Tag Archives: history

Exploring the land in black and white

I haven’t used black & white photography for quite a while. I tend to find it doesn’t lend itself to landscape photography for me (I’m not exactly Ansell Adams and nor am I generally taking pictures of such dramatic scenes), and it certainly doesn’t lend itself to the ‘art’ of record shot wildlife photography that is my speciality ;).

But on my most recent trip to the South of France, I gave it another go. There is always a fine line for relatively unskilled amateur photographers like me between a poor photo masquerading behind pretension, and a photo that authentically works in monochrome. I’ll let you be the judge of which side of that line I am on with these scenes from our home and the surrounding land.

The ruin


There are actually several ruins on the land, but this old farmhouse is the most substantial. The floor dimensions suggest this would have been a reasonably sizeable dwelling.

Another ruin


There are currently three homes in the remote complex, but a fourth building is now just a shell and largely used as a sheltered place to hang washing with only this delicate tree, currently in blossom, casting shade over it.

Another shell


The buildings aren’t the only things that have become retired shells on the land. I have seen photos of this car when it was on its ‘last wheels’ as a functioning vehicle 28 years ago. Now it is largely open to the elements, and being taken over with plants in the same way as the old ruined buildings.

The homes


Set in recovering, rewilding mediterranean maquis scrub landscape in a valley, the homes are now the terminus for a road (really just a track) that used to pass right through the valley.

The gate and path


The old road is now just a set of rocky paths, closed off from the homestead by an unintimidating old gate to keep the donkeys and horses away from any garden-grown plants and the track which eventually leads out to traffic and danger.

The other inhabitants

Version 2

Currently two horses and two donkeys keep some of the nearest vegetation low, the paths navigable, and parched, damaged soil manured. They are not the only large mammals in the valley…

The misty mountains

Version 3

Sometimes the sun scorches the valley, sometimes the wind blows through it like an industrial wind-tunnel, and sometimes mist clings to the hillside like a damp cloak. Sometimes ghost-like baritone bells can be heard invisibly from high-up in the hills as goats pass through. And deep, and normally hidden, in the misty scrub are the wilder inhabitants: wild boar, deer, and, I only recently found out, hare live in these hills.

The old trees


Much of the vegetation in the valley is relatively young scrubby growth recolonising the former agricultural land. On the top of the hills, much of the plant life is kept very short by the goats, but on the cliff edges, some ancient Holm Oak hold on, too gnarly and big and old to be under threat from goats, and bent sharply and precariously, and overhanging huge drops, from the wind that scours the land.

It is after steep climbs to visit these sentinels of the wild and walking in wind that return journeys are accompanied with a longing for the warmth of the open fire back in the house.

The fire


I took this photo in the knowledge that the slightly antiquated feel to the image absolutely accurately reflects the history of the fireplace. A place where we dry clothes today, and bath our baby in reach of the warmth from the flames in almost exactly the same way as will have been done for generation after generation in the same spot. The photo was taken with that most modern of devices: an iPhone, but the scene is not staged or fake; the fireplace really is as old as it looks.


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!

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 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.


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.


York castle


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…


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

York Minster


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…


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…


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


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)…


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…


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…


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.

Secret London: Part II – A hidden and ancient church

St Bartholomew-the-Great is probably the second oldest church in London (remnants of All Hallows-by-the-Tower are much older) and is hidden away down alleys and tiny roads in West Smithfield.

It reeks of history and character. There is no happy-clappy nonsense here (apologies if you are into that, but this place ain’t for you) – this is full-on ‘high church’ solemnity and ritual.

It was built in 1123 by a rich church dude who was grateful that he recovered from a fever. For nearly 900 years since, the sick have been coming to pray for a cure. For the past couple of decades, the sick have probably been outnumbered by a few tourists who want to soak up some serious atmosphere. When you step inside you can barely see a thing as it is so dark (hence the rather grainy images as I did not want to spoil the mood with flash and didn’t have my tripod with me for long exposure – yes, I know the story about the bad workman and his tools).

Film directors making period dramas seem to like the atmosphere too and so Shakespeare in Love, Sherlock Holmes, The Other Boleyn Girl, Elizabeth: The Golden Age; Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves; and, Four Weddings and a Funeral all had scenes shot here.

