Day 11

The meat of today’s 6.21-mile walk was, undoubtedly, the Barbican. I vacillated between hating it and borderline enjoying it throughout the course of the day. If there’s nothing else you can say about it, it’s that it is different from anything else in London, maybe even anywhere.

Before we get to the main course, though, let’s start with some appetisers. Here are a few things in the area that aren’t the Barbican.

THE SHARPEST KNIVES 

Did you know barbers used to also be surgeons? I did not. Apparently, in the middle ages, physicians handled the medical stuff and barbers were tasked with surgeries. “Get the guy with the sharpest knives”, is the most reasonable explanation I’ve heard so far. It makes sense to me that the guy with the blade to your throat should know how to fix things if he happens to sneeze while shaving you.

So next time you are entranced by the spinning red and white barber pole, remember that it is thought to represent the blood and bandages associated with this former part of their profession. Gross.

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SALT SAVOURS ALL

The other interesting Company I came across today was the Salters. They were clearly a powerful Company at one point as they were 9th in the order of precedence (for more on that topic, see Day 5). Salt was a pretty big deal back in the day though so that makes sense (for a good read on the topic, check out Mark Kurlansky’s book Salt).

Mostly I just think the Salters’ motto is quite clever: salt savours all.

I was also intrigued by this otter-chicken-fernlike animal hanging out on its front gate. Anyone familiar with this guy and what he’s all about?

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THE LONDON WALL

In this part of town, it’s impossible to forget that London used to be a fortress, contained by one long, tall, stone wall. It seems everywhere I turned I ran into bits of it today.

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St. Alphange’s Garden is a lovely place to enjoy a nice section of the London Wall.

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I also discovered today that if you’re interested in this piece of London’s past, you can follow the course of the wall along the London Wall Walk from Tower Hill to the Museum of London. Below is map showing the outline of the former wall. You can find more details for the walk here!

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You know what else houses chunks of this old fortress?

The Barbican.

BARBICAN CENTRE – THE MARMITE OF ARCHITECTURE

Love it or hate it, the Barbican is here to stay.

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I’ll just say this right off the bat: the Barbican is a Grade II listed building based on “its scale, its cohesion and the ambition of the project“, not on it’s beauty.

This complex was built in the late 60’s in the Brutalist architectural style popular at the time. Utopian ideals underpin the design of this bizarre fortress of a building. When I say Utopia, I’m talking about the totalitarian communism of Thomas More’s ideal world, not happy, sparkling lands where pet unicorns wake you up with bags of candy every morning.

Every surface of this place is finished in a roughly textured, grey concrete. The repetition of angular balconies simulates giant saw blades rising from the ground.

On a sunny day, that’s sort of ok. The contrast of light and dark highlights the geometric patterns and creates some truly interesting shapes.

On a grey day, there’s no where more depressing.

Luckily for me, I got to experience it both ways today.

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The first time I visited the Barbican I really hated it. Everything about it is harsh: the rough concrete, the unfriendly architecture, the always-barren walkways, and the geometric regularity of it all. I’m learning to appreciate it for what it is now it but I still struggle to relax even in the lake terrace, the most “natural” area you can find. What bothers me most is that the water isn’t even a real colour. It’s not brown and muddy like a river. It’s not clear like a fountain. It’s not green like algae. It’s teal. As if it’s dyed regularly by someone who has decided that it’s the ideal colour for water.

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The complex is a beast of a place, sprawling across 40 acres of central London. From above, it looks as if it’d be easy to explore. Just a series of squares around green space and generous water features. Simple, right?

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In reality, it’s filled with walkways of varying heights with a notable lack of staircases between them. Well, I should say, there are staircases everywhere, just never heading quite where you want to go. To fully explore it you must progress through a sequence of carefully calculated moves. The problem being you aren’t given a hint at what order to go in. Flashes of Escher come to mind as you try your best to puzzle out just how you might get from here to there or, at the very least, get out when you want to. I found myself clutching my map just a little tighter than normal lest I get trapped there forever.

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In terms of walkability and urban exploration, it can’t really be beat though. There seems to be an endless supply of little pathways, bridges and balconies with not a car in sight. In fact, more often than not you’re up 3-5 stories above ground, which offers a whole new element of fun. There are even a couple of spots I actually find attractive (very likely because they predate the Barbican and are in a totally different style!).

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The church of St. Giles Cripplegate Without offers a bright, comforting contrast to the concrete backdrop of the Barbican. It’s called “without” because, as you can see from the bit of London Wall in the photo, it would have been just outside of the city gate. The photo below shows the base of the Cripplegate tower, once a part of the London fortress, then a home for hermits (hopefully this kind), now a picnic spot for residents of the Barbican.

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Last but not least, the Barbican.

When Londoner’s say they’re going to the Barbican, chances they are referring to the world-renown art centre inside this complex. The name is synonymous with dance, theatre, music, art and film. The centre hosts a variety of fantastic exhibitions the likes of the rain room and the Illusion House. Next year you can even see Madonna’s pointy bra in person! I know you’ve been waiting all your life for that.

I was so focused on eating lunch that I didn’t actually snap any photos of the art centre itself. Oops. To make up for it, here’s a photo of some of the residents-only areas.

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So that’s the Barbican in a nutshell.

I can’t give it rave reviews in terms of beauty and architectural interest. I happen to find most of it emotionally exhausting, particularly on overcast days. But there are many who enjoy the stark, surreal architecture and praise it for its utilitarianism (in fact, over 4000 people live here).

I will say too that there’s something about it kids really get into. There were loads of kids there today and they loved climbing all over it and exploring the landscape. If you approach it like a kid would, as just a big playground, it’s pretty ideal. There are no cars, there’s lots of hidden corners, and it’s unlike anything you have ever seen before. So go in with that perspective and you’ll have a grand old time!

That’s it for today, folks.

See you next time!

You can find today’s walking map here.

Follow on Twitter for more updates and photos!

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