Tag Archives: history

The land and water of King Lot

We spent Easter in Edinburgh with family.

The city of Arthur’s Seat:

Arthur's Seat

Arthur’s Seat

Along with the mound on which Edinburgh Castle is built, Arthur’s Seat has to be one of the most famous extinct volcanoes in the world. Presumably, although not definitely, it is named after our greatest legendary king (I am a big fan of Arthurian legends). Edinburgh’s connections with Arthur don’t stop at the famous hill. The whole area – Lothian – is presumed to be named after an ancient king, sometimes called Lot: the father of Sir Gawain of the Round Table.

Some (hi)stories suggest that the ‘noble’ pagan king, Lot, committed an act of Talibanesque logic and brutality by throwing his Christian daughter off a cliff for having the temerity to be raped by a Welsh pillager Lord called Owain. The pregnant victim, later known as Saint Teneu, miraculously survived her fall and gave birth to Saint Mungo or Kentigern, the Patron Saint of Glasgow.

Flowing through the kingdom of Lot is Edinburgh’s main river, the Water of Leith:

Water of Leith

Water of Leith

This river rises in the Pentland Hills amongst the ferns, birch, heather, and moss:

Bavelaw Marsh

Bavelaw Marsh

… where I watched Meadow Pipits rise and fall in their dancing song-flights.

The many streams that help form the Water of Leith are damned to form the Threipmuir and Harlaw reservoirs which provide much of the drinking water for Edinburgh.

Threipmuir Resevoir

Threipmuir Resevoir

Threipmuir Resevoir

Threipmuir Resevoir

Harlaw Reservoir

Harlaw Reservoir

From these hills, the water tumbles down into the city and flows into the mighty Firth of Forth estuary.

A mile or two up the beach from where Water of Leith enters the sea, is Cramond Beach:

Camond Beach and Cramond Island in the distance

Camond Beach and Cramond Island in the distance

At low tide Cramond Island, way out in the Estuary, is linked to the mainland by a causeway:

Cramond Causeway

Cramond Causeway

Either side of the causeway is a sandy, muddy magnet for wading birds. Unfortunately, I had neither a camera (all the photos in this post were taken with my iPhone), nor a spotting scope, but throughout the day – whether in the hills or at the beach – I took a few photos of birds I saw through the ‘make-do’ method of holding my phone up to my binocular lens…

Left side, top to bottom: Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea) in Balerno; Eurasian Curlew (Numenius arquata) one of very many at Cramond Beach; one of my favourite birds, the White-throated Dipper (Cinclus cinclus) at Harlow Reservoir.

Right side, top to bottom: Common Redshank (Tringa totanus); Eurasian Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus); Goosander (Mergus merganser) swimming up the River Almond Estuary from Cramond Beach; and, Common Shelduck (Tadorna tadorna) also on Cramond Beach:

Birds… honestly!

Birds… honestly!

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A Big Birding Year: Part XVIII (‘introducing’ another owl)

Last time I went birding in Kensington Gardens, I posted shots of Tawney owlets.

I returned last weekend, and finally got a photo of a Little Owl (another blogger – google Hyde park birds and you will find him – posts pictures of this owl almost every day) which was my third owl species of the year and my 91st species of bird photographed for the year:

Little Owl (Athene noctua)

Little Owl (Athene noctua)

This male perches in the same place, in the same tree almost every day through the summer (his mate is more secretive) in one of London’s busiest parks. Despite the millions of people who visit the park, I suspect a very, very small number of people ever see this bird other than those who know exactly where to look (thanks to Ralph’s blog).

There are believed to be around 5,700 pairs in the UK, although this number is declining significantly. But there is unlikely ever to be a conservation effort to protect them as the Little Owl is (apparently – see my doubts below) an introduced species.

According to Wikipedia (actually from Francesca Greenoak’s book on British birds), the Little Owl was introduced to the UK in 1842 by the Ornithologist, Thomas Powys. I’m going to stick my neck out and say that I am unsure this is true:

First, the Ornithologist Thomas Powys was nine years old in 1842! It could have perhaps been his father (also Thomas Powys), but he was a politician, not an ornithologist.

Second, in my 1845 (published three years after the Little Owl was apparently first introduced) edition of Yarrell’s ‘A History of British Birds’ (a wonderful gift from a dear friend), he describes the bird as “an occasional visitor” in Britain:

Yarrell

Yarrell also sources older books referencing the Little Owl visiting Britain and refers to instances of the bird being found in different locations – hard to believe occurring if the bird had first been introduced just three years earlier. Whilst it is perfectly possible that some Little Owls were introduced by man in the 19th Century, I put it to you that the Little Owl really introduced itself to this country.

