Greenwich is a fascinating area of London, with a host of museums and places of interest for tourists to visit; not least the Cutty Sark, the Royal Observatory and the National Maritime Museum.
The area is dominated by the Old Royal Naval College, an impressive complex of riverside buildings designed by Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor at the behest of Queen Mary in 1694 as a Royal Hospital for men invalided out of the Navy. The buildings might be familiar with those even yet to visit London, as this World Heritage Site has formed the backdrop to many a blockbuster film; Pirates of the Caribbean, Les Miserables, Cinderella, The King’s Speech, The Dark Knight Rises and Skyfall …to name but a few.
I recently visited the Painted Hall, known as the UK’s ‘Sistine Chapel’ and originally conceived as a dining room, but soon became a ceremonial space reserved for special functions. Once you go inside, it’s not hard to see why.
As the name suggests, the Painted Hall is covered in frescos, totalling about 40,000 square feet and took Baroque artist James Thornhill (and his team of assistants) nearly twenty years to complete. They began work in 1707.
The Painted Hall comprises three connected spaces; the domed vestibule, the Lower Hall and the Upper Hall. Thornhill’s compositions, which include a cast of over 200 characters presents a vivid and suitably biased picture of early Eighteenth Century Britain, beginning with King William and Queen Mary, then Queen Anne and her consort Prince George of Denmark, and finally the arrival of the Hanoverians with King George I sitting in the midst of a large family portrait.
Baroque painting is not really my cup of tea, but the sheer scale, skill and audacity of the project cannot be disputed. Also, Thornhill’s masterpiece has only recently re-opened to the public following a two year (and £8.5 million) restoration, so is particularly striking and bright.
For those interested in Naval history, you can stand on the exact spot where Admiral Lord Nelson’s body lay-in-state after his death at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 before being moved to St Paul’s Cathedral for his burial in January 1806. You can also view a copy of the maquette made by E.H. Baily for the statue which now stands on the top of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square.
As you wander around London, you’ll notice that a white coloured stone is prevalent. It’s called Portland Stone. After the Great Fire of 1666, and realising that building things out of wood wasn’t such a hot idea (pun intended), Christopher Wren used 6 million tonnes of the stuff whilst rebuilding the City. He rebuilt 51 of the 87 churches that burned, with the mighty St Paul’s cathedral being the most famous; a good example of Wren’s use of Portland Stone, which is a particular favourite amongst architects apparently due to its versatility. More recent examples include BBC Broadcasting House, Green Park Underground station, the CitizenM Hotel and the British Museum.
Portland Stone comes, not surprisingly from Portland on the south coast of England, in Dorset, known as the Jurassic Coast due to the amount of fossils found there from the ‘Jurassic Age’ which occurred 199.6million – 145.5 million years ago. A unique feature therefore of Portland Stone is the sheer number of fossils found within it. I’ve heard it said that occasionally as the buildings weather, fossils appear. Whether this is true or not I have no idea. What is certain though, is that I’ve noticed in recent years that a particular type of Portland limestone called ‘Bowers Roach’ is being used on facades and cladding, with the very visible fossils utilised as a decorative feature; a very effective one at that. I love that fact that people walk around London every day passing 150 million year-old fossils, and they have no idea.
As an example, the below photo is of a bench I often sit on to have my lunch on Saturdays. As you can see, it’s positively festooned with fossils.
The photo at the top shows fossils on the New London Stock Exchange building, Paternoster Square. I’m not an aficionado on fossils (as with anything), but the very prominent cone shaped fossils, known as the ‘Portland Screw’ are officially Gastropods ( Aptyxiella Portlandila). Looks like it might have numerous Bivalves (Liostrea Expansa) too, otherwise known as Oysters.
If you fancy yourself as an urban geologist, whilst you’re out and about fossil hunting in London, keep your eyes open for Pecten (Camptonectes Lamellosus) or Scallop Shells, Mussels (Mytilus Suprajurensis) or Ammonites (Titanites Anguiformes) to name but a few. If you happen to be passing through Euston Station, check out their funky benches, which as the Londonist pointed out, must surely be the oldest benches in London.
If you’d like to find out a bit more about Portland Stone, then have a look at Albion Stone’s website, one of the main providers of Portland Stone, including the examples given above.
