Postman’s Park in the City of London is one of those ‘hidden gems’ that I thought everyone knew about. For this reason, I’ve never written about it, but the other week I did a walk with some people who worked a stone’s throw away. Their office overlooked the park, and after I met them in the foyer, just next to the Museum of London, our first stop was Postman’s Park. I thought they wouldn’t find it particularly interesting, but was quite astonished to discover they knew nothing about it, or at least not its incredibly intriguing memorial.
If you approach from Aldersgate (as we did) the name of which comes from one of the City’s ancient gates, you will ascend a small number of rather lopsided steps. To your left, on the street is a ‘street antique’, an old Police Box. Although these emergency telephone boxes were added to the streets of Glasgow as early as 1891, they weren’t adopted by the Metropolitan Police until the late 1920s. Predating two-way radios, Police Boxes effectively acted like a giant pager, the light on the top flashing to alert a nearby Police Officer that they needed to phone their local station. A larger version of the Police Box is now synonymous with Dr Who, and for fans of the long running BBC show, there’s still one standing outside Earl’s Court Station. If you happen to find that particular 'Tardis' on Google Maps, you’ll discover that by clicking on one of the arrows pointing towards it, Google have added quite a fun feature.
Postman’s Park was amalgamated from two church grounds, St Botolph’s Aldersgate, which you’ll see to your right, and Christchurch Greyfriars, which stands as a bombed out wreck close by. An act of Parliament in the mid 19th century resulted in what were considered out of town cemeteries being built beyond the confines of the city, where living cheek by jowl with so many dead people had become beyond hideous. Perhaps the most famous and visited of these burial grounds, is Highgate Cemetery. Incidentally, although set around a Parisian cemetery in 1785, Andrew Miller’s novel ‘Pure’ evokes the situation (which was very similar here in London in the 19th century) beautifully, should you wish to read it. Many of those buried were brought in to an ossuary beneath the church, as I discovered when visiting St Bride’s on Fleet Street a few years ago, and the burial grounds turned in to gardens. Because people had been buried on top of each other, covered with thin layers soil and lime (thus raising the ground level), it is said that it is for this reason, when entering churchyards, you are often required to walk up steps. Postman’s Park does quite clearly stand a good few feet above street level. You’ll notice the headstones stacked like cards against the surrounding walls.
In 1887, to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, a painter and sculptor of the time, George Frederic Watts (he apparently shared the same birthday as composer George Frederic Handel – hence the name) suggested creating a memorial to ‘Heroic Self Sacrifice’, which is to say, ordinary people who died saving other people, who would have otherwise died, had they not been saved (if that makes sense). I think Watts’ idea was to have a big bronze statue embodying the sentiment. It was not accepted.
However, it would seem that the artist’s suggestion struck a chord with the Vicar of St. Botolph’s Aldersgate church, as over a decade later, he offered the church’s garden as a site to realise Watt’s idea.
Unveiled in 1900, the memorial had taken on an altogether different and more sympathetic angle, initially displaying 4 painted tiles, simply detailing the name of the deceased, the date and place their heroic deed occurred and a brief description of the events that took place. Watts died in 1904 and in that time, a further 9 tiles were added, followed by a further 35, overseen by his wife Mary. Interest and enthusiasm for the project gradually waned and the memorial, which looks like an elongated bus shelter (or loggia) became a forgotten enclave of the garden, given Grade II listed status in 1972.
Flash-forward to the late 1990s and playwright Patrick Marber, writes a play called ‘Closer’ which is premiered at the National Theatre. The play is then later made in to a film of the same name starring Natalie Portman, Julia Roberts, Jude Law and Clive Owen. Key scenes and also the main plot twist centre around Postman’s Park, and in case you haven’t seen it, I won’t spoil it for you, but Portman’s character is called Alice Ayres, one of those remembered in Watts’ poignant memorial. She died on 24th April 1885, saving 3 children from a burning house in Borough.
Renewed interest in Postman’s Park, thanks in no small way to Marber’s play, might go some way to explaining why after a 78 year hiatus, a new tile was added, bearing the name of Leigh Pitt, who saved a boy from drowning in 2007, but was unfortunately unable to save himself.
