Spring shoots

Today is the May Day Bank Holiday in the UK and after a basking in some long overdue Spring sunshine yesterday, it’s time for me to keep my word and share my last two months of gadding about (which, with Mum’s 3-week visit smack-bang in the middle, pretty much disappeared before I knew it).

There have been a few highlights of the stage-and-screen variety since February starting with a ‘goosebumps all-over’ moment as Glenn Close filled the London Coliseum with her performance of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. The BBC ran a gripping six-part adaption of John le Carre’s The Night Manager that starred Hugh Laurie – in fine and menacing form – and Tom Hiddleston which had me transfixed on Sunday nights. (For those of you who don’t know Hugh, think House and Black Adder.)

And I saw a couple of really great movies – Spotlight and Eye in the Sky, the latter being a charity screening at my local cinema, The Phoenix. In his pre-film talk, director Gavin Hood explained that the technology featured in Eye in the Sky is real and out there as we speak. Mind-blowing stuff.

There were also some things I expected to love more than I did. The Maids at Trafalgar Studios was edgy and well-acted but a little too crazy for me and Immortal Tango contained patches of thrilling Argentine Tango but was brought low by too much tinkering with the quintessential drama and passion of the dance. Based on how much I loved The Night Manager, I had another stab at reading le Carre’s novel only to remember how convoluted and unwieldy I find his writing. And reading Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None was spoiled by knowing ‘who dunnit’, having seen it on TV earlier this year (another brilliant adaption from the Beeb).

There have been some firsts as well.

I attended my first political debate on the EU referendum at the London Palladium. It was chockers with people and points of view and while it didn’t really help me to make a more informed decision, I did leave with my view of politics and politicians intact – grandstanding and emotive argument just don’t do it for me.

However what did do it for me was Painting the Modern Garden, an exhibition featuring artists from Monet to Matisse (and many in between) on my first sortie to the Royal Academy.

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I also visited Poole, site of the second largest natural deep-water harbour in the world (after Sydney).

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Dorset Quay, Poole

Last but not least, April alone has meant birthdays galore. It started with my two favourite little dudes turning 3 with Mum, Seattle-A celebrating a week later. And on the 30th, my good friend of more than 15 years, Swiss-S, finally turned 40 on the same day that high school friend, Aussie-J, marked her slightly more advanced passage through life (although she’s still younger than yours truly).

And the great Bard himself, Shakespeare celebrated his birthday on April 23rd, the same day as he popped his clogs 52 years later. There’s been much ado about this and for my part, this Bard-themed week has been book-ended by  Shakespeare Live! last weekend and a Shakespeare’s London walking tour on Saturday just gone with the Museum of London.

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Memorial to John Heminge and Henry Condell, the two actors who published Shakespeare’s First Folio in 1623 in St Mary Aldermanbury’s Garden.

In other news, I was very excited by the Monopoly-themed loos at Marylebone Station…

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I had to wait for everyone to leave the loos before taking these pics so no-one thought I was being weird or creepy (she says, posting them for all the world to see.)

…my fabulous new shoes…

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…and that fact that Spring finally ‘sprang’…

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Delicate Spring flowers  lined my street for about two weeks before they dropped to leave leafy green boughs behind them.

And I think that’ll do. Just as well that the month ended with a 3-day weekend…but the batteries are recharged and I’m ready to go again…

…come what May.

(Geddit? I just couldn’t resist a play on words.)

Bitter Sweet

It’s been over a month since my last historic meander so I am pleased to report that yesterday I spent a couple of hours weaving through the City’s streets in an effort to discover more about London’s connections with slavery.

We all know it happened and movies like 12 Years a Slave and The Butler have raised the public consciousness in recent years. But these have been portrayals of slavery in America and the Caribbean. When you look at these depictions and think about the inter-continental trading relationships that underpinned this industry…

…a picture of Britain is noticeably absent.

So yesterday I met with Museum of London guide Mike (yes he of my Roman fort tour earlier this year) and along with about twenty others, embarked on Sugar and Slavery, a two hour walking tour around the key British institutions involved the slave trade.

Here’s how it went.

From our meeting point at the museum, we walked down Noble Street, pausing opposite the Goldsmith’s Company for Mike’s introduction to the slave trade, before heading down Gresham Street to Guildhall Yard.

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Entering Guildhall Yard from Gresham Street – the Yard is built on the site of the old Roman amphitheatre.

The guilds were organisations that represented the wide variety of trades – and as such controlled the various industries – operating in the City of London. In the 17th century, Guildhall was the central seat of justice for the guilds and many a legal battle was fought in Guildhall itself.

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The Grade 1 listed Guildhall

Guildhall continues to be the administrative and ceremonial centre for the one square mile that constitutes the City of London. I remember watching Stephen Fry’s Key to the City a couple of years ago where he explored what it meant to have been awarded the ‘Freedom of the City’. He also attended a banquet here – it still seemed full of tightly-held traditions and much pomp and ceremony.

