Imagined London: the City
Put on your headphones and join us on an imagined audio walk through the City of London’s streets, from the Millennium Bridge to Smithfield Market, accompanied by the voices of Londoners past and present.
From your phone, or computer, at home or on your local walk, you’ll be transported through London’s iconic streets and hear the stories of Londoners who have gone before.
The Oral Histories you will hear were chosen by volunteer researchers Abby Miles, Orla O’Flynn, Sadie Arora, Ava McKenzie Welch, Theodora Prizeman, Melinda Revesz, and Angela Luigia Mascolo, who worked together remotely throughout the lockdown of early 2020 to create this immersive sound walk. Their work forms part of a project called Listening to London, where the Museum of London is working with teams of volunteer researchers to develop new interpretations of our Oral History collection.
The extracts which form part of this piece were selected from our Oral History collections, including Lewisham Voices, M11 Linked, Half the Sky (© Museum of London) and Windrush Conversations (© Greater London Authority Community Engagement Team).
You are standing by the water. The endless tide of the Thames sweeps past you, flowing down beneath the spans of bridges on its way to the crawling estuary. The tide is high now, and the edges of the river fold over themselves as they lap against the banks like pages turning in a book.
There are boats on the water. Glassy-sided dinner cruisers glide past in stately procession, intercut by speeding red lifeboats bouncing and skimming their way like stones across the surface. Behind them, a heavy, flat-decked barge growls and grumbles through their wakes, carrying mounds of earth and debris from the ever deepening Crossrail tunnels, downstream.
"Yeah, yeah, I remember this river. I can hear the water...and that old bridge there. And right down there."
"Oh much busier. Yeah because there were boats coming up there with cargoes that used to line up at the buoys and they'd be unloaded by the buoys. That's where stevedores come in. The difference between stevedore and a docker is one works on the land and one works in the barge in the water. And that's where stevedores come in. They were the people that unloaded the boats from the ship to the barges and little bit different you see from working on solid ground to somebody who's going up and down in the water. But yeah that was where that arose. Yeah there were always tonnes of barges always going up and down the river."
A brisk breeze brushes against your skin, and chases clouds across the sky. Rounded shapes of white and grey come together, overlap and then part to reveal patches of blue beyond, and stray shafts of sunlight peep through to glint on the steely water below. Ahead, the metal span of the Millennium Bridge arches over the river. Footsteps resonate hollowly as people make their way from bank to bank over grids of steel sheeting.
“yes we grew up there, very wild actually, swimming and running around and, with sun and water, I loved that, you know, that combination, it’s very important, so that was my leisure.”
On the far side of the river, the hulking mass of the Tate Modern squats amidst swaying silver birch trees, its single chimney jutting upwards like an outstretched finger. Behind you, you hear the quiet rush of traffic. The sigh of cars and the buzz of motorcycles fade in and out of hearing in a rhythmic stream, then slow to a halt, making way for the thin, high beep of a pedestrian crossing.
“That Green Man, the roundabout is wicked. It's so fast around there, the cars...[...] and the noise that you get out in the garden was unbelievable. You used to be able to sit out in the garden and it was lovely and you'd hear the birds... but now all you can hear is that rush.”
“I came to England in 1964. I used to live in New Cross Road, yeah, New Cross Road, the traffic coming from the Elephant & Castle roundabout and move down the New Cross Road four, five thousand vehicles an hour, you know, and I was living on the second floor, you know, and the window they rattle [...] and so I was wondering where did I come?”
“I remember waiting, um, taking the Gatwick, some train from Gatwick to go to London Bridge, on the platform just waiting for my friend, she was going to pick me up at 7 o’clock in the morning like the London rush, not knowing that it was actually the norm and not just a busy day that I’d come in on.”
You turn away from the river, making your way towards the road. Buildings of brick and glass loom up on either side, lining the walkway. You peer inside the glass building to your right as you pass, and see people inside, meeting and parting, toing and froing – a thousand tiny interactions inside the transparent walls.
