creative non-fiction Essay View


Climb the steps of the Monument with Harriet Thompson, take in the view, and take a moment.

by Harriet Thompson

If you climb the 311 stone steps to the top of the Monument in the city of London, you will reach a viewing platform. The Thames, Tower Bridge, HMS Belfast, and countless buildings stretch out before you. This view is made satisfying by the steep climb that precedes it. There is no elevator to rush you up to vertigo-inducing heights. The spiral staircase that winds up the tower is longer than it looks, unsuitable for the elderly or the exhausted. For those who enjoy a steep climb and a pause for reflection, it is perfect.

In the novel Martin Chuzzlewit, Dickens compares the Monument to a tall man, watching the city:

“If the day were bright, you observed upon the house–tops, stretching far away, a long dark path; the shadow of the Monument; and turning round, the tall original was close beside you, with every hair erect upon his golden head, as if the doings of the city frightened him.”

Now when you look up at the Monument, you imagine him as a tall man with a golden cap on his head, glinting in the sun. Always observing, never sleeping. Standing on the viewing platform, you become the tall man’s eyes. You lose all sense of time. You watch a taxi navigating the labyrinthine streets below. You notice a boat passing down the Thames. The city pulsates, oblivious to your watching presence from above.

“The spiral staircase that winds up the tower is longer than it looks, unsuitable for the elderly or the exhausted. For those who enjoy a steep climb and a pause for reflection, it is perfect.”

As a keen walker, I am accustomed to a hill-climb. I am spurred on by the wind rushing through my hair, the breath surging through my lungs and the blood warming my cheeks. The view at the end of the climb is a worthy incentive. The Monument is a steep ascent, brutal and enclosed; a far cry from the Cumbrian mountains which I love to clamber. Instead of a gradually rising path or a craggy edge, the Monument offers even steps, a handrail and a dizzying drop.

Stand on the platform, take in the view and breathe.

There are monuments scattered across London commemorating past wars, politicians and literary greats. But this is The Monument. Built by Sir Christopher Wren as a memorial for The Great Fire of London. It is 202 feet high, equalling the distance from its site to the place in Pudding Lane where the fire started.

I have always found walking conducive to productive thought. I love pounding the pavements, stomping through mud and climbing hills, but it is walking to a view that I love the most. Climb up high and you can take a moment to pause at the top. A moment out of time and space and civilisation. A spot situated above the world is the ideal place to stop. I always have to come down but I do so having paused, a speck in the tall man’s eye until I descend, dropping gently like a tear upon his cheek.



Harriet is a writer and researcher interested in 20th-century literary and visual cultures and life-writing. Born in Saltburn-by-the-sea in North Yorkshire, Harriet has always been drawn to coastal environments. She grew up in Sheffield and is now based in Camberwell.

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