Visiting The Secret Laboratory Inside The Monument

By Sandra Lawrence Last edited 100 months ago

Last Updated 03 March 2016

Visiting The Secret Laboratory Inside The Monument
The view that tourists don't get to see

It looks pretty straightforward — a 202ft, hollow, Doric column with spiral steps around the inner wall and a second, smaller ‘column’ of absolutely nothing running all the way up the core.

We know the basics about the Monument. That it was created to commemorate the Great Fire of London in 1666. That it has a fine cantilevered staircase. That the inscription outside blames the whole thing on Popish Frenzy. That it’s visited by 200,000 people every year. That if you reward yourself with a Kit-Kat at the top of all those steps its calories will have been cancelled out thanks to the climb. That in the distressing event it falls over at a particular angle its gilded urn would just about deck the now-non-existent bakery in Pudding Lane that started all the fuss.

At the bottom is the remains of Edwardian turnstiles, a teeny-tiny font for 17th century ‘blessings’ and a mini ticket booth. At the top, just under a fiery orb, a narrow ledge allows visitors to gaze at 360° of London sprawl. There doesn’t seem much room to hide any secrets.

The Monument was, however, built with an agenda. Sure, it was a memorial to one of the most devastating moments in London’s history; an act of defiance against fate, fire, Roman Catholics and anyone else who thought they could take on the might of the City.

Steps leading down to the lab

Its designers, though, royally-appointed architect Sir Christopher Wren and City surveyor Dr Robert Hooke, were practical men. Men of science. What was the point of spending all that cash on something that would just look nice? Why not make it work for a living?

The Monument ended up as what has to be London’s largest scientific instrument. Hooke and Wren designed its steps to hug the wall so there was a clear view all the way up the middle to the urn, which still conceals a pair of iron doors opening to the heavens.

At ground level, peer behind the ticket booth to see a small, wooden door. Painted cream, like the rest of the walls, it’s easy to miss, but this door leads to scientific discovery. Or at least that was the intention.

Take a close look at the place where people leave rucksacks at the foot of those stairs. That circular wooden base had, for a blink in time, a much more illustrious career. When removed, it looks down into ‘Hooke’s laboratory’, where two of London’s scientific giants housed the business end of a zenith telescope.

The roof of Hooke and Wren's lab

It’s a squash to get down there, but a thrill. These are the very steps Hooke and Wren would have squeezed down too, full of excitement at what they might spy from their newest toy.

Our host Richard Smith demonstrates how to angle our bodies to slide under the floor, how to feel for the first stone step then clamber onto what turns out to be a not-insubstantial, short stone staircase.

Robert Hooke is the less well-known of the Monument’s parents, and that’s just how his great adversary, Isaac Newton, wanted it, if the stories are true. If this underrated Enlightenment big-hitter had only ever produced his extraordinary Micrographia — detailed drawings of creepy crawlies household objects and bits of his own skin he’d observed under his microscope - he’d have given more to the world than 99% of the rest of us. Hooke gave much, much more; fascinated by everything and anything. His Monument opened literally sky-high opportunities.

Whatever you do, don't... oh, you already have

The circular stone chamber is small, but not as cramped as one might expect. It has a domed roof, ten or so feet above your head, with a hole in the middle, neatly finished and easily big enough to poke the latest state-of-the-art telescope through.

Even the walls hold secrets. The Monument took six years to finish as Portland stone — any building stone — was in short supply after the fire. Areas out of public view just used general London rubble. Alongside the usual Kentish ragstone, old brick and bits and bobs sits what looks suspiciously like a classic ancient Roman brick, leftover from the last time London got torched...

The other end of the story lies a tad higher than the 311 steps taken by the public to the viewing platform at the top. Even those steps are scientifically calculated — exactly six inches apart for precision instruments.

At this point most visitors are so eager to get outside to see the extraordinary panoramic views they don’t notice the steps continue, past a heavy iron gate and up to another grille over the by-now-not-inconsiderable-drop.

The inside of the golden urn is best described as an upside-down funnel – a narrow cylindrical passage to the top - all the decorative stuff is on the outside only, slightly disappointing for anyone hoping to find themselves inside a giant vase.

City maintenance expert and all-round heights-o-phile Brett Biddulph explains that from here on harnesses are required. Looking up, it’s easy to see why. The only way up is via a series of 17th century iron rungs to where Brett has already shinned up and opened two small trapdoors to the sky.

The climb is relatively short though the rungs are a fair distance apart, pulling on post-Christmas-flabby muscles rather more than expected.

From one Wren masterpiece to another

At the tippy-top a small iron lip separates Londonist heads from a delicate row of gilded ‘flames’. From there on: infinity and beyond, a concept that would be enjoyed more if there wasn’t the nagging knowledge you had to climb back down those rungs again.

Don’t look down, don’t look down… too late. Through a distant iron grid the hole to Hooke’s lab in the basement glows eerily orange. It’s not comforting to reflect that iron grids – and sturdy harnesses - weren’t always there.

Ultimately, the Monument as science lab was a failure. Traffic thundering up and down Fish Street Hill created so much vibration it was impossible to get accurate readings. One experiment to demonstrate the rotation of the Earth using a pendulum was useful but as an astronomical device the Monument was already outdated. The Royal Observatory at Greenwich was well on its way. Serious astronomy was leaving the City for cleaner air and clearer skies.

Find out more about, and visit, the Monument.