Last week I showed a young guy from Singapore around London. We spent the whole day together and in the afternoon, found ourselves by The Monument, just north of London Bridge. It'd been years since I'd traipsed up the 311 steps to the viewing platform, 160 feet (48.7 metres) above ground. Yong Hao, who I was with was incredibly keen to go up, so we paid our £3 (he very kindly paid for me) and began our ascent. It dawned on me, that I'd never written specifically about The Monument, so am rectifying that now.
Monuments in general are usually erected to commemorate specific events, so they naturally form part of a much larger picture than just the stone that was used to make it, or the architects whose vision it was. The Monument I suppose is reasonably intriguing in this respect as its very being manages to encapsulate the essence of modern London, and is completely entwined with so many facets of the City's history and the people responsible for both its destruction and its rebuilding. For starters, it's simply called 'The Monument' ... which would indicate that any other monument anywhere must surely pale in to insignificance. As people who have been on my walks can testify, I can talk about the Great Fire of London for hours. I don't though, because that would be incredibly tedious, but suffice to say it is a fascinating, remarkable and catastrophic period of London's history. As ever, to do it justice here would be entirely inadequate (which is why there are entire books on the subject) so I shall give you a light dusting, a sprinkling of information about The Monument, which if you didn't already know, commemorates, the Great Fire of London, which in the 17th century, burned and destroyed the vast majority of the medieval (and largely wooden) City of London.
The Great Fire of London began in a baker's house on Pudding Lane belonging to a guy called Thomas Farriner (or Farynor). It began in the early hours of the 2nd September 1666 and as you can imagine, got pretty out of hand. So much, so than in about four days it had burned down approximately 14,000 homes, 87 churches and about 100,000 people were forced to flee the City. That is an incredibly abridged version of events that makes no mention of the political climate, the wind, the preceding hot summer, the plague year of 1665, the inept Mayor Thomas Bludworth or the fact that instead of trying to put out the fire, many Londoner's ran around in mobs murdering foreigners. The wooden City was turned to ash, and from those ashes a new City was built, this time out of stone and brick (a good idea) largely by Christopher Wren (Surveyor General to King Charles II) and his right hand man, Robert Hooke. If you haven't heard of Hooke, then the name Wren might be familiar, as he rebuilt 51 of the City churches, including St Paul's cathedral ... which had also succumbed to the fire.
One of the churches that was not rebuilt was called St Margaret on Fish Street Hill, but on the site where it had stood, it was decided to build a monument to commemorate the fire and celebrate the rebuilding of the City. It was finished by Wren and Hooke in 1677, and is the same one, myself and Yong Hao climbed just last week. At a total of 202ft (61 metres) tall, The Monument is the largest free standing stone column in the world, and the idea apparently is that if it were to fall to the east (which hopefully it won't) the top would reach the spot where the fire began. If you're not claustrophobic, scared of heights or unable to climb all those steps, then the viewing platform (for a very small fee) gives you really great 360 degree views across London.
The pictures above from left to right show the Thames and Tower Bridge (unfortunately the Tower itself has recently disappeared behind a new building development), the Shard just south of the river, the view to the west, which includes the dome of St Paul's cathedral, and in the distance, the BT Tower (originally Post Office Tower), the first building in London to be taller than St Paul's. Finally, the view north is dominated by a cluster of the City's newer additions, which continue to develop.
As you're either going up or coming down the staircase, keep an eye out for bits of graffiti, which are still carved in the walls. The one on the photo below was evidently etched in to the wall in 1770, just 20 years after the picture you can see at the top of the page was made. I should mention that when you reach the bottom, you are handed a certificate to verify that you have indeed just ascended and descended all 311 steps, and the drawing forms the front and is reproduced courtesy of Guildhall Library.
On final point I will mention is that when you exit, turn to your left, have a look at the inscription on the north facing part of the base. There is a latin inscription, which details the rebuilding of the City after the fire. If like me you can't read latin, then don't worry because all of the inscriptions have an English translation. At the bottom you'll discover that in 1830 a line was deleted. It said "But Popish frenzy which wrought such horrors is not yet quenched" which in my own layman's terms can be read as "The Catholic's did this and we still haven't sorted them out".
On this note, I'll end my very brief post about The Monument and the Fire of London by mentioning that today we are generally told that the Great Fire of 1666 was an accident, but at the time (and for a long time after) it was anything but ... it was considered to be a terrorist attack. Very often, history has a habit of teaching us that in the grand scheme of things ... very little has changed.
