Today (June 30) in London History – “I am bound upon a wheel of fire”

The famous Globe Theatre on the Bankside burned down on June 29, 1613. A year and a day later – June 30, 1614 – the rebuilt Globe (complete with a fire-proof tiled roof instead of the thatched roof that did for its predecessor) opened. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

Well, it wasn’t Sophie’s choice, yesterday. It was my, David’s choice.

And while it certainly wasn’t choosing which of your two children is going to live and which one is going to the gas chamber, it was a tough call. In the end I decided to consign Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre to the flames – yes, yesterday was the 409th anniversary of the most famous theatre in the world catching fire and burning down. The pull of that event was very strong – I sorely wanted to write about it, tell the story, voice it.

But then, there he was, the winged boy – the Eros statue – London’s best-loved statue – making his debut there in Piccadilly Circus. Making the very heart of our city complete in a way it wasn’t before that June day in 1892. As you know, in the end I went with Eros. Partly because there was so much about him I didn’t know. Maybe the most famous instance of “hidden in plain sight” in all of London. What finally tipped the balance toward Eros was a hole card I’ve got about the Globe Theatre on a September day in 1599. That’ll be the Globe Theatre’s big day. I’ll play that card come the anniversary on that day in September.

And we’ve got a pretty good warm-up act today, June 30th – because this is the anniversary of the opening of the new, rebuilt Globe. It opened on June 30th, 1614. A year and a day after the much loved first Globe burned down. The important distinction to draw between the Globe that burned down and the new, rebuilt one – the one that opened on this day in 1614 – is the first Globe is the one that comes trailing clouds of Shakespeare glory. It was his theatre, it was the theatre where many of those great plays were first performed, where those great lines were first spoken and heard.

Ok, there’s another distinction. The Globe that’s opening today – June 30th, 1614 – has a tiled roof. Not so, the roof of the first Globe. It was a thatched roof – a spark from a cannon they fired during a production of Henry VIII flew up into the thatching, the thatching caught fire, the fire in the thatch took off, the rest of the structure was made of wood and it was burn baby burn. What a sight it must have made. Shakespeare’s got that great line in King Lear – Lear says, “”But I am bound upon a wheel of fire, / That mine own tears do scald like molten lead.” Well, think about that for a moment, class. Shakespeare’s Globe was called “the wooden O” – a wooden O lying flat is like a wheel lying flat. 

That theatre going up in flames – that was a wheel of fire. Shakespeare more than anyone else would have been bound upon that wheel of fire – all those moments and memories in that wooden O transformed into a wheel of fire. I think we can safely assume his tears – real or inward – would have scalded like molten lead.”

Now, for the record, the reconstructed Globe – the 1997 Globe – also has a thatched roof. The first thatched-roof building in London since the Great Fire of London in 1666. They had to get a special act through parliament to build a thatched roof building in late 20th century London. 

What else about the new, tile-roofed Globe Theatre? Well, just a couple of facts. It cost £1400. It was the property of a consortium which included Shakespeare, Richard Burbage, John Heminges and Henry Condell. That’s the quartet, the four most important names in the Shakespeare story. Well, in terms of his work, his plays. Richard Burbage was his leading actor – the star, the box office draw. Heminges and Condell were fellow actors and, from one very important perspective they were more important than Burbage. Seven years after Shakespeare’s death they gathered together prompting scripts and parts and produced the First Folio. Had they not done so, more than half of those plays would have been lost. You’re talking about a world without Twelfth Night, the greatest comedy ever written. You’re talking about a world without Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra and Julius, three of the greatest tragedies ever written. You’re talking about a world without The Tempest, the greatest romance ever written. 

That world – that would be a wheel of fire – the tears shed over those losses would scald like molten lead.

Ok, Today in London – and you know what’s coming – get thee to Bankside – to the reconstructed Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. Go to a play. You want a tip? Get there really early. Three or four hours early. Take a book. Reading – or audio – variety. Get to the front of the queue. When they open the doors make a dash for it. Get right to the front of the yard – also known as “the pit” – right up against the stage. You’ll be standing for the performance but it’s much much less tiring because you can put your arms up on the stage, lean against. It’ll simultaneously be the best theatre experience of your life – and the cheapest. £6. But the key is to get there really early so you’re at the front of the queue and can get to the stage, lean on it, rest on it, use it as a speaker’s stand. Anything else? Yes, quite a few of the plays I mentioned in this podcast are in their repertory this summer. Rainbow! Rainbow! Rainbow!

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you can’t get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a blockbuster question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do what you have to do to attract and keep elite, all-star guides. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason we’ve got a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality – it’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished professionals: 

barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, Guide of the Year Award winners… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. Which is by way of saying, welcome back! And Good Londoning one and all. See ya tomorrow.

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