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I first noticed the Monument a couple of years ago when I first did the Skyride.  This is surprising, because the Monument is a startlingly noticeable thing.  It is both extremely tall and has a large pointy golden ball on the top which is supposed to be a vase of flames.

It is a Monument to the Great Fire of London, which has a mixed write-up in the history books.  Some say the Fire was a bad thing because it had a cataclysmic effect on those living in London at the time, others say it was a good thing because it allowed Sir Christopher Wren to redesign the City to be the grand palatial thing it is today.

The truth is pretty horrifying.  London pre-fire was known to be a fire hazard, dominated as it was by timber houses in medieval streets.  Of the 80,000 city residents, 70,000 lost their homes. At the time, they said only four people died, but modern historians think it was far more. Sadly, the fire was so hot many of the poor and middle classes were lost with no remaining remains.  Over the four days the fire raged, many simply lost hope and just ran away without even trying to save their possessions.  The wealthy paid the ‘able bodied poor’ to hide their possessions away – many just nicked the goods.  Others tried to save their things by placing them in the Crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral, thinking the stone building would be safe.  It does indeed take a heck of a lot to make stone burn, but sadly incandescent heat and being covered in wooden scaffolding was enough to lose the old Cathedral to the flames, along with everything in it.

While London did have some primitive fire engines, they were simply not up to the task being asked of them.  So London was forced to blow up its buildings, which is what eventually put paid to the fire.  In the meantime the fire blew so hot that it produced its own firestorm, carrying the blaze further and further.  As it burned out, London’s attention went to blame. A French chap confessed to setting off the fire, despite not even being in London at the time.  He was tried, found guilty and hung, with two members of the family of bakers who actually did start the fire by accident on the Jury.

Anyway, the Monument was designed by Wren and Hook, and it is the world’s tallest stone tower, 61 metres in height (the same distance between it and the spot on Pudding Lane where the fire began).  Charles II was asked to have his statue on the top of the Monument: he refused arguing that he didn’t start the fire (thus foreshadowing the work of Billy Joel), hence the pointy ball on top.  It is hollow, which is why you can climb up a spiral staircase to the top for £3.

Incidentally, when I say Hook, I mean the same scientific Hook who messed about with springs, giving us Hook’s law and something fun to play with in physics lessons. He made the Monument hollow so he could do his physics experiments in it.  Sod’s law being what it is, the structure was not stable enough to deal with the swinging pendulums he put in there, so now the Monument just stands and allows tourists to clamber up its innards.

When the Monument was built it was engraved with a decidedly anti-social message blaming the Catholics for the Fire as it was said at the time that we Papists had started the fire, as a ruse to cleanse the city.  Not so, and by 1735 the placard on the bottom was amended to show that it wasn’t us, guv. This seems remarkably enlightened to me.

On the day I climbed the monument, the sky was bleak, dark and revving up for rain.  As I approached, a gentleman with juggling balls and a jester hat was bidding a group of school children a fond farewell.

“Well, enjoy the rest of your working life,” said a young boy of about eight summers to an older man on the cash desk.

“Thank you,” replied the gentleman.  We three adults had a moment of reflection about the prospect of the rest of our working lives, before I handed over my three quid to ascend the 311 steps of the monument.

My top tip for climbing the monument is to travel as light as humanly possible, and ideally to have undertaken a fitness regime for some time beforehand.  I walk quite a lot, and yet was becoming short of breath as I approached the summit.  The steps are fairly slender, and there are a lot of them. There are no easy passing points up the staircase, so one must breathe in when the tourists pass you by on their descent.  Equally crucial is the ability not to look down too often, as the spiral staircase circles a blooming deep and dark hole, and every once in a while I would look down it to take a photo and feel mildly sick.  My approach was definitely to keep eyes fore and aft.  As I climbed, staring mindlessly at the endless white walls I went into a trance like state, as my limbs grumbled into action.

And then, almost as you forget that you are climbing the endless stairs for a reason, you are jolted back to reality by a sign telling you not to spit, and a view which is altogether rather breathtaking.  Even on a grey, overcast day the City of London spread out beneath you as far as the eye can see is an impressive business.

Eyeball to eyeball with the Shard, it looks even more like a darlek than usual, and far below it the river edges its way past the tower of London, Tower Bridge, past the City down to Westminster and beyond. One stays up there to get one’s breath and one’s money’s worth, clicking happily away until you’ve seen your fill, and then the descent begins, ending as suddenly it began, with a gentleman in a jesters hat, who presents you with a certificate for you to sign.

I like the Monument. Vaguely phallic as it is, it is a striking symbol of what was a truly devastating fire, which is worth remembering. There are not many tourist attractions which offer spectacular views, a sense of history, a comprehensive workout and a certificate, but this is one of them.  Give it a vada. It only costs £3 for an adult, and £1.50 for a child, and there’s a combined ticket for the Tower Bridge Exhibition which is £9 for an adult, which is great value, I think.

Full information about the Monument, including how to get there, can be accessed from here:http://www.themonument.info/

The Museum of London offers some fascinating insights into the Great Fire: full details are given here: http://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/