The City of London, the area in the heart of London, known as the 'square mile' has about 200 gardens, churchyards and open spaces for you to enjoy, and on a day like today (it's actually sunny) they make great little quiet enclaves away from the hustle and bustle of City life. St Mary Aldermanbury garden is one such miniature haven you might like to visit, just a short walk down Wood Lane from St Peter Cheap and just a few seconds from the Clockmakers' Museum.
Both the name, and the layout of the garden still evoke the church that once stood on the site. It was burned during the Great Fire of 1666, rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren, and again succumbed to bombing during the Blitz in 1940, leaving only the outer walls remaining. It languished in this state of disrepair until 1966, when it was taken down brick by brick and re-erected in a place called Fulton. If you haven't heard of Fulton, then you might be surprised to learn, that it's actually in Missouri, USA. the church is still there today, and stands as a memorial to Winston Churchill's 'Iron Curtain' speech he made at the college there, Westminster College, in 1946.
Back to London, and you may also be forgiven for wondering why a bust of William Shakespeare presides over the garden, so far from his regular stomping grounds of Bankside or Shoreditch, but it serves as a memorial to the two actors, Henry Condell and John Heminge (there are various spellings of his surname), who after Shakespeare's death in 1616 were instrumental in collating and printing what became the first folio of Shakespeare's works. Both men lived in the parish and were buried at the church.
So, if you're in the vicinity today, what a pleasant place to sit and have your lunch whilst contemplating your strange connection with the USA and a playwright who celebrated his 449th birthday yesterday.
A few weeks ago I was doing my regular Sunday east end walk and was chatting with one of the walkers about life, careers and wot not, as we often do. He told me that he fancied a bit of a career change and was going to start by volunteering for the Samaritans. As people in the UK will certainly know, the Samaritans is a UK based charity and telephone helpline for people feeling suicidal, offering the opportunity to talk to someone about their feelings and concerns with the aim of obviously stopping them from committing suicide. The Samaritans have something like 20,665 volunteers and receive a call every 6 seconds. I asked this particular guy on my walk whether he'd ever heard of the church of St Stephen Walbrook and a man called Chad Varah. He hadn't, so for this reason I'll mention it here as both are the reason why the Samaritans exist; what Chad Varah called the '999 for the suicidal'.
St Stephen Walbrook is a Wren church that you can find in the City of London next to Mansion House and Bank station, close to what was once one of London's (now lost) rivers, the Walbrook, but is currently slap bang next to a massive building site. In 1953, a guy called Chad Varah became vicar of St Stephen's. He'd been working in and around London for sometime and had been wanting to offer a service for people in distress or who were contemplating suicide, but he hadn't found the time or right opportunity. This desire had been born many years earlier, when in 1935 and an assistant curate up in Lincoln, Varah had attended the funeral of a 14 year old girl who was buried in unconsecrated ground because she had taken her own life. The reason, Varah discovered, was because she had started to menstruate and not understanding what was happening to her or with anyone she felt she could talk to about it, thought she had a disease. This event set the wheels in motion that would not only effect the rest of Varah's life, but the lives of many others.
It is important to remember, that even at the time Varah became vicar at St Stephen's, suicide was still illegal, and therefore the opportunity to even discuss it was difficult. Armed only with a telephone, an office and his ability to listen, Varah set up his phone line, the number was MAN 9000 (for Mansion House) and on the 2nd November 1953 received his first call. Using his links with journalists (he also wrote and illustrated for children's comics) Varah was able to garner a significant amount of publicity for his new endeavour. In fact, just a month later, it was the Daily Mirror that coined the phrase that became the name that is still used today; 'Telephone Good Samaritans'.
The publicity meant a huge surge in demand, and very quickly, Varah was unable to cope on his own. Fortunately, the same publicity also attracted people wishing to volunteer. Varah discovered that often, those who came to see him for 'face to face' meetings, had no wish to see him because they had poured out all their problems on the volunteers that he had initially only asked to provide tea and coffee and sit with the person whilst waiting for their appointment.
The following year, Varah handed over the running of the Samaritans to the volunteers, but remained an integral part of the organisation as over the following decades it continued to grow and grow. Chad Varah died in 2007, just a few days shy of his 96th birthday, but had unfortunately parted company with the Samaritans in 2004 stating that the organisation no longer adhered to his original principles as an emergency service for the suicidal or equally desperate.
