Live blog: Unlocking the sites and the city
Chalkmarks: London, England, UK

Golden Key Academy 2024
Open City London

WELCOME to the live blog – the first time we’re doing this at Chalkmarks. Natalie will be updating every step she takes as she trains to become a tour guide as part of the Golden Key Academy course run by Open City. She’ll be bringing you the highlights and plenty of pictures. If you’re interested in learning what she’s learning about London you can follow in her footsteps. Get your coat!

(Psst: start at the bottom)

More follows…

First, read our piece all about London – what you should know.

April 2024

Follow the money: The City of London is unlike any other city centre in the UK. There’s no charity shops, barbers, nail bars, discount stores or dodgy nightclubs. Instead, the area around Bishopsgate is filled with sky-high offices where people sit at desks working for banks, financial services and insurance giants, moving money around the world as they have done for centuries. On street level there are expensive coffee shops, restaurants and plenty of transport links with two mainline train stations (Liverpool Street and Fenchurch Street) and six tube stations (Bank, Cannon Street, Mansion House, Monument, Moorgate and St Paul’s). They’ve not heard of rail replacement buses around here. If you drive in, you might struggle to park, but there are no potholes to worry about. Really though, there’s no need to have a car, there are bus stops every few metres. All the infrastructure is here in spades, and it has its own City Police force too – no need to bother the Met. All this in what they call the Square Mile (it’s actually 1.12 square miles). There’s no need to talk of levelling-up – it’s always boom time. And it’s all going in one direction: up. Here, the architecture has moved away from brick and concrete to steel and glass (although concrete remains at the core). They are also far removed from the Portland Stone buildings of the Bank of England, the Old Bailey, with its dome and figure of Lady Justice, and St Paul’s Cathedral. These carry the weight of the country’s history. Let’s not forget this is also London’s Old Town. Elsewhere in the world the heritage might be preserved, and Unesco protected but not in London. A new, modern city is rising on the doorstep of the old listed buildings.

All quiet on the eastern front: Curious about these mega skyscrapers, I join Open City’s Eastern Cluster tour. The first high-rise in this ‘new town’ was the NatWest Tower (real address: Tower 42) in 1970. It had aged before it was even finished, we’re told, and the bank’s bankers never moved in. It was IRA bombing campaigns that paved the way for the tall structures that have since taken over Bishopsgate. The bullet-shaped Gherkin (real address: 30 St Mary Axe), went up in 2001 and started a frenzy of others that followed. In 2024 there are around 15, with more on the way.

Stretching our necks: At the top of many of these skyscrapers are rooftop viewing platforms. That’s the kickback to the community. When a developer is asked what it’s giving back for the public benefit, it used to be a play area or planting some trees. Now rooftop gardens are the trend. And they’re free too – that’s part of the deal. But you’d never know about them, because they don’t advertise them. They have airport-style security. You put your bag through an x-ray scanner before taking a lift to the top. Why? Undoubtedly, it is a huge security risk having members of the public wandering around the top of a skyscraper.

For inspiring views: Horizon 22 viewing platform is on Level 58 of TwentyTwo, on Bishopsgate, and is free to book. And btw TwentyTwo was designed by a very rare woman architect in the City of London, Karen CookNot too far away is The Sky Garden in the Walkie Talkie (20 Fenchurch Street) on floor 43, also free. Just across the street from there is Garden at 120 (see below) at Fen Court. The garden is on the 15th floor and, you guessed it, it’s free of charge – best of all you don’t need to book this one, you just turn up. Back on Bishopsgate you can take the high-speed lift to the 38th and 39th floors of the Heron Tower. This one isn’t free. You have to book a table at SushiSamba for views from the terrace. You could easily do all these in an afternoon, even include the Stone Gallery at nearby St Paul’s and finish at No 1 Poultry for a cocktail in the rooftop bar (see below, in February).