You probably won’t be surprised to hear that the church is haunted. Apparently the ghost of a monk walks around persistently looking for a sandal that was stolen from his tomb. It may seem a little bonkers for someone to steal a single sandal from a tomb, but I have read stories about relic hunters stealing bones from tombs of saints and even of holymen being torn to pieces as soon as they snuffed it so that people could say they have the finger of St Trevor or whoever. I am putting a call out that if anyone finds a pretty ropey old sandal down the back of their sofa, I think you should hand it back in at the church so that poor monk can get some rest.

Just imagine being preached to about eternal damnation whilst having carvings like this (above) all over the place – that should make the kiddies say their prayers before bed! To continue the haunting theme, apparently you can still smell the burning flesh sometimes in the church thanks to the rather unpleasant hobby of Bloody Mary (Mary I) who used to burn protestants (over 280 of them in her short reign) some of whom met their fate just outside the church. The memorial plaque below is difficult to photograph as it is behind bars – hence the funny angle (I know, I’m blaming my tools again), but it reads:

“Within a few feet of this spot, John Rogers, John Bradford, John Philpot, and other servants of God suffered death by fire, for the faith of Christ, in the years 1555, 1556, 1557.”

The Tudors couldn’t quite seem to make their mind up about religion: Henry VIII burned down part of this church (and hundreds of others) when he turned his back on the Pope for daring to refuse to grant him a divorce from Catherine (who just happened to be from a pretty powerful Spanish family); his sickly son Edward was then a good Protestant like his daddy; Henry’s daughter Mary, however, obviously didn’t get the memo and reversed the country back into Catholicism; then when a stomach tumour did Mary in, her sister, Elizabeth, (who never much liked Mary) decided to switch back again to Daddy’s Anglicanism (executing a few Catholics for good measure as well).

(Further digression: William Wallace – better known as Mel Gibson’s Braveheart – died pretty horrifically with all sorts of bits of him chopped off and pulled out, right by the church as well when it was a mere two hundred years old. He had a tendency to make mischief whenever the English army tried to keep our noisy neighbours in the North under control. There are still little Scottish flags and thistles tied to his memorial plaque – sorry about lack of photo – not sure what I was thinking, maybe a bird flew past and distracted me).

I have pasted two photos together above of the memorial plaque of Edward Cooke (who, according to the Latin inscription was a philosopher and a doctor, but I’ve never heard of him). What’s interesting is that the statue used to weep until the church had central heating installed which dried out the stone or annoyed Him upstairs enough to switch off the miracle (you can decide which according to your chosen belief or lack of). The inscription which I have translated slightly from rather old English says:

“Unsluce your briny floods [cry!], what can ye keep your eyes from tears, and see the marble weep, burst out for shame [you should be ashamed if you can look at this statue without crying]: or if ye find no vent for tears, yet stay, and see the stones relent [if you don’t cry then at least watch these stones do it for you].” If the whole statue used to drip with water I don’t get why they thought he was crying and not sweating, but hey, what do I know!

Despite walking on Mr Jonathan’s grave above (that’s what you get if you are buried under the floor of a church mate!) I was super impressed with his job title: note he wasn’t a hairdresser or a wig maker, but a hair merchant!

This font is really old (I did read how old but have now forgotten) and the painter and cartoonist William Hogarth (famous for lots of saucy pictures in the 18th Century) had his head wet in it. Another famous connection for the church was that US Founding Father, Benjamin Franklin, used to work in a printing room in the church.

The images above are of some funky little statues of the Gospel writers: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. I don’t really do religion, but I am a big fan of parts of the Bible which includes some impressive literary prowess (as you probably know the Gospel writers wrote in classical Greek) and Luke is widely considered to be one of the finest writers of his age. John was also an excellent historian. Here is a section (I have added the highlight) of St John’s Gospel that was on the page left open in a bible in the church:

Ok. I have worn myself out again with all the history – I just can’t help myself! So, let’s just look at a few more photos and enjoy in silence…

Secret London: scratching beneath the surface

“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” – Samuel Johnson

The quotation above is in danger of becoming tired itself it is so often repeated. But, as with many clichés, it has gained its status by being so accurate.

