Finding Wonderland

It was wet and grey in London yesterday and if it hadn’t been for some existing plans I would have been perfectly happy to curl up at Gidday HQ on the comfy couch. But the British Library beckoned and so just after lunch, friend Aussie-K and I stepped out for some literary loitering.

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It was our first visit to the library. Yours truly has been here twelve years and until yesterday, had only managed a passing acquaintance last year by way of a talk at the conference centre next door. Given how much I love literature and reading, I am delighted to have ticked this visit off my London bucket list and to have moved from ‘I must’ to ‘I have’ at long last.

And what, I hear you ask, made me get off my backside and go?

Well, Wonderland of course!

2015 was the 150th anniversary of the publication of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. It’s a story that’s been told in a myriad of formats and iterations over the years, its other-worldly characters and trippy plot making it the subject of much interpretation and debate. I saw Robert Douglas-Fairhurst interviewed about his biography on Carroll – The Story of Alice – last year (which I am currently reading) and the Library has been running a temporary free exhibition which closes in April. So we entered the fray and hustled – with what felt like hundreds of half-term families – along the cabinets and displays.

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The front part of the exhibit was taken up with a series of twelve (or was it thirteen?) decorated mirrors featuring quotes from Alice in Wonderland whilst in a rather cramped section at the rear, there was an opportunity to learn about the author himself, his real-life Alice (who happened to be a brunette rather than the blonde we’ve come to know and love) and see the ways in which this famous story has been communicated over the last 150 years. It was interesting – however the area was poorly-lit with little opportunity to linger and I found it difficult to read all of the information and look at the details of the books and manuscripts on display. I’m not sorry that I spent the time to shuffle through and see it but it’s just as well it was free otherwise I might have been a little put out!

It seemed a shame to leave after such a short visit and as it was still raining outside, we meandered across to the Library’s permanent exhibition, Treasures of the British Library.

Now THIS was my Wonderland and I spent quite some time poring over…

…drawings & notes from Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo…

…musical scores from as early as 1050 and from geniuses like Mozart, Debussy, Chopin, Beethoven, Bach (just to name a few) as well as a page of Puccini’s scribbled stage directions for his opera Madame Butterfly and a touch from the modern era, a burst of scrawled lyrics for The Beatles’ hit ‘Help’…

…pages and pages of penmanship from literary giants: 16th century greats like Shakespeare, Marlowe and Jonson, acknowledged classics like Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby and Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles and even a little something from Ian Fleming, the man behind James Bond – who you could argue is one of the 20th century’s most iconic literary creations – and his short story, The Living Daylights…

…sacred texts, beautifully illustrated, from as early as the 4th century and from a  variety of religions including Judaism, Hinduism, Islam and Buddism…

…and one of the four Magna Carta documents dating back to 1215 which was sitting right alongside the original papal bull that annulled it just 10 weeks later.

It was absolutely awesome – in the true sense of the word – and these were just the highlights.

And after such a deluge of inspirational history, it was time to venture back out into the real weather, make a damp and concerted dash past St Pancras Station…

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…and around to the YumChaa Cafe in Granary Square for a warming hot chocolate and a slice of apple and apricot loaf…

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All in all, it turned out to be the perfect way to spend an inclement February afternoon in London.

The story of Spitalfields

I love discovering London’s hidden stories and last Saturday I joined Blue Badge Guide Paula Cooze to discover to the story of Spitalfields.

It’s not the first time I’ve ‘toured’ with Paula, having started my fan-dom in September 2013 in the shoes of Matthew Shardlake followed by an architectural wander around the City four months later and then an amble around the Globe mid 2014.

So you can see that it’s been some time since a missive from Paula has found its way into my inbox and it was perfectly timed as Spitalfields is an area I brushed past earlier in the year and I have been itching to do ‘more’.

Wave after wave of immigration has shaped this gritty pocket of London and what was once slum housing and dangerous streets, has become regarded as one London’s places to be. In fact the gentrification of Spitalfields is fostering considerable debate and even protest, the most recent being the attack on the Cereal Killer Cafe at the top end of Brick Lane in September.

It’s a part of London bursting with expression, riven with side streets and alleyways and clothed in a patchwork of colour and smell. I was so excited that, in babbling on about it to friends after I’d booked my place, I actually inspired a couple of them to come along.