Changing times: For centuries, among a land of churches, when bell ringing once filled the streets, St Paul’s was London’s main character. But not anymore. These days you’ll probably find more people sitting outside in the churchyard than inside on the pews. The Cathedral is a tourist attraction with a small corner roped off for those who want to pray. Outside, there was once a strict rule that no building in the capital could be as tall as the St Paul’s which stands at 365ft/ 111m. That changed in 1938 when the St Paul’s Heights planning rule came into effect. This meant the view to St Paul’s must not be blocked by any other building along eight sightlines – this includes one from Alexandra Palace to the top of Parliament Hill in Hampstead Heath. These are just lines on a map essentially. And these viewing corridors have already influenced the shape of Bishopsgate’s skyscrapers such as the Cheesegrater (aka Leadenhall Building) which has a 10 degree slope, almost leaning backwards, to allow for the protected sightline. But from every other angle in London, the peaks of the tower blocks totally obscure the Cathedral.

Rooftop: Garden at 120 at Fen Court
Look up: The outside of Fen Court
On Open City’s Eastern Cluster walking tour in the Square Mile
Ups and downs: The skyscrapers on Bishopsgate
From the top: Looking over to the Tower of London
Architecture archive: St Paul’s in the distance
Chalkmarks: One Canada Square, Canada Square, London, England, June 2024
New financial district: Canary Wharf

March 2024

It’s time to do the work: I’ve had some training and got a couple of walking tours under my belt so now I’m in a team. It’s called Two. Our cohort has been put into small groups to deliver our very own mini tours around St Paul’s. We’re given a theme and we need to decide what the story will be, how we’re going to tell it and plan what we’ll do if we turn a corner and there’s a herd of cows. Anything can happen on tour, in London, apparently! It’s tough working with people you’ve never met on a Google Doc but, we muddle through. It’ll be poker face until the big day.

We’re off: I only have three minutes to do my lil’bit…

Spoiler alert: Hello, welcome to the London on Fire tour. This is the story of how the flame of development has never burned out. Our group will talk about how London has always risen from the ashes and rubble from the Great Fire of London in 1666 to the damage and destruction of the Blitz duing World War Two. It’s a grim joke but some say Adolf Hitler was the greatest architect of London!

It’s a bonfire out there: Since the very beginning of London, fire has shaped the city. They’ve created huge opportunities to redesign the city. Architects used cleared areas to build back better – to rid the City of makeshift wooden slums. The most famous blaze came on a hot summer’s day in September 1666. It was a Sunday when a fire broke out in a bakery on Pudding Lane. It burned for five days and destroyed much of the city including the original wooden church built in 604 known as St Paul’s.

Redevelopment 1: After the Great Fire, Sir Christopher Wren had a masterplan to rebuild London with grand, wide avenues in the style of Paris. But the City’s merchants didn’t want to wait the 30 years that would take. They wanted to get their tills ringing, so much of the City was rebuilt on its c14th, narrow and cramped, footprint, within 10 years. St Paul’s though was famously rebuilt by Sir Christopher, in Portland Stone, but the area around it changed. Today a wide boulevard surrounds the cathedral which acts as a firebreak. Around the perimeter, Paternoster Row was where the priests once walked as they recited the Lord’s Prayer. It was also a hub where prayer books and rosary beads were sold. Paternoster is Latin for Our Father and are the first two words of the famous prayer. After it burned down, it was rebuilt and became the home of publishing houses and book shops. It was also around this time, just down the road, Fleet Street became the heart of the British newspaper industry. Sir Christopher also built pubs and most famously The Old Bell Tavern, still open on Fleet Street after 350 years.

Redevelopment 2: In September 1940, the Germans heavily bombed London in what became known as the Blitz. There was eight months of intense bombing. St Paul’s was hit but it survived. But Paternoster Row was razed once again. What we see today is Paternoster Square, filled with modern offices and shops and restaurants below. It’s where Channel 4 once filmed First Dates and it’s home to the London Stock Exchange. Despite retaining its name, it has little to do with the cathedral. What would St Paul think?

Have you seen our pictures: Our fantastic travel photos, which capture some of our favourite destinations around the world, are now available for sale on Alamy. Woohoo!

A walk through London life!

