History Lessons


Wayfinding system elements, City of London.

Hardly a block’s walk from our hotel, a weathered stone church perches on the corner of a busy street. It’s directly across from both a towering hotel spire and a series of tourist shops. This neighborly anachronism seems par for the course in London so far; ancient stone walls cuddle up against the shady glass knees of shimmering skyscrapers, selfie-taking smartphone wielders line up for photo shoots in old-timey red telephone-booths-turned-WiFi-hubs, and, here and there, a chimeric fusion of “modern prefab” and “so old as to be mouldering” residential homes settle together in their stone, brick, concrete, and clay, sometimes with an entirely different century spelled in stonework across either edge of a single doorframe.

A sign embedded in the wall of our structure proclaims it “the oldest church in the City of London,” founded by the Abbey of Barking in the late seventh century. Curious, we took a walk inside, and found ourselves treated to a charming—if slightly creepy—tour through the church’s history. Beneath the floors of All Hallows lies a thematically appropriate combination of preserved and renovated artifacts and architecture. Beginning at a selection of second-century Roman artifacts and brickwork, and meandering our way forward through the centuries to a contemporary crypt, the church sweetly charmed us into asking for more. Sure, it was just a little bit unsettling to stare down approximately eighty not-so-distantly-deceased urns, indexed in a colorful binder by surname and year of death. Maybe I didn’t dare step inside the tiny, underground chapel near the end lest some otherworldly power snatch my breath. Superstition aside, before that point came a smorgasbord of fascinating historic items and documents. Here’s a couple interesting bits:

Cheeky cards made from postings on the walls of Talbot House.

Cast of a tombstone from Doodman’s Fields, 1787. “In memory of Flavius Agricola, soldier of the Sixth Legion. ‘The Victorious’. He lived 42 years, 10 days. Albua Faustina set this up to her incomparable husband.”

The whole place is full to the brim with neat peeks into history like these. But my personal favorite was this guy:

You’re looking at a full miniature diorama of London as it stood in the second century or so, a Roman port named Londinium. This doubled as a slice of humble pie for yours truly. Last week, my friend and I saw King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (in theaters), because my name is Arthur and we’re always down for swords movies. They kept referring to the setting as Londinium. (The movie, as delightfully terrible as we’d hoped it’d be, did not disappoint in either swords or people-named-Arthur quantity, but I wouldn’t purchase another ticket. The film’s treatment of women was, unfortunately, as dated as the city’s name, and left a sour taste in both our mouths.)

At the movie we rolled our eyes at one another, with not a smear of respect for history, and ignorantly assumed the name of London had been changed in service to some science-fiction aesthetic. It totally wasn’t. It was historically accurate. Sometimes, you just don’t know nothin’ about famous legendary figures, even when the two of you’s has got the same name. Sometimes, you learn!

I learned.

Visiting this church for a casual stroll down the halls of ancient history was definitely the highlight of my first day in London and a great way to kick off the week. I can already tell that the relationship between old and new civilization is sure to be a fascinating element to all of our adventures here. That’s pretty much how design evolves in the first place, after all. It also makes me curious to dig deeper into ancient histories back home. It’s fascinating to explore a place where you can touch something that was made by fellow humans millennia ago, and learn about those humans through record. Walking around this city is sort of like thumbing through that record and getting a glimpse of influences from ancient all the way to contemporary. We’ve already taken so many pictures of good typography, both in the crypt of All Hallows and in our brief time out and about. I was positively schooled by history today, and we haven’t even started our itinerary yet. Can’t imagine what lies in store starting tomorrow. It’s gonna be an enriching study abroad.

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About Arthur

They say it's not what you say but how you say it. If you want to get real meta on that, you gotta type-geek it up. Then, how you're saying it, what you're saying, and why you've chosen to say it, they all get to shine a little. Which is awesome. Second year Graphic Design student at UMass Lowell.