Word building

2nd July 2004 at 01:00
Chris Fautley joins a literacy project inspired by the architecture surrounding an historic walk through the City of London

How can a gherkin, Sir Christopher Wren and a pizza restaurant improve literacy? All feature in this literacy walk based on the City of London's breath-taking architecture.

Start at St Paul's Cathedral and contemplate Wren's epitaph: Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice (Reader, if you seek his monument, look round). It ably demonstrates how our language is derived from Latin - modern words should leap from it. Pen alternative epitaphs: restrict them to six words, and test concise writing.

Head east, along Cannon Street. Adjacent to the station, at No 80, is a dark glass-clad building enclosed within latticed, diagonal stainless steel tubes. Think of adjectives to describe it. Like many other City buildings, it is cleaned by window cleaners in cradles suspended from the building's top. How would you feel if this were your job?

Turn south to Upper Thames Street, then east to pass under King William Street which connects with London Bridge. Cue synonyms and antonyms.

Continue into Lower Thames Street to No 10, the Northern and Shell building. Its acres of mirrored blue glass are best viewed from the riverside (Grant's Quay Wharf). Imagine you are an estate agent trying to sell it: draw up a description.

Head north for the maze of passageways around George Yard, off Lombard Street. Look particularly for the George and Vulture pub in St Michael's Court (it featured in the Pickwick Papers), and the Jamaica Wine House in St Michael's Alley. This time-locked enclave is far removed from 21st century bustle, so describe being here on a moonless night in 1850. What are you doing? Why?

Continue north to Old Broad Street. The Nat West Tower, more properly Tower 42, soon comes into view. At 600ft, it was once Britain's tallest building.

Think of alternative adjectives to "tall", and some similes to describe it.

Walk north across London Wall to find Bishopsgate Churchyard, a street on the right. You cannot miss what is best described as a miniature Brighton Pavilion. Now a pizza restaurant, it was built in 1895 as a Turkish bath - complete with onion dome, glazed tiling, terracotta finishings and intricate glasswork. Write a postcard to a friend, describing it.

Continue north to the stunning 20th century architecture of Broadgate.

Steel, glass and granite predominate; the centrepiece is Broadgate Arena, a white amphitheatre surrounded by tiered offices. Imagine you are a 3rd century gladiator in this 20th century arena. Write a poem describing your emotions.

Southeast now to St Mary Axe, and the Swiss Re Tower, variously nicknamed "the Gherkin" and "the Rocket". What would you call it? What might the far older church of St Helen Bishopsgate, opposite, make of it? Continue south to Mincing Lane. On the left, the rose granite-clad Minster Court seems more like a sculpture than offices. Observe the incredible angles, edges and apexes and write a poem about the three enormous bronze horses at the entrance. Who are they? Where are they going?

Penultimate stop is the ruined church of St Dunstan in the East, in Idol Lane. Bombed during the Second World War, the tower and nave remain, incorporated into public gardens. This place drips atmosphere; write a short ghost story featuring the ruins. Use it also as a setting for story telling.

The walk concludes at Tower Bridge, 15 minutes southeast. Walk to the lifting sections - bascules, a French word. Finally, look upstream to see many of the buildings you saw earlier. Minster Court, "the Gherkin", Nat West Tower, St Paul's ... The view is... well, you'll have got the hang of it by now.


If you cannot get to London, the principles of the walk are easily incorporated closer to home. Any urban area associated with water seems to be a prime target for regeneration. So, sites in the vicinity of rivers, docks and canals should be candidates for some interesting buildings.

Beauty is admittedly in the eye of the beholder, but even if a building is considered ugly, write about it. And don't overlook older urban buildings: cinemas, theatres, museums and municipal buildings - especially of the Victorian era - were often built with flourish and style. Don't forget to look for Latin inscriptions.

The idea works just as well in the country. Churches spring to mind, but look too for tumbledown barns, chocolate box cottages, village shops and stations. And on the coast, those grand hotels must have a tale or two to tell; strings of beach huts and seaside piers should present plenty of inspiration too.

And if time is not on your side, do not forget your own school. To quote Wren's epitaph: circumspice. You might be surprised.

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