Spitalfields was named for the priory of St Mary Spittel, founded in 1197 in a field right next to the site of the current market. The area lay just outside the walls of the City of London and attracted many merchants and craftsman who were not part of the restrictive City Guilds operating inside the walls.

The multicultural history of Spitalfields is steeped in the ‘rag trade‘ and a fitting place to start our trip down memory lane was with a visit to Petticoat Lane. This street – now called Middlesex Street – was home to many Spanish immigrants in the early 17th century and although the famous market was only formalised in the 1930s, it has always been the place to come for cheap, second-hand clothing.

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The Huguenot silk weavers arrived in the late 1600’s to capitalise on the area’s burgeoning reputation as a garment district and were followed in the early 1800’s by the Jews fleeing the pogroms in Russia. Both fled persecution with little but their trade and so their sewing machines were a life-line, the only way for them to earn a living and survive each day in this then slum-ridden part of London.

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This beautifully preserved silk weaver’s shop and residence in Raven Row is now an art gallery so you can take a wander through to see how the more affluent lived in the past and how the locals are expressing themselves today.

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When we turned around from the silk weaver’s windows, Paula pointed out this controversial facade running along the back of Lilian Knowles House.

We headed down Artillery Row – the name a nod to King Henry VIII’s gifting of the area to the military during his reign in the 16th century – turned left into Crispin Street and passed alongside the Providence Row Night Refuge (now called Lilian Knowles House). It was here that Paula added yet another immigrant community to her story – the Irish, arriving in the mid 1700’s with their dreams of escaping the potato famine in Ireland to build a brand new life in America. The majority could not afford the dream and so stopped where the money ran out – in London.

We walked around past the ‘new’ frontage of Spitalfields market, stopping to admire number 40 Brushfield Street. Verde & Company Ltd is a tribute to both the slow food movement and the history of the area – Paula mentioned that author Jeanette Winterson is one of the owners…and that a hot chocolate will set you back about £5. (Just as well the more affordable – not by much – Patisserie Valerie is across the road.)

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We then turned right to head north(ish) though Bishops Square, pausing at the old Huguenot silk weaver’s residence at 18 Folgate Street (which has been painstakingly restored by Dennis Severs – pundits really rate the multi-sensory tour)…

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…and with a quick left down the alley at the end of Blossom Street (the most inappropriate name for a street ever), we emerged at the bottom end of Shoreditch High Street. Ambling along Bethnal Green Road and back down to Brick Lane Paula explained to us a little about the street art scene.

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This commissioned street art adorns a local locksmith on Bethnal Green Road. That’s the entrance on the right painted as the opening of a vault.

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Nice to see two of my favourites from my walking tour through Shoreditch in June – Gregos on the left and Ronzo on the right.

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Life imitating art? Or is it the other way around….

Transport

Street art frames transportation for the young…while this Vespa was one of many I saw, perhaps appealing to the young at heart?

After cutting through the Old Truman Brewery complex and along Commercial Road (this is the side of Spitalfields Market that has had its original facia preserved), we made our way down Wilkes Street – where Keira Knightley‘s pad is up for sale – and into Fournier Street.

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Keira’s townhouse has been up for sale for a while – I’m not sure whether it’s the price (the guide price on rightmove.com is a paltry £3 million) or the purple that’s deterring prospective buyers…

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Wonderfully preserved buildings along Fournier Street.

And it’s here that Paula told the last of her stories and bade us all farewell. Another great tour from Paula – done.

It’s extraordinary to think that we spent a story-packed couple of hours in such a small area – here’s a rough map of our route…

Spitalfields Walking Tour map

So I’d really encourage you to have a look around the area for yourself – I’ll be checking out a visit to Dennis Severs’ house to really immerse myself in history.

But really, to get the full story, you’ll have to wait – perhaps patiently – for the next time Paula crosses the city.

The window

Let me start this by saying I had an awesome Saturday last weekend. It was filled with some of the things I love best – literature, history, discovery and most of all, London.

I had spent a fascinating hour at the old Roman House and Bath on Lower Thames Street right opposite the Billingsgate Fish Market. The City of London is an area I’ve explored over the last few years through walking tours (In Shardlake’s Shoes) but it’s not on my way to any frequent haunt so adventures tend to be a result of turning left instead of right, peering around unbidden corners and just venturing into open doors.

With some time to kill before heading to the Kings Place Festival, rather than head directly back to Monument Station, I let myself meander aimlessly along cobbled lanes admiring the architectural mix of old next to new.

