Thursday 30 April 2009

Crossness pumping station

When Joseph Bazalgette built London's sewage system, the network took sewage to the edge of London. It could then be discharged into the Thames at high tide and flow out to sea without polluting the capital's drinking supply. At the outfalls, pumping stations lifted the sewage ready for discharge at high tide: that for the original outfall south of the river, at Deptford Creek, is not open to the public but the later Crossness station welcomes visitors on regular open days.

It's an amazing and extravagant display of Victorian ironwork. The subject matter may have been essentially prosaic - the removal of sewage from inner London - but the scale and importance of the endeavour surely justified such exuberance. For Pevsner, this building was a 'cathedral to ironwork' and the 'cathedral' label has stuck, albeit usually paired with 'sewage'.

Four engines stood in the four corners of the building; the centre is taken up by an elaborate octagonal structre. The monogram of the Metropolitan Board of Works features throughout, and the contractor has included his own name prominently on one side. As for the four engines, they were named in (a slightly questionable) honour of the royal family: Victoria, Prince Consort, Albert Edward and Alexandra (the latter couple, the Prince and Princess of Wales, formally opened the building in 1865).

The station fell into disuse: it was last used in 1953 to help drain flooding in Royal Arsenal and Abbey Wood. Happily, the volunteers of the Crossness Engines Trust have been working hard since 1985 to restore the site to its full Victorian glory. Visitors can now see the Prince Consort engine in steam, appreciate the repainted ironwork, and generally get a real sense of this glorious building. However, the work is not over: the next major stage involves repairing the fabric of the building and improving visitor facilities, with work starting this summer.

Wednesday 29 April 2009

Cathedral of ironwork

This image was taken at one of London's finest Victorian industrial sites: Pevsner described it as a 'cathedral of ironwork'. Full story tomorrow...

Tuesday 28 April 2009

3 highlights of Stuart London

The Stuart period was a particularly turbulent one for London and England. It began in 1603 with the reign of King James I and VI, took in the English Civil War, and ended with the death of Queen Anne in 1714. The city was prospering, with new buildings by Inigo Jones, a New River providing drinking water, and the opening of Hyde Park to the public in 1637. However, tempestuous times followed with the Civil War, Commonwealth and Restoration; the physical shape of the city was then changed for ever by the Great Fire of 1666. Much of the mediaeval city was burnt away, to be rebuilt by Wren and Hawksmoor in the following decades.

Charles I statue

Created by French sculptor Hubert Le Sueur in 1633, for Lord Weston to place in his garden at Roehampton, this equestrian statue nearly became a victim of the English Civil War - rather like its subject. The Commonwealth parliament ordered brazier John Rivet to melt it down for scrap. However, he didn't do so, burying it in his garden instead. After Charles II came to the throne, the statue was reinstated in its current position, pointing down Whitehall towards Banqueting House - rather tactlessly, since this was where Charles was executed.

The site was originally occupied by Charing Cross - a Victorian replica of the mediaeval original now stands outside the station - and is the point from which all distances to London are measured. Less pleasantly, the pillory was located nearby in the eighteenth century - this form of crowd punishment left some of those convicted unconscious, blinded or dead.

So, the statue has many functions as symbol of royal power and reminder of the Commonwealth; milestone and pointer to judicial violence. It's well worth your while, then, to turn your eyes away from Nelson's Column to this meaning-rich remnant of Stuart London.

Image: Canaletto, Northumberland House 1752, from Wikipedia.

The Monument
It's hard to pick just one Wren masterpiece, but the Monument has an added advantage: panoramic views of the city. It's no easy climb, though - there are 311 steps, so you deserve both the view and the certificate you get at the top.

The Monument commemorates the Great Fire of London which began in nearby Pudding Lane and destroyed most of the city. A golden basket of fire tops this elegant stone column, with the spectators' cage only slightly detracting from it: this Victorian addition was designed to prevent suicides (there had been 6 since 1788, and one accidental death). However, before heading for it, don't miss the reliefs and inscriptions at the base - the latter notoriously included wording added in 1681 which blamed the fire upon Roman Catholics; that baseless claim was removed in 1831.

The recent restoration allows visitors to appreciate the Monument's hidden purpose: Wren intended it to be used for scientific experiments on gravity and pendulums, and there is a basement laboratory. This dual purpose is perhaps not surprising since Wren had as his assistant Dr Robert Hooke, best known for his scientific work. Unfortunately, vibrations from the surrounding traffic meant that the Monument proved unsuitable for experiments.

Image: The Monument to the Great Fire of London in The Graphic, 1891, from Wikipedia.

Hoop & Grapes, Aldgate
History can be thirsty work (especially if you've been climbing all those steps), so this Stuart survival is a good place for a reviving drink. Built in the seventeenth century as a private home, it was one of the few City buildings to survive the Great Fire of London which stopped just yards away. As a result, it's a very rare remaining timber-framed building: after the Fire, buildings had to be built in brick.

Also worth seeing: Find out more about the Great Fire in the Museum of London, which has a dedicated gallery. St Paul's Cathedral and St Paul's, Deptford are two of the many churches which were built during this period, along with numerous City churches and Hawksmoor's unsettling Christ Church, Spitalfields.

