City of London
Updated: Aug 20, 2021
Location: Chancery Lane / High Holborn, City of London
Nearest town: London
Peak: 22 metres above sea level
Date climbed: 13 June 2021
When two seasoned county toppers arrive in London, their first task must be to define 'London'.
From the moment the London of the Middle Ages spread beyond the original Roman walls of Londinium, Londoners have had a hard time defining exactly where their town/city/cities (!) starts and ends. There is both the City of London and the City of Westminster. There was the County of London; there is now Greater London. Bromley once belonged to Kent, whereas St. John's Wood, home to the iconic London sites of Lord's cricket ground and Abbey Road studios, once belonged to Middlesex. Middlesex belonged to anyone but itself, witnessing vast parts of its territory scythed off and handed over to neighbouring administrations until in 1974 the county ceased to exist altogether*.
For our purposes, there are two county high-points of London: Greater London and the City of London. Greater London is, by itself, a ceremonial county of England - one that makes up the majority of the region of London and is formed of 33 local government districts. Those districts consist of the 32 London Boroughs and the City of London... which by itself is - you guessed it - a ceremonial county of England. Confused yet?
We had already climbed Greater London's high point: Betsom's Hill, near Westerham in Bromley. Now it was time to summit the highest point in the City of London. However, summiting a high point in the heart of a city that was built on the vast drainage basin of a major river just a few miles upstream of the sea was never going to be the real challenge. The real challenge came in locating the county's highest point, for it's difficult to definitively say both where it is and how long it has been there**.
That's because this 'Square Mile' north of the river, west of Tower Bridge and east of the bright lights of Soho, can lay claim to an unbroken history stretching back almost two thousand years, and a city skyline that has rarely stood still throughout that entire history.
Era-defining events, such as the Great Fire of 1666 and the Blitz of 1940/1941, flattened large parts of the city only for a new generation to rebuild from the (literal) ashes. Yet even without these tabula rasa moments, two millennia of construction, destruction and reconstruction has slowly risen the surface level of the city so that large parts of Roman London now lie up to 10 metres below modern day street level. This include the Roman Amphitheatre, located 8 metres below the Guildhall and housed in a brilliant underground chamber that is accessed through the Guildhall Art Gallery (top tourist tip!).
What is considered to be the highest point today, may no longer be so in one hundred years time. And some landmarks that may once have been considered the highest points never were in the first place.
One of these is the peculiar Panyer Boy plague on Panyer Alley, just north of St. Paul's Cathedral. The relief of a boy sitting atop a pannier is positioned above an inscription. Sadly, the relief has been worn away over time and it is no longer possible to tell what the Panyer Boy is doing with his hands. However, the inscription reads as follows:
When yv have sovght
the Citty rovnd
yet still ths is
the high highst grovnd
Avgvst the 27
Calculations of historic surface levels suggest that even in the 18th century, Panyer Alley lay a metre below the then highest point on Cornhill, which lies east of the Bank of England and the Royal Exchange.
To find the actual high-point of the modern day City of London, one must look beyond the western edge of the old city walls to a point that lies on the border with the London Borough of Camden. It can be found at a nondescript junction where Chancery Lane meets High Holborn - the boundary of the City of London runs along the middle of both roads. In fact, so unremarkable is the high-point that High Holborn continues to climb higher as it continues west through the London Borough of Camden, and so the highest point in the City of London is not even the highest point on the road itself.
Still, we found it and ticked it off as high-point number 16.
With our main (only) task for the day completed, we continued our expedition across the City to Liverpool Street, where we had a reservation booked at Marco Pierre White's London Steakhouse Co to use a pre-pandemic meal voucher. But first, we took a detour to our favourite spot in the City - the Barbican - to visit its rooftop conservatory (which felt like an oven in the 28-degree heat).
This (free!) hidden gem is reminiscent of the larger, more tourist-y Sky Garden down the road with the added bonus of a turtle enclosure. We'd highly recommend a visit, although perhaps on a slightly cooler day if you want to take your time!
We then checked into our table at London Steakhouse Co - or at least, we tried to. A rather snotty proprietor was all too keen to turn us away because, as voucher holders, we apparently hadn't booked our table in the right way. Thankfully, a friendlier member of staff jumped in and sorted it out for us.
Our voucher included a three-course meal from a set menu with a cocktail and sides to share. I (Laura) had a goat's cheese and beetroot salad to start, followed by fish cakes on a bed of spinach and with a poached egg in hollandaise sauce on top for my main course. I (Kieran) had hammock terrine with bread for starters and a seabass for mains. We shared sides of creamed red cabbage and mash and, for dessert, we both had warm apple pie and ice cream. Yum!
*Middlesex, along with Huntingdonshire and Westmorland, was wiped from the map by the Local Authorities Act of 1972 which reformed local government in England and Wales and created the modern day two-tier county and district council system. When the act came into effect on the 1st April 1974 it set out more clearly than ever a definitive list of the counties of England. There are 48 of them and they are the 48 that form the basis of our county-topping adventure. Other 'historic' English counties ceased to be on that day in 1974, specifically Cumberland, Sussex and Yorkshire. However people are generally less reminiscent of those lost regional authorities as they were replaced with shiny new alternatives: Cumbria, East and West Sussex, and the four modern-day counties of Yorkshire: North, South, West, and the East Riding. In towns that once belonged to one of the 'lost' counties - our hometown of Staines-upon-Thames, Surrey (formerly Middlesex), for example - you will still find some people who refer to the historic county when asked to give their address, signs that still show the old county crest, and very occasionally a stalwart reluctance to accept the new order of things ... even though new is now 47 years old. The act created even more new counties in addition to those replacements mentioned above. These were Greater Manchester, Merseyside, Tyne and Wear and West Midlands. The act also shifted county boundaries, especially in remote upland areas of the country. So parts of the singular county of Yorkshire, rather than transfer to North or West Yorkshire, instead transferred to modern-day Durham. Whilst land that was once part of the historic county of Berkshire, now belongs to modern-day Oxfordshire. Indeed this created a 'lost' county high-point - one that we shall tick off as a bonus summit one day. All in all, you can see how we've had to pay attention when drawing up our list of county high points!
** It should be noted that within the one truly urban ceremonial county, the highest point must still be a point measured from street level. Were manmade structures to count then the question, 'what is the highest point in the City of London?', would be much easier to answer. In 2021, that distinction would go to the lightening rod atop London's latest skyscraper: 22 Bishopsgate. However, if that counted then the City of London would rise up the rankings to takes its place as the 19th highest county high-point. The irony that our actual high-point consisting of a tarmac road built upon many layers of London's past is as manmade and as short-lived as some of these skyscrapers has not been lost on us...