St Stephen Walbrook is a beautiful church in its own right and has a 63-foot high dome, which with its central lantern creates a wonderful light, meaning that the church is much more light and airy than you might expect. The dome is also based on Wren's original design for St Paul's cathedral and the layout of the church now focuses the attention on a massive stone altar created by sculptor Henry Moore. Of course, you will also find in one of the corners, a telephone; the original one used by Chad Varah when he began the Samaritans back in 1953.
If you're walking along Eastcheap, which connects Tower Hill to the Monument and the north end of London Bridge, and turn off towards the Thames down a narrow cobbled street called Idol Lane, you'll come across a church called St Dunstan-in-the-East.
There are no shortage of churches in the City of London, which you can visit, although considerably less than there once were, thanks to the Great Fire and the devastation caused by WWII bombing. Upon entering St Dunstan-in-the-East (There's also a St Dunstan on Fleet Street) the one thing that you can't fail to notice is that despite the church-like appearance as you approach down Idol Lane (see above photo), the church has ceased to exist. You will find yourself standing in a lovely, quiet walled garden.
The original church, which had stood since about 1100 was badly damaged during the Great Fire of 1666, and although generally classed as one of the many churches built by Christopher Wren in the aftermath of the fire, St Dunstan-in-the-East was actually mainly repaired and patched back together between 1668-71. It was then given a major refurbishment in the 19th century and then flattened during the Blitz in 1941. All that survived were a few of the walls and the distinctive steeple with its four smaller spires perched on each corner and the flying buttresses arcing up to support the main spire.
Suffice to say, the church was not rebuilt and it wasn't until 1971 that it was opened as a public garden.
In 1668, as Samuel Pepys (who I seem to manage to mention in just about every post) was wending his way through the post fire ruins of the church, he encountered what he describes as two ruffians armed with clubs, and had to make a hasty escape back to his home on Seething Lane. I sincerely hope you don't encounter something similar, and I'm sure you won't. I've visited many times, and during the week at lunchtimes, the walled enclosure, open to the elements provides a nice secluded haven for 'in the know' City workers to have their lunch. Quite often, I've seen young newly weds having their wedding photos taken amongst the flowers and trees, some of which are quite unusual, including 'Winter's Bark', once eaten to prevent scurvy.
The City of London is not renowned for its abundance of trees, but right in the heart of the City, just a stones throw from St Paul's cathedral on the corner of Cheapside and Wood Street is a reasonably resplendent Plane tree, threatening to usurp the row of tiny shops beneath it.
It feels almost like the tiny little square was made specifically for the tree, but in fact, it was previously the site of a medieval church, St Peter Cheap, which was one of the 87 churches that burnt down during the Great Fire of London, 1666. However, it was also not one of the 51 rebuilt after the fire by Christopher Wren. Cheapside incidentally, is a medieval word for market, hence why a number of the streets leading off it, relate to produce that would have been bought and sold in the area; Bread Street, Milk Street and Poultry ... for instance.
The area where the Plane tree stands, was instead preserved as a tiny grave yard and public space and that very same tree features in a poem by William Wordsworth, called 'The Reverie of Poor Susan', inspired (allegedly) after hearing a thrush singing in its branches. If you happen to pass by, the verse in question has been handily painted on to a board for your perusal.
Funnily enough (and this has nothing to do with anything) I worked in a telephone call centre years ago with a thoroughly nice chap called John Wordsworth, a budding actor and descendant of the poet himself. If you happen to read this John, I hope you're well.
On the corner of the little row of houses I mentioned, you can perhaps see in the photo above, there is currently a shop that sells greetings cards and party masks of celebrities and Royals, but if you look carefully at the back wall, you'll find a little stone tablet, with the date 1687, which was the year the shops were built.
There are over 200 little parks, squares and churchyards within the City of London, otherwise known as the 'Square Mile'. St Peter Cheap is particularly small; just a few benches clustered around a paved area, three weathered headstones and a few trees, but all of these spaces have a story to tell and are oozing history. In fact, the railings of St Peter Cheap are the same ones they put there in the early 1700's.
We were talking about this on yesterday's walk, so thought I'd do a little post about it. As you may or may not know, the City of London was once a walled and gated city. The gates have long since disappeared, but linger on in the names of streets, areas and Underground stations like Aldgate, Aldersgate, Bishopsgate, Moorgate, Cripplegate, Newgate and Ludgate. Only one of the gates still exists; Temple Bar, itself a curious later addition outside the original western most gate of Ludgate and providing a sort of sticking plaster at the point where Fleet Street meets the Strand, and a boundary between the City of London and Westminster.