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I had ambled up St-Mary-At-Hill toward Eastcheap when I saw this off to my right.

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Intrigued, I headed towards it, the street silent and shaded against the warm afternoon sun. As I drew closer, I looked up and spied a steeple chalked against the blue of the sky.

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The sunlit window beckoned and as the cobbles turned left into Idol Lane, it became part of something much bigger. The tower in front of me rising up to unite the disparate parts of steeple and window into one glorious whole.

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St-Dunstan-in-the-East – all sweeping curves and delicate green. A little piece of history tucked just a few steps back from the dust and traffic on Lower Thames Street. I smiled and I could feel the warm anticipation of discovery growing inside me. The black iron gate was open so I edged through, curious and quiet, as though not to disturb the peace of the garden.

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I wandered along the leafy paths drinking in the beauty of this patch of nature and history entwined. Each turn revealed a stunning view, each door a different aspect to behold.

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The delicate shapes of the old walls reached up amidst the modern cut of the City, softening its edges and somehow showcasing the modern skyline. There’s a mix of old and new that I love about London – the way that each seems to compliment, even enhance, the other. I don’t think anywhere does it better.

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My breath caught over and over again as I gazed around me. I was moved, wanting to absorb each moment and imprint it into my mind. At the same time, I wanted to share the fullness of it. I found myself retracing steps, phone in hand hoping somehow to capture a fragment of what I was feeling in order to pass it on.

I typed my first draft of this post an hour later, sitting on the floor of Kings Place waiting for the event I’ve booked in for to start. It was a download I couldn’t stem, a rambling deluge of words and feelings for such a short space of time that had become so large and urgent in my memory.

Now I reshape it, ordering it, adding the photos which speak to my heart the most. There’s joy in revisiting the photos I took. They return me to places I stood – the central garden where the wiry black boughs framed by gothic arches were misted with emerald leaves, the far reaches of the path where I could see the red piped curves reaching from the bricked corner of the building next door – and the things that I felt – the warm sun on my face, the cool sweat on my back that made my t-shirt cling to the place that my backpack had been.

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And I smile again. It feels like the same smile as when I first set eyes on that black iron gate. And I feel grateful – for the moment, for the discovery and for the opportunity to live in this magnificent city I am lucky to call home.

To my mind, that’s not bad for a Saturday.

Not bad at all.

Under foot

The Museum of London is my favourite museum. When I first arrived in London, I spent a too-short couple of hours sheltering there from the January cold before a meeting-over-a-drink on London Wall and over the years I have visited several times, not just for new events but also to revisit the permanent exhibition. It’s the patchwork of all of London’s faces through history that I find so endlessly fascinating.

Anyway, the Museum is trialling a series of Archaeology Archive events over the next few months, opening up sites for the public to visit and to learn more about what went on here well before we were a twinkle in anybody’s eye. So at 2.45 yesterday afternoon, I entered the nondescript door at 101 Lower Thames Street and followed our Museum of London guides, Joe and Nicola, down the short flight of stairs to the Roman House and Bath.

The house and bath is thought to be from the period leading up to 400AD – the story of the site came to life under Nicola’s passionate telling: the building and its abandonment – probably around the late 4th/early 5th century when Rome withdrew its support from Londinium – the unusual layout of the bath house and why it might have been built that way, and how archaeological evidence – or absence thereof – plays its part in refining the story. There still remains some debate as to whether this was a mansio – a ‘stopping point’ – or a family home but that in no way diminished the impact of what we saw.

The tour began with a look at the east wing, what was thought to be the furnace room and the remains of the hypercaust heating system beneath the floor.

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The east wing – you can see hypercaust tiles to the right. The furnace room is on the other side of the walkway and links through a series of channels under the floor to circulate warm air throughout.

We then spent some time looking at the bath. Comprised of a frigidarium cum change room in the centre, the tepidarium (warm room), caldarium (hot room) and plunge pool, Nicola’s narration took us back over 1600 years, introducing us to the family who may have lived here.

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You can see the layout of the bath here. The frigidarium was the flat area in front, to the right you can see the site of the caldarium (hot room) with its hypercaust tiles and the furnace that you can see just on the outside of the wall). The family would have walked through a small connecting room to the tepidarium (warm room) on the other side (left side of picture).