For more London highlights, click here.

Monday 27 April 2009

Sillier and sillier...

If there's a stupid story around, trust the Daily Mail to pick it up (after a mere month) and make it worse. So when the New York Times suggested visiting Deptford, 'London's Wild West', the Mail took exception because that didn't make it sound bad enough. Indeed, the paper has taken time out from its main project of classifying all inanimate objects as causing or curing cancer to insult the area as 'crime-plagued', 'run-down' and 'packed with boarded-up shops'.

The accompanying photo shows the High Street in the brief period between the market closing and the road being cleaned; but the Mail forgets to tell readers that that's why the pavement is covered in empty boxes. Of course, they probably don't know: they grabbed it from flickr and don't even bother to credit the photographer Celie.

Deptford Dame finds an upside, though...

... and a rewrite! (It's toned down now, but still rubbish - and the photos are still uncredited).

Update 2
The Telegraph has picked this up too: same quotations but different - and credited - photo, taken from the station platform this time.

Image: Deptford High Street by Celie.

Happy birthday, Mary Wollstonecraft

250 years ago today Mary Wollstonecraft, 'mother of feminism' was born. Feminist ideas had, of course, existed before her publication A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, but in her work they began to take on their modern form.

Wollstonecraft's life was often difficult, personally and financially. Born in London, she moved to the country as a child; her father's attempt at being a gentleman farmer ruined the family financially. Wollstonecraft then had to earn her own living, and would set up a girls' school in Newington Green with her sisters and close friend Fanny Blood. However, the school was not a financial success and Blood married. When she became ill during pregnancy, Wollstonecraft went to Europe to nurse her but the illness proved fatal. Wollstonecraft returned, deeply distressed by her friend's death, and took a job as governess in Ireland.

After returning to London once more, Wollstonecraft began a career as a writer. She was again living in Newington Green, and worshipping at its Unitarian Church. The minister, Dr Richard Price, was an important friend to her and shared her enthusiasm for the American and French Revolutions. Both were part of a wider intellectual circle of political and religious radicals.

One of her books, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, drew not only upon her own teaching experience but also upon her struggle to support herself, and bemoaned the lack of careers for respectable women. In 1792, Wollstonecraft expanded upon these themes in her most famous work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. This book argued that women as well as men were capable of rational reasoning and thus entitled to the rights claimed by liberalism. The granting of such rights, not least to education, would enable women to exert a more positive influence upon those around them and thus improve society as a whole. The radical nature of her arguments is apparent from the fact that women would have to wait until the twentieth century to achieve those rights.

Meanwhile, her personal life was complicated: she had relationships first with married artist Henry Fuseli and subsequently with the American Gilbert Imlay, whom she met while observing the Revolution in France (she would write an early history of it before leaving the country). The couple did not marry but had a child, Fanny, together. However, Imlay left her and she returned to London once more to try to find him. After travelling to Scandinavia with her baby and a maid to transact business for Imlay, she returned to the realisation that their relationship was definitely over and attempted suicide but was rescued.

Wollstonecraft's final relationship was perhaps her happiest: she and William Godwin, a fellow member of her literary and political circle, fell in love. When Wollstonecraft became pregnant, the couple married (incidentally scandalising many of the couple's friends since their marriage demonstrated that there had been no marriage to Imlay and Fanny was illegitimate). They lived in separate but adjacent homes, retaining their independence.

Tragically, Mary would die soon after the marriage as a conseqence of giving birth to daughter Mary. A devastated Godwin made a mistake which would damage Wollstonecraft's reputation for many years: he published a memoir which revealed her love affairs and illegitimate child. (That child would go on to marry poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and, as Mary Shelley, write the novel Frankenstein). As a result, she was rarely referred to publicly by the feminist movement she had inspired, until a revival of interest in her work in the late twentieth century. Today, her reputation is such that Newington Green Unitarian Church is proud to claim its place as 'birthplace of feminism'.

Image: Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie, from Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday 26 April 2009

Newington Green Unitarian Church

Yesterday, I visited Newington Green Unitarian Church for a discussion on women in politics. This was part of a series of events to mark the 250th anniversary of pioneering feminist Mary Wollstonecraft's birth (more on her tomorrow). However, it was also my first visit to the building itself - London's oldest Nonconformist place of worship still in use.

It was built in 1708 on Newington Green, a centre for non-conformism from the mid-17th century. The facade proudly proclaims that it was enlarged in 1860 - an apse was added and the front altered. Happily, this Victorian upgrade did not involve removal of the eighteenth-century skylight, panelling and box pews (apparently, Wollstonecraft's was number 19).

The church was originally Presbyterian, but became Unitarian under Dr Richard Price, one of the founders of that Society and minister of the church between 1758 and 1791. It served as a cultural as well as religious centre; in the nineteenth century, a conversation society and library thrived there. By the 1880s, there was also a society for theological study. Philanthropic work increased in importance as the surrounding area became poorer, and included a domestic mission society as well as provident societies for young men and women.