We headed out onto Lothbury Street, turned down Princes Street…

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The Bank of England, taken from the corner of Lothbury Street and Princes Street

…to reach Bank Junction where we stopped outside the Royal Exchange. The Threadneedle Street entrance to the bank loomed above us on one side and Mansion House, the official residence of the Mayor of the City of London stood across the traffic circle in front of us.

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Mansion House, official pad of the City’s Lord Mayor. No that’s not Boris Johnson – he’s the Mayor of Greater London which does not include the City. The current – and 688th – Lord Mayor of the City of London is Jeffrey Evans.

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A pause outside the Royal Exchange

The Royal Exchange, founded by Thomas Gresham in 1565, operated much like today’s stock exchange – albeit without the technology – with traders and the city’s financial pundits going at it hammer and tongs from the opening to the closing bell. However, there was a point when it was suggested that business dealings should be negotiated outside the Exchange and so the emergence of coffee houses began.

You may be wondering what this all has to do with slavery – well, everything.

Slavery underpinned the British economy and pretty much allowed rich men to get even richer. Mike told us about one such man, David Lyle, an ‘absentee’ plantation owner who was also, by all accounts, a cruel master. It is recorded that Lyle pistol-whipped one of his slaves, Jonathan Strong and left him for dead on a London street. Strong was found by Granville Sharp – one of the first campaigners in Britain for the abolition of the slave trade – who nursed Strong and offered him work.

Legal battles ensued between Sharp and Lyle (once the latter learned that Strong was alive) with the Lord Mayor eventually pronouncing that Lyle had no claim as Strong was not ‘property’. This was the very same institution who legislated that slaves on ships could be thrown overboard – like possessions – should the captain believe his crew were in danger (eg. of starving due to provisions running out) and also supported the traders’ insurance claims to redeem losses from such activities.

But I digress.

The buying and selling of slaves moved out of the Royal Exchange (officially) and into coffee shops.

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The Jamaica Wine House (nee Coffee House) stands on the site of London’s first coffee house.

The importation of raw materials such as coffee and sugar flourished with this rise of informal ‘trading houses’ and a young West African could have his or her horrific fate sealed over this bitter brew sweetened with sugar.

We paused on Lombard Street near the Church of St Mary Woolnoth to hear about John Newton who, after years of trading and torturing slaves, reformed and became rector here in 1780. He gets a mention from me because along with poet William Cowper, he composed a book of hymns in the 1770s – the most famous of these ‘Olney Hymns’ was Amazing Grace…and I cannot tell you how many times I played that as a child when I started learning each of the recorder, clarinet, flute and violin.

We headed on past the Monument (that’s the one to the Great Fire of London) and down to the riverside by Old Billingsgate, Mike continuing to paint a picture of the sickness and fear that these men, women and children who’d been torn from their loved ones, faced firstly on-board the slave ships then upon their arrival, where they’d be poked and prodded like animals before being sold, and finally in being ‘seasoned‘ on the plantations of Barbados and Jamaica.

Our next to last stop was Lloyd’s of London, a towering metal edifice of power and money.

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The original Lloyd’s of London was a coffee house in Lombard Street and as well as playing host to the wheeling and dealing of London’s businessmen, became known as a place where one could obtain marine insurance – much like it is today. That the slave trade was conducted across the Atlantic suggests that Lloyd’s too has its roots steeped in the horrors of human trafficking.

Just down a nearby alley stands the Gilt of Cain, a memorial to the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 that was erected in 2008. It was a fitting way to end the tour.

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I walked thoughtfully back to the tube station, comparing what I’d seen in movies with the stories of the people who perpetrated, fought and suffered that I’d just heard. There was so little humanity and dignity in each of the different stories that Mike had shared. Some of this I recalled as I walked but in essence, it felt like a fraction of the full story.

There’s a part of me that wants to learn more. While I’ve seen 12 Years a Slave – and found it viciously confronting – somehow each tale told over the two hours of the walking tour left more of a mark. I’m travelling to Liverpool next week, the largest of the old slave trading ports and home to the International Slavery Museum so it is a perfect opportunity.

But it also feels a bit raw – I feel appalled, my belief in the human spirit dented a little so while I will make the most of the educational opportunity that Liverpool will afford, it may be a little while before I venture into anything more.

February: Firsts, facts and fine things

I know. It’s almost a week into March but I promised in January to review each month’s gadding about and February has been every bit as jam-packed as January. So hold on tight and here we go…

There have been a few firsts this month. I’ve already posted about my first filling and my first visit to the British Library. I also attended my first Monash University Alumni event. It’s only taken 24 years and a move across the world to do this and I did turn up wondering what this Global Leaders Network was all about. I had a great evening hearing about the university’s plans for alumni engagement around the world and sharing expat stories with like-minded Australians. How nice it was to enjoy some straight-talking Aussie banter, the room humming with that laconic Aussie twang.

