Posted in London on Saturday 2nd April 2005 at 9:08pm

To celebrate the 150th anniversary of the beginnings of The London & Middlesex Archaeological Society there are many special events planned - today was the first of a series of 'Central London Walks', this time visiting London Squares. Started early from Weston, with a cool and misty journey diverted via the Berks & Hants route. First to Waterloo Bridge for coffee and breakfast. Met the other walkers on the River Terrace at Somerset House. The walk started in now powerful sunshine, and headed north over Aldwych and the site of Saxon Lundenwic, to Covent Garden. The arcade, part of the extension to the Royal Opera House gives an idea of how the square looked when first built. From here to Inigo Jones curious St. Paul's church with its decorative but ultimately pointless east elevation. West again now, to Leicester Square.

It is this part of the walk I dreaded. I'm not a fan of the gaudy, crowded precincts of the West End of London. A lot has changed however since I last visited. Here Jon Finney, our guide spoke a little about the responsibility of those who conserve or preserve sites, and how doing so can change the nature of a place. Indeed Leicester Square seemed more spacious, personable and open than before. We proceeded to Trafalgar Square via the rather silly Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery, and I was impressed again by change. Gone is the impossible circuit of traffic, and a wide open prospect down to Whitehall gives fine views. The square is accessible and usable, but as our guide points out - is no longer a square!

Under Admiralty Arch next, along the Mall and past the Nash terraces - seemingly built of pink blancmange. Nash buildings always make more sense to me from a distance, and at close quarters lack any interest at all. Up the steps beside the ICA (and the mysterious doorway which haunts Subterranea Britannica), and to St. James' Square - London's first and at one point most exclusive residential square. Built as a speculative venture, it became a haunt of Dukes and Earls. No residences or indeed original buildings now surround the square. The walk ended at Burlington House - home of the Royal Academy, where a remodelled courtyard works less well. A chance to look around restored William Kent rooms before heading off into the midday sunshine.

This walk took me to areas I tend to avoid - my interest and knowledge of London lies east of here. Decided to capitalise on the opportunity and visit one or two sites which I would normally not get near. Started with a sweep through St. James' Park to Parliament Square, something I did on my first solo visit to London many years ago. Impossibly crowded, so I decided to seek out Westminster Cathedral. I'd been reading about the Cathedral recently, and the failing health of Pope John Paul II had ensured it being featured on televison recently as a backdrop to ecclesiastical vox pops. Problem was, I couldn't find it! It seems not to feature on any map of the area at all. Struck out along Victoria Street, eventually finding a direction sign - soon enough the oddly octagonal, red brick byzantine influenced tower appeared over the rooftops.

On turning into the piazza around Bentley's amazing building I was struck by the odd atmosphere. Satellite broadcasting vans everywhere, cables running to expectant cameras and off-duty newscasters lounging on bollards. People were visibly waiting for the Pope's passing. The only person really doing anything in that strangely quiet square was a Big Issue seller, proclaiming his wares from the Cathedral steps. On a strange whim, went inside. The interior was wonderful. Eric Gill's stations of the cross adorn marbled pillars, whilst overhead is blank brickwork. The usual conspicuously rich iconography of a Catholic place of worship looks less out of place here than in older churches. A small altar with a picture of the pontiff had been set up, and a continuous stream of the faithful visited it, lit a candle and moved on. The Cathedral was filling slowly and silently with people. At one point, a Cathedral official approached a microphone and called for attention - the expectation was palpable. He gave a message for someone to meet their daughter at the main doors, nothing more. An entire congregation let out a sigh of relief. Some in fact, fell to their knees. I sat for quite a while mesmerised by the atmosphere, but eventually felt extremely out of place.

Fled to more certain ground, and found myself pounding my usual beat of Blackfriars, Newgate, Smithfield and Clerkenwell before heading back to Paddington and a quiet journey home. A strange day where I challenged my prejudices in many ways.

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I've had a home on the web for more years than I care to remember, and a few kind souls persuade me it's worth persisting with keeping it updated. This current incarnation of the site is centred around the blog posts which began back in 1999 as 'the daylog' and continued through my travels and tribulations during the following years.

I don't get out and about nearly as much these days, but I do try to record significant events and trips for posterity. You may also have arrived here by following the trail to my former music blog Songs Heard On Fast Trains. That content is preserved here too.

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