all hallows by the tower

London’s skyline changes every time I come back. The City now has at least two skyscrapers that were not there last year, dwarfing other prominent 21st century additions like the Gherkin. It is an ever-changing city and it always has been. Above is one building that, while subject to many modifications and rebuildings over the centuries, has pretty much the entire span of London history within its foundations. All-Hallows-By-The-Tower, a small and often overlooked church which sits right next to the Tower of London (which is rather handy given its name), is said to be the oldest church in London, founded in 675, though its main building and spire date from the 1650s (though greatly rebuilt after it was damaged in the Blitz). After drawing it, with one of London’s newest towers being constructed in the background, I popped inside for a look around, to learn a bit more about its history. There is an actual Saxon-era arch still standing, and if you go below to the crypt museum you can see some original Roman tiled paving – this church was built on the site of an building from the days of Londinium. On my tours years ago I used to tell Americans the two things I knew about the place: William Penn was baptised here, Pennsylvania fans, and John Quincy Adams was married here, you know, President number 6 (I never needed to go into too much historical detail as the open-top bus would be swinging past it too quickly, this being the home stretch). It was nice to finally come and spend some time looking at it and learning about it.
Tower of London

I also sketched a bit of the Tower of London itself. You want some history, here’s some history. This is the White Tower, the oldest part of the Tower, built by William the Conqueror. I don’t need to tell you the history of the Tower. Once on my old tour though I was telling people about the Tower, when one guy with a nasal midwest accent piped in, “hey, that’s not a tower.” Er, yes, it’s the Tower of London. “But it’s not a tower!” he insisted. Perhaps when I told him about the Tower he had been expecting Barad-dur or something, but I pointed out that yes, it is a tower,  though your personal definition of the word tower may be based on a modern idea rather narrower than the name of a building that has been around for 900 years. However to appease him I announced to the tour bus that had now arrived at the stop for the “Normano-Plantagenet-Tudor compound of castle, palace, tower, prison, moat and ramparts of London”. Nobody got off, so I assured them, “Here we are at the Tower of London! Have fun, and remember the Crown Jewels aren’t all crowns and they aren’t all jewels!”

i wanna wake up in a city that doesn’t sleep

Trafalgar Square

I have to admit, London tired me out a lot this time. I think it was the heat – though naturally cooler than Davis, London actually had a heatwave, which when you add it to the fact that air-conditioning is a very rare commodity (Oxford Street’s shops were no places to cool off) and the overcrowded packed tube was a hellish place to be in hot weather, makes for a very stuffy city. I am not used to crowds and big masses of people any more, so I sought to see my home city in its quieter moments. Even a city that never sleeps dozes off from time to time. On one particular Tuesday, I got up and took the tube at the determinedly pre-rush hour of 5:45am and headed into central London to sketch in the early morning light. I love wandering around a city as it is waking up (preferably having recently woken up myself, rather than stayed up all night, as my much-younger self may have once done). London is no different, although in Leicester Square I did witness the remnants of some people’s night-before, a drunken testosterone match of pitiable proportions that made the street sweepers stop and raise their eyebrows and shake their heads. I’ve never liked Leicester Square. Trafalgar Square on the other hand… I’ve seen a fair few incidents of silliness there among the late-night throngs waiting for their night-buses in the shadow of Nelson’s Column, but when everyone is gone and before the city of the daytime re-emerges, this is an excellent place to stop and really absorb an epic sight. I’ll forever be grateful to London for pedestrianizing that awful north side of the square, the former rat-run outside the National Gallery, turning Trafalgar Square from a pigeon-infested overgrown traffic island to a pleasant place to sit and just watch the world, and this really is the world. The very centre of London, from which point all measurements from London are taken, is just on the other side of the square, at the statue of Charles I.  I sketched the view from the northern side in the early morning light, with Horatio Nelson on his high perch looking down Whitehall to the clock tower of Parliament, home of Big Ben. Summer morning light is like a golden custard pouring across the city, and those shadows move pretty fast when that sun rises.

Here are a couple of photos from the process – see what I mean about those shadows!
Sketching London in the early morningSketching London in the early morning

The morning moved along, some early commuters passed by the Square, the odd rise-and-shine tourist was out taking photos and waiting for the tour buses to start; when I used to tour-guide on those buses years ago I loved the early shift, with all the fresh faced tourists seeing the face of London that most Londoners miss. I sketched some of the buildings on the south side of the Square, whose rooftops I have long wanted to draw. That statue is of Sir Charles Napier, I believe, an old imperial commander, who has an impressive nose and sideburns that Wolverine would be jealous of.

Traf Sq south side sm
sketching trafalgar square

London can be incredibly annoying sometimes, expensive, grumpy, sweaty, time-consuming; but in these moments you get to see it at peace, waking up with a smile, in a good mood.

Also posted on Urban Sketchers London – if you haven’t done so, please check out their site!