They may have trodden the tessellated floor of the frigidarium to change, walked through to the tepidarium to acclimatise to the heat, then visited the caldarium  for a short time before returning to the tepidarium to relax, chat and receive the cleansing ministrations of various experts (scraping the skin with a strigel was a common method of removing the dust and grime of London).

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Remains of the tessellated floor of the frigidarium

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The tepidarium – you can see the remaining floor level tiles sitting above the the hypercaust pillars

And let’s not forget an invigorating dip into the plunge pool before leaving the bath.

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The plunge pool was located at our backs as we looked over the frigidarium. It’s not huge – just enough for a dip in and out.

Just under an hour later, our small group headed back up the stairs and, after signing the visitors book, emerged onto the sunlit street. I still find it quite hard to believe that all of that fabulous history lies beneath an unassuming office block opposite the imposing Billingsgate Fish Market on a roadwork-strewn City street.

The Roman House and Bath is a Scheduled Monument which means that it is registered as one of Historic England’s 5627 important archaeological sites. It also means that it is a legal requirement of the owners/occupiers of the property to protect the site. The Museum of London plays a big part in this with teams of historians, archaeologists and conservators overseeing preservation efforts.

This trial – the opening of their Archaeological Archives – is an effort to raise public consciousness about London’s history and encourage visitation albeit, with a small fee, in the hope that there will be support and funding for a permanent programme.

If you are fascinated by history and/or London and have an hour one weekend to visit the Roman House and Bath – or any of the other openings in this year’s trial – please do it. Being able to stand beneath the street, to see this and listen to the expertise and passion of people like Nicola and Joe from the Museum of London is an absolute privilege.

It would be a shame if the doors were closed again and the conservators were left to appreciate London’s past alone.

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For more information about this special programme, visit; http://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/london-wall/whats-on/adult-events/archaeology-events/

Around The Globe…

You know I love London. And you know I love a walking tour. So you may not be surprised that last Sunday I was up and out early-ish to join one. 

This is my third walking tour with Blue Badge guide Paula Cooze, the first being a wander through the City in Shardlake’s Shoes last September and the second exploring the City’s architecture from the Barbican to Bishopsgate in January this year. This time there was a wander around the globe to look forward to…Shakespeare’s Globe that is…so I trundled tube-style down to London Bridge Station and ambled over to our meeting point at the theatre. This is what followed…

You are right. This is not the Globe theatre but it’s right outside The Anchor pub on the river bank. As I was waiting for the appointed start time to approach, I found myself quite taken by this quaint, quasi-seaside scene with The Shard looming in the background.

This is the Globe theatre built in 1997 after the first was destroyed by fire in 1613 and the second pulled down in 1644 (after being shut down by the Puritans in 1642). 


It is said to be a faithful reproduction of the original – while no plans were ever available to study, local archaeological sites have revealed clues which have been used to make this version as authentic as possible.  

This is the original site of the theatre: Old Theatre Court in Park Street, about 230m away from the current replica. You can pay close to £2,000/month to live in a 71 square metre, one bedroom apartment here.


Speaking of money, the rebuilding of Shakespeare’s Globe would not have been possible without Sam Wanamaker, an American actor and director who set up the Shakespeare Globe Trust in 1970 to rebuild the theatre. The contributions of those who made this possible are celebrated in the paving stones in the theatre courtyard whilst the candlelit theatre that opened next door last year – the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse – honours the man himself.

Clockwise from top left:  Prunella Scales (Sybil Fawlty in Fawlty Towers); Nigel Hawthorne (Sir Humphrey Appleby in Yes Minister); Zoe Wanamaker (My Family, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Agatha Christie Poirot series as Ariadne Oliver)

Our next stop was the former site of the Anchor Brewery further along Park Street.


Built in 1616 by James Monger, the brewery grew to be the largest in the world in the early nineteenth century. After a succession of owners and a merge with Courage in 1955, the brewery itself was pulled down in 1981 to be be replaced by council estate housing (top right). 

The Anchor Tavern (bottom right) still stands in its Bankside location nearby and history marks this site as having had a public house on it for 800 years. Aside from some reputedly excellent fish and chips, it has played host to Tom Cruise and Ving Rhames in the closing scenes of the movie, Mission Impossible.  And if you turn around and look across the river, you’ll see just why Samuel Pepys wrote of sitting at ‘this alehouse’ watching the great fire of London…

The golden orb of the Monument stands amidst the geometry of the modern city. Laying the column down brings the tip to the site of the bakery in Pudding Lane where the Great Fire of London began in 1666.