Inside Temple Bar, once the gate between the City of London and the City of Westminster, now a little office in its new home at St Paul’s
Chalkmarks: St Paul's, London, England, UK, February 2024

February 2024

Show us the architecture: We meet up again in February – this time for an outing with architectural historian Jon Wright to learn about postmodern (PoMo) architecture. We start at Exchange House at Broadgate (see below, built in 1985), near Liverpool Street train station. Over the course of two hours, we will walk the very long way around to Bank, ticking off tons of gorgeous architecture as we go. I am thankful Santa delivered two, mini, hot-water bottles – one for each pocket – otherwise I could not survive out here! 

Let’s walk and talk: The end of the Second World War meant a big rebuild, and architects had to build back quick. They came up with functional block designs like the Golden Lane Estate (pic below). This architectural style became known as modernism. A few decades later in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, new architects had a rethink. They wanted more decoration and came up with builds such as No1 Poultry, famous for its pink and white horizontal stripes (built by property developer Lord Peter Palumbo, and completed in 1992). This style became known as post modernism (PoMo). Out of PoMo came another evolution. Architects turned buildings inside out, and displayed the hidden, internal structure (such as the lifts and air conditioning pipes) on the outside, such as Lloyd’s of London (see below – the site of the old East India Company HQ). Or, they put a new façade over the top of an older building, as seen with Bracknell House aka the FT’s HQ (see below) – which back in the day was there pink print site. This is known as high-tech architecture.

Steeling the show: A world away from PoMo are the glittering skyscrapers on Bishopsgate, such as the Gherkin, the Heron Tower (aka Salesforce Tower), the Cheesegrater on stilts, the Scalpel, the Can of Ham, and TwentyTwo (see below). They’re the glamorous and glossy statement buildings on London’s skyline that can be seen from miles away. Before we finish for the day, I have one more question: “What is the architectural style for these glass towers?” We’re told there’s no word yet. I pause. “Sorry, what?” That wasn’t the answer I was expecting. These buildings are revolutionary. They raise the game. Around 15 skyscrapers have gone up in the last two decades and the architectural world hasn’t found a word for them?! My eyes narrow to a squint… then move sideways!

Other views are available: Is architecture dead? Yes, I said it out loud. Think of the hours that went into crafting Westminster Palace. Where’s the personal touch, the hand-finished work on these skyscrapers? If all you need nowadays is a long ruler, a calculator and larger-than-life machines lifting blocks and steel into place, they’re just a mathematical puzzle that have already been solved. Aren’t these skyscrapers just engineering? Yes, I said that out loud too!

The high-end East end!

Chalkmarks: Eastern Cluster from the south bank, London, England, UK
Ain’t no building high enough: The Eastern Cluster
Chalkmarks: FT HQ, City of London, London, England, June 2024
Chalkmarks: FT HQ, City of London, London, England, June 2024
Chalkmarks: The Gherkin, City of London, England, UK, April 2024
London’s next top model: The Gherkin seen from the Rooftop Garden 120 Fenchurch Street
Chalkmarks: Lloyds of London, City of London, England, UK, April 2024
Inside out: Lloyds of London
Chalkmarks: Lloyds of London, City of London, England, UK, April 2024

Burning issue: Peer a little closer and you’ll glimpse different styles of buildings next door to each other – a mix of the old with the new. Once upon a time homes and businesses got rebuilt because fires were common in London. They don’t happen much anymore, so what do we do with decaying buildings to revamp dark and forgotten corners? Do we hang on to history and nostalgia or redevelop? And who decides what stays up and what comes down? That’s the government’s job, specifically the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

Heritage has value: The rule is that after 30 years the DCMS can decide if a building can be Listed – worthy of being protected for the future – a process which began in 1945. As yet the famous tower, One Canada Square, at Canary Wharf (above), has not been listed. This behemoth came about due to the demand for large American-style offices with open-plan floors. These offices had to be built outside of the City of London which offered only cramped, small spaces. And so a new financial district was born from scratch. Completed in 1991, One Canada Square is now 33-years-old (I’m writing in 2024). Will it come down? Three grades are possible: Grade I goes to the oldest buildings, especially royal palaces and churches (there are 589 Grade I sites in London). Grade II and Grade II* includes the Barbican, the Old Bailey, the BT Tower, the recently refurbished Battersea Power Station, St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, The Royal Albert Hall and some historic pubs (there are 1,387 sites in London). Then there’s Grade III. We can’t find any examples – someone please help!  