Speaking of university, I have a psychology degree from Monash so I’m really interested in the mindfulness conversation that’s happening at the moment. I saw Ruby Wax interviewed on Sunday Brunch and so went to see her show, Sane New World. Not only is she a comedian but is qualified in psychotherapy and has recently completed a Masters in Mindfulness-based Cognitive Behavioural Therapy at Oxford. Her show was a frank and funny look at our pace of life, mental illness and how our bodies – and in particular our hormones – are trying to cope. I really admire her philosophy in getting ‘off your a**e and doing the work’ – she’s set up free mental health walk-in sessions throughout the run of her shows with the aim of creating a network of walk-in centres across the UK.

February has also been a month for some of the finer things in life.

I attended a talk at the V&A Museum where Francesca Cartier Brickell, granddaughter of Jean-Jacques Cartier, took us on an enthralling journey through the Cartier family history introducing us to the three brothers – Louis, Pierre and Jacq – who started it all and their commitment to innovating whilst maintaining the essence of Cartier design. She also shared many personal anecdotes, one of these about finding the Cartier history in an old suitcase full of letters in her grandfather’s wine cellar. The many family moments she shared made this talk more intimate – less like a lecture and more like a lovely conversation albeit with more than a hundred of us in the room.

It also inspired me to visit The William and Judith Bollinger Gallery at the museum. We were herded briskly through this collection of stunning jewellery on the way to the auditorium and a couple of weeks later, I turned up early for a V&A book club evening to have a wander through. However, it transpired that the gallery was only open during the day so I killed the time I had by visiting the delightful stained glass gallery nearby and also enjoyed a meander through the just re-opened Europe galleries once book club was finished.

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The V&A Museum on a drizzly winter evening; killing time in stained glass

I also attended a book launch at the Institute of Directors. Peter Frankopan is director of the Centre for Byzantine Research at Oxford and over coffee and croissants he talked about his new book, The Silk Roads: A New History of the World. His contention is that we are taught about history through the lens of a very small number of countries and believes that we have a lot to learn through the stories of other cultures and regions, particularly Russia and Iran, the latter having been the wellspring for language and religion more than a thousand years ago. I left unsure as to what these regions could offer but it did make me realise how uneducated I am about these areas of the world. I’m now waiting for the paperback version of the book to come out (ever tried to read a hardback on the tube?) so that I can broaden my historic horizons.

And speaking of fine things, I also saw Ralph Fiennes in Henrik Ibsen‘s The Master Builder at The Old Vic. Being able to see actors that I’ve loved on screen performing on stage is one of the absolute joys of living in London and despite being in the vertiginous cheap seats, the power of the performance still remained. It’s the second Ibsen play I’ve seen – the first being A Doll’s House which I studied at high school – and there is something fascinating about the way he explores the roles of women and how they use their personal power in a male-dominated society.

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The view from the cheap seats at the fabulously refurbished Old Vic theatre in London

Personal power also underpinned the speaker themes at the opening session of the TED2016 conference which was live-streamed into cinemas on February 16th. Whether it was 10-year-old Ishita Katyal’s opening talk, the performance from musical phenomenon AR Rahman or Riccardo Sabatini‘s vision for personalised medicine (my favourite talk of the night), it was an inspiring and thought-provoking evening and all for the price of a cinema ticket.

February also had me moved by music. My annual pilgrimage to the Flamenco Festival at Sadler’s Wells was a testosterone-fuelled performance by brothers Farraquito and Farruco which had me on my feet at its conclusion. Over at Kings Place, the Brodsky Quartet’s performance of George Gershwin’s little-known Lullaby for Strings was exquisite.

And with all of that going on, I found some time to imbibe in a well-deserved drink

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A couple of new watering holes near Holborn Station to add to my ‘let’s meet up’ list. L: The Princess Louise  R: The Ship Tavern

So that was February, filled to the brim with firsts, facts and fine things.

Phew!

Now for March…

The perfect tonic

Those of you who are Gidday regulars will know that I like a walking tour. I got into them in earnest last year, thinking they’re a great way to indulge my passion for history.  We were also doing the Get the World Moving challenge at work and one’s step count, and increasing it, became the currency of water cooler and photocopier conversations for about three months.

Yesterday I joined Museum of London guide Bridget and twenty committed tipplers for a damp and chilly trawl through London’s links with gin. Here’s how things went.

We began outside the Dominion Theatre on the corner of Tottenham Court Road and New Oxford Street, the site of the old Horseshoe Brewery and the great beer flood of 1814.