If my hypothesis is correct, then the Little Owl would be determined to be a natural species of our country and would be given a conservation status (rather like the Collared Dove which introduced itself here a few decades ago and is now common) and could be protected.

Death and love in York

To say that the Northern English city of York has a rich history and cultural heritage would be an understatement. It was founded on the river Ouse (below) by the Romans almost 2000 years ago, only a single generation after the crucifixion of Christ.

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The city walls are the most extensive in the UK with the majority dating back to Medieval times (as below) but some to when the city was in the hands of the Vikings (such as the brilliantly named, Eric Bloodaxe) or the Romans.

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York castle

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The ruined keep of the castle, Clifford’s Tower (above), is largely all that remains. It stands proud above the city but has a dark past. In 1190, the new king Richard I’s (the brutal crusader romanticised as Coeur de lion) overseas conquests were sparking anti semitism at home. A mob chased at least 150 Jewish people to the castle where they appealed for protection. Locked inside the keep they were besieged for days. As their fate became inevitable, rather than renounce their faith, they killed themselves and then their bodies were set alight to prevent mutilation post mortem. The wooden keep was raised to the ground. Eventually, the current stone edifice was built in its place. Although this building too was to be gutted by fire…

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From the ruined ramparts (above) another, hugely important historical building can be seen…

York Minster

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As the seat of the second most senior priest in the Anglican Church, York Minster is appropriately grand and impressive.

I felt enormously privileged that my fiancée and I were able to attend a wedding, of friends of ours, in the Minster. The architecture, and history of the place is a superbly fitting setting to tie the knot…

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Secret London: Part VIII – In memoriam nival

Abney Park Cemetery in Stoke Newington is most definitely not a secret place (it is rightly famous as one of the ‘magnificent seven’ great Victorian cemeteries of London), but it contains many, many secrets within its walls. It is a stunningly wild place at any time of year, but the lovingly overgrown (if that is not oxymoronic) labyrinth seems particularly charmed under a coating of snow.

Abney Park Cemetary

The giant Victorian cemetery seemingly has a thousand long and winding paths, each which twist around old and decaying trees and incalculable numbers of grave stones almost overwhelmed with brambles which appear to be re-claiming the rock from the stone mason back to the wild.

Abney park nature
The cemetery can appear wonderfully wild and unplanned, but as one might expect from such a place of faith, there is both intelligent design in its layout and management. Originally landscaped by a man called George Loddiges in 1843, Abney Park is rare in that it is both cemetery and arboretum. Inevitably, mid-winter is not the best time to view trees at their best, but it is patently clear that the trees form a central role in the eco-system that has grown up in the 32 acres of land.

Whilst still very much alive as a tree, you can see from the holes in the deadwood of this Common Ash’s crown that Great Spotted Woodpeckers use it as a home and feeding station…

Woodpecker holes

London parkland wouldn’t be what we know and love without the ubiquitous and largely tame Grey Squirrel…

Grey Squirrel

Or the equally bold Robin fearlessly guarding its territory…

Robin

The Carrion Crows flapped and hopped like feathered onyx automatons in the sheet of white snow…

Carrion Crow

Some residents, which were certainly not present when the dead were first laid to rest here, are the squawking Ring-necked Parakeets which appear strange and incongruously exotic for a Victorian London cemetery (Parakeets are the feral descendants of escaped captive birds from the 1960s that are colonising much of London and the South East)…

Ring-necked Parakeet

A grave story
A thousand grave stones tell a thousand stories, and mainly stories of loss (in fact there are around 200,000 internments in Abney Park; a town of death one might muse). It would be almost inhuman not to feel the pathos reach back across the generations, often carved into real and sentimental expression:“In loving memory of our dear little Stanley who passed away Jan 29th 1925 aged 7 1/2”

Little grave

Sometimes short passages from the Bible or Lord’s Prayer are etched into the stone expressing the futility of human struggle against the inexorability of fate/death/heavenly plan…

Thy will be done

Sometimes, a grieving family might use poetry to express their loss, but also their resilience through faith…

“A light is from our household gone,
A voice we loved is stilled:
A place is vacant in our home,
Which never can be filled.
To live in hearts we leave behind,
Is not to die

