Category Archives: london

UKToursOnline.com

Even with the recently announced lockdown relaxation it seems unlikely that there will be many guided tours, or indeed visitors, over the next few months.

That’s why a few friends and I have got together to offer virtual tours and talks, so that we can show you the best of London and the UK through the magic of the interweb. (See our trailer below)

You’ll find a complete list of what we have scheduled here. Some of our regular tours include the British Museum, Churchill War Rooms, the National Gallery, Bath and Roman London, and we’ll be adding more over the coming weeks.

Each talk is around 60 minutes, with time for questions afterwards, and each costs £10. We’ve done a ‘season ticket’ so you can choose five talks and only pay for four.

Anyway, go to UKToursOnline.com to find out more, and I hope to see you on one of our forthcoming events.

The US Embassy, Nine Elms

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Don’t call it a moat.

Let’s be clear about that from the start; it’s not a moat – it’s a lake. Well, that’s according to the US Embassy.

We’re talking about the stretch of water that separates the main embassy building (or, more properly, the ‘Chancery’ of the Embassy) from the road. There’s a patch of green space that one can walk through and a cascading fountain. It doesn’t surround the building, but its purpose is for security, a further level of protection from anyone driving a car or truck from the road towards the main structure. That makes it a moat in my book.

The effect is reinforced by the cuboid nature of the building, one which echoes the medieval keeps of castles – think of William the Conqueror’s White Tower – and one can even see aspects of Iron Age forts in the earthworks that hide protective concrete bollards. Continue reading

Richmond’s Blue Plaques

After last month’s stroll past some of the more prominent plaques in Putney, another piece, this time on the residents of Richmond upon Thames. This should appear in April’s The Richmond Magazine.

richmond-2Given its size and history, the town of Richmond has surprisingly few ‘official’ English Heritage blue plaques, those roundels that commemorate where a famous person once lived or worked. And there isn’t a body – such as the Wandsworth or Putney societies – that puts up is own memorials, so the town seems a little bashful about its historic residents.

But perhaps what it lacks in quantity it makes up for in quality. In Paradise Road, for example, a plaque shows where Leonard and Virginia Woolf founded the Hogarth Press. Mainly associated with Bloomsbury, the Woolfs lived in Richmond between 1917 and 1924 and while there Virginia published various stories and her novel ‘Jacob’s Room’. Not too far away on Richmond Hill a plaque marks where the actor Celia Johnson – star of Brief Encounter among many other 1940s and 50s films – was born. Continue reading

Farm Street Church

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The Victorians loved the medieval. The ‘gothic revival’ actually started earlier – in the late 1700s/early 1800s as a reaction to classicism – but it was mid-century that saw it flourish.

For many, this architectural style is far too ‘fussy’ – there is just too much detail, colour, decoration, too much of everything. But despite the best efforts of many architects, planners and developers in the mid-20th century, much of the Victorian Gothic survives. Think of the work of George Gilbert Scott – the Midland Hotel at St Pancras; St Mary Abbot’s, Kensington; the Albert Memorial – or Street’s Royal Courts of Justice, or the elaborate detailing outside and inside the House of Parliament. Continue reading

London’s Green Parakeets

parakeet-1Perhaps 15 years ago, I was sat by the river in East Molesey, just past Hampton Court. Across the water the trees on the opposite bank were full of bright green parrots, the first time I had seen these now ubiquitous London birds.

Two or three years later they started appearing in Richmond Park; less than ten years ago the first colonists put in an appearance on Tooting and Clapham Commons. They now cover the city, west to east, south to north, their characteristic squawk being heard in all of London’s green spaces, as literal flocks of them cross the skies. It’s estimated that there are now anything up to 30,000 of them, with the population growing rapidly. Continue reading

Putney, SW15

A short piece I did for Essential Surrey on Putney’s history, and some of the famous people associated with the area.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANow a thriving, popular and leafy suburb of London, Putney is recorded – as ‘Putenhie’ or ‘Putelei’ – in the Domesday Book as a ferry and a fishery, and for much of its history was a small village well outside the orbit of the capital. Despite this, it has produced or been the home of a number of people who had a significant impact on the country.

This includes Thomas Cromwell, the ‘enforcer’ to Henry VIII who rose from being the son of a Putney blacksmith to the King’s Chief Minister. It was Cromwell who pushed through the break with the Catholic Church and the dissolution of the monasteries, and Cromwell who was the moving force behind the executions of Anne Boleyn and Sir Thomas More. He met the same fate himself in 1540, when Henry had him beheaded on Tower Hill, after Cromwell had arranged Henry’s marriage to Anne of Cleves, and Anne proved to be less attractive than her portrait (Henry is said to have called her ‘The Flanders Mare’.)

Cromwell is the anti-hero of Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning novels ‘Wolf Hall’ and ‘Bring up the Bodies’ (the third in the trilogy is due out this year), and Mantel unveiled the Putney Society’s plaque to Cromwell at Brewhouse Lane in 2013. However, all the historical evidence indicates that the home of his father was almost a mile away, on the fringes of Putney Heath, possibly on the present site of the Green Man pub, so why the Society chose the spot it did is something of a mystery. Continue reading

The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist

 

lammassu-1-1The fourth plinth in Trafalgar square was meant to have an equestrian statue of William IV, but funding could not be raised (this was in 1841, just four years after his death). Over the next 150 years, various proposals for permanent statues on the plinth came and went (and the space might still be used for HMQ when she eventually turns up her royal toes), then in 1998 the RSA commissioned three temporary sculptures (including a witty Rachel Whiteread cast of the plinth itself) and from 2005 there have been a succession of commissions.

