Flames projected on to the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral. Photograph: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images - The Guardian 26/8/16 - Doris Clark
With parks and trees tinder-dry after weeks of sweltering weather, Londoners may be horrified to see flames flickering in the heart of the city this weekend, reflected in the Thames and apparently licking at the dome of St Paul’s – but the flames are the creations of artists, celebrating the 350th anniversary of the most devastating fire in the capital’s history
The flames apparently devouring the cathedral – whose dome designed by Sir Christopher Wren rose above the scorched city after the Great Fire destroyed the medieval original – are projections by the artist Martin Firrell, and will be seen each night from Thursday to Sunday.
The Great Fire began in a baker’s shop in Pudding Lane – the baker fiercely denied any responsibility – in the small hours of 2 September 1666.
The London’s Burning festival, commissioned by the arts charity Artichoke, will include an audacious amount of meticulously planned and scrupulously monitored real flames, including a fire garden created by the French company Carabosse that will light up the lawn outside Tate Modern from dusk each evening until Sunday.
The most spectacular conflagration will be on Sunday night when a 120ft (37-metre) floating sculpture of a street of 17th-century wooden houses, designed by the US artist David Best and built on to barges by hundreds of schoolchildren and unemployed young people, will be torched.
The fire will be started at 8.30pm on Sunday on the Thames between Blackfriars and Waterloo bridges. Thousands of people are expected to gather to watch from the safety of the South Bank.
Helen Marriage, the director of Artichoke, said the festival would not just commemorate the fire but explore contemporary challenges and issues in cities. A six-hour underwater performance piece by the US-based Early Morning Opera will offer a reminder that rising sea levels and flooding are now a greater threat than fire.
“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,” Marriage said.
Daylight events include a giant version of a domino topple on Saturday, with 23,000 breeze blocks tracing the course of the fire through 3.5 miles of the city.
Although fire was a common hazard in medieval cities, the Great Fire of 1666 did more damage than any since Boudicca torched the Roman city, and would not be rivalled until the Blitz.
After an exceptionally dry spell of weather, it rampaged across the city for three days, leaping between the overhanging eaves of wooden houses. When the wind that had been fanning the flames finally dropped and rain fell, more than 13,000 houses had either been burnt or pulled down as firebreaks, 86 of the city’s 108 churches and scores of the beautiful medieval guildhalls were in ashes or tottering ruins, and up to 80,000 people were homeless. Many of the poor would still be homeless years later.
The Monument, designed to stand as tall as the distance between it and the ill-fated bakery, is one of the most visible reminders of how the fire changed the face of the city forever.