"We got the train to Victoria and I am looking out expecting to see lovely buildings, lovely painted house because [at] home we have bungalows, painted lovely. And so I'm looking and I thought, 'This place must be really big,' because all this time I've been driving and I don't see where people live, all I could see was factories. I thought all these houses was factories, bakeries and things like that. They're big, dark brick walls. [At] home we have bungalows painted lovely, big windows and a veranda. So when I look at these tower blocks to me they were all factories. That's what our factories are like in Jamaica.”
“I was at Leytonstone Sorting Office from 1972 to 1992 when the road came through and they had to move us to a new office. And I'm still here in 2003! As you can hear. And I'm just looking at some old pictures of the old sorting office and it brings back a lot of memories. I can't believe what the working conditions were. Very sociable people what lived and worked in Fillebrook Road. Must have been over hundred years old.”
“Working in London I was looking for an office job because that's what I had done all my life. My wife couldn't take up a job immediately because we had a two-year-old baby and we had to make some arrangements for him first. I went to the local exchange and I said that I'm looking for an office job and I told them what my qualifications were and what my experience was, but the man sitting there said there was no chance of me getting any office job and I could do a labour job, unloading. He said there are no office jobs at all. I said, 'No, I have a lot of experience of office jobs when I was working. I have a background in law. I've worked an office job.' This fellow, rather bluntly, told me, 'The chances of you getting an office job are the same as of snow falling on Delhi.”
You continue walking up towards the road. Just before the crossing, you see two geometric arches in the walkway. You walk towards the one on your left, and pause for a moment inside the arch. The shaded metal planes surrounding you radiate coolness onto your skin, and your breath resonates off their surfaces.
“I thought 'Oh my God', they cut right the way through that mountain. The hills that they cut through, cos they were so beautiful, all the downs to make another road. Just to get people to one place at a certain time.”
The pedestrian crossing beeps, and you cross the road. Ahead of you, the grey-green dome of St Paul’s Cathedral rears; the path beneath your feet begins to slope upwards to meet it. The buildings on either side give way and reveal a flat expanse of green grassy shapes, dissected with branching paths. You walk forward onto the grassy space in front of you to your left. The grass is springy beneath your feet. Three trees cast dappled shade over the ground. When you step into it, tiny beads of moisture clinging to the blades of grass dampen the edges of your shoes.
Straight ahead, another road crosses your path. The shining red sides of the number 15 bus ease past, and you watch your own reflection in the windows of the lower deck as it passes. Behind, the faces of the passengers look out, watching the streets unfold around them.
“The bus drivers, the bus conductors were like friends. I remember coming from Finchley, we were going to some place in Kilburn. We didn’t know we had to stop so I asked the conductor “I want to go to the address”. Actually he stopped the bus and walked up to the lane and said “you can go along here” and life in England at that time was so lovely, in the sense that Sunday morning after Mass you come, there are heaps of different types, different newspapers. We just put the money in the tray, pick up your paper and go, just drop a coin in the box on the wall and take a bottle of milk and come and it was really paradise.”
“I had a vision of this remarkably amazing place….erm…of you know being Great Britain. And there was talk of all the sights you could see, the Tower of London, Buckingham Palace, also St James’s Palace, MCC…cos we’re great fans of course…but loads yes… And so when I came to London, I was so shocked, because I thought it was so dirty and so broken down and so…so much smoke coming out”
You cross the road, and St Paul’s looms before you. You crane your head back to catch a glimpse of the gold orb and cross on the very top of the dome. Turning to your right, you follow a black wrought iron fence along the path. A smaller spire peers over the trees ahead of you, its weather vane revolving slowly in the breeze. Climbing roses peer over the top of the black fence, clusters of petals in peach, cream, magenta and apricot. Thorny stems twine between the fence posts.
"My impression did change, because before, I had read a lot of Dickens, um, of course I knew England was different from the Dickensian times, I was still expecting to see fog for example, so I was pleasantly surprised. Um and um I was delighted to see the masses of flowers because I came in September when the roses were still in bloom, um, and um I loved flowers."
To your left, a gateway opens. You step through into the churchyard. It’s quieter here; the sounds of the traffic have receded, replaced by the rustling of trees. The path curves between benches where people sit, alone or in pairs, quietly gazing up at the stone walls or murmuring in conversation.
