In And by Fire DI Nigella Parker enjoys a posh lifestyle. Not, to be clear, on her salary from the City Police of London (I am writing fiction, not fantasy), but because she comes from a wealthy, Oxbridge educated family. Central to her daily life is a flat in Bankside purchased with money inherited from her grandfather.
That swanky flat—with its million-pound view of some of the most famous parts of London’s skyline across the river, including the dome of St. Paul’s— gives rise to envy in her current boy-toy, James. And it elicits the occasional dig from her former lover and current partner-in-solving-crime, DI Colm O’Leary.
Today’s episode of London Hot Spots looks at Bankside. Home of DI Parker . . . and one of the book’s genuine historical figures as well.
Bankside lies in on the south bank of the Thames River in the Borough of Southwark. Five of London’s bridges cross over to it, including London’s oldest (London Bridge) and its most recent (Millennium Bridge). Ni’s digs are convenient to the South Bank commercial and entertainment district—an area popular with London natives and tourists alike. She’s an easy stroll from The Royal Festival Hall; The National Theatre; The London Eye; The Tate Modern; and Shakespeare’s globe. But alas, Ni has no time for fun in And by Fire because there’s a murderous arsonist on the loose.
The area has a loooong history. When the Romans founded London (or Londinium as they called it) they built a bridge to the Thames’s southern bank. From that moment on, Bankside was pretty consistently a place of bawdy entertainment. For much of its existence “it fell outside the City’s jurisdiction” and was thus “free to allow practices outlawed elsewhere.” (Hidden London). Sixteenth century Bankside pleasures included brothels, gambling dens, animal baiting pits and, of course, theaters. Shakespeare’s Rose was built in Bankside around 1587, but drama lovers also had the Hope and eventually the Globe (1599) to choose from. The Puritans pulled the latter down during Cromwell’s time and tried to tidy up Bankside up. Largely to no avail.
In the seventeenth century—with the Roundheads gone and a King back on the English throne—Bankside’s history collides with the plot of And by Fire. Long before Ni spent a load of dosh for her flat, Christopher Wren—Professor of Astronomy at Oxford, nascent architect with grand dreams, and a central character in my novel—“is said to have watched the building of his St Paul’s Cathedral from a house on Bankside’s waterfront” where he was headquartered during it’s consturction (Hidden London).
Which house was Wren’s? That’s a bit of a mystery. There’s a plaque on one of Bankside’s waterfront houses—Cardinals Warf, No. 49—claiming Wren lived there. But this is likely an error. Historian Gillian Tindall established that No. 49 was not built until 1710—the year construction St. Paul’s was finished. Tindell believes Wren’s London base actually stood a few houses east of No. 49, on a spot now occupied by a block of modern flats.
With my author hat on I like to imagine Wren standing at the waterfront, watching his dream Cathedral rise across the Thames. Relishing his achievement. And then—since this is fictionalized Wren I am talking about—experiencing a sudden, ugly and disquieting stab of conscience, and remembering that his masterpiece sits not only atop bones of the old St. Paul’s, but the human bones of the dead found there after London’s Great Fire. I like to imagine Wren’s satisfaction shaken. To envision him shivering as if he’s seen a ghost—the ghost of a woman perhaps . . . a lady of King Charles II’s court.