Poem

A general complaint I have with grave stone design is the focus on how people died rather than how they lived. I must have read a hundred times how someone “fell asleep” or “passed peacefully”, but other than the fact that they were a beloved father/mother/husband/wife/son/daughter, we learn nothing about the person whose remains lie six feet below our feet. I did find, however, some simple but notable exceptions…

Such as the 40 year old tax man from Kirkcaldy (the constituency of our dour former Prime Minister, Rt Hon Gordon Brown MP)…

"Yeaahh I'm the tax man"

…or Betsi the “faithful” nurse, whose grave stone looks suspiciously modern for a lady who passed away over 150 years ago (which along with the snow-coated daffodil posie at the base of the stone hint at the sure fact that Betsi is not forgotten)…

Nurse

There is clearly a tragic story behind the military grave stone of Private C.R. Haughton who died the day after World War I ended (presumably from his wounds sustained earlier in the trenches)…

12 Nov

A modest modern memorial stone stands in front of the much older tomb of Rev. James Sherman…

Abolitionist

As the stone simply notes, Sherman was an ‘abolitionist’ (one of many buried at Abney Park, but the only one I found in my wanderings in the freezing cold). Sherman wrote books about, and financially aided, the cause of the abolition of slavery in North America right up until his death two years into the American Civil war. Sherman financially assisted the stay of escaped slave, and abolitionist minister, Samuel Ringgold Ward, who wrote a book based on the speeches he gave in London to raise money for the cause in North America, Autobiography of a Fugitive Negro: his anti-slavery labours in the United States, Canada and England. Which made me realise how the stories of 200,000 people often also overlap with the stories of countless others.

So much could, and perhaps should, be written about the many brave and wonderful things done by those whose remains lie in the frozen earth of East London, but I shall end this post with an image of the lion of the Bostock family crypt who appears to be sleeping peacefully under a blanket of snow…

Lion

The Elixir of Long Life

What should one drink on a hot and sticky Saturday night?

How about Chartreuse and tonic…

I used one part Chartreuse to nine parts tonic with lots of ice. For some reason I fancied it in a large wine bowl glass.

If you were to get the ratios the wrong way around -nine parts Chartreuse to one part tonic – then, at 55%, you could be in a little bit of trouble…

As far as liqueurs go, I am not sure that many can match the history of Chartreuse. The Chartreuse monks in France held an ancient manuscript with the wonder-drug known as the ‘Elixir of Long Life’. The complicated instructions from a long-dead apothecary were translated in 1737 and Chartreuse was born.

Apparently the monks risked the wrath of the most powerful man on earth when they refused to give the secret recipe to Napoleon following a direct order. They continue to distil Chartreuse to this day.

Photos taken on iPhone 4 with Hipstamatic

Secret London: Part IV – Subterranean rivers

Fleet Street was once the home to most of Britain’s newspapers and remains a major central London thoroughfare. This, you probably know.

What you may not know is that Fleet Street takes its name from a river that passes beneath it. The river Fleet is one of London’s many subterranean rivers that flow – often entirely underground – to feed the Thames.

The Fleet rises in North London from the hills of Hampstead and Highgate and has been dammed to form the famous Hampstead swimming ponds. The stream then disappears out of sight until it reaches the Thames.

Well… almost out of sight…

Imagine the funny looks I got taking close-up pictures of drain covers in Clerkenwell. The running water you can make out through the drain grill on Ray Street just north of Smithfield Market is actually the River Fleet running about 20 feet beneath the road. That is London’s largest underground river.

The Fleet once coursed through London above ground alongside other London rivers that have disappeared underground, such as the Tyburn, the Westbourne, the Stamford Brook, the Counter’s Creek and the Walbrook. Chelsea’s stadium, Stamford Bridge, is named after an old bridge that used to cross the Stamford Brook before it was diverted underground. The wealthy area of Knightsbridge is named after a bridge that used to cross the river Westbourne.

But now, these rivers are largely rain-water sewers that nobody can see. They even enter the Thames largely unnoticed.

The Fleet enters the Thames directly underneath Blackfriars Bridge. I visited on Sunday at high-tide and so couldn’t see a thing, but I am reliably informed that directly beneath the ladder shown below is a an opening which can be seen at low tide.

To make up for my bad timing, I cycled along to Vauxhall Bridge to show you another river-mouth that is partly exposed even at high tide.