“Yes. It’s just up the road there. Yes. I get a good, when Sunday come round I go morning and night. Morning time I go to church, in the afternoon I go and serve and only books and to come to collection, but now I cannot walk to pick up the collection, somebody help me, somebody us help me go to church but yes I was born and bred in the Anglican Church. I never leave my Church.”
You follow the path around, skirting the edges of the cathedral walls. The grey-white stone bulges outward, and tall arched windows laced with lead look out across the City, meters above your head. There are gaps in between the paving slabs – tiny plants and mosses move in to colonise, punctuating the grey slabs with pinpricks of green. Caster-oil plants shade the edges of the borders with their fanned leaves; the flowered heads of hydrangeas nod amongst them. Hostas spread low along the edges of the path, their white-rimmed edges carved into shapes by snails.
Ahead of you, you see a tall grey column. Perched on the top, the gilded figure of Saint Paul looks out to the east, crucifix in hand. To your left, squat tombstones rear out of the grass, their ancient stone faces textured with lichen, the inscriptions long since blurred by years of wind, rain and snow.
“At first I didn’t like the cold. It was too cold but then afterwards I get accustomed to the cold, but the first time I came in ’71 I spent two months and when I went home I couldn’t feel the heat, it was too hot.“
“It was cold and dismal…Coming to London it was a surprise because I couldn’t believe that London was so cold…. Very cold although it was May when I arrived… and it was so dark and dismal. And being a young person, it was very surprising to me but I eventually got used to it.”
"November, London, everything was grey. Grey buildings, grey craters, grey, you know, everything was grey! There was nothing else. I was taken to the Houses of Parliament I think, I thought that was grey, and I think also that day Buckingham Palace was grey. Nothing else was, nothing was pleasant! Don't forget about one thing, I wasn't brought up in Beijing, Beijing is not grey but it's slightly more grey than '....', it's called '....' now and '...' is in Sechuan province, and all year round it's green!”
You head past the column and turn right to head out of the churchyard. You step into the narrow strait of Cannon Alley, the square red brick buildings forming sheer walls on either side. You move through a stream of people, diverging paths as they duck in and out of the cafes and restaurants lining the alley. Smells of cuisine from all over the world drift on the air: spicy Pad Thai, sweet Italian tomatoes, and rich Mexican spices. Clusters of metal chairs and tables spill out onto the pavement, filled with people eating, laughing, and sharing stories.
“I mean, England is paradise, London is paradise for anybody who appreciates culture - you have everything and musically you have everything, everybody comes here. It’s in England, it’s in London that you meet the world, you know, you come here to meet Africa, to meet Asia, to meet United States, to meet South America, to meet Brazil, you come to London, you know, all the world is here.”
“I made chicken curry, even fried my own way, some cake, spicy with cumin seed powder, I made samosas, chilli cake, pakora and everyone who come to my house said they liked it [where you surprised?] yes!, I know I am not making very hot for the young ones”
The enclosed alley ends abruptly, and you find yourself on the junction when Newgate Street and King Edward Street diverge. Cars, buses and motorbikes pass in a humming stream. Taxi drivers lean their elbows out of their open windows as they make small talk with their passengers.
You take a zigzagging path over the crossings, to land on a smooth, wide section of pavement. You look to your left and see Christchurch Greyfriars, the spire reaching up tall and stately; its crumbling walls extending out towards you. Embraced between the walls is a garden. Where the pews once would have stood before the Blitz, are beds of flowers. Geraniums, foxgloves and salvia peep out between evergreen shrubs, and pale pink roses wind their way up wooden frames, five on each side of the aisle. The faint scent of them reaches you as you make your way past.
"And the garden, which is lovely because it’s got a mature apple tree, there are fantastic hollyhocks and foxgloves and just, you know, it has been a beautiful garden and because my background is farming I just think excellent, this is, you know. And of course there was no hedge between our house and Lucy and Ian’s house. So, that was perfect. So we’ve got neighbours who are friends, friends who are neighbours.”