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Apparently a large vat of porter burst and flooded the area. With many of London’s poor living in nearby tenements and cellars – Bridget quoted 102 people living in 8 rooms – it’s remarkable that only eight people died. That six of them were at a wake brings new meaning to the saying “drowning one’s sorrows”.

Our next stop was Denmark Street – London’s music mecca – Central St Giles (designed by Renzo Piano, the architect behind the Shard) and the church of St-Giles-in-the-field.

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Here the enormity of gin’s impact on London really took shape. Gin, or jenever, came to London from Holland, introduced by William III who had seen its invigorating effects on his troops in the face of battle. Ever heard of the expression Dutch courage?

In any case, gin was easy to make and accessible to the poor and at one stage, every man, woman and child was consuming 500 gallons per year – that’s more than 2,270 litres if you are metric – or 6 litres per day. As such gin became the root of many social ills, some of which were illustrated by William Hogarth in his etchings below.

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Thuggery, thievery, disease, suicide and murder were all part and parcel for the gin drinker (right) while on the left, beer was being positioned as having a less deleterious effect on the health (see the better dressed fishwives at the front of the picture). The ‘powers that were’ agreed – after all, without the poor masses, who would serve them and fight their wars – and passed several Gin Acts in an effort to stem, not always successfully, gin’s rapacious tide.

We continued around the back of the church and down to Seven Dials, originally the nexus for just six streets rather than the seven of today.

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The area was laid out by MP Thomas Neale in the 1690s to maximise the space available for his housing project. He commissioned Edward Pierce to build a sundial to stand in the intersection but this was destroyed in 1773 in an effort to stop the site, which was showing the effects of the residents’ heavy gin consumption, being a meeting place for ne’er-do-wells. In the late 1980s, it was rebuilt in line with the original plans and in keeping with our Dutch association, it was Queen Beatrix of The Netherlands who attended its unveiling as part of the year-long William and Mary celebrations in 1989.

We set off down Earlham and then Neale Streets to find ourselves at Covent Garden.

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We paused by the back entrance to the Royal Opera House to learn about Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies. The list was published between 1750 and the mid-1790s and detailed the attributes and services of each ‘lady’ available in Covent Garden alongside her picture – at one point, 8000 copies were in circulation.

Much business was also done under the portico of the church opposite, the site of Tom King’s coffee shop which was a place not only for coffee but for gambling and drinking as well. It was said that gentlemen emerging from their clubs could ask Tom (and later Moll King) for the services of lady from Harris’s list. A messenger would be despatched and the lady brought to the coffee shop to meet said gentleman.

We walked around the block and into Bow Street – I’ve only ever entered the Opera House from Covent Garden so I was delighted to acquaint myself with its front.

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The BAFTAs ceremony for the film awards – said to be an indicator of Oscars success – is held here every year on February 14th so there was a lot of work going on to prepare the ‘red carpet’ for tonight.

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We turned into Broad Court and paused again to hear more about Henry Fielding, his brother John and the Bow Street Magistrates Court where people like CasanovaOscar Wilde, suffragette sisters Emmeline & Christabel Pankhurst and author Jeffrey Archer have appeared.

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Henry Fielding also established England’s first police force, originally a group of just six men nicknamed the Bow Street Runners, in 1749.

The end of Broad Court brought us out onto Drury Lane, where many gin palaces emerged during the 1800s. These ‘palaces’ employed the latest inventions of the 1830s – gas lighting, silvered mirrors and paned glass windows – to create a brighter and more genial environment to enjoy a tipple although without seating, patrons drank until they could no longer stand. Literally.

Taverns (where beer was served) already had seating so watched, learned and called on the same improvements to provide a much more comfortable environment for their patrons. So the public were drawn back into the taverns and away from gin until the first half of the 1900s when in the roaring 20s and then again during World War II – when it was Churchill’s tipple of choice – gin’s public profile rose again.

We’d been going for about an hour and half at this point and with the promise of a glass of gin at the end of the walk looming, I found my attention taken by this view through the window of restaurant Barrafina…

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…but there was still one more stop to make before our promised refreshment.

Bridget led us along Great Queen Street and up Newton Street to admire the Princess Louise…

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…and encouraged us to duck into the side door to have a quick peek at how the taverns of the 1830s (and onwards) might have looked.

While it was just a short peek, it was really beautiful and inspired me to find a reason to come back for a drink with friends.

Just as well that our final stop and gin-watering hole was not far away.

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And so our tour ended at The Ship Tavern, tucked away behind Holborn Underground Station, with a rather lush gin, grapefruit and coconut concoction.

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For those of you wishing to wander this area for yourselves, here’s a map of our route…

Mother's Ruin route

…but these streets really came to life yesterday with guide Bridget’s extraordinary knowledge and skillful storytelling, only a fraction of which I’ve shared with you here.

