by Katie Calvert
Built to commemorate the Great Fire of 1666 and one of many London landmarks designed by Sir Christopher Wren, the Monument stands near the site of the baker's house on Pudding Lane where the blaze began.
The Monument served as a symbol of London's rebirth and economic resilience in the wake of the disaster. For those energetic enough to make the climb today, its enclosed observation deck affords a 360-degree (bottom of this page) view of the modern London that was rebuilt from the ashes.
The fire began early in the morning of Sunday, September 2. Some evidence suggests that it started in the kitchen of Thomas Farriner (sometimes spelled Farrinor, Farynor, or Farryner), a baker to the king.
Narrow streets and alleys, closely packed houses and shops, and construction that favored the use of timber and thatch—London had all the right ingredients to feed and nourish the flames for several days.
By the time the fire was extinguished, it had engulfed 80 percent of the City, destroying much of the London that Shakespeare would have known. Among the ruins were old St Paul's Cathedral and the Royal Exchange.
Diarist Samuel Pepys, who described the conflagration and recorded its course, wrote that when the fire was put out in Cripplegate on day four "the King himself was seen helping the soldiers."
On day four (Wednesday) the wind dropped and the fire stopped its advance; Londoners would douse the last of its flames late Thursday night.
The Monument was one of the first structures King Charles II commissioned to be built after the fire. The job fell to Sir Christopher Wren. It is amazing to realize that the man most responsible for the rebuilding of London never studied to be an architect.
Educated at Oxford University, Wren was a scientist, an astronomer, and a mathematician. He became the most influential British architect of the Baroque period, and, arguably, of all time. His masterpiece, St. Paul's, still helps define London's skyline.
Borrowing from the classical Roman style, the Monument is a Doric column made of Portland stone. Its height of 202 feet is also the distance it stands from the site of Farriner's kitchen.
The top displays a flaming golden urn, while the bottom consists of plaques that describe the fire, inscriptions, and a bas-relief sculpture showing King Charles II (in Roman dress) and his brother James, the Duke of York, directing the rebuilding of the City.
The Monument was erected between 1671 and 1677.
Aided and abetted by his friend and fellow designer, Robert Hooke (another multitalented man known by all mechanical engineers for Hooke's Law of elasticity and whose other discoveries and contributions to science are only now becoming better recognized), Wren designed the Monument for a second purpose: to serve as a scientific research facility, complete with an underground laboratory.
The Monument's central shaft was designed for use as a zenith telescope (the top was hinged). These two mathematical geniuses designed the structure's interior to enable accurate barometric pressure readings to be taken. It served as the site of numerous gravity and pendulum experiments.
The view from the observation deck is not the only reason to climb the Monument's beautiful spiral staircase. Bragging rights—backed up by a handsome certificate—belong to those who climb up and down the column's 311 steps.
If you do climb the tower a pair of binoculars or a camera with a telephoto lens will come in handy to view distant structures. The monument went through an 18 month restoration project and reopened in February 2009 with a new wire mesh around the viewing platform—after these photos were taken.
Standing at the top the skyscrapers of London's financial center dominate the view north of the Monument—most notably the egg-shaped Swiss Re headquarters. Looking east, you can see the Tower of London, Tower Bridge, the more modern City Hall and the HMS Belfast. Southwark is across the nearby River Thames to the south. London Bridge, just right of due south, is hidden by a building. Rising above the buildings to the west are the dome of St. Paul's Cathedral and, far beyond the Tate Modern, the London Eye.
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Website and all photos copyright © 2001–2013 Lee W. Nelson