I am perhaps not well-travelled enough to be justified in making such a bold statement, but I believe London is the most incredible city in the world. It would be difficult to claim that it was the most beautiful city in the world, it is obviously not even close to being the oldest (Jericho and Damascus tend to be rivals for that title), and nor do I think it is the friendliest place to be, but its diverse richness of culture and history make it the most interesting place to live. Also:

  • London is the largest, and most populous, urban zone in Europe
  • Over 300 languages are spoken by people living in London
  • The London metropolitan area generates around 30% of the UK’s total GDP
  • London is not actually ‘one’ city, but an urbanised area containing the City of London and the City of Westminster. The old ‘City of London’, which is now largely the financial centre, gave its name to rest of the sprawling mass officially called ‘Greater London’.

But most people know all of this. Everyone also knows about Big Ben (even if they do confuse the name of the Bell with the Westminster Clock Tower itself), Buckingham Palace, and the dreadful Leicester Square (can anyone tell me the point of Leicester square other than as a place to stage film premières?). But there is much of London that remains hidden and unknown, even to many of us who have lived here for years.

It is this ‘secret’ London that I intend to occasionally uncover through photography. There is no time like the present, so here are some photo-trivia to get us started…

The City Walls

There was almost certainly settlement activity around London’s part of the Thames long before the Romans (in fact recent archaeological finds suggest there was a bridge across the Thames in 1500BC(!), but the first significant settlement that we know of was built by the good old Romans in 43AD (only 10 years after they had crucified a rather well-known Jewish carpenter at the other end of their empire).

As we know from other parts of the country, the Romans liked to build walls to stop the baddies (or locals as we might call them) from getting in.

The old Roman walls have largely been built over, or incorporated into, the foundations of newer walls and so can’t be seen, but the Blitz exposed some of these ancient structures. In the photos above (from left to right) you can see the archaeological site with WWII-ruined Victorian walls on top of the old Roman walls [digression: you can also see one of the Barbican towers in the distance and the modern building on the right is my former office]. In the middle you can see the stone outline of a fort built into the city wall. Finally, there is a close-up showing clearly how Victorian brick was built directly on top of the old Roman walls.

London’s burning

Only 17 years after Londinium was settled by the Romans, one of those locals/natives/baddies, Boudica the queen of the Iceni (sometimes called Boadicea), got a bit stroppy and burned the whole place to the ground. The Romans didn’t give up though and re-built it with some bigger walls (like the ones shown in my photos) to deter such unpleasantness. The fire was so comprehensive and destructive, that archaeologists still use the layer of ash in the earth as an accurate date-line.

This was not the only time London was to burn. Under the great wall-builder, Emperor Hadrian, the city was almost completely wiped out again (122AD). There were big fires in 675, 982 and 989 under the Saxons. In 1087 under William II another huge fire destroyed the original St Paul’s Cathedral amongst other things. In 1135 and 1212 there were two more enormous fires which are believed to have killed thousands of Londoners who, nevertheless, continued to live crammed in to rickety wooden houses until the ‘Great Fire of London’ in 1666.

Immediately after the Great Fire of London, some poor mad French chap foolishly confessed to starting the fire. He was promptly executed before people worked out that he wasn’t even in London when the fire started. Astronomers and Catholics also got blamed for the causes (in a karmic, rather than literal, way) of the fire until the City elders decided that the sin of gluttony was to blame. To make their point, they put up this chubby little golden chappy below on the corner of the aptly named Cock Lane:

As nearly everyone knows, London didn’t burn so comprehensively again until the Germans dropped firebombs on London in the Blitz of the Second World War. What a lot of people don’t know is that, if you look carefully enough, the scars of war are still present in London 70 years later:

On the ruined Christ Church at Greyfriars (left), you can still see the scorch marks after the church took a direct hit from a bomb in 1940. On the right are two examples of many shrapnel holes in St Bart’s hospital after bombs fell nearby.

Thanks for reading! I promise to make future updates on ‘London’s Secrets’ more about the photos and less about me babbling on. I think I got a little overexcited with all the history. I am going to have a little lie down now.