The museum runs a number of themed walking tours like this so if you are interested, check out the website. The next Mother’s Ruin tour looks like it’s on March 13th so if I were you, I’d get your skates on (another Dutch reference – see Hans Brinker) and book your place.

It’s bound to be the perfect tonic.

January’s bucket list

I’m not one for New Year’s resolutions. My resolve tends to scatter across the year and is generally underpinned by my penchant for exploration and variety. However I do love moments, snatches of time when I am completely caught up – and sometimes out – by intense feeling, largely a mixture of delight, wonder, melancholy, outrage and curiosity. I carry this image of a bucket in my mind and I often imagine putting a particular moment into it. Somehow they all combine into a life that inspires me.

I was checking something in my calendar earlier and it occurred to me that while I share about particular experiences, I don’t often reflect on all of the things I’ve done. Fellow blogger, author and longtime Gidday follower Jack Scott commented recently “you do get about” so I thought that it would be interesting – for me anyway – to end each month this year by checking out what’s ended up ‘in the bucket’.

So here goes.

This month it all started with a new chapter in an old story and I absolutely loved Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I then moved into a Kenneth Brannagh double bill: All On Her Own, a maudlin 25 minute 3-stars-from-me soliloquy, and the hilarious 4-stars-from-me farce, Harlequinade.

A trip back in time with the Museum of London and a tour of an old Roman fort inspired my historic sensibilities so much that the Museum became a new Friend. Five days later I joined hundreds of women at the Central Methodist Hall in Westminster to listen to the Women’s Equality Party and left non-plussed and suprisingly uninspired: lots of valid and important messages but the whole thing was a bit ‘rah rah’ for me.

A decidedly French tone emerged in the second half of the month with the NY MET’s performance of Bizet’s opera The Pearl Fishers and the National Theatre’s production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses (Dangerous Liaisons) being live streamed at the Phoenix Cinema just a ten minute bus ride away. When I was raving about the latter in the office the next day, I was informed by a young French colleague that the book continues to be part of the literature curriculum in French schools and is considered “a classic”. By the way, both productions were ‘magnifique’.

I’ve also read six books this month and rated three of them a mighty 5-stars, an excellent 50% hit rate. March Violets by Philip Kerr and A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute were my first dip into these respective writers and my return to Stephen King (and introduction to his criminal mastermind Mr Mercedes) was the recommendation of another Gidday follower, author Charlie Wade. (Thanks Charlie!)

In between all of this I embarked on some new cooking adventures with a foray into pastry (albeit frozen) as well as ‘cooking with beetroot’ and I managed catch up dinners with three different friends, one long overdue.

I also inadvertently fell across London’s Lumiere Festival on the face of the Abbey…

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…and delighted in the lighter mornings on my walk to work.

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Speaking of commuting, this gem really lifted my tube ride home one night.

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It also snowed…

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…and I celebrated twelve years in London.

So Jack was right and January was full to the brim with moments that were both planned and completely surprising. (And that’s doesn’t include what happens in my job.)

In any case, I’ve quite enjoyed this retrospective approach to bucket list-ing and am curious to see what reflecting on February might bring.

What would a look back at your January moments yield?

The wall

Last September I ventured below London’s bustling surface to visit the site of a 4th century Roman bath and house. Back then the Museum of London were opening these archaeological sites as a trial to see if there as enough interest from the public in  getting up close and somewhat personal with London’s history.

There are now a whole raft of opportunities listed on the museum’s website so it would appear that the answer was yes.

Yesterday I spent an hour visiting another site from Roman London, the ruins of the fort lying underneath the busy city street of London Wall that runs outside the museum itself. I had seen this view from Bastion High Walk on previous museum visits…

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…but had never dreamed that there was any more to see. After spending an hour with Museum of London guide Mike, I was proved wrong.

Here’s what happened.

We started up on Bastion High Walk just near the museum entrance with an overview of the site. This is Mike…IMAG4093 (360x640)

…and here are a couple of pictures from our handout. The left-hand picture shows the fort at the top left within the wall surrounding the City of London. The right-hand picture is the layout of the fort itself – the area we explored is in the middle of the outside left wall.

We headed down the stairs and along the slip road to examine things more closely. I love how these old sites are tucked in between London’s more modern buildings. IMAG4096 (640x360)

Up close we could see more of the detail – the soot blackened walls, the wear on the steps from the boots of the soldiers.IMAG4097 (640x360)

Mike pointed out this line of Kentish ragstone running along the front. This is the oldest part of the structure dating from the 4th century AD.
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Can you see the two parts of the ragstone wall? The lighter-coloured part at the front would have been built first with the darker grey section added afterwards for additional fortification.

The rest of the site dates from about the 14th century when, in typical London fashion, new buildings were simply built over the top of what was already there, the previous city being abandoned at the beginning of the 5th century. I wonder what will be built on top of us?