The ugly valley: We’re told this theory to explain how it works. When a building is new it is considered beautiful just because it’s the latest on the block – think of the Shard or the Gherkin. But like any fashion, styles change. That once beautiful building falls down into the ugly valley and we hate on it – currently this is where Art Deco from the 1920s-30s lie. If you compare them to generations it’s boomer vs the zoomer buildings. After 30 years, a decision can be made if the once new-and-beautiful but now old-and-ugly building should be saved as a representation of the architectural style that marks that period of time. If not, it can be knocked down. Sometimes a community falls in love with an ugly building and there is a campaign to keep it. But the DCMS can still refuse, and they don’t have to say why. Plus there is no appeal. They’re powerful like that and it’s a battleground out there. If rumours are to be believed secret meetings do go on. We can’t say anymore: Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot!

Moving on: The new consideration in London, and across the country, is climate change and sustainability. The question architects and developers are asking is: is it ethical to raze a building only to replace it with a new one, or is it better to remodel? There are fears the skyscrapers going up today will come down after 30 years, and not be listed. This is because the glass and steel hangs from a central concrete column. This means they could be dismantled and redesigned in the future. This is why some are calling these skyscrapers disposable architecture.

Building bonanza!

Chalkmarks: Exchange House, London, February 2024
Day 2: Meeting at Exchange House near Liverpool Street
Chalkmarks: St Paul's, London, February 2024
Mirror mirror on the wall: St Paul’s Cathedral
Chalkmarks: The City of London taken from the rooftop at 1 Poultry, London, February 2024
Two cities, stone and steel: The Portland Stone of the City of London and the glass-steel skyscrapers of Bishopsgate behind
Chalkmarks: The Shard, London, England, UK, April 2024
The Shard, the tallest building in London with 72 floors
The rooftop view! 1 Poultry

A new London!

We’re in business: We’re live and we’re kicking. The course has officially begun. On the second Saturday of February, in the morning, we meet the organisers and our classmates for the first time at the Golden Lane Estate (built by the City of London Corporation in 1952). We go through the timetable for the next seven months. By the end, we’ll each be hosting our own walking tours… live in London, during the Open House Festival. Mark your calendars for September. Watch this space! I’m gonna need some razzle dazzle though. Not sure when that’ll get covered.

Fellow recruits: We are packed into a small space to hear about the year ahead. Everyone seems nervous and excited, introducing themselves. Many are retired. I’m not. I didn’t think about waiting tbh. Feel stupid now! Everyone’s already asking: “Have you got an idea for a tour?” I haven’t. Feel double stoopid! We soon settle in and hear introductions about the Golden Key Academy and how to create a compelling tour from tours director Merlin Fulcher and director Phin Harper (since left Open City). Their vision is to open up the world of architecture to wider audiences, to take talks and lectures out on to the streets – to make them fun and create “moments of magic”. They’ve very optimistic that a walking tour can change someone. By the end of the morning, I wonder what I’ve let myself in for.

The art of touring: In the afternoon, we’re off on our first walking tour around the Barbican housing estate (built by the City of London Corporation as a gift to the nation in 1965) led by Merlin Fulcher, tours director, (pic below) and his five facts from Wikipedia he says, to show us how it’s done. The Barbican is not a vision of beauty. I know saying this is a terrible gaffe as it’s considered an architectural icon. But the bare concrete makes it feel heavy – darker and colder than it already is. In 1982 when it was opened by the late Queen, she said it was “one of the wonders of the modern world”. Since then, it’s repeatedly been voted the ugliest building in London. Only an architect can love this place.