Both the area and the church were centres of radical religion and politics. Wollstonecraft herself was influenced by Dr Price, a prominent political preacher, supporter of the American Revolution, friend of Benjamin Franklin and inventor of actuarial life tables. He would be succeeded by the husband of Anna Laetitia Barbauld, poet and educationalist. Given such a history, it is good to see the traditions of feminism and political debate continuing in the church today.

Friday 24 April 2009

Thief-taking and thief-making in Deptford

Before the advent of the modern police force, sometimes questionable ways of addressing crime had to be found. One of the most controversial was the use of rewards to thief-takers. While the idea of paying a reward to somebody helping solve a crime is apparently straightforward and remains in use today, it caused enormous problems in the eighteenth century as the work of the thieftaker became discredited.

Thanks to the generous sums on offer, especially for serious crimes such as highway robbery, a new profession grew up. Thieftakers dedicated themselves to catching criminals and recovering stolen goods to earn this bounty - but the result was not as simple as professional if unofficial policing. These men generally relied upon intelligence to achieve results, and so were close to criminal culture. Sometimes very close. In fact, so close that they were often criminals themselves - famously, Jonathan Wild would negotiate the return of stolen property for a fee; but his success in locating it turned out to be because his gang of thieves had stolen it in the first place! He would even turn in some thieves, either rivals or associates who had fallen out of favour, for further rewards.

Some went further and lured others into offending so that they could then betray them and collect the reward. An example of the latter occurred in Deptford in 1756:
Yesterday 7 night at the Old Bailey, those notorious thieftakers, Stephen Macdaniel, John Berry, James Egan, and James Salmon, were tried and convicted, upon the clearest evidence, for conspiring together to procure Peter Kelly and John Ellis, two young lads, to commit a robbery on the highway on him the said Salmon, in the parish of Deptford, in July 1754, in order by their conviction, to entitle them not only to the rewards payable by the statute,* but the further rewards offered by the inhabitants of that parish for the apprehending of robbers, for robberies committed there; and for which artificial robbery those young lads were afterwards condemned to die at the then ensuing assizes for the county of Kent, tho’ happily reprieved by the discovery of this conspiracy, thro’ the vigilance of Mr Cox, the high-constable of that parish, before the time fixed for their execution.

And Yesterday Macdaniel and Berry stood on the pillory, pursuant to their sentence, in Holborn, opposite Hatton-Garden; Egan and Salmon are to stand on Monday next in Smithfield. The second time, Macdaniel and Berry the 2d of April in Cheapside, opposite King-street; and Egan and Salmon, the 5
th of Aril, near Fetter-lane, Fleet-street; and to find security for their good behaviour for three years.
* An Act of 1692, providing for a £40 reward for apprehending and prosecuting highwaymen. They would also get the felon's horse, weapons and other goods.

Thursday 23 April 2009

Feedback, please!

I'm experimenting with a new colour scheme and would welcome your views. Is it easier to read; less or more attractive; better or worse than the old design?

UPDATE: as regular readers will notice, the old scheme is back. However, in the right-hand column is a link to some great instructions on viewing web pages in your choice of colours. Hopefully, people who find some schemes difficult to read will find this useful not just for my blog but generally.

Five history activities online

1. Be a Bow Street Runner
Immerse yourself in eighteenth-century London and solve crime with this game, created to accompany the City of Vice television series. It's beautifully designed, and you get to search crime scenes, interact with characters, play tavern games and even perform an autopsy.

2. Identify the mystery objects
One of many activities on the Victoria and Albert Museum's website, this quiz asks you to guess what assorted objects found in Renaissance homes were used for. Earwax spoon or tongue scraper?

3. Guess where?
The answer's always in London - but whereabouts? This flickr group is a great way to test your knowledge of the city and discover new details.

4. Be a Victorian lady
This quiz is about not corsets, maids and calling cards but women's legal rights. Just how long did we have to wait for rights to vote, go to university, or get custody of children? Find out here! Then meet some real-life feminists in the National Portrait Gallery's 'votes for women' quiz. Try not to wince when it tries to 'engage youth' by describing Mary Wollstonecraft as 'one cool lady': concentrate on the lovely illustrations.

5. Create your Tudor portrait
Okay, it's based on the less-than-totally-accurate TV series, but fun all the same. Find your most regal photo and get started.

Wednesday 22 April 2009

Oyster fishing

I've previously discussed the oysters of Cancale, Brittany; England has equally famous oysters from Whitstable in Kent. Like Cancale's, the town's oyster history can be traced back to Roman times and continues into the present. This 1920 film shows the shellfish being caught, packed for London, and finally eaten by some rather grand men with impressive moustaches.

Tuesday 21 April 2009

3 highlights of Tudor and Elizabethan London

The Tudors came to power in 1485 when Henry VII became King; their rule came to an end in 1603 when James VI of Scotland succeeded Elizabeth I. Henry VIII is currently getting all the popular attention, and his dissolution of the monasteries certainly drastically changed London's religious and physical landscape. London's execution sites were kept busy during the following years of religious strife but life finally settled down again under Elizabeth I. Business and culture both thrived: the Royal Exchange was founded in 1560 and the Globe Theatre was built in 1599.