We then headed through a non-descript door next to the London Wall car park to visit the fort remains that are kept under ‘lock and key’ by the museum. Here’s a model of what this site – the West Gate of the Roman fort – would have looked like in its ‘hey-day’.

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Mike explained that this gate was probably more administrative than military. Gates around the wall – Bishopsgate, Cripplegate, Aldgate to name a few – aside from being defensive usually served as revenue-raisers, collecting taxes from those passing through. That this gate was un-named suggests it was less likely to support such functions.

Here are a couple of photos of the site discovered by William Grimes in 1956.

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North turret and guard room.

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The north gate

The area we visited covered only the left-hand section of model I showed previously – the guardroom and north turret, and the north gate – from the 14th century. Mike spent about 15 minutes helping us visualise the way the site would have looked, pointing out various details which archaeologists have used as the basis of their assumptions about life at the fort hundreds of years ago.

The official tour drew to a close after about 40 minutes but there was more to come. Mike mentioned that there was a piece of 4th century wall in the public car park next door that we could take a look at. I envisaged something quite small but after a brisk 10 minute walk, I was absolutely astonished to see this.

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The detail was extraordinary. You can see in the photo how the wall has been constructed for strength, stepping inwards with each row of levelling tiles (these tiles are the red lines you can see). You can also see the difference between the dressed stone on the outside and the rougher packed stone behind it.

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In London, archaeological sites are the responsibility of the land owner. Rather than being owned (and looked after) by the Museum of London, the car park is owned by the Corporation of London. It is a public space and so this historic site is at the mercy of exhaust fumes, human hands and unsympathetic modern additions.

I was really delighted to be able to see such an amazing piece of history up close (although at Mike’s request, we did not touch it – after all it is 1600 years old). But I felt irritated by its casual treatment.

A group of young skateboarders were gathered right next to it and several times I saw them lean on the wall, with some actually running into the wall itself. Granted they probably don’t understand the historical importance of this pile of stones or even if they do, appreciate it. When I think about my fascination with history, I realise that I’ve become more awestruck and humbled by it – in equal meaures – over the years. This is probably a result of my own ‘maturing’ in combination with moving to London from Australia (with its relatively shallow roots in European history) over a decade ago.

However, there was no excuse for the rubbish strewn around it by car park users and seeing the steel girder that had been inserted left me both sad and horrified.

To this end, I posted…okay, had a little rant on Instagram as I was reflecting over a post-tour coffee back at the museum. Paying for the tour itself (£5 is pretty amazing value given the expertise people like Mike provide), buying a book at the museum shop afterwards and even my new Friend membership feels like a tiny drop in an enormous ocean. Hopefully as I continue to explore what the museum offers, I will find more ways to support their work.

In the meantime, all I can think to do is to encourage you to visit these extraordinary sites – if not in London then wherever you are – to reflect on the history of humanity, how our society has evolved and perhaps consider how the story of our time might appear to the future generations.

Cruising London: Photo tour

Last Saturday I spent a leisurely three hours on the Museum of London‘s Frost Fairs cruise along the River Thames.

Frost Fairs are a rare occurrence in the pages of London’s history. They were held when a combination of winter-y elements meant that the River Thames froze over and created a lot of excitement for Londoners. Our Museum of London host told us that the earliest Frost Fair was likely to have occurred in 1114-1115 between Westminster and London Bridges when all sorts of activities  – shopping, drinking and eating, and games like skittles and ice-skating – were at the disposal of those who dared to venture out onto the river’s icy surface.

But it was a double-edged sword as while many entrepreneurs and well-to-do celebrated this rarity, a third of Londoners depended on the river for their livelihood and so were left destitute when they could no longer ply their many trades.

The last Frost Fair occurred in 1814-1815: Once the old London Bridge was demolished and the new bridge – constructed by John Rennie and opening in 1831 – was in place, a more free-flowing river was created, giving little opportunity for ice to “dam up”.

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Cruising under Rennie’s London Bridge

So last weekend I made my way along the embankment to Westminster Pier, boarded the Pride of London and took my place on the upper deck. It was one of those grey London days – not as pretty as a crisp blue-sky day but it did lend something quite atmospheric to the usual view. Here’s a little photo tour of my time on board.

Big Ben vs Boudicca

Boudicca vs Big Ben – looking up from Westminster Pier gives you this great perspective.

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Blackfriars Bridge – trains stopping at Blackfriars Station actually stop on the bridge.

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No Thames cruise photo tour would be complete without a shot of Tower Bridge

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I loved this row of old bankside houses – the two building to the left of the row stand like sentries at the entrance to one of the many channels that branch off the river.

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The cruise took us all way downstream to the Isle of Dogs and the Greenwich Peninsula, the latter being home to the Millenium Dome (or as it’s now known, the O2 Arena). It does look like some sort of alien ship has landed.

