Had Charles Dickens defied gerontology and lived to see his 200th birthday this month, he might have celebrated by taking a tour of his old stomping ground and muse, the City of London. Starting out from Doctors' Commons on the river where he once held an office as a reporter, north to the Guildhall, the venue of Pickwick and Bardell's trial in Pickwick Papers, and east to Leadenhall Street Market, where Nicholas Nickelby went to buy his eggs, he could still, today, have taken in many of the real-life scenes he described in his work: art imitating life. Residual Dickensian landmarks are part of the Square Mile's rich cultural tapestry, which places the old shoulder to shoulder with the new. For having been gutted by the Great Fire in 1666, pulverised by the Blitz in 1940 and terrorised by the threat of IRA bombs in the second half of the last century, the City has experienced a cultural renaissance over the last decade.
Steeped in history
Wherever you go within the City, it's hard to escape its past. There are almost 600 listed buildings - some of which survived the countless catastrophes of the centuries. Before the Great Fire, there were well over 100 churches and despite the tiny population, dozens remain. In the Museum of London, you can walk through a mock-Victorian street, sit on a refurbished Roman bed, and ogle the crumbling weapons of the cavemen of Wandsworth Common (who said Britain's knife culture was a new thing?). The Bank of England Museum allows you to trace the journey of the humble £5 note, test yourself on the history of monetary policy and watch news reports from the day Britain went decimal. The Guildhall at once represents the grandeur and brutality of the British Empire. As we walk through the main atrium, beneath the deifying sculptures, inscriptions to martyrs of the Reformation and buccaneering accounts of the conquests of nations, the staff are laying out goblets and cutlery for a lavish banquet later in the evening. And ironically for a city that's always lumped together with finance, all these attractions are free.
Kieran Meeke is the founder and editor of Secret London - an online almanac of life in the capital - and reckons there are few greater pleasures than a weekend stroll through the City's historical landmarks. "A lot of people come to London," he says, "- but don't actually visit London. The City is the original heart of the place. If you've got any interest in architecture or art, you won't be disappointed. Some of the old churches and pubs look fairly dull from the outside, but once you're inside, they're splendid and have fascinating histories. But the one thing I'm always impressed with about London is that it's never rested on its laurels: it's continually changing."
In decades gone by, the City was synonymous with stuffiness. With a population of 13,000, its community was (and still is) mainly built around the throngs of workers that flood over its borders every day. The financial sector was male-dominated and long-distance commutes meant the streets were deserted after 8pm. The social life, de rigueur, comprised liquid lunches in traditional, wood-panelled pubs and extended "business meetings" in smokey, archaic restaurants. Subsequent generations of City workers have been more diverse - in terms of both sex and ethnicity - and have different demands. They've brought a decidedly fresher vibe to the City. The old-fashioned boozers remain, but they've been joined by hosts of trendy, modern restaurants and wine bars, frequented by a clientele more than happy to take the last tube home to suburbia. The liquid lunches - while still a part of City life - have been blown open to competition from all sides - much like the markets which help fund them.
Kim Tasso, a consultant in the City for 30 years who blogs for the popular website All In London, speaks fondly of catching "45 minutes of condensed Shakespeare at lunchtime" at the Bridewell Theatre on Fleet Street and eating lunch in the sunny green spaces between the Inns of Court, which for 600 years has housed the City's barristers' associations. Along the embankment, the same river that attracted the Romans to lay down London's earliest roots pays host to swarms of lunchers, with entertainment provided on a daily basis.
As the City's ambience has changed, so too as its skyline, which, for many, has been a symbol of its evolution. The shift in modern architecture from the distinctly unsexy NatWest Tower to the iconic Shard of Glass, the Gherkin and the One New Change development on Cheapside has, says Kieran Meeke, helped revitalise the area. "There was a fashion for having these horrible office blocks and parts of it (the City) were like a bleak wasteland. There were lots of ugly buildings that nobody wanted anything to do with. But now, you have buildings with lots of character and people want to work in them and be associated with them. You've got the likes of Gordon Ramsey coming in and opening restaurants there... a lot of life is returning."
The undoubted focal point of the returning life and culture is the Barbican Centre, Europe's largest multi-arts venue. In such a transient society, it could be difficult to engender a sense of community. That the Barbican's incorporated into the Barbican Estate housing complex, one of the largest residential areas in the City, helps do exactly that. From art workshops, to classical musical performances, from reruns of cinema classics, to touring dance troupes, the Barbican represents the melting pot of the modish and the antique which the City has become. Dickens may not have been enamoured with the capitalist stronghold the Square Mile has become, but he would have most certainly approved of its culture.