“It’s very, very green, it’s very lush, umm, you can just see my vegetable patch in the background with my runner beans, and there’s a pond over to the right. You’d get loads of little golden eyed frogs, tiny little frogs.” “What else did you grow apart from runner beans?” “Umm, the spinach, everlasting spinach, broccoli, leeks, tomatoes, that’s about it. Herbs, loads of herbs, loads of herbs. And it’s just a gorgeous garden, I mean I spent more time in the garden really, whenever I – you know, umm, and its, it really is a paradise.”
You continue northwards up Kind Edward Street, crossing the road and passing regiments of Boris Bikes, their red-sided mudguards aligned in neat rows. A huge plane tree spreads its canopy before you, its broad branches with their peeling textured bark forking high above a black railing. Just before you reach the tree, the railing is interrupted by two red brick gate posts. You step between the posts and onto a winding path bordered by green. The paving slabs are slightly uneven; you feel their edges and corners tilting up and down through the soles of your shoes.
“Mum would see me across the road which wasn’t busy in those days. I’d go round to the high street, I’d get grandfather’s coffee amongst other things, and further afield, I would go down further usually on her bike to get the dairy rations, butter and cheese, from the UD (?) which was down there. Yeah I was always fairly okay on the bike.”
The path forks, and you take the left branch. Tall square buildings of red brick peer down, overlooking the ragged leaves of tree ferns and banana plants. The paths steers you around to the left, before opening to encircle a round flower bed, cut into quarters by thin ribbons of paving. You turn to your left again, and see a long wooden bench, shaded by a canopy. The floor in front of it is paved in herringbone patterns. Above the bench, there are three rows of white glazed tiles, each one separated from the next by a row of bricks. On their surfaces are stories painted in blue green glaze, telling the tales of the unsung heroes who once walked the city’s streets.
You turn away from the tiles, and begin follow the path that leads you out of Postman’s Park onto Aldersgate Street. As you pass Saint Botolph’s on your left, you hear the chatter of voices: a wedding party is making their way out into the park. The guests line up on either side of the entrance, rows of brightly coloured hats and flowers bob and rustle as the couple emerge to cheers and clapping, pausing to let their smiles be captured by cameras.
“At the entrance to the house there I would do a rice flour design, called a coulomb it is in one way decorative, secondly it was food for the ants, so we do it now of course, people do it with coloured chalk and things like that but it’s originally done with a white rice flour… In fact I have the powder and all that. I would do it but the days when we have functions here it’s winter so if I do the decoration there it would just wash off with snow and ice. I did it for my son’s wedding. I did a half lotus in front of that door. I, I couldn’t go and sit there and do it because before that there was a function at 3 o’clock so I did it on a large sheet of paper, I made, I made mixed coconut with pink cochineal to make it the lotus colour and, and green for the leaf, so I made a half leaf and did the half lotus and took it, and put gum first, and then put this coconut on and then lifted it very carefully and kept it there in front of that, but at the very entrance at the hotel, one of my friends she came in with a small one, some of the decoration in front of the entrance.”
You descend the steps out of the park and, turning left, you see the smooth sides of the Museum of London rotunda squatting in the middle of the roundabout. The white M of its sign stands out starkly against the dark brick on the furthest right. You head towards the roundabout, skirting its left edge, crossing the mouths of the roads that feed into it. On the opposite side to where you entered, you follow the road as it unfolds out into Aldersgate Street once again. The traffic moves faster here, cars and taxis passing you by on your right hand side. A bicycle whizzes past, music blaring from a speaker on its handlebars.
“So there is this song called ‘Veso Jeano’, which means ‘Little Dress’, and basically my mother sent me a present, a dress from Brazil through some friends, and the dress was really nothing really, just a little thing, simple, nothing, it’s not anything, it’s just like of, made of cotton, nothing much and many colours, and I remember wearing that dress and it was a summer day and I was, you know, summer in this country is such a bliss, you know, it’s such, you know, you know you can only appreciate summer when you, when you live in a country like this and I, to me, it’s just incredible, it changes me completely. And I remember wearing that dress and then it started raining and I went outside, so okay I wrote the song about this experience and it’s, it’s very much you know, is to do with, with you know the feeling, of, you know, me being a foreigner and missing the sun and wearing the dress that my mum sent me, you know over the Atlantic, and, through the Atlantic, or whatever, to this country”
The road is long and straight, and the faceless brick and glass buildings on your left are monotonous, but you don’t feel tired as you walk. You know that you are close to your destination. Up ahead, a red circle bisected by a blue line flashes out from the side of a building. As you walk closer, the white Gill Sans lettering of Barbican tube station reveals itself on its navy blue background. A steady flow of people pass in and out of its entrance - occasionally one pauses to scoop up a newspaper from the stand below the steps. A group of workmen in orange high-vis jackets and white hardhats gather by the wall, talking a moment to share a chat and a sandwich.