Around the corner and though the arch we walked to stop outside The Clink.

Left – Clink Prison Museum;
Right – a Dickensian view from the corner of Redcross Way and Park St.

The Clink was a notorious prison in London and operated from twelfth century through to 1780. It was part of the estate of the Bishop of Winchester (you can see the remains of his palace a little further down the lane) and originally housed prisoners who held views opposing those of the clergy. Profiteering was rife amongst the wardens who sold food and ‘better’ lodgings to those who would pay and to facilitate this industry, prisoners were released to beg during the day and earn ‘their keep’ at night. It later became a debtors prison – thus the reference to Dickens’ tale of Little Dorrit above. It is now the site of The Clink Prison Museum so you can still pay for the privilege of a visit.

At the end of Clink Street, past the remains of Winchester Palace, stands the replica of Frances Drake’s Golden Hinde.


I have blogged about both the palace and the ship before so if you’d like some Gidday witterings on these, you can click here. What I really want to share with you is the legend of Mary Overie (Mary over the river).

Long before there were any bridges to get you across the Thames, ferryman John Overs made his fortune by monopolising the shipment of cargo and people from river bank to river bank. Being incredibly tight-fisted, he had refused to pay the dowry for his daughter Mary to be married to the man she loved. In fact he decided that if he pretended to be dead for the day, his family and servants would mourn and their fasting would save him the cost of food. Wrapped in a burial shroud and lying silently in a coffin, he was dismayed to find that instead of going to plan, his servants were delighted by his demise and celebrated by unlocking and helping themselves to the pantry. Finally he could lie still no more and arose ready to admonish his staff – but one such servant, thinking him to be a ghost, struck him over the head with an oar and killed him.

Mary wrote to her beloved that they were free to marry but tragedy struck when his horse stumbled and threw him en route to her, killing him. Mary refused all other offers and instead formed the priory of St Mary Overie where she lived until her death. 

Always something new for me to learn on Paula’s tours.

Anyway, on to the next stop just around the corner – Southwark Cathedral.


Some have placed the foundations of the building as far back as 606 but the more commonly held view is that it has been in existence since the conversion of Wessex in 886. The site has undergone many iterations over the centuries with the photo to the right showing the different levels of pavements and thoroughfares (as well as a coffin). Southwark Cathedral was even named in the Domesday Book of 1086. 

We dived into Borough market next, ghostly quiet without the hustle and bustle of its Wednesday-to-Saturday trading. 

As we emerged from the labyrinth of empty stalls, we came across yet another famous Globe but from the modern era.

This is, in fact, the window of Bridget Jones, (yes she of the diary) from which she peers out into the snowy night in the final scenes of the film to see Mark Darcy striding away. Yes it’s true. The movie was on a few days after this walk so I checked it out for myself.

Leaving the market behind us, we walked down Southwark Street past the Hops Exchange…


…and crossed into Redcross Way to our next stop, the Crossbones Graveyard.

This site started out as a medieval burial ground for the area’s prostitutes and by the 18th century had become a paupers’ graveyard which was then closed in 1853. There were excavations on this site during the 1990s, carried out as part of the extensions to the Jubilee Underground line which unearthed the bones of the dead in 148 graves. The local community in campaigning to create a permanent memorial garden, continues to add to the poignant memorial created along the fence and holds a memorial vigil at the gates at dusk on the 23rd of each month.

Turning back we crossed back over Southwark Street and rejoined Park Street, coming to our penultimate stop…


This plaque shows two draymen beating Julius Jacob von Haynau, an Austrian general who was well-known for his brutality in suppressing insurrection. This particular incident happened following several narrow escapes of mob violence when von Haynau was High Command of Hungary, with the two men setting upon him during his visit to the Barclay and Perkins Brewery (previously the Anchor brewery). Let’s just say that the protagonists were very much lauded for their ‘chivalric’ pursuit of justice in the realm.

And then we wandered around the corner to find ourselves back at The Anchor and the end of our tour. It was such an interesting two hours, full of fun stories and historical titbits that, despite having explored this area before, I did not know about – and you know how I like discovering London like this. The really amazing thing is that when I look back on where we walked, it wasn’t a large area and I was left in awe of how historically rich this city is. 


