thank you to the City Centre team who made us feel so welcome.

If you want to go and vistit the City Centre’s marvellous model, then pop by for a Model Talk on Fridays.

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