Staples Inn
These half-timbered, higgledy-piggledy shopfronts make a distinctive landmark on High Holborn. You can walk through to a quiet little courtyard; the Hall, not generally open to the public, was restored after being badly damaged by a World War II bomb. Back out on the main road, it's rather nice that one of the shops here is a tobacconist: smoking was very much an Elizabethan innovation. Although tobacco was probably known in Britain through Spanish imports before Sir Walter Raleigh brought some back, he was certainly chief among those who popularised it.

Image: Staple Inn 1886, Illustrated London News, from Wikipedia Commons.

St John's Gate
When it was built in 1504, this was the main gate to the wealthy and influential Priory of the Knights of St John. However, the remainder of the Tudor period would prove turbulent for the institution: first it was disestablished by Henry VIII, then re-established with only a small part of its lands by Mary (the original document is on display in the museum), before being disestablished once more by Elizabeth I. The gatehouse would play another significant role in the life of the period: as the office of Master of the Revels, it received about 20 visits from William Shakespeare when his plays were performed before this Elizabethan censor.

The Gate also served as a coffeehouse, the base of the Gentleman's Magazine, a home, and a pub serving the local Victorian rookeries before the Order of St John was re-established in 1880 under the Queen's patronage and repurchased the building. Today, it houses a small museum about the charity, which is responsible for both St John's Ambulance and the St John Ophthalmic Hospital in Jerusalem. However, you should try to join one of the regular guided tours which allow you to visit other parts of the gatehouse as well as the Order's church, not normally open to the public.

The Globe
It's well known that few Tudor or Elizabethan buildings survived the Great Fire of London, but the Globe Theatre actually burned down even earlier, in 1613. However, a replica has been built a short distance from the original site in Southwark, an area then full of amusements including bear baiting and taverns. Being outside the city limits, it was less tightly controlled, hence its appeal to those seeking and providing entertainment.

There are two ways to experience the theatre. First, you can look round the visitor centre; your visit includes a guided tour of the theatre itself as well as exhibits such as musical instruments of the period. Second, to immerse yourself more fully in the atmosphere, attend a play. You can either be a 'groundling' stood in the central yard (bring a raincoat), or buy yourself a seat in the galleries (bring a cushion!).

Also worth seeing: Henry VII's chapel in Westminster Abbey; the Inns of Court (much restored, especially after being extensively bombed in World War II); Greenwich Park - Henry VIII's beloved palace is long gone but the area is still beautiful; Eltham Palace, again: it was Henry VIII's boyhood home; Lambeth Palace (not generally open to the public but look out for guided tours).

For more London highlights, click here.

Monday 20 April 2009

Mrs Carlill and the Carbolic Smoke Ball Co

After Meggazones, Carbolic Smoke Balls. This historic 'flu remedy (which didn't work) gained immortality when one Mrs Carlill brought a case against its makers for breach of contract.

The smoke ball was a rather dubious device, to say the least. A rubber ball was filled with carbolic acid and the user inserted an attached tube into her nose. With a quick squeeze of the ball, vapours would enter the nasal passages and supposedly flush out the illness. The modern reader will be less than astounded to hear that it didn't work, but Mrs Carlill was more susceptible (as, indeed, was the Bishop of London, a fellow user) - especially as the company had advertised in the Pall Mall Gazette, promising a £100 reward to anyone who contracted influenza having used the device three times daily for at least a fortnight.

Mrs Carlill dutifully bought a carbolic smoke ball from a chemists' and used the device three times a day for several months, so when she became ill with 'flu in January 1892 the thought of the reward must have been of some comfort. Unfortunately - if unsurprisingly - the company didn't want to, ahem, play ball. They ignored her first two letters; when her legally-trained husband sent a third, the firm responded that she would have to use the ball each day at the firm's offices in the presence of their secretary to qualify for the £100. Supposedly a requirement to protect the company from fraud, it amounted of course to an outright refusal to pay the money as promised.

However, the Carlills were not easily deterred. After all, £100 then was equivalent to some thousands of pounds today. They brought a court case alleging breach of contract - and won, both at trial and on appeal.

Unsurprisingly, the Carbolic Smoke Ball Co had claimed that there was no valid contract; after all, they knew nothing about Mrs Carlill until she demanded her reward, so it was all very one-sided. The courts agreed with the Carlills, though, that when the company made the offer, Mrs Carlill's actions in reliance on it meant the formation of a valid contract. The company was thus bound to pay her £100 when she became ill.

So Mrs Carlill got her reward. The owner of the company, Frederick Roe, went on to form a new, limited liability company. He even advertised that since only three claims had been made for the £100 reward, the smoke ball must be effective - and doubled the reward! (As so often, the devil was in the small print which now made successful claims very difficult). His quack devices couldn't save him from dying of tuberculosis in 1899; Mrs Carlill, by contrast, would live until the age of 96, only dying in 1942. Clearly, while the smoke ball had done her no good, it had done her no harm either.

The incident is more than a Victorian curiosity. It is also one of the leading cases in contract law, still taught to law students today. The Carbolic Smoke Ball Co has also been reborn - supplying gifts for lawyers.