“You’d stop around 3 o’clock in the morning, and go out the front door with a cup of tea or something, and the guys would be working on the tube line, shovelling stones and things, you know, and they were always out there, and we’d all go out there and have a little natter for half an hour with these gangs of blokes who just sort of appeared in the middle of the night. I always remember that, because you could hear the “CHHH” of the shovels chucking the stones around on the line.”
You turn left down Long Lane just before you reach the station. The glass buildings of Aldersgate Street give way to the softer red brick of Victorian terraces, each front opening out to reveal small shops – eateries, stationers and barbers. A black sign with gold lettering protrudes from a bright red brick façade, ornamented with pale, elaborate lintels and cornices. Victorian gas lamps, long since connected to the mains, hang in a row underneath gold capitals announcing the Old Red Cow pub. An A-frame sign on the pavement outside reads, “YES, WE DO ICED COFFEE”.
“There are quite a few bands, actually, living around the area, all based around the Northcote pub basically, which is where everyone goes, well, more or less every night, but certainly at the weekends, the pub is packed”
Ahead of you, a green-capped octagonal cupola marks the south-western corner of Smithfield market. A glazed awning shades the pavement below, where the traders and workers, finished with the day’s business of selling produce, make their way into and out of the building.
“I was surprised when I came here to see you could get everything, everything you could get at home on the market. Everything from foreign countries. Everything that you get at home. When I was home I sent eggs to my sister, ‘cause I don’t think they have fowl in England! So I sent eggs from home!“
As Long Lane becomes West Smithfield, you look up to your right and see the huge arched entrance to Grand Avenue. Blue iron vines and purple roses decorate the façade above the arch, continuing through the covered walkway on the girders that support the roof. On the corners either side, statues look down – two of four figures guarding the entrances, representing London, Edinburgh, Liverpool and Dublin. You pass Grand Avenue, continuing down West Smithfield, crossing the tangle of roads that merge and branch across and away from your path. Another cupola perches above you where the West Market ends. The buildings to your left become more hodgepodge – a mixture of stately Victorian brickwork and blocky 1960’s concrete sidle alongside each other. To your right, the dark brick of the Poultry Market is intersected with panels of honeycomb glass, too thick and wavy to see through.
West Poultry Avenue opens up on your right and you walk down its centre. The light coming though the covered walkway is diffused to sepia through years of accumulated dust and dirt, and the occasional leavings of pigeons. The paint on the old shop fronts to your left is still a bright shade of green, despite its peeling edges.
You stop in the middle of the avenue. You close your eyes. You imagine what this place would have looked like when it first opened at the end of the 19th century. How it would have smelled. The noises you would have heard. The bustle of the traders and customers coming and going in the busiest market in the City.
"I remember, a friend of Tina’s who met me at the same, around that time, Marlo, she said to me, ‘Monica, you know what, the first day I saw you I thought, she’s a little bit crazy’, you know she said I was, I looked like you know, so much going on, I was a bit strange and it’s probably true. Another thing that Tina told me is that when you go somewhere like that, you change languages, you change the environment in such an abrupt way, you go back to using part of your brain that you used when you were a kid, learning about the world and recognising everything, so I can understand that, it’s different, you start somehow, there is a part of you that’s really busy, assessing, accessing everything and taking it in.”
You hear the faint sound of the workers inside the long neglected building. You imagine what this place might be like a few years from now. How it might look, smell, sound. You imagine what it will be like to go inside, and what stories you might find there.
Listening to London is supported by The Esmé Fairbairn Collections Fund - delivered by the Museums Association