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Layers of London

Walk around the great city, pick a spot, and dig in.

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Faced with a city the size of London — really, a sea of little cities — one has to make some choices. We all have our methods, whether it's checking things off a list or just wandering aimlessly to see what we see. Or we go visit friends and let them show us around, like when my London hosts took me to a lovely park on a hill with a view of South London or when we went to an Arsenal football match.

But, like all travelers, I also have my lists — and London is an amazing city for touring, whatever your style. Years ago, when backpacking, I rode a tour bus through the streets, went to Hyde Park Speakers Corner, and drank a pint in the Sherlock Holmes pub. And another in The Cartoonist pub. And one in ... let's move on.

Last time, since I am something of a journalist and had some great jobs at newspapers, I decided I had to go to Fleet Street. What Wall Street is to finance, Fleet Street is to journalism. Or so I thought.

The thing about London is, it's just layers upon layers of history. Fleet Street is in what they call the City of London, the really old part of town. The Romans built there, on the banks of the river. On Wikipedia you can read sentences like, "The length of Fleet Street marks the expansion of the City in the 14th century."

And in the year 1500, Wynkyn de Worde set up a printing press there. Others soon followed, mainly because there were churches and law firms that needed things printed. And in 1702, the city's first daily paper, The Daily Courant, was published on Fleet Street. With all the presses around, it made sense that other papers would open up, and since journalists like to drink together, the area also became known for coffeehouses and pubs. One of them, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, has been there since 1538, and among the writers once known to drink there are Mark Twain, Alfred Tennyson, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Dickens, and Samuel Johnson.

This is what happens to the traveler in London. You pick a spot, or in this case a street, and pretty soon you're in a 500-year-old pub where some of the greatest writers of our language hung out: a place that got rebuilt after the Great Fire of 1666, when America was barely colonies.

Walking down Fleet Street, I noticed a distinct lack of newspaper offices. I would later find out they all moved to get cheaper rent. So I switched to wander mode, and a little alley caught my eye. Back there, in a quiet courtyard, I saw a church. Churches being generally good tourist habitat, I stepped into the courtyard and found myself at a place called St. Bride's.

This is when the London Thing happened again, for St. Bride's isn't just a little neighborhood church. First, although it's named for an Irish saint, Bridget, its tiered spire is said to have been the inspiration for modern wedding cakes. Also, I read on a plaque that said spire was designed in 1672 by Sir Christopher Wren, also famous for St. Paul's, Kensington Palace, many other London landmarks, as well as a pub across the courtyard where his masons lived while building the church.

If 340 years seems like an old church, understand that was the rebuilding of the church after most of London burned in 1666; it was later rebuilt after the Germans destroyed all but the steeple in 1940. It's believed that St. Bride's is the seventh church to be built on the spot, dating back to "the conversion of the Middle Saxons in the 7th Century." Out front there's a statue of Virginia Dare, the first English person born in America; her parents were married at St. Bride's in the late 1580s.

I stepped inside to find various pews bearing the names of publications; lo, this is the "spiritual home of the print media." Admittedly, it will be news to many that journalists ever go into a church, but this might sound more familiar: Apparently, there were quite a few jokes when the owner of a paper lay in rest, awaiting his funeral, in a chapel remodeled after a donation from a competing paper. St. Bride's was also the scene of vigils for various journalists held hostage around the world, and there's an altar dedicated to reporters who lost their lives covering the news.

I headed downstairs to visit a museum, and there was one last layer. When they rebuilt after the Blitz of 1940, they dug down to find Roman walls, some of the oldest ruins in the city. They also found a mysterious building from the second century AD. Both these discoveries were surprises to historians.

I couldn't think of a better image for London: standing on a Roman wall, surrounded by what was rebuilt after fire and war, remembering 500 years of the printed word, and within a short walk of a pub. All because I ducked down an alley, curious.

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