So if this inspires you and you’d like to know more, visit Paula’s website –www.crossingthecity.co.uk – and find out where next she might take us.

But I have first ‘dibs’ okay?

My backyard…B is for Brixton

Having returned from playing away in Abu Dhabi for a week, it was time to play a little closer to home again so this morning I was up and on the way to Brixton for another ‘backyard’ walking tour. 

Brixton is in South London and being most notable for the Brixton Riots in 1981, it’s an area of London that it’s fair to say has been somewhat tainted by its turbulent past. But the area is also one of those ‘up-and-coming’ parts of London as home buyers seeking lower property prices move outwards from the city while still remaining in commuting range. In fact it’s one of the things that surprised me today – how near Brixton is to central London. (I thought it was much further out!) 

Anyway our small group met at the Ritzy Cinema at 11am and headed down Coldharbour Lane to the frontline of the 1981 Riots at the intersection of Atlantic Avenue.


After a bit of background on the Riots from our guide Angela, we continued down Coldharbour Lane a little further to see Nuclear DawnThis extraordinary mural was painted by Brian Barnes and finished in 1981. It features a large skeleton swathed in the flags of nations who had nuclear weapons at the time and paints a grimly powerful portrait of politics and the Cold War during the late 70s/early 80s. 


Turning away from the mural, we faced Southwyck House – also known as Brixton’s Barrier Block – an unusual building featuring the Brutalist architectural style common of the period in which it was built. 


The Barrier Block has played a controversial role in Brixton’s history. The other side of the building features large windows and balconies and has been home to one of the world’s most famous artists, Damien Hirst. Ex Prime Minister John Major lived briefly in Brixton and his support for the demolition of the block later in his career was more than a little undermined by the fact his Planning Committee had approved its construction. Oops!

Our next stop was Brixton Village, a series of markets accessed through an entrance across Coldharbour Lane from the Nuclear Dawn mural. Fascinatingly enough, our short dash across the road was peppered with more art from the locals…

French street artist Space Invader leaves his mark at the corner of Coldharbour Lane and Atlantic Avenue.
Bee (top left) can be found at the intersection of Coldharbour Lane and Atlantic Avenue as can the image bottom right. The image top right was right near Nuclear Dawn and ‘B Our Guest’ adorns the railway bridge over Brixton Hill.
Lucy’ Casson’s Foxes and Cherries sculpture (top left) adorns the roof on the corner of Electric Lane and Electric Avenue; bottom left – collaborative mural near the intersection of Atlantic Avenue and Coldharbour Lane; right – an homage to Brixton-born David Bowie (or David Robert Jones as he was christened) painted by Australian street artist James Cochrane.

Brixton Village was traditionally a food market where the local Caribbean community would buy fresh produce, particularly specialities like ackee, plantain, yams and salt fish.

On our little tour, I got a bit of an education about Caribbean cuisine, also finding flying fish (top left) – which I saw flying several years ago on a trip to Tobago – and breadfruit (bottom left). The biggest surprise came when I was introduced to chow chow, which I knew as choko growing up in Australia! We also laughed at the ubiquity of Milo (a malted chocolate powder that we add to big glasses of milk) in both the Caribbean and Australia – how strange that such similarities exist between islands so far away from each other.

The produce stalls are far fewer and the markets have been taken over by restaurants and cafes. It was fairly quiet as we walked through but you could just imagine the little lanes buzzing with the energy and chatter of lunchtime or after work crowds.

Clockwise from top left: Traditional Caribbean fare from Fish, Wings and Tings; enjoy a tipple and nibble at Champagne and Fromage; tuck in to morsels from the sea at Etta’s Seafood Kitchen; beat the crowds for a cuppa at Federation Cafe, graced in the past by none other than Hollywood star, Will Smith.

Emerging from the markets it was a short walk down to Electric Avenue – yes the one made famous by the Eddy Grant song.

Electric Avenue, so named as it was the first market street to receive electric lighting. Bottom left: Healthy Eaters’ delivery vehicles feature the names of prominent locals.

Further down Electric Avenue, we found Brixton Speaks an installation on the wall of the Iceland store. Created by author Will Self, Brixton Speaks pays homage to the unique Caribbean patois of the area. Click here for a much better photo! This was also the site where a nail-bomb exploded in 1999 injuring 39 people.

