London is full of interest, but where does it end and begin?
The capital’s edges are ragged, a straggly series of fizzling out suburbs and streets on the fringes of the Green Belt, sometimes escaping the London Orbital, at other times giving way to fields surprisingly early. Take the Northern Line to its north-eastern edges at High Barnet or, better still, Mill Hill East and you’ll see the countryside unfold around you. It’s a trip to the countryside for a bleep of an Oyster card.
Where it begins is only slightly easier to answer. Most schoolchildren, or at least those who’ve spent time on long car journeys, will tell you that distances to and from London are measured from Charing Cross, but what does this mean? After all, there have been roads and measurements from London for longer than there have been railways.
The answer is, of course, that the Charing Cross in question is not the station, but the cross itself. Edward I’s crosses, erected across England as a memorial to his beloved wife, plotted a route that terminated at Westminster Abbey. The last was at the then-hamlet of Charing, a pit stop for merchants, aristocrats and pilgrims moving from London to Westminster. Various sources suggest the explanation of the name Charing as deriving from Cher Reine (Dear Queen) is a misnomer, and that Charing more likely comes from Cerring, an Anglo-Saxon word meaning bend. A cross stood here until 1647, when it was torn down by iconoclastic Puritans. And it was from this point that distances were measured. The lovely mural on the Northern Line platforms of Charing Cross Station by David Gentleman depict the construction of the cross.
The Victorians, being well-intentioned and aware of their past, built a fine and over-large reconstruction of the Charing Cross which still stands in the forecourt of the station. It was designed by E.M. Barry who also came up with the plans for Charing Cross station. Stop and have a look when you’re next passing – it’s remarkably easy to miss despite its size, with taxis and London traffic roaring past. This cross, however, is not in the original location. By the time they got round to building the reconstruction another memorial to another monarch was in situ where Charing Cross stood. It’s still there, in fact: the equestrian statue of Charles I, guarding the entrance to Trafalgar Square from Whitehall. Charles I’s statue pre-dates Trafalgar Square and was built in 1675, standing in the Royal Mews. Today it feels very much like the centre of London, surrounded by honking traffic and overlooked by Nelson’s Column, the National Gallery and facing down Whitehall to Parliament.
However, if that same schoolboy who is passing time on long car journeys gets the map out and follows older roads from their inter-city origins through the M25, the circular roads and the old Ring Road deep into the heart of London he will discover something. Rather than stop at Charing Cross the A1 starts and finishes at London Wall. The A2 will come to rest in Borough, while the A3 and the A10, the old Cambridge Road, both terminate at the northern end of London Bridge, at the junction of Cannon Street and King William Street, the A3 crossing London Bridge to do so.
Why do these roads reach their end at the junction of Cannon Street and King William Street? The answer is to be found on Cannon Street – once called Candlewick Street – in an innocuous-looking window behind a painted grille. Here is a chunk of ancient rock. The London Stone is of deep and unknown antiquity, possibly as old as London itself, and may have been part of a Roman building or the mile stone from where Romans measured distance all over Britain. You wouldn’t know it to walk past it today but the stone once occupied a place in the hearts of Londoners akin to how Scots feel about the Stone of Scone. The truth is lost, like so much of London’s history, in the mists of time.
We shouldn’t feel too bad though: no-one knew what all the fuss was about when John Stow was writing about London at the end of the sixteenth century.
I don’t know why the centre for measuring distance shifted west from the Stone to the Cross. At a guess, at some point an official designation had to be made for government administrative purposes and Charing Cross was chosen as it was near to both King and Parliament, rather than continuing with an ancient convention for its own sake. If anyone knows I’d love to know.
Other countries have interesting marks as their centre. Paris, and France, has Notre Dame Cathedral as Kilometre Zero, while the zero milestone in the United States is close to the White House in Washington DC. Rome goes for the top of Capitoline Hill. What’s the centre of your town?