Flowing under the MI6 building is the South London subterranean river Effra:

London was once awash with streams and rivers carving up the city. Much of the far east of London was just a large boggy marsh. In the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, Londoners have increasingly banished much of the water that shaped London underground. I think that is a bit of shame.

Secret London: Part III – East End Pub Crawl

Who fancies a ship at the rubber?

If you’re wondering what on earth that means, you were clearly not born within the sound of the Bow Bells (neither was I by the way – I am a ‘Mockney’). For those of you who understand Cockney Rhyming Slang, you will know I just asked if you would like a pint of ale (“Ship full sail” or just “ship”) at the Pub (“rub-a-dub” or just “rubber”).

London has some great pubs and your best chance of meeting authentic Cockneys (other than in Essex where many of them seem to have escaped to) is in one of the old school boozers in the East End. Here are three examples I visited last night:

The Black Lion, Plaistow

If you want authentic, you won’t get much better than The Black Lion. My drinking buddy, above, is posing against one of London’s oldest and best preserved coaching taverns in London.

The pub is nearly 600 years old and boasts many claims to fame in its long history, including that the notorious highwayman, Dick Turpin, used to stable his horse, Black Bess, in what is now the function room just a few years before he was finally caught in Yorkshire and hanged in 1739.

The clientèle seem to be genuine locals in the main. The bar staff come from a limited pedigree as well with only a few landlords running the pub across the span of the last 100 years. In fact, from 1929 until 1997 (a staggering 68 years) a lady called Milly Morris worked as a bar maid and was happy to recount the many  stories she had accumulated over the years including during the war where she would continue serving pints as bombs dropped destroying her neighbourhood around them.

The pub is rare in that it still houses its own boxing club and gym, “the West Ham Boys”, which produced Olympic Gold medallist, Terry Spinks, and has also been used as a training gym for Barry McGuigan and Nigel Benn.

The Gun, Docklands

Whilst a relative youngster compared to the Black Lion – a mere 250 years old – the Gun can boast some pretty impressive history of its own. Most significantly, Britain’s greatest Admiral, Lord Nelson, used to frequent the pub and use the upstairs rooms to get up to mischief with his mistress.

The pub was also an important meeting place for smugglers and it still has a secret staircase complete with spy-hole to make sure the Cold Chill weren’t coming (sorry – I mean the Old Bill or Police – I just can’t help my mockney ways).

Much of the interior of The Gun was destroyed by fire in 2001. Since then, the pub has gone upmarket and is largely used as a drinking hole for the suits from Canary Wharf (including me – you can see The Gun from my office). The beer garden overlooks the Thames with the view dominated by the O2, as you can see below with me enjoying a Pig’s Ear (you surely don’t need me to translate that?)

The Isle of Dogs may have been partly gentrified by the money from Canary Wharf, but the Borough of  Tower Hamlets still has some the highest levels of poverty in the country. You do not have to travel far from the steeples of Mammon to see signs of both poverty as well as relics from the area’s past as a major industrial dock.

The Blind Beggar, Whitechapel

On 9th March 1966, a man walked into The Blind Beggar and approached another man sitting at the bar. The seated man sneered “Look who’s here” but was then shot in the head just above his right eye by the man who had entered the pub. The murderer calmly walked out again in full view of everyone else in the pub.

The dead man was George Cornell, a member of the notorious Richardson’s gang. The murderer was Ronnie Kray, half of the even more notorious Kray Twins. Despite a large number of eye witnesses, including Cornell’s friend Albie Woods sitting right next to him, not a single person would testify against the most feared man in London. Nevertheless, Ronnie Kray was eventually found guilty of the murder and spent the rest of his life in prison (he died in 1995). His brother, Reggie, would later join him after murdering Jack ‘the Hat’ McVitie (brutally stabbing him in the face and chest after his gun jammed) in Stoke Newington.

The Blind Beggar is named after Henry de Montford, the son of one of the most powerful men in England, Simon de Montford. Legend has it that Henry was blinded in battle in 1265. Despite being nursed back to health by a baroness who would become his wife, the high-born Henry fell on hard times and became a beggar at the Bethnal Green crossroads.

Despite its dark history and its chandeliers, unfortunately The Blind Beggar today shares neither the authenticity of The Black Lion, nor the sophistication of The Gun. However, all three pubs are fantastic extant reminders of London’s rich and often dark history that can be found just while having a pint.