Thursday 31 December 2020

Top posts of a strange year

2020 was certainly different, and this blog had its own uncharacteristic period of silence. The end-of-year round-up is therefore slightly smaller than previous years, with a top three rather than the usual top five. So let's look back on some brighter moments!

The top three posts published in 2020 are: 

Section of a mosaic frieze saying 'Aux Belles Poules', with rose wreaths at either end of the words, and blue borders; and its reflection in a mirrored ceiling.

 In third place, a look at a less-known piece of Parisian history: the former licensed brothel, Aux Belles Poules. Uniquely, its decoration has survived and been restored. 

Interior of a dovecote: the walls are white, with a checkerboard pattern of square niches for the pigeone; a central wooden post extens to the roof, with a ladder which is curved to match the curve of the dovecote.

 Second place goes to another Parisian post: a  look inside a mediaeval dovecote, now incongruously sat in a suburban housing estate. 

A dirty, dusty sign says 'Trains to Stevenage' with a British Rail logo, and below that, 'Moorgate'. It rests on some dirty and abandoned-looking steps.


The most popular 2020 post is, though, a very London story: a look at the secrets of Moorgate Underground Station, right in the heart of the City.

And the all-time top three are: 

Photograph of a clock extending from a building facade on a scrolled bracket. The clock has a rectangular face with the word 'Shippams' above the dial, 'Meat & fish pastes' below. A large metal wishbone hangs beneath it.

 A fantastic clock from an iconic Chichester brand, Shippam's sandwich paste, takes third place. The post also has some great comments, with memories and family connections.  

A photograph, taken in low artificial light, of rows of femurs end-on to the camera to form a wall, with one row of skulls about half-way up and another towards the bottom of the image.

In second place, a look inside the catacombs of Paris

Photograph of a tunnel entrance. In the foreground is a metal arch between stone posts, with a height restriction sign on the top and a black-and-yellow horizontal bar. There are warning lights to either side, and a raised barrier. Round traffic signs indicate no overtaking for 1.25 miles. Beyond the arch are two cars driving along a narrow two-lane road towards the arched mouth of a tunnel whose interior appears dark. The approach is lined with trees and a brick building.

 The most popular post continues to be my walk through Rotherhithe Tunnel - a walk which is, frankly, best experienced virtually!

Of my pages, Unusual London visits remains the most popular (even if the visits are currently strictly virtual).

Photograph of a triangular stone pediment, inside which are the words 'Facts not opionions' in embellished Victorian lettering.

Wednesday 30 December 2020

Early morning, Tower Bridge


While we can't be out and about in London, here's a view of a favourite landmark: Tower Bridge, viewed from below as it opened one morning. 

I was on PS Waverley, the paddle steamer which usually spends part of the year in London. This was taken in 2018, since when the last sea-going paddle steamer has had a difficult time. After extensive repairs including a boiler refit, it returned to the sea in August 2020 but of course, Covid-19 reduced the usual programme of excursions and passenger capacity for the rest of the sailing year. As a result, there is currently a fundraiser to cover the costs of winter dry-docking and maintenance. After the repairs, and with only a few weeks' sailing time, PS Waverley stayed close to home in Glasgow for 2020. Fingers crossed that it won't be too long before we can take a paddle-steamer trip on the Thames again.



Tuesday 29 December 2020

Gunpowder Square

The name sounds suitably historical, the cannon dates from the reign of George III, but Gunpowder Square in the City of London is only in its 30s! As a plaque on the gun carriage explains, it was opened in 1989. 

The Square is not square, more of a triangle and path, lined with office buildings. It is just off Fleet Street, to the north-east of Gough Square, home of Samuel Johnson's House. However, there seems to be very little information available about the Square. One hint is that it was redeveloped from a former courtyard

There may not be many stories attached to Gunpowder Square, but it is pleasant to have another alleyway and open space in this historic part of London. And such a well-guarded one, too...





Monday 28 December 2020

The ruined Manoir de Coecilian

On the coast of the beautiful Crozon peninsula in Brittany, just behind the neolithic Lagatjar alignments, is a ruined manor house with distinctive cylindrical towers. It was once the home of poet St-Pol-Roux, until both the manor and his family were destroyed in one terrible evening. 

Roux was born Paul-Pierre Roux in Marseille, in 1880. He moved to Paris where he wrote plays and became known as a member of the Symbolist movement, before leaving the city for Brittany. After the birth of his daughter Divine, the family moved to the manor house he built on the Crozon peninsula in 1905. It was initially called le Manoir du Boltous but when Roux's son died in the First World War, he changed the name in his memory to le Manoir de Coecilian.

However, their life here came to a terrible end in 1940, under the German occupation. On the night of 22 June, a drunken soldier burst in. When Roux tried to get him to leave, a struggle ensued: the soldier killed the family's maid Rose Bruteller; he also seriously injured Divine. While he would be punished, the German Army nonetheless comandeered the house and used it as a base throughout the war. It was bombed at the end of the occupation and remains in ruins today. 