Greenwich 1

This is the Royal Naval College in Greenwich – you can see the Royal Observatory in the background (which by the way is a great place to visit.)

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And this is the famous Cutty Sark, just a hop step and jump away from the Naval College

Along the route back, the daylight had started to fade and I spent most of the time just watching the bank glide by, the wake from the various river craft creating foamy ripples along the shore. Before long, we were cruising past the modern shapes of London’s City Hall and The Shard…

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London’s City Hall is the curved building on the left and look how the tiny white-lit Christmas tree mirrors The Shard that overshadows it.

…and London’s lights glowed in the dusk as we continued to cruise back towards Westminster.

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Southwark Bridge

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The London Eye

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Passing under Westminster Bridge gave me this atmospheric view of the Houses of Parliament’s Victoria Tower

Soon it was a quick under and back again with Westminster Bridge, a gentle drift towards Westminster Pier and with my head full of what I’d seen and heard, I disembarked and headed home.

I am a big fan of the events put on by the Museum of London and this was such a great way to spend a few grey and blustery hours on a Saturday afternoon. So I hope you enjoyed this little photo tour a fraction as much as I enjoyed for real.

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/

Men of imagination

I’ve had an extra couple of days off to extend my Easter into a 6-day break and it’s been a lovely mix of lolling about at home and getting out and about to explore more of this amazing city.  As some of you know, the Museum of London is a favourite of mine but this time I went to wander through the Sherlock Holmes exhibition (which finishes on the 12th of April – how did I nearly miss this?)

icons of Holmes

Detective Sherlock Holmes featured in the 4 novels and the 56 short stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Conan Doyle trained as a physician in Edinburgh in the late 1800s and also started writing during this period. He had limited success until the publication of Holmes’ first outing in A Study in Scarlet in 1886 with the sequel, A Sign of Four, published in 1890 while Conan Doyle was studying opthalmology in Vienna. He then wrote The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, each comprised of 12 short stories and elevating Conan Doyle to being one of the best-paid authors of the time.

But Conan Doyle was unhappy with the time ‘taken away’ from more serious writing pursuits and in 1893 wrote The Final Problem, plunging Holmes and Professor Moriarty to their deaths at Reichenbach Falls. But Holmes had taken such a firm hold in people’s minds that in response to public outcry, Conan Doyle resurrected his popular protagonist in 1901’s The Hound of the Baskervilles and continued to scribe his consulting detective’s adventures until 1927.

It is worth remembering that Holmes is a man of imagination – the imagination of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Conan Doyle created a quirky, impatient and sometimes unlikable character who loved the gossip columns and yet was in equal parts enthusiastic and dismissive of society and its pretensions; who could wax lyrical on criminal method and motivation yet exhibited such anti-social behaviour that at times, you might question how Holmes could have any insight into people at all. I wonder whether there was something in Conan Doyle’s interest in freemasonry and mysticism that brought an extra potency to his complex and quite frankly addictive protagonist.

Anyway, I love these stories and although I have not read them all, I have seen many of the TV adaptations starring the marvelous Jeremy Brett. So it was with Brett’s brooding portrayal in mind that I entered through the bookcase and spent just over 90 minutes wandering though both memories and memorabilia.

the bookcase

It was fabulous and I am now reading The Adventures of  Sherlock Holmes again.

Then yesterday I went to visit Churchill’s War Rooms. I’ve been meaning to do this for years and so I battled the Easter holiday hordes trundling along Whitehall and descended the steps beneath King Charles Street to the museum below. This underground labyrinth contains both the original War Rooms – left as if someone simply turned the lights off in 1945 and closed the door behind them, leaving everything just as it was – and the Churchill Museum, which covers this charismatic man’s entire life.

Like Holmes, Winston Churchill was a strong and opinionated character who fell in and out of the affections of his public. He was a committed politician and stood for office several times in his constituency and for the office of Prime Minister. He also wrote from the age of 21 to supplement his income and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953.

I feel devoutly thankful to have been born fond of writing. Churchill, Authors’ Club, London, 17 Feb. 1908

Had World War II not broken out Churchill may have been written off as a failure. Despite early popularity as a war correspondent and his escape from capture during the Boer War, he lost his position as First Lord of the Admiralty following the Gallipoli campaign and his opposition to home rule in India and support of the abdication of Edward VIII throughout the 1930s did nothing to restore his reputation. It was during this period that Churchill raised his concerns regarding the activities of Hitler and continued to warn against the dangers of appeasing such a man. His warnings went unheeded not only because of Churchill’s reputation as a war-monger but also due to Britain’s aversion to embarking on another ‘bloody’ war.

