It’s odd how effectively something – or sometimes lots of things – can be hidden in plain sight. Take dragons, for example. You would have thought that it would be pretty easy to spot a fantastical creature like a dragon, especially somewhere as uncompromisingly prosaic as the City of London. But pause for a second to consider that one of the emblems of the City of London is, in fact, a dragon, and then lift your eyes from pavement level, and you quickly realise that there are hundreds – if not thousands – of the beasts scattered all over the City. Apparently dragons have been included in the City’s coat of arms since the 17th century – something to do with St George and his cross, which is an even older emblem of the City – and now two of them appear in each rendition of the coat of arms – which themselves appear on every street name sign – as well as at 10 locations around London to mark the boundaries of the City. Who knew?
So it was that last Saturday Mr Darcy and the two Darcy sproglets found themselves gathered with a small group of fellow dragon-hunters outside The George Inn in Southwark, at the start of the Torch Dragon Tour, a 5.73km (according to mapmywalk.com) perambulation through the streets of the City. Accompanying us were one historian and television presenter – Suzannah Lipscomb, taking time out from preparing for a new series about Elizabeth I – a nice PR chap called Matt, whom the sproglets christened, mysteriously, Mackintosh – and a small blue fire-breathing dragon called Torch , part of Hasbro’s FurReal Friends range of really rather cute toys. (Incidentally, there was another nice chap on the walk who was doing some interviews for radio. Girl sproglet must have thought he was really rather cute too, as he ended up being called FurReal himself. I expect he would have preferred Torch – it sounds a bit like a Gladiator, for those of you old enough to remember that quintessentially 90s show – but actually he didn’t look fierce enough.)
Having stopped briefly at The George to note down the dragons being pinioned by St George on the pub signs (they were kind enough to open the gate so we could nip in and have a look), we set off on our meandering route. Suzannah paused every few minutes to deliver nuggets of information about the City of London and its denizens, a surprising number of whom seem to have come to a premature, and usually violent, end. Boy sproglet was very excited to discover that dragons popped up on all the City street name signs, and covered his piece of dragon scoring paper with five-bar prison gates in about five minutes flat. “This is brilliant,” he said. “I’ve counted over three hundred dragons already.” He looked a bit crest-fallen when it was explained to him that there wasn’t a prize for the largest number of dragons spotted, but consoled himself by scaling back on a bit on the dragon-twitching and going off to stick Torch dragon stickers on Mackintosh and FurReal instead.
Meanwhile, we were all discovering something else about the City of London, which is that the entire place shuts down at the weekend. In amongst the titbits about the City: “Stand on the actual place where Thomas Cromwell was actually beheaded! ” or “Cock Street is so named because it was where prostitutes used to stand up and be, er, counted!” – Suzannah was promising a stop for coffee and a bun. Unfortunately, the only commodity to be had in Leadenhall Market (and Bishopsgate, and Cornhill, and Gresham Street, and Guildhall) was tumbleweed, so it was an increasingly parched gaggle of walkers that eventually stumbled into a grand and exquisitely expensive coffee house in Cheapside. Thus suitably fortified by caffeine, we moved on past St Paul’s and Newgate, and so to Smithfield, where two of the largest and fiercest dragons we’d seen sat atop the main arch (bringing a new dimension to flame-grilled steaks). A final group photo later and we all piled into taxis to take us to the elegant and very non-mediaeval Soho Hotel, where everyone enjoyed an excellent lunch – and left with their own, very sweet, fire-breathing blue dragon.