It perhaps goes without saying that it is the human stories behind the facts that make history so interesting and bring it to life. Watts’ memorial to ‘Heroic Self Sacrifice’ epitomises this, and as you shuffle along absorbing the information presented, you will undoubtedly find yourself wondering who these people were, what they were like, envisaging the scene in which they died and the families they left behind. Someone called Dr John Price was evidently so affected by the memorial, that he spent a great deal of time unravelling the stories behind each of the people immortalised on the beautifully rendered tiles. He has published his findings in a book entitled ‘Heroes of Postman’s Park’, so should you wish to learn more about each of the names in Postman’s Park, you can. There’s also an accompanying mobile app, which is free to download and has been primarily designed to use whilst at the memorial, feeding you all those other details and insights you might crave.
I was lucky enough to have a busy month in September of private weekday walks, which saw me taking people all over London and furnishing them with scintillating bits of information about the things they saw and the places we passed. Here are some of the people I met, who were visiting London from across the globe.
Top left is Nam & Tom visiting from the States, in Trafalgar Square during a walk around Westminster, where they were staying. I did two walks with Layne & Jay, which saw us cover all the big sites in central London over two days. I took their photo in Covent Garden. Dan & Justin from Los Angeles were staying in a hotel on the Strand, so I met them there and showed them around the surrounding area. Bottom right is a team from the homelessness charity Crisis. They are responsible for organising the mammoth effort each year, which sees 10,000 volunteers helping out in shelters in major cities across the country. If you'd like to volunteer over the Christmas period, and help Crisis to help the homeless, then have a look at their website to find out how. I did a walk with them in the area around their office as a sort of team building thing.
Top left is Roda & Marius from Germany, who joined me for an incredibly rainy wander around east London. The main focus was the many pieces of street art that adorn walls and pavements in the area. Next up is Dominique and Chris outside their hotel, the Nadler in Soho where I dropped them off after a wander around Westminster. Bottom left is Kellie & Jeremy from Australia, by the Thames with St Paul's cathedral and the Millennium Bridge behind them. We spent a whole day together on a bit of a London extravaganza tour. Bottom right is Ruth & pals outside the Golden Lion in St James's where I left them for lunch after a walk that took in the sights around Westminster.
John and his Son Chris came on my regular east London walk last year. They returned with Maureen for a walk that took in the area around St Paul's cathedral. I took their photo in Postman's Park in the City of London. It's a remarkable little space that includes a memorial to 'heroic self sacrifice', the brain child of Victorian painter and sculptor George Frederic Watts. Top right is Judith and her family in Southwark cathedral. Judith and her sister from the Netherlands had been on a walk with me previously. Judith has just started a job here in London and her parents were over to help settle her in. Bottom left is Kristy & Co in St James's Park. Bottom right is Tracy & Chris with Tower Bridge behind them.
Top left is Janet and family at the end of our walk in Leicester Square. Top right is Duncan & Hayley. Duncan had been on a walk with me previously, and returned this time with Ellis, a new addition to the family. Bottom left is Cissy & Dave in St Katharine Docks with the Queen's barge 'the Gloriana' behind them. Bottom right is Art, Doug, Marnie and Amy outside Buckingham Palace. I had met them in the morning on the other side of London where they were staying, by the Tower of London, and spent the whole day together taking in all of London's major sights, plus loads of other stuff.
Top left is Peter & Karen during a rather rainy walk through the City of London. I took their photo as we wandered through the legal areas just off Fleet Street of Inner Temple and Middle Temple Hall. Top right is Dennis & Julie from Germany who came on another rather wet walk around east London. Fortunately, they arrived wearing huge plastic bags, so weren't phased by the weather. Another walk around Shoreditch, Spitalfields and Hoxton was with Isabel, Simone, Frank and Jannis, also from Germany. Bottom right is Kelly and her kids at the end of our walk around the area surrounding their hotel by Trafalgar Square. Incidentally, I had an influx of people from Germany joining me last month, as I appeared in German magazine 'Mobil', of which 500,000 copies were printed and distributed on all the Deutsche Bahn trains in Germany.
The final two walks I'm including here were two work walks. The first for a team from CAFOD, the official aid agency for the Catholic Church, who are a lovely bunch that I've done a number of walks for over the years. Lastly we have Hannah and her team on an evening walk from their office by Aldersgate, though the City of London to a pub on Bankside, just south of the river. I took their photo as we passed by St Andrew's by-the-Wardrobe.
If you're visiting London at some point in the not too distant future and would like me to show you around, please get in touch.
Bowl Of Chalk
Bowl Of Chalk based shenanigans.