The pigeons were starting to freak me out. There are more than a million feral pigeons in London. I say feral because just saying “pigeons” infers something cooingly cute, pecking the ground around wandering feet looking for lovingly dropped crumbs. “Feral” conjures images of the winged demon beasts that pecked Suzanne Pleshette to death in “The Birds.”
There are an estimated 7 million rats in the bowels New York City, 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats under a bridge in Austin, Texas, and 2,000 coyotes in the alleys of Chicago (seriously, coyotes), but these pest have the decency not to be adorable and bob around your picnic begging for food. Pigeons, formerly domesticated rock doves, come close enough to Londoners anyone can reach out and touch one. I’ve seen it happen, folks. Pigeons also cost the city of London £100,000 per year to clean the droppings.
Now that’s tax money well spent.
Sitting on a bench at the base of The Monument near the northern side of the London Bridge, a fat pigeon sat at my feet bobbing its head back and forth like it expected food. It probably did, but all I had was spearmint gum. I shooed the fat bird away with my shoe, probably breaking a dozen London laws about the proper ways to treat pigeons.
I wasn’t on this bench to see pigeons under the shadow of the stone Monument that commemorates the Great Fire of London and the city’s rebirth. I was here for the Monument itself. I waited on a group of college students for our long walk to the top of the Monument to get a great view of the city that, 347 years, four months, and 58 days ago, was engulfed in flames. Many pigeons died that day.
The Monument, at more than 200 feet, is the tallest isolated column in the world. In the center of the Monument, I’d soon discover, is a spiral staircase with 311 stone steps that lead to a wire mesh enclosed observation deck called The Cage, which is three-fourths of the way up the column at 160 feet. To put that into perspective, The Cage is 16 floors above the pavement and the city of London had to put a fence around it in 1842 because a number of very silly people simply fell off. There is no lift in the Monument; the only way to the Cage is the stairs.
The 202-foot-tall column, designed by Sir Christopher Wren, rises out of the downtown London pavement 202 feet from the spot of a bakery where the fire is thought to have started. From a bakery on Pudding Lane, the fire wiped out a large part of the city, save for stone buildings like St. Paul’s Cathedral, and lasted three days.
Constructed for more than £13,000 (quite a lot of money in the 1600s), the Monument, 28,196 cubic feet of Portland stone pointing straight up, is quite imposing. Once my students showed up, I’d wished I were writing more about the pigeons.
Although thousands of people visit The Monument each year, not all of them make it to the top. A great circle of stone steps spin tourists the 160 feet to the top, not fast enough to get dizzy, however. Oh, no. Oh, hell no. You ever get that feeling during exercise that you’re going to fall down, not because you’re clumsy, or you’re experiencing a life-threatening medical emergency, but just because you’re a sack of pudding? I got that about halfway up. And I’d paid £5 for it.
“You OK, Jason?” a student asked as I paused to find the breath I lost somewhere around Step No. 158.
I nodded. “Just (wheeze) waiting (hack) for you (huff) slackers (Three Stooges noise) to catch up.” Then I finished the climb.
The view from the Cage was as beautiful as it was confusing. From this viewpoint, visitors can sees the brown water of the Thames run under the Tower Bridge, elegant stone domes rise from behind the ugly boxes of ancient office buildings, blocks of (what I can only assume are) expensive flats in structures hundreds of years old, and the tiny (by American standards) streets weaving a Spirograph picture through entire scene. It would look practically perfectly Mary Poppinsish if it weren’t for all the windows.
Enormous glass and steel structures loom over the classic London landscape like Godzilla villains. One in particular is the Shard. At 1,016 feet high, the Shard is not only the tallest building in the U.K.; it’s the tallest building in the European Union. It also fits as well into the London skyline as an Eiffel Tower-sized statue of Mr. Bean. Picture that and try to sleep tonight.
The Shard, which is home to three operating restaurants and (as of May 2013) completely empty office spaces and luxury flats, looks to be the perfect place to sit back and have a glass of bubbly the day the space aliens finally invade. They’ll head there first. The Shard isn’t the only piece of modern architecture in central London, just the biggest.
Standing in the Cage with other American tourists that kept crowding in (seriously? Didn’t anyone stay home in the States?), I finally went back down, dodging Americans, and a pack of Germans (do Germans come in packs?). At the bottom, a man in uniform handed me a 6” by 8.25” piece of heavy buff-colored paper stock and smiled. “See you made it, then.”
When I stepped back onto ground closer to sea level, I looked at the paper. It was a certificate that read, “This is to certify that ______________ has climbed the 311 steps of the Monument.” Damn straight. Despite the potential for having a heart attack on those steps, I’m glad I made it to the top.
You know, the pigeons looked much smaller from up there.