In the early hours of Sept. 2, 1666, a fire broke out in a bakery on Pudding Lane in the heart of the medieval city of London and quickly spread. Its location and timing were critical, coming on the heels of an extremely dry summer, fanned by a strong easterly wind, and centered in a warehouse district rich in combustible stores of timber, rope and oil.
“The burning still rages, and it is now gotten as far as the Inner Temple. All Fleet street, the Old Bailey, Ludgate Hill, Warwick Lane, Newgate, Paul's Chain, Watling Street, now flaming, and most of it reduced to ashes," English author John Evelyn wrote in his diary. "The stones of St. Paul's flew like grenados, the melting lead running down the streets in a stream, and the very pavements glowing with fiery redness, so as no horse nor man was able to tread on them.”
The Great Fire of London as depicted during the second day of the tragic event. The Tower of London is on the right and London Bridge on the left, with St Paul's Cathedral in the distance, surrounded by the tallest flames. (Photo: Unknown/Wikimedia)
The conflagration was so intense that it achieved temperatures between 2,000 to 3000 degrees Fahrenheit, melting imported steel sitting along the wharves and the great iron chains and locks on three western city gates. When the last flames died down some four days later, more than 13,000 homes, 87 parish churches and the ancient cathedral of St. Paul's lay in ashes. The verified death toll was only six people, but more than 70,000 people were left homeless. It would take almost a decade before London recovered.
This weekend, London is marking the 350th anniversary of the fire of 1666 with the "London Burning Festival," featuring four days of arts, tours and events spearheaded by the creative non-profit Artichoke.
“The festival is an artistic response that addresses the impact of the Great Fire of London on the city, its inhabitants and buildings, and how it emerged from the ashes and evolved to the resilient world city it is today,” Helen Marriage, director of Artichoke, told the Guardian.
The festival's art exhibits include both real and projected flames. Since Thursday evening, French artist Martin Firrell's fiery projection display has been lighting up the iconic dome of St. Paul's Cathedral and the National Theatre, which you can see in the video below:
On Saturday, Londoners will have an opportunity to witness the toppling of 26,000 large domino blocks zig-zagging through the city marking the 4.3-mile path of the fire. There will also be "fire gardens" set up throughout the city featuring flaming works of art, live music and street artists. You can get a sense of the atmosphere in the video below:
On the evening of Sept. 4, the most anticipated event will take place on the River Thames with the burning of a nearly 400-foot representation of the 17th-century London skyline. Designed by American artist David Best, and constructed over several months with the help of school children and unemployed youths, the burning of the art piece will be broadcast live online (or you can watch an edited version of the event in the video below)
"I think fire is very deep in our society – though slightly dangerous, it has positive attributes of home and banishing the things we’re afraid of," Best, who designed 190 structures for the art installation, told the Telegraph. "It really is about letting things go and seeing it go up in smoke – it’s a very powerful metaphor."