Turning right onto Brixton Hill we walked under the railway bridges to visit our next point of interest, the Ricky Bishop Memorial TreeRicky Bishop was taken into police custody in 2001 and was later admitted to hospital with unexplained injuries. The tree serves as a poignant reminder of the still-fractious relationship between the community and the local police.

We crossed over Brixton Hill and spent about 20 minutes away from the cacophony of the high street.

Left: emergiing from Stockwell Avenue between the twin buildings of Bon Marche, London’s first purpose built department store; top right: the Grade II listed Brixton Academy which started life as the Astoria Theatre in 1929; bottom right: Trinity House on Acre Lane, Georgian architecture preserved since 1822.
Life in a leafy Brixton Square: a two bedroom (top right) will set you back at least £750,000 but you can always drown your sorrows at the Trinity Arms (bottom right).

With that we headed out onto Acre Lane and wandered back to the Ritzy Cinema. 

Nursing my hot chocolate on the tube ride home, I felt like I’d barely scratched the surface of this colourful neighbourhood, so different from my own yet discovering so many unexpected similarities in our cultures. And I mused once again at how utterly fascinating this big backyard of mine called London truly is.

My Backyard… Building Blocks

Today I was reading an interesting piece on Fevered Mutterings on what constitutes ‘travel’ and the premise that we tend to think about the packing of a suitcase, backpack or even overnight bag as an activity inextricably linked to travelling. 

When I think of travel, I think of going from point A to point B (which is the definition that comes to my mind given the Transport for London website exhorts me to ‘travel by foot’ for a portion of most of my journeys) but this is not a vision that will keep me going in the depths of winter darkness. Thank goodness Mike Sowden suggested that redefining travelling as ‘venturing somewhere new’ means it is right under our noses – that ‘travel *is* our own backyard’.

And last Sunday it was my own ‘backyard’ that I ventured out into to have a gander around Old London Town. I’m not sure that under normal circumstances, I would be up for an architecturally themed stroll on a wintery Sunday morning but I enjoyed Blue Badge Guide Paula’s trek around Shardlake’s London so much last September that it was an easy and enthusiastic ‘yes’ when the flyer came through for her guided walk through Post-War City Architecture

So we started at Barbican tube station and followed Paula – and her post-war story – through the City of London. Here’s what we saw…

Standing outside Barbican station on a crisp January morning

Following the bombing raid on London on 29th December 1940, much of Greater London was flattened. But contrary to wider plans, the City took its own view of its rebuilding and commissioned architects Chamberlin, Powell and Bon to create urban villages for the working class…


The Golden Lane Estate was originally positioned outside the City boundaries until ‘re-zoning’ brought it into the fold – perhaps that explains why a 2 bedroom apartment here goes for around £680,000.
…and the more affluent inhabitants of the City.
The Barbican Estate was opened in 1969 (that makes it as old as me) and stretches over a 40 acre site. It contains more than 2,000 flats, of which a 2 bedroom version will set you back about £900,000. Oh and check out the upside looking windows top right.

We then ambled around the back of the Museum of London, took a quick peek at the Pedway System (a scheme based on raised pedestrian walkways which never really took hold) then crossed London Wall to Wood Street.

Traditional building blocks adorn the home of the City’s Police Force (yes, a separate force from that of Greater London). Standing with your back against the wall will give you a great view of the tower reflected in the building opposite.
The tower of St Alban stands in the centre of the street in stark contrast to the architecture around it and here the Norman Foster designed 100 Wood Street forms a geometric backdrop to Christopher Wren’s deft touch. But walk through its checkerboard frontage and you’ll find a veritable oasis. Soaring windows angled outwards bring light into the old churchyard and provide space for the old plane tree’s leafy boughs.
Next it was a trot down Gutter Lane to emerge on Cheapside – crossing the road, we found ourselves standing in One New Change with this rather spectacular view…
The dome of St Paul’s pierces the sky right opposite One New Change. Thirteen ‘views’ of the cathedral are protected by the London View Management Framework which prevents the construction of any buildings which may impinge on the view. There’s even a protected view from Richmond Park’s King Henry’s Mound several miles away.

We headed out of One New Change and down to Bank Junction where the architectural contrasts abounded again.