Sunday 19 April 2009


Bucklersbury, a small road between Victoria Street and Walbrook in the City of London, has yielded two major Roman London finds: the Temple of Mithras and Bucklersbury Pavement mosaic. When Markeroni webmistress Linda commented that there is also a Bucklersbury in Hitchin, a little more research seemed called for: what does the name mean and why was it shared by two towns?

London's Bucklersbury is in the heart of the city, a few steps from Bank. In the fourteenth century, it was ordained that exchanges of gold and silver should take place there; pepperers and grocers later took over, before they in turn were replaced by druggists and herbalists - Shakespeare's Falstaff described 'these lisping hawthorn buds, that come like women in men's apparel, and smell like Bucklersbury in simple time'. The street also earned a rather grumpy mention in Pepys' diary for 13 June 1663:
Thence to see Mrs. Hunt, which we did and were much made of; and in our way saw my Lady Castlemaine, who, I fear, is not so handsome as I have taken her for, and now she begins to decay something. This is my wife’s opinion also, for which I am sorry. Thence by coach, with a mad coachman, that drove like mad, and down byeways, through Bucklersbury home, everybody through the street cursing him, being ready to run over them.
In Hitchin, Bucklersbury also enjoys a central location, running from the marketplace to Tilehouse Street. Indeed, it was the site of an open market in the thirteenth century but evolved into a street of permanent buildings, with some dating back to the fifteenth century. Today, there are three public houses and Hawkins of Hitchin, an independent department store founded in 1863. You can make a virtual visit to the street here.

How did Hitchin and London come to share this street name? There are two competing explanations. First, the London street most probably took its name from the family of Bokerel, involved in municipal affairs in the thirteenth century. (Henry A Harben, writing in 1918, rejected the suggestion that the family name was 'Buckler'.) Originally the name referred to an estate, and only in the following century did it become attached to the street - that is consistent with 'bury' referring to a manor house. However, were there Bokerels in Hitchin?

An alternative explanation is that the street was named for buckle-makers, but that sounds suspiciously like Victorian guesswork! Nonetheless, it's the explanation adopted by Reginald Hine in his History of Hitchin when he suggests that smiths and armourers practised their trade there. So the mystery is not altogether solved...

Friday 17 April 2009


This sign in Brockley proudly offers Meggezones at 2/4 (about 12p in decimal). There's still a chemist there, and Meggezones are still being made, but you'll need a few pounds rather than a few shillings to buy a packet.

Meggezones are menthol pastilles (they also used to contain peppermint, licquorice, chloroform and benzoin), whose strange name comes from the firm's founder, a Mr Meggeson. He started the company in 1796, and by the early nineteenth century it was making a range of syrups, sweets and lozenges for coughs and colds at its Bermondsey factory. Other products included dyspepsia tablets and lemon barley water. Today, the brand is owned by multinational Schering Plough.

Thursday 16 April 2009

Landes de Cojoux: natural treasurehouse

Saint Just's moorland may be most famous for its neolithic monuments, but is also a wonderful natural habitat. The Conseil Général d'Ille-et-Vilaine manage the land, ensuring that it is grazed and maintained as heathland rather than reverting to woodland. Information boards explain that this was once typical Breton landscape; there is even a field of buckwheat, essential for galettes.

A combination of time, timing and a focus on the monuments meant that I didn't manage much in the way of nature photography. Well, that and my inability to spot anything until it's gone past. However, the area has impressive biodiversity: even I managed to notice a pondful of frogs and a variety of butterflies, and to hear birds including those spring stalwarts, cuckoos. Among the varied flora, the sight and sweet smell of gorse was unmissable: its golden flowers glowed in that brief afternoon of spring sunshine.

Wednesday 15 April 2009

Landes de Cojoux: neolithic treasurehouse

Brittany is rich in neolithic remains, and on Monday I visited an area second only to Carnac in importance. The Cojoux moor above the village of Saint Just is liberally scattered with stone age monuments. Not only their quantity but also their variety impress the visitor: in a few miles' walk, you can see menhirs, dolmens, alignments, tumuli, circles and gallery graves. Some even have later Bronze Age monuments superimposed onto them. Thanks to a 7km (4 mile) walk and a series of information boards, exploring is easy with something of interest at every turn.

Some of the monuments were clearly graves, but the function of others is more open to speculation. However, later legends have sprung up to account for them: thus the two white demoiselle menhirs are supposed to be young women who went dancing instead of attending mass, and were literally petrified as a result.

Tuesday 14 April 2009

3 highlights of mediaeval London

After the Romans left, London shrank back only to return to prominence in the middle ages. William the Conqueror built the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey and Westminster Hall, as well as several now-disappeared castles. The city became England's capital in the thirteenth century; London grew, and churches, hospitals and monasteries prospered. It was governed by aldermen and a mayor - the most famous was Dick Whittington - while the guilds controlled its trades and industries. The river, an important centre for trade, got its first stone bridge; Southwark grew up at the southern end. Westminster, originally a separate town to the west, joined up with the City by the end of the mediaeval period.

However, London also underwent upheavals including the Peasants' Revolt, the expulsion of Jews from England in 1290, and plagues. A growing population in a confined area brought problems of pollution and sanitation. The Black Death killed about a third of the population in 1349 and would keep reappearing until 1665.