Meanwhile Roux, broken-hearted at the events of the night and the subsequent pillaging and burning of his writings, died within a few months. After the war, his daughter gave the property to the town and dedicated herself to preserving and promoting her father's work.



Sunday 27 December 2020

A long history of law books


The ground and first floors of part of a Georgian brick building with sash windows. In the centre is an alley passing through the building, with a stucco frontage including a split pediment and scrolls painted white, and a light blue-painted frontage with two windows displaying law books.

Wildy and Sons bookshop in Lincoln's Inn isn't just located in a historical building; it is a historical business itself. It has been here since 1830, selling new and second-hand legal books to generations of lawyers (and publishing them for even longer). It has always been in Lincoln's Inn Archway, although other premises have been lost - its 1946 catalogue recorded how it lost not only warehouses but also a shop in the Cloisters, Temple to bombing during the Second World War. A new branch did later open nearby, on Fleet Street. More recently, Wildy's has gained a website which not only stocks a vast range of law books but also offers a same-day courier service in central London. 

While the Wildys have died out, their business partners for over a century, the Sinkins, continue to own the shop. WEB Sinkins started a card catalogue of law books in 1930; by his retirement in 1995, it had grown to 65,000 cards covering 5 centuries, and has been used by the Bodleian Library to help them catalogue their own early law books. 

Part of a shelf filled with old books with legal titles and a glass dome with a barrister's wig inside.

 The shop is a treasure trove of old and new law books, of course. It is also a wonderful building, and there are lots of items of interest dotted around its shelves as well. That makes it an irresistible stop for London history enthusiasts as well as lawyers - and among its extensive stock, there are sure to be at least a few books that interest you as well!



Saturday 26 December 2020

Ghost signs (141): Frome

The Somerset town of Frome has some fantastic ghost signs. Probably the best are those collected on one corner building, 1 Bath Street, now an interior design shop. However, its earlier incarnations remain visible above ground level. 


On the first floor are two signs advertising A S Ashby, supplier of Kodak films and services. One is a palimpsest: the text of the earlier signs read 'A S Ashby, Kodak Film developing & printing, rapid service'; over it was painted, 'All Kodak supplies - Developing Printing'. 

The other sign, on the other face of the building, features an image of a box of Verichrome film and a manicule, as well as the text 'A. S. Ashby for [Verichrome Kodak film] and expert developing and printing, entrance Bath Street'. The background is the distinctive Kodak yellow familiar to those of us who used Kodak back in pre-digital days, when 35mm film was everywhere. 

An online search shows that Ashby was publishing postcards of local views in the Edwardian and inter-war years. Many postcards - and his photographs of Frome Carnival queens - are available, but little information about the man or business. Kodak launched Verichrome in 1931, and it was only discontinued less than two decades ago.

However, the building has more than these two ghostsigns. Above the second floor is a strip of plain text, telling an even older story about this building. Spanning both sides and the corner, it reads, 'China & glass showrooms, dinner services, toilet sets, vases, statuary, [---res], portmanteaus'. The final word is intriguing, as a portmanteau is a piece of luggage typically made of leather, not china or glass!

Friday 25 December 2020

Merry Christmas crackers!

The Christmas cracker seems ubiquitous in Britain at this time of year - in shops, on tables, and in seasonal illustrations. It's also a London invention: confectioner Tom Smith was apparently inspired by the French papillote wrapped sweet, but added the snap, in 1847. Legend has it he was inspired by the crackle of a log on a fire. Of course, other manufacturers soon began creating their own crackers - so Smith's son Walter swapped the original sweet inside for gifts and paper hats. Tom Smith's contribution to Christmas tradition is marked by a fountain in Finsbury Square.

The BFI Archives have shared this film from 1910, showing crackers being made - and ending with a strange seasonal twist!

The company shown, Clarke Nickolls & Coombs, were confectionery and jam manufacturers, founded in 1872 and based in Hackney Wick. They appear to have been unusually socially responsible employers, having introduced profit-sharing in 1890 as well as providing a convalescent home and social clubs for employees. A provident fund paid pensions, funeral grants and even 'marriage portions' for female employees. In 1946 the company changed its name to Clarnico, and later became part of Trebor Bassett.

I shall be pulling my Christmas cracker alone this year - but maybe I'll imagine the ghost of Tom Smith as I do so!


Saturday 19 December 2020

It's coming back...

View from 55 Broadway, showing the trees of St James's Park to the left, the London Eye in the centre, and the Houses of Parliament to the right.
 After a lot of neglect, this blog is going to burst back into life! (Or slowly stumble back, at least.) Beginning with a seasonal snap* on 25 December, there will be a post for each of the twelve days of Christmas and then one post a week. I can't wait to start sharing random bits of history and photos again.

For other random material, including interesting links, you can find me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram


* Yes, that's a hint!