This is No 1 Poultry: the street, like those around it (Milk Street, Bread Street) named after the market produce originally sold here. The building, designed by James Stirling for Peter Palumbo, carves a ship-like post modern silhouette against the sky and has caused much outcry from those – including Prince Charles – whose more conservative sensibilities it offends.
Turning from the post-modernist perspective, we found more traditional architecture clustered around the junction with the Royal Exchange (top left) and the Bank of England (bottom left) dominating the view.

We headed up Cornhill, our guide Paula setting a brisk pace…

The Leadenhall Building (the ‘Cheesegrater’) looms above the stone buildings along Cornhill while St Michael’s doors (right) are tucked a few neat steps back from the street.

…and came to a stop on the corner of Leadenhall Street and St Mary Axe, finding ourselves both surrounded and dwarfed by edifices of steel and glass…

The famous Lloyd’s of London ‘inside out’ building (right) was designed by Richard Rogers (who also designed the Pompidou Centre in Paris with Renzo Piano) on the site of both the previous Lloyd’s building and before that, East India House. The construction style (called Bowellism) is notable for having its interiors – stairwells (spirals), restrooms – the boxes behind the piping which contain electrical and water conduits –  and air conditioning ducts easily accessible to ensure that building never need close due to any malfunction of its ‘essential’ services. This 1986 building was Grade I listed in 2011 much to the chagrin of Lloyd’s (the listing means that the building cannot be changed in any way) so the insurance company’s ‘overflow’ will be moved right across the road to…
…the Cheesegrater (official name The Leadenhall Building). Situated at 122 Leadenhall Street, this building is nearing completion and is expected to open in Spring this year.

And not to be outdone, just a stone’s throw away stands The Gherkin.

The Gherkin‘s official name is the Swiss Re Building – or that’s what previous owners Swiss Re insisted on. Another Norman Foster design and completed in 2003, 30 St Mary Axe was built on the site of the former Baltic Exchange which was damaged in a Provisional IRA bombing in 1992. I thought it seemed rather fitting that The Cheesegrater is within arms reach of The Gherkin…

And with that, it was a short walk to Bishopsgate and the end of our tour. Almost 3 hours (including what Paula likes to call a ‘warming coffee break’ at the Costa Coffee halfway point).

I strolled back towards Moorgate tube station filled with excitement at what a dynamic and fascinating city I live in. The time had flown by and I was so glad that I had dragged myself out of bed and braved the chill to explore this amazing ‘backyard’ of mine. I kept gazing around, wondering about the stories of the buildings that loomed over me and as I reached the intersection of London Wall and Moorgate again, I couldn’t help but take just one last parting shot.


The old and the new right next to each other again.

I don’t know their story. But I am sure it’s fascinating.

The Information Super Highway…

I’m reading a book by Niall Ferguson called Empire: How Britain Made The Modern World. It’s a fascinating read and already – I am just under halfway through – we’ve explored piracy, banking and borrowing (a system borrowed from the Dutch no less), colonisation and slavery. And we’ve even been to deepest darkest Africa for one of the most famous salutations in history, “Dr Livingstone, I presume“. 

The latest chapter covers the Victorian Empire and I’ve just finished reading about India and Queen Victoria’s increased interest in foreign affairs following the Indian Mutiny in 1857. What is interesting about this particular time in history is that the ‘world’ is shrinking. The far reaches of the imperial fold are becoming more accessible with steam power and advances in iron being used to industrialise the empire. Travelling by steamer is reducing journey times and technology is driving industry and commerce to the point where consumerism is no longer restricted to the ruling classes.

In our modern day lives, the world is literally at our fingertips with news from across the globe available in a matter of minutes. But did you ever think about where it all started?

Francis Ronalds offered his idea of the telegraph to the Navy in 1816. The Admiralty turned it down and it took the private sector to see – and develop – its possibilities for overland communication. However, it wasn’t until the adoption of a rubber-like substance from Malaya called gutta-percha that durable undersea cables could be manufactured, opening up the potential of Ronalds’ brainchild to expansion on a global scale.

And so it was that in 1851 the first cross-channel cable was laid with the first transatlantic cable to follow in 1866. By 1880 over 97,000 miles of cable criss-crossed the world, joining continent with continent and creating the world’s first global communications network.

So as we log on, read emails, surf for news and opinions and tap-tap-tap away to cast our particular version of word-smithery out into the digital ether, let’s give a nod to the acquisitive ambition of the British Empire.

And to the miracle of gutta-percha…

…the original information super highway.