These included Yinka Shonibare’s “Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle” (now outside the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich*), Hans Haake’s “Gift Horse”, and Marc Quinn’s “Alison Lapper Pregnant”. There was also a wonderful Anthony Gormley project where, over 100 days, 2400 members of the public were each given an hour each on the plinth to do what they liked.

For the past two years (and due to be replaced early in 2020) the Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz has been displaying a piece from his project “The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist”. This is an attempt by Rakowitz to recreate some of the more than 7,000 objects from Iraqi culture which have been lost forever:  some were looted from the Iraq Museum in 2003, others were destroyed at archaeological sites across the country during the Iraq War, still more were destroyed during the period of the Islamic State.

The Trafalgar Square piece is a lammassu, a protective spirit of ancient Assyria, a winged bull, with the head of a man. Rakowitz’s reconstructions are made from recycled packaging from Middle Eastern foodstuffs and this artwork is made from 10,500 empty date syrup cans: a once-renowned Iraqi industry now decimated by war. On the side of the Lamassu is an inscription in Cuneiform which reads: “Sennacherib, king of the world, king of Assyria, had the inner and outer wall of Ninevah built anew and raised as high as mountains.

lammassu-1In the British Museum you can walk between other lammassu, built as guardians to entrances to Assyrian palaces, including the biggest objects in the museum, the giant ‘Winged bulls’ from the palace of Sargon II at Khorsabad (close to modern day Mosul, ironically the ‘capital’ of the Isis ‘caliphate’).

 

 *Poor William IV. He eventually got a statue, near the top of the old London Bridge, which was moved to the National Maritime Museum in 1935. This is now completely upstaged by Shonibare’s work.

Number One London

 

800px-apsley_house_1You’re likely to have been past this place several hundred times, because Apsley House is the big, honey-coloured building on the north side of Hyde Park Corner, facing into the traffic with its back to the park.

Formerly the home of the Duke of Wellington, victor over Napoleon in Spain, Portugal and at Waterloo, Prime Minister under George IV and William IV, the house is still occupied by the current, 9th, Duke.

That particular corner of the Park is awash with Wellington monuments (it was once called Wellington Place). The Wellington Arch (through which the Household Cavalry ride each morning, and under which the cycle path runs) is in the centre of the glorified traffic island, and close by, facing the house, is a mounted statue (by Joseph Boehm) of the Duke himself, flanked by a grenadier, a Scottish highlander, an Irish Dragoon and a Welsh Guard. And in the Park, just behind the house is the actual ‘Wellington Monument’, a statue of Achilles by sculptor Richard Westmacott, cast in bronze from cannons capture at Waterloo and erected in 1822. Achilles was the subject of some controversy when it was unveiled as it is a nude (except for a fig leaf), and so felt by some to be an outrage to public decency.

The house was bought by the Duke (from his own brother, who needed the cash) with some of the £700,000 given to him by the state after the final defeat of Napoleon. That’s an amount of money worth about £90 million in today’s prices. The original house was by Robert Adam and was considerably smaller; Wellington commissioned Benjamin Dean Wyatt to extend and radically remodel the place – and had the classic client/architect relationship, in that Wellington fell our with Wyatt about time and cost overruns to the extent that he refused to speak to him. Continue reading

“One of the sights of London”

buzz-bingo-1Miss the Tower of London, if you have to, but don’t miss this” wrote Ian Nairn in his 1966 guide, Nairn’s London. A Nash terrace? A Wren church? No – the inside of Buzz Bingo in Tooting.

Of course, Nairn din’t know it as a bingo hall, but as the Granada cinema, and it dates from 1931, a sumptuous expression of Art Deco design (interiors by the Russian-born director and designer Theodore Komisarjevsky) that now has Grade I listed status.

It was a monster auditorium that could seat 3,000 patrons, the owner of the Granada chain, Sidney Bernstein, reckoning that the transport connections of Tooting Broadway’s multiple bus routes, underground station and the nearby overground would pull in customers from across south west London and beyond (at that time the border of the county of London and Surrey was close by, and Surrey did not permit cinemas to be open on Sundays, while London did). Continue reading

The Bomb Damage maps

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During the war the London County Council surveyors chronicled the devastation caused by enemy bombing on the capital. Hand colouring street level OS maps, they plotted the buildings damaged; generally speaking, the darker the colour, the more the devastation – black was “total destruction”, purple “damaged beyond repair”, right through to yellow “blast damage: minor in nature”.

Take a look at the example above, the area around St Paul’s cathedral showing the destruction caused by ‘the second great fire of London’ on the night of 29/30 December 1940, when huge swathes of the City burned and the firefighters struggled to contain the conflagration.

Generally speaking, the further east one goes the more the damage, the docks being a strategic target for the Luftwaffe, but there is hardly a district that didn’t have some bombs falling, regardless of whether they were close to ‘legitimate targets’ or simply the rows of residential terraces. (The ‘Bomb Sight’ project maps these.) As well as the damage caused by the main Blitz of 1940/41, the LCC also recorded the impacts of the V1s and V2s in 1944 and 1945, these terror weapons falling genuinely randomly across the capital.

The maps have been available in book form for some time, and each visit I make to the Cabinet War Rooms I leaf through a copy and wonder how to justify the thick end of fifty quid. However, today those lovely people at Layers of London made the map available online, but it’s even better than that.

Because the whole concept of Layers of London is that one can superimpose historic maps on those of the present, or merge two multiple old maps together, making the historic relatable to the present or to another period. So one can look at the bomb damage on a modern map, the maps of the 1960s, or even (should you wish to try it – and I have) in relation to 18thC maps of the city. Below is a screen grab of my street, with the bomb damage superimposed on the modern map (there is infill housing in both places).

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This is a stupendous and wonderfully generous piece of work, and I for one will be wasting several hours on the map over the next few days.

You can find Layers of London here.