First mentioned in 1293 it was very possibly nothing more than a chain strung between two posts, but by 1351, a gate had been built housing a small prison above it.
Temple Bar survived the Great Fire of London in 1666, but as if they didn't have enough building to do, it was decided (largely at the insistence of King Charles II) that a new gate should be erected, courtesy of course of Sir Christopher Wren.
Temple Bar stood proudly on its spot on Fleet Street for just over 200 years and as you left the City, you'd have been looked down upon by stone carvings of King James I and Queen Anne of Denmark, and if you were arriving from Westminster, greeted by King Charles I and Charles II.
Eventually, due to the widening of the street and the cost of maintenance, the gate was taken down in January 1878, stone by stone, numbered and spent the next ten years lying in a yard on Farringdon Road. After a new owner was evidently not forthcoming (there's only a short list of people who need a massive gate) it was given to a London Brewer, Sir Henry Meux, who erected Temple Bar as the gatehouse to his newly acquired residence; Theobalds Park and Mansion in Hertfordshire.
The family sold the property in 1929 and subsequent owners neglected the gate until by the 1970's it was a decaying wreck.
Many people in the City of London had always hoped that one day, Temple Bar would return home and in the late 1970's, the Temple Bar Trust was formed with this objective being their sole purpose. It took 25 years, but in 2001 the current site between St Paul's cathedral and Paternoster Square was approved. It took 16 months to remove, restore and re-assemble Temple Bar, at a cost of £2.9 million.
There's a small room above the main arch, which in the 19th Century had been a ledger room for the adjacent Child's Bank on Fleet Street and during its stay in Theobalds Park, an additional dining room where Lady Meux entertained guests such as King Edward VII and Sir Winston Churchill. Today, it can be hired by the public for meetings or meals, seating up to 14 people. Quite a unique experience, I think you'll agree.
So, next time you're by St Paul's cathedral and see the rather large gate forming the entrance to Paternoster Square, remember that it's had an interesting history and moved ... twice.
This weekend, the groups were small, but each one a minor delight to wander around and chat about London with.
On Saturday afternoon, I met Ben and Jess for the St Paul's to the Monument walk and almost forgot to take a photo of them, which would have been a double shame, seeing as I've just had my camera fixed after it broke on a walk a couple of weeks ago. Here they standing by the Monument, which is, as I have undoubtedly mentioned before, a Monument to the Great Fire of London, a rather horrific fire which burned down most of the medieval City of London in 1666.
I admit, that in the photo, it just looks like Ben and Jess are standing in the middle of a building site, which unfortunately, at the moment is kind of true. As with much of the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire, the Monument is largely the work of Christopher Wren. It stands 202 feet tall, the distance from the bakery on Pudding Lane where the fire began. Daniel Defoe described the top of the structure as having a "handsome gilt flame like that of a candle." It also happens to be the tallest isolated stone column in the world, and as such, for the small fee of £3, you can climb the 311 steps to a public viewing gallery, and enjoy a rather splendid view of London.
There was no snow this Sunday for the My neck of the Woods east end walk, and I was joined by Mandy, Richey and Dylan. Mandy, who was on her second Bowl Of Chalk walk, writes a blog called 'emm in London' which is well worth a read anyway, but last year, she wrote a rather nice and detailed account of the Saturday afternoon walk she did with me entitled '9 Things I learned on a Bowl Of Chalk'.
Here they are standing in front of one of street artist Stik's large scale stick figures. You'll find this particular one on Great Eastern Street. Mandy is quite a fan of the various street artists whose work you find daubed around the walls and buildings of east London, and if memory serves me correctly, Stik is her fourth favourite. Might be wrong about that though.
Shortly after this, Dylan spotted a quite incredible bike, locked to a lamp post, which was so big (the bike, not the lamp post) that at first I didn't even notice it was a bike. I'm now quite intrigued to see the person who owns it, riding it around London.
Anyway, at the end of the walk, Richey suggested going for a curry at one of his favourite curry houses on Brick Lane ... so we did.
Most surprised - Jess
Best moustache - No winners
Best beard - Richey
Most American - Dylan
Most amount of flat caps on one walk - Sunday
Veteran Bowl Of Chalker - Mandy
Most 'Avid' - Ben
Bowl Of Chalk
Bowl Of Chalk based shenanigans.