Tower of London
Once London had submitted to him, William the Conqueror lost little time in building strongholds to protect his position in the city. The first defences on the site were replaced by the White Tower in the 1070s; its masons and stone came from William's native Normandy. Its primary purpose was to subdue the unruly and untrustworthy inhabitants of London; use as a defence against invaders and as a royal residence would come later.

In the thirteenth century, King John further fortified the tower and used it as a home. He probably also introduced the first menagerie, keeping lions and other exotic animals. His successors continued to extend and fortify, as well as keeping prisoners, state papers and the royal mint here. The Wars of the Roses saw it used as a place of celebration for victors and of execution for losers.

This mediaeval core survives, although there have been further expansions and changes of use throughout the Tower's history. Today's tourists are taking part in a long tradition: the first recorded guided tours were in the 1590s and a ticket office was installed in 1838 - complete with refreshments and guidebook for sale.

Temple Church
Westminster Abbey might be a more obvious choice - William the Conqueror was crowned there within months of the Battle of Hastings; Henry III rebuilt it with reconsecration in 1269 - but I'm going to suggest going off the main tourist track a little. (Not too far: there has been something of an influx of visitors since the church featured in the Da Vinci Code).

Now in the heart of legal London, this unusual building was built by the Knights Templar in the twelth century. The oldest part is circular, designed to remind those crusading solider knights of the Church of the Holy Sepulcre in Jerusalem. It was further extended ready to accommodate the body of Henry III, who had expressed a wish to be buried there, but by the time he died he had changed his mind and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Although the church now serves lawyers, the knights are still present - as stone effigies. While they lie alert, eyes open, swords in hand ready to fight again, their order is gone. It was abolished by the Pope in 1307, at the instigation of those jealous of the Templars' great wealth. Edward III gave Temple Church and the surrounding land to the Knights Hospitaller, who rented it out to lawyers: the origins of Inner and Middle Temples still there today. When the Hospitallers were themselves disbanded as part of Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries, the church came into state control; James I would grant a charter to the Inns of Court giving them use of the Temple in perpetuity, on condition that they maintain the church. That charter is still in force today.

Eltham Palace
Arguably, I'm cheating here since Eltham was well outside the mediaeval city limits. However, it was no rural backwater but an episcopal, and later royal, palace. The earliest surviving remnants were built by Anthony Bek, Bishop of Durham, around 1300 and Edward I was a frequent visitor. Bek lived there until 1311 although he had given it to the Prince of Wales in 1305. Edward II grenated the manor to his wife; Edward III spent much of his youth there. That strong royal connection spanned three centuries, and Henry VIII spent his childhood here. The mediaeval bridge and Great Hall, built by Edward IV in 1475, survive; an Art Deco house, and gardens in the moat, were added by Stephen and Virginia Courtauld in the 1930s.

Also worth a visit: Winchester Palace in Borough is the remains of an episcopal palace. The bishops who occupied it had a very dubious source of income: they controlled the Bankside stews (brothels), whose women were known as 'Winchester geese'. The Black Friar pub marks the site of the mediaeval Blackfriars monastery - its decoration is cheerfully inauthentic but absolutely wonderful (not to mention the reasonably-priced food and selection of real ales). For more authentic relics of the period, go to the Museum of London whose treasures include the everyday (shoes, loaded dice) and the expensive (a gold crucifix containing a supposed fragment of the true cross).

For more London highlights, click here.

Monday 13 April 2009

Breton bread

In nineteenth-century Brittany, certain amenities were often communal: the laundry facilities, the water well, and also the bread oven. This example survives on the edge of the village of Saint Just; it would have been belonged to the local landowner, with villagers paying a fee to use it.

Today, bread remains central to Breton life - but usually purchased from the village boulangerie. However, a highlight of many summer fairs is bread baked in wood ovens. Many are mobile, but the village of Plumaugat still uses the original one every year.

Sunday 12 April 2009

The lighthouses of Cap Frehel

One of the jewels of the Breton coast, Cap Fréhel is famous for its nature, birds, cliffs and fort. However, this rocky section of coastline posed particular dangers for ships entering the nearby port of Saint Malo, so a lighthouse was essential. In fact, there are now two, side by side: the original Tour Vauban and its contemporary sibling.

The Tour Vauban was build in 1702 by the engineer and architect Simon Garangeau, working under celebrated military engineer Vauban. Its light was originally fuelled by coal (or tallow in fine weather), before being converted to fish oil (latterly vegetable oil) when glass lenses were added in 1774. Upkeep was paid for by a tax on ships entering local ports.

A second lighthouse has left no trace: built in 1847, it had a lantern visible for 22 nautical miles and stood 27m high. However, during the Second World War German troops occupied Cap Fréhel and used the lighthouse as an observation post; as they left, they blew the lighthouse up. The Tour Vauban, however, survived and served until a replacement could be built.

The modern lighthouse was begun in 1946 and completed in 1950. It is 30m tall with a light that can be seen 100km away. Only with this final construction was electric light introduced: a plan to electrify its predecessor in the 1880s was abandoned by ministerial decision.

