Take a lap of the UK’s smallest county

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The City of London is not just a mere borough. It’s a city in itself – and the richest square mile in the world. So let’s walk it


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'' Image: cityoflondon.gov.uk
A fascinating 6 mile hike: the City of London boundary. Image: cityoflondon.gov.uk
I’ve hiked the perimeter of several London boroughs, including – over an arduous six hours – Camden’s whopping 17 mile circumference.

History surely dictates, however, that the capital’s origin be attempted. Not just a mere borough, it’s actually the smallest UK county (since 1132), the second smallest British city in population and size (after St David’s in Wales) and, most famously, the richest square mile in the world.

Even better, from where I live in Kentish Town it’s only a few minutes’ train ride to our starting point, near Farringdon station.

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1. Wander CHANCERY LANE

The edge of Smithfield market. All photos: Stephen Emms
The edge of Smithfield market. All photos: Stephen Emms

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On a nippy Saturday morning we start the 6 mile walk, map in hand, at an arbitrarily-chosen northwest corner of the City: Chancery Lane Tube. Sunrays pierce the tinted windows of office blocks, and pillows of cloud shadow our steps as we pass the hangar-like Smithfield market (named after the ‘Smooth Field’ outside the city walls), where meat has been traded for 800 years. In a nod to its infamy as former site of execution, a butcher flashes a smile, cleaver in hand, whilst across the road, thirtysomething couples swish past to brunch, broadsheets under one arm.

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2. Admire GOLDEN LANE

Striking panels: Golden Lane
Striking panels: Golden Lane

The Barbican tower, built between 1965 and 1976, looms above Farringdon like a grubby fishbone, and we’re soon pattering round its adjoining forest of concrete, the City’s largest residential area (4000 people in 2000 flats). Lesser known but lovelier is Golden Lane Estate, to the north, built earlier by the same architects (Chamberlin, Powell and Bon), with striking panels in primary colours. And along the shopping parade, we smile at the Barbie-like pink font of Barbican Greengrocers.

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3. Snake round MOORGATE

Silent: Moorgate at the weekend.
Silent: Moorgate at the weekend.

Yet it’s all so silent. If, in the countryside, silence is the sound of rest, or isolation, in the city it possesses an ambiguous quality, and the empty streets around Moorgate provoke eerie, other-worldly thoughts about the layers of dead beneath our feet, the plagues, bombs, tube crashes, fires (the Great Fire of 1666 destroyed four-fifths of the City). In short, all this seems to underline life’s transience.

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4. Ponder BISHOPSGATE

A City of London boundary marker. Look closely and they are everywhere along the route.
A City of London boundary marker. Look closely and they are everywhere along the route.
But on Moor Lane our quietude is slashed by the hypertrophy of civilisation: the whir of cranes, yells of builders, roar of trucks, and the scrape of metallic barriers, like fingernails on a blackboard. Is the City saying ‘enough’? We crane our necks at a towerblock, its windows like gills.

The north-eastern tip of the perimeter brushes against Hackney. It’s a brief stroll down Norton Folgate, where playwright Christopher Marlowe lived in 1589, and onto Bishopsgate, the beauty of Hawksmoor’s Christ Church rising in the far corner of Spitalfields, just beyond our boundary. (All the while Liverpool Street station yawns on our right.)

There’s a real sense of the old City wall as we snake around Middlesex Street, Widegate Street, Goodman’s Yard. London Wall was built by the Romans in the late 2nd century but has largely disappeared, whilst the current boundary has expanded over the years. Near the Tower of London (itself in the borough of Tower Hamlets) we spy two surviving sections (the others are near the Museum of London and St Alphage).

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5. Stand still on LONDON BRIDGE

View from the bridge.
Dark skies: view from the bridge.
The City’s boundary runs bang down the centre of the river, though it controls both Blackfriars and London Bridges, so we race over to find the black bollards with trademark Dragon insignia that mark its southern tip. On London Bridge, families with pushchairs survey the saturnine view and, as clouds sail above the water like steamships, I imagine the Monday morning rush hour, observed by TS Eliot so clearly in The Waste Land:

A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.

Surviving Hawksmoor: St Mary Woolnoth
Surviving Hawksmoor: St Mary Woolnoth
Oscar Wilde was blunter still: “To me the life of the businessman who…catches a train for the city…is worse than the life of the galley slave. His chains are golden instead of iron.”

We make one diversion away from the perimeter up to the City’s only Hawksmoor church, the elegant St Mary Woolnoth, built in 1716 from the proceeds of coal tax. As trains rumble deep into the clay beneath its foundations, its belfry rises like the prow of a boat.

The dragons
Defiant: the dragons. Photos: SE
At the western boundary with Westminster two wonderful dragons stand on either side of the Embankment, defiant against a sudden blue sky. A bronze plaque informs us that they represent a “constituent part of the armorial bearings of the City of London” and were mounted above the entrance of the old coal exchange, demolished in 1963. Even more ornate is the entrance at Temple Bar on Fleet Street.

We’re back at Chancery Lane three hours after our start and, about to dive into the cavernous Cittie of Yorke pub, glance over at the cranes perched like question marks over the City’s prosperity.

There’s no question about walking home, however, and we’ve soon left the oddly other-worldly environs of the UK’s smallest county – and are on the swift train straight back a couple of miles north.

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