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As the often weird and largely wonderful towers of glass and steel rise up around the City, our eyes are drawn ever upward to the ever-evolving skyline. Even truly vast works like St Paul’s are dwarfed, overlooked, crowded out. The merely monumental, it seems, can stand little chance.
But that makes the process of discovery and rediscovery that much sweeter. A half hour wander around the centre of town can bring out the ‘faint, unrecognized apprehension that here, at last, I should find that low door in the wall, which others, I knew, had found before me, which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden, which was somewhere, not overlooked by any window, in the heart of that grey city.’
Charles Ryder may have been talking about Oxford, but the same holds true for the capital.
Take Postman’s Park, for example, just a couple of hundred yards from St Paul’s Cathedral: a churchyard until its church was lost to the Great Fire, a burial ground until the layers upon layers of former Londoners filled it up to overflowing, and finally, in 1887, a park. It’s a wonderfully secluded refuge, a still, near-silent corner of our non-stop city.
It is, however, more than a peaceful spot in which to have a sunlit lunch of a summer’s afternoon. It’s home to George Frederic Watts’ Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice. There is, surely, no better place (and indeed no better time) for it.
For as we plug ourselves and our headphones in the better to distract ourselves from stories like the one today in which tube passengers were advised by TFL not to accept help from strangers lest they get distracted and subsequently pick-pocketed, we need reminders like this one. Each of the sixty-two tiles commemorates the extraordinary – yet somehow refreshingly ordinary – good in our fellow citizens, telling as they do short and simple stories of those who died whilst trying to save others.
As the Bishop of London reminded his congregation in 1900, when the monument was first unveiled:
‘It was a good thing that the multitude who took their recreation in this open space should have some great thoughts on which to fix their hearts, some inscriptions before their eyes recalling to them the things which had been done by those who did their duty bravely, simply and straightforwardly in the place where God had placed them. Such were, indeed, the salt of the earth, and it was by producing characters such as theirs that a nation waxed strong.’