Friday 10 April 2009

Scenic or not?

Another fun way to waste time online, and discover more of Britain at the same time: Scenic Or Not allows you to 'rate the UK's pretty places'. Plus Pennywell Industrial Estate, currently at the bottom of the leader board...

The pictures are from geograph, which aims to collect photos representing every square kilometre of the UK, so there are 217,000 images (enough to keep us busy for a couple of hours at least!)

Image of Morthouse in the kirkyard of St Mary of the Storms, Cowie by Martyn Gorman, shared under a Creative Commons licence.

Thursday 9 April 2009

The Black Friar

One of London's more extraordinary pubs commemorates the Dominican priory which once stood nearby. It was a wealthy and powerful institution, closely connected to government; indeed, the Privy Council often met there and it served as a depository for state records. However, since the monastery was dissolved during the Reformation and the pub not built until 1875 and remodelled in 1905, its designers were free to indulge in a fantasy version of monastic living. Thus the Black Friar, at the northern end of Blackfriars Bridge, is an elaborate riot of monks enjoying good food and good drink. What's more, they encourage the passer-by to join in the fun:

Well, how could I resist? Inside, architect H Fuller-Clarke and artist Henry Poole have filled the space with metal reliefs, mosaics and stained glass. The style is heavily influenced by Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts.

A back room was later added, filled with mottos (none of which discourage the visitor from eating or drinking!)

And what better message for a Thursday afternoon than this:

Wednesday 8 April 2009

Postman's Park (45): further reading

My Postman's Park series has now come to an end, but if you want to read more about the memorial then here are a few suggestions.

First, John Price has recently published Postman's Park: G F Watts's Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice. This book is concerned with the history of the memorial itself and a thoughtful consideration of the purposes of such commemoration, rather than the individual stories. However, it does discuss Alice Ayres in some detail and has photographs and transcripts of all the plaques. A fascinating volume for £7.50 paperback.

Second, H Dagnall self-published Postman's Park and its Memorials in 1987. A smaller pamphlet illustrated with line-drawings, its emphasis is upon the individual stories and it includes a small amount of background for most of the plaques. I found my copy on abebooks.

Finally, Public Sculpture of the City of London by Philip Ward-Jackson contains a substantial section on Postman's Park - as well as impressive coverage of the rest of the square mile. This book is published by Liverpool University Press and costs £30.

Moving away from non-fiction, The London Tourist Guide is a poem inspired by, and effectively evoking the atmosphere of, the memorial. Read it on author Frustrated Poet's Not Waving But Drowning blog. And a film suggestion? It would have to be Closer, which begins and ends in Postman's Park.

For all Postman's Park posts, click here.

Tuesday 7 April 2009

3 highlights of Roman London

Before 43AD, there were settlements on the site of modern London but little to indicate that the area was of any particular importance. Even the first Roman settlement was just a trading post with buildings of wood and mud. However, after the queen of the Iceni tribe, Boudicca, rebelled and razed it to the ground, the Romans rebuilt in stone complete with defensive wall and substantial public buildings. Among their greatest innovations was the first London Bridge, located very close to its modern successor. They were here for 350 years, from around 50-400AD, and made Londinium their largest British city.

Want to explore Londinium? Here are three places to begin:

Museum of London: Bucklersbury Mosaic
The Roman gallery at the Museum of London is full of incredible artefacts - a beheaded skull, probably belonging to one of Boudica's victims; a pot of face cream, contents intact - but the Bucklersbury Mosaic is a definite highlight. This mosaic floor was found in 1869 in the heart of the City, and was relaid first in the Guildhall Museum and then in the Museum of London where it now appears as the floor of a recreated dining room.

It's not only the quality of the mosaic itself which demonstrates that it belonged to a wealthy household. When it was discovered, the remains of a hypocaust (under-floor heating) system were found underneath.

Temple of Mithras
This site is actually in a rather sorry state at present. Construction work is going on around it, the City's signposts appear to have forgotten it, and the area is obviously used at night for drinking and urinating. Happily, when work is complete the temple should be given its own exhibition space in its original location.

In the meantime, if you can bear the less-than-attractive surroundings, you'll be rewarded with the remains of a Roman Mithraic temple. Like the Bucklersbury mosaic found nearby, the temple is not actually in its original location: the remains were uncovered 18 feet below the current road level and moved so that the now-defunct Bucklersbury House could be built.

Mithraism was a popular cult among Roman soldiers, but closed to women. This temple was built in the mid-third century, on the banks of the river Walbrook, and would have been partly underground to represent the cave of Mithras. Inside was a relief of the tauroctony: the killing by Mithras of a bull. Initiates to the religion rose through a series of grades, beginning as a 'raven' and ending as a 'father'.

Guildhall amphitheatre
Wander through the Victorian art in the Guildhall Art Gallery, take the modern lift to the lowest floor, and emerge into Roman London. Here are the remains of Londinium's amphitheatre, and although they might not make much sense on their own there are enough descriptive texts and images (not to mention sound effects) to bring the stones to life. They were discovered in 1988, and integrated into the new art gallery where they dried out in a controlled environment before going on public display. Don't miss the wooden drainage pipes!