But circumstances conspired to create the right place and time and Churchill captured the public’s imagination by demonstrating his great passion for his country in his speeches – the words he wrote and then delivered into history:

We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, Churchill to the House of Commons, 4 Jun. 1940

There were many other speeches which stirred the nation and in fact the world, and Churchill went on to lead his country both during and for some periods after the war and to continue writing the pages of history until his death in 1955.

I consider that it will be found much better by all parties to leave the past to history, especially as I propose to write that history myself.  Churchill, speech to the House of Commons, 27th Nov. 1914

That two such iconic British characters can cross the divide between fact and fiction is quite extraordinary to me. While we will never know Sherlock Holmes (because he’s not actually a real person), the visit to the War Rooms made me wonder how much of the real man – Churchill – is about the ‘facts of the matter’ versus being inspired by the imagination.

Churchill campaign poster

How do we ever know where the facts end and fiction begins?

Destination…Museum of London

So yesterday I told you all about the journey, leaving you with the adage that the getting there is often just as fabulous as the destination.

This is the post about the Destination.

I arrived at the Museum of London, eagerly anticipating a couple of free hours of strolling through time. The Museum is laid out in chronological order and is quite interactive with fewer than usual items of the ‘do not touch’ variety. Prior to entering the permanent exhibition there’s also a display called London and the Olympics which celebrates the Games already held in London (1908 and 1948) as well as the 2012 preparations.

The journey starts with an exploration of the region from 450,000 BC before London was…well London. The locations of significant archaeological finds are also showcased – places like the site of the current Heathrow Airport – as well the work along the shores of the Thames where FROG volunteers from Thames Discovery continue to catalogue new finds to assist in preserving London’s rich history.

From 50 to 410 AD, the Romans built, defended and rebuilt Londonium – there are some great displays of homes, shops, food and the opportunity to peek at the defensive City wall from another perspective.

Traditional Roman dining room
Roman Wall from the Roman Gallery of the museum

We then move to Medieval London and the galleries which showcase the period from 410 through to 1558 AD covering Viking raids and the emergence of Anglo-Saxon power right up to the early Tudor years. This gallery also shows much of the religious development of London and features a model of the original St Paul’s Cathedral.

The original St Paul’s Cathedral

The next gallery take us on the path of London’s devastation through civil war, the plague and fire. I was fascinated by the survival of London at the end of this period in spite of the loss of between one third and one half of the population to the Black Death, followed by the loss of some 13,000 homes (but only 9 lives) in the Great Fire of 1666 the following year. It took London 50 years to rebuild including Christopher Wren’s reconstruction of St Paul’s Cathedral as we know it today.

I followed the arrows downstairs to the next set of exhibitions entitled Modern London: Expanding City.

A main feature of this gallery is the recreated Pleasure Gardens which allow you to wander, sit and watch the cinematic story of the time unfold on the screens around you. The hats on display were…interesting. It must have taken incredible posture to manage these with any grace and dignity.

Pleasure Garden fashion – can you see the ship hat on the left of the picture?
Pleasure Garden – a (t)horny affair!

Just down the ramp from the Pleasure Gardens there was an arcade walk to celebrate the Victorian era.

The Victorian Walk celebrates the era of expansion 
Trinkets for sale – The Victorian Walk

Next we move into the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Modern London: People’s City. The class divide is brought to life by an interactive version of Charles Booth’s map of poverty in London which sits opposite a vintage motor display, a recreation of the entrance to the Savoy Hotel and panelling from the Selfridges lift which was installed in 1928.

Vintage ‘white walls’ representing People’s City
Japanese panelling in the Savoy Hotel recreation

The Selfridges Lift
But did you know that Harrods installed the first escalator in 1898?
Smelling salts were on hand to revive passengers from the ride.

The final step in time is Modern London: World City which takes us from pre WWII London, through the fab 50s and swinging 60s right up to today.  This was a busy gallery so I was frustrated in my attempts to take pictures and despite cases filled with fashion, music and even a real life Vesper, I managed this one only.

My one and only tribute to Modern London: World City

There’s a room off to the side of this exhibition called the City Gallery which contains the Lord Mayor of London’s official coach which leaves the gallery each November (since 1757) for the Lord Mayor’s Show.

The Lord Mayor’s Coach, first commissioned in 1757
Amazingly preserved after more than 250 years

So after two and a half hours I emerged into the dark evening thinking ‘well that was that’ – only to find a special installation in the windows outside.

The London Cityscape by Simon Crostin was commissioned by the Museum of London to commemorate the 2012 bicentennary celebrations of Charles Dickens in conjunction with the Museum’s exhibition, Dickens and London, running until June 10, 2012.

I wandered slowly back to Moorgate along the raised walkways around St Alphages, still snapping away (as my previous post will attest to). And as I finally sat, homeward-bound, on the top deck of the bus, I marvelled at the fascinating snippets I’d learnt about London’s chequered past and felt a quiet contentment at my big day out and the historic city that I’ve chosen as my home.