Opinions may vary: The Barbican is brutalist architecture – nothing to do with being brutal apparently. It means the concrete is exposed and raw, the opposite of decorative. It’s naked. The brick is left to be a brick – it’s not painted over, and the material is used as it was made, you don’t cover it up. Fun fact though: to add a little sass and colour to the Barbican, the pond water has been dyed green. It doesn’t make it Barbados – it still looks like the London dungeon.

Post-war jewel: The Barbican was built after the war as a village within the city. It has everything here: a church, a cinema, an arts centre, cafes – and plenty of concrete. I think they’ve taken it up a notch here tbh especially when we’re told the concrete is hand finished. Despite the rough edges and its shades of grey and brown, it’s a pretty posh place filled with multimillionaires. In fact it was built for the middle classes to lure them back into London after the war. The famous flock here too like moths to a flame. The average price for one of the 2,000 flats is around £1million. After an hour of hearing its story, I haven’t written it off. I mean, it’s considered vintage and it’s good for a photoshoot so deffo worthy of its Grade II-listed status which protects it from the chopping block. PS: If it’s a gift – can I stay over? I need a concrete answer (here until September guys!).

Small steps!

Chalkmarks: Natalie Chalk, Day 1 of Golden Key Academy with Open City at the Barbican, City of London, England, UK
Day 1: Natalie on tour at the Barbican with boss Merlin Fulcher (in the cap) leading the group
Chalkmarks: Natalie Chalk, Day 1 of Golden Key Academy with Open City at the Barbican, City of London, England, UK
Neighbours: The Barbican Estate (where the pond water is dyed green) built for the middle classes and below…
Chalkmarks: Golden Lane Estate, City of London, England, UK, April 2024
The more colourful Golden Lane Estate built for the working classes

Rejoining the guides!

Exciting news: I pinch myself as I’m introduced in Open City’s weekly newsletter, as part of 2024 cohort. It’s really happening… and, I’m a rising star (no laughing at the back)!

Chalkmarks: Natalie Chalk introduced as part of the 2024 cohort, Golden Key Academy, Open City, London, England, UK, February 2024
Meet me: Natalie (left) introduced as part of the 2024 cohort

The extra mile!

January 2024

Rich history: I am up early to climb the 311 spiral steps (see below) of the Monument (built by Dr Robert Hooke and Sir Christopher Wren in 1671-67). I got the certificate to prove it and the receipt, it cost £6. It is freezing but it is worth it. There is no one else around as I look down on the River Thames, the Tower of London (built by William the Conqueror in 1078 ), St Paul’s (rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren in 1710 after the Great Fire), Canary Wharf (see below, built by Canadian Paul Reichmann in 1987) in the Docklands, the Shard, the tallest in the capital (built by Qatar in 2009 ), and then across to the skyscrapers on Bishopsgate including the famous Gherkin (built by Swiss Re in 2001) and the most recently completed, TwentyTwo, the second tallest, (built by Axa Real Estate in 2006-20).

Speaking of capital: Living in London, I used to think “there’s nothing to see here”, as I ran for tubes and buses. There was always somewhere more interesting to be. Now, I’m ready to explore. There is so much to see. What did the early Roman city look like? Or even in 1024? One thing’s for sure, there are not many trees down there as architects have gone wild growing buildings. Plus, this lot cost a heck of a lotta money and that’s an uncomfortable conversation! PS: not sure if I like walking in sub-zero temperatures. Shivering could be a problem. Will report back!

Chalkmarks: Monument steps, The Monument, City of London, England, UK, January 2024

The journey begins: Something nuts has happened. I’ve been approved! I am joining the 2024 cohort for the Golden Key Academy run by charity, Open City, with organises walking tours that showcase London architecture. The email dropped in my inbox saying they were very pleased to offer me a place on the course. They don’t know, I know nothing about architecture. Whoops. Everything starts in February!

Chalkmarks: Towers of London, England, UK, January 2024 (Taken from the Monument)
The Towers of London: Looking across to the Tower of London with Canary Wharf in the distance – taken from The Monument in the City of London

New history!