Entertainments would have included fights between gladiators. However, contrary to popular belief, few would have died here: training a gladiator was an expensive business, so they were not sacrificed lightly. Condemned criminals, on the other hand, were expendable and would have to face wild animals or armed men. Once the Romans left, though, the amphitheatre was abandoned and lay derelict until it was built over in the eleventh century. It would have to wait 900 years to come to light again.

Also worth a look: the statue of Boudicca by Westminster Bridge is not Roman but does commemorate one of the most significant events in Londinium. London Stone, opposite Cannon Street Station, was probably a Roman milestone (and was originally much taller than it is now).

For more London highlights, click here.

Monday 6 April 2009

Drumsticks and deerstalkers

Passing through Plaistow on a bus, I noticed this shop on Barking Road. Until recently a fast food takeaway (the picture on the right is from Google streetview), its sign has been taken down to reveal a previous one: Wallace's, Hosiers and Hatters. It makes a slightly incongruous partner to the remaining bright red sign which still projects above!

The hatter and hosier combination was a common one, perhaps because they both used the same raw material: wool. It has left other visible traces in London, for example a ghost sign in Wimbledon featured over at Faded London.

Sunday 5 April 2009

Postman's Park (44): what have we learned?

Watts intended his memorial to serve an exemplary purpose: those who saw it should be inspired by its stories of bravery and selflessness. Having considered all those incidents, we can now think about whether they have anything to teach the modern passer-by.

Discovering the histories behind the tiles has convinced me that they are more than merely quaint or archaic. True, they do show us aspects of life which have now vanished - from stage lighting using open flames to Zeppelin air raids. At the same time, they are very human stories which do achieve what Watts desired - they can make us think about what we ourselves would and should do in similar situations.

There are, of course, some practical lessons. These include the value of life-saving courses: several of the drownings could have been prevented had the rescuers known how to deal with a struggling person. One of the saddest lessons is that bravery in the heat of the moment can often be futile: several rescuers died trying to save people who had already escaped.

The memorial also throws up contradictions. When children were left in charge of toddlers, terrible accidents involving paraffin lamps, traffic or open water could occur. On the other hand, those children took their responsibilities as seriously as any adult would, even risking (and sacrificing) their own lives to save younger siblings or friends.

What the monument does not, but perhaps should, tell us is that such heroism did not end in the 1920s but continues today. To take just one example, the Royal Life Saving Society in its guidance on beach safety refers to British police officer Jonny Speakman who drowned on holiday in Australia while saving a child caught in a riptide in 2005.

For all Postman's Park posts, click here.

Friday 3 April 2009

The devil's rock

I'll soon be visiting Brittany, where every stone seems to have a name and a story. La Roche au Géant in the village of Lanrelas is no exception. Indeed, rising suddenly as it does to more than a person's height above the path, it seems to demand some kind of myth.

Its name means 'the giant's rock', although there is also an alternative: the devil's rock. The latter is explained by a local legend, according to which the stone was used for many years by the devil as a gateway from hell. Each dark and moonless night, he would wander the parish seizing the souls of its unhappy or dishonest residents.

However, there came a night when the devil could find only one soul: that of a grief-stricken priest. He brought him up to the rock, where he cut off his arms, legs and head. The spots where they rested before being devoured can still be seen (with some imagination) on the top of the rock.

The alternative legends are barely more cheerful, tending to involve the use of the rock by a giant for human sacrifice. However, today the site is far from menacing: the stones are covered with moss and surrounded by trees, with the river Rance (little more than a stream as yet) dancing below. Paths lead along the riverside, around the rock and to a menhir in the field above; there is even a picnic area, with no sightings of devils or giants reported!

Thursday 2 April 2009

Dates set in stone

Two and a half centuries in two and a half minutes. Bonus points and gold stars for correctly guessing locations!

Wednesday 1 April 2009

Postman's Park (43): the missing memorial

Alongside the tiles commemorating acts of 'ordinary heroes' was placed a modest memorial to Watts himself. He certainly had a claim to be remembered beyond his role in the Postman's Park plaques.

George Frederic Watts was among the most popular of Victorian artists, considered the Michaelangelo of nineteenth-century Britain by his contemporaries. Friends included the pre-Raphaelites, photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, and Lord Tennyson. His sculpture Physical Energy is in Hyde Park, while other works are in the Tate and National Portrait Galleries.

Much of Watts' art had a wider social purpose; the 'Hall of Fame' series of portraits, intended to provide positive examples of eminent contemporaries, was effectively a counterpart to the Postman's Park project. The latter was similarly designed to provide a good moral example to those who viewed it, as well as a recognition of the ordinary people commemorated within.

However, the statuette's inscription does nothing to describe Watts the celebrated Royal Academician. Instead, it simply records his part in the memorial:


Why, though, have I called this post 'the missing memorial'? Simply because it is currently absent from the park: inadequately fixed and thus vulnerable to theft, it has been removed to safe storage. Let's hope that the statue can soon return to its home, a reminder of the man whose idea the larger memorial was.

For all Postman's Park posts, click here.