Category Archives: london

Bonnington Square: Rus in Urbe with knobs on

IMG_2820There’s a truism that if you venture off the main street almost anywhere in London you’ll discover something new.

I do this a lot, sometimes just finding pretty ordinary Victorian streets, but often stumbling across a real gem. But it’s been a long time since I was struck by anything so wonderfully, gloriously, fabulously bonkers as Bonnington Square. Continue reading

In the Clink

clink-logoIn London, the old Victorian prisons are just there, an almost unnoticed background to everyday life; Wandsworth is over the road from my local garden centre; I drive past Holloway and Pentonville on the way to and from the in laws;  my wife used to work a stone’s throw away from Wormwood Scrubs, and Brixton is just round the corner from where I get my car serviced.

Most of us have never been inside these places. Nor, given most reports about these places, would any of us much want to. But last Friday I did see inside, because I went along to lunch at The Clink in Brixton, a restaurant where the chefs and waiting staff are all prison inmates. Continue reading

Getting the Blue Badge

london_bb copyWell, I finally went and actually did it and passed the exams to be a fully-fledged London Blue Badge Guide.  That means I can now take groups of paying customers around Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s, the Tower and various other places in the capital.  So from any day soon I’ll be striding out talking and pointing at things for money.

My ‘professional’ website is at donbrowndotlondon, which you should all immediately go and visit, as well as recommending it to your friends (especially if they are rich Americans visiting London).

I’ve also got a new twitter feed (@donbrownlondon) and Facebook page, both of which I urge you to follow, share, like and all those other social media things that get more visibility. Those of you on Instagram can also find a random selection of pictures here.

Bradley’s Spanish Bar


[Update: the good news, if you read the comments below, is that Bradley’s is safe until at least 2018. So even I might get around to visiting it again.]
bradleys-spanish-bar-hanway-streetHanway Street, a narrow little cut-through (that hardly anyone actually uses to cut through) between Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road, has just been bought by developers, and that means another of London’s institutions will be swept away.

That is Bradley’s Spanish Bar, a place that I haven’t been in for nearly 20 years, but which has huge, fond memories of when I worked in Covent Garden and Soho in the late ’80s and early ’90s.

Bradley’s was one of those places where you met up with friends, because it was a memorable place; once you’d been you never forgot it. Continue reading

The iPlayer London collection

p018dsmgIf you’re at all interested in the recent history and culture of London (and let’s face it, if you’re not you really have come to the wrong place) you should head across to the BBC iPlayer.

Simon Jenkins has curated BBC documentaries from the 1940s through to the early 1990s – some personal views, some behind the scenes at various London institutions – which give a wonderful encapsulation of a lost London. Because London is always ‘lost’ – the city is so varied and moves so quickly that trying to preserve some aspect of it runs counter to its very nature. Or as Ian Broad, the proprietor of the Colony Room Club says in John Pitman’s 1985 programme about Soho“Of course it isn’t what it used to be; but it never ever was what it was”. Continue reading

Victorian London on Film

The very first moving pictures of London were taken by the cinematographic pioneer William Friese-Green in January 1889. He filmed Apsley Gate near Hyde Park Corner – the first moving picture in the world to use celluloid, but not (quite) the world’s first movie; Louis le Prince had filmed Roundhay Park and Leeds Bridge the previous year.

Friese-Green’s film does not survive, but have included the oldest-surviving footage (ten frames of Trafalgar Square) from 1890 in their compilation below. It was shot by the splendidly named Wordsworth Donisthorpe on a film camera of his own invention. This was obviously an incredible time for cinematographic pioneers – we’ve already mentioned three inventors with their very different processes and in the US Edison had patented his Kinetograph, to be followed in 1895 by the Lumiere brothers and their Cinématographe. Continue reading

The Moorgate Lighthouse

lighthouseStroll up Moorgate Street from the Bank of England, and about a third of the way along on your right, look up and, set into a niche in the corner of number 42, you will see a stone model of a lighthouse.

This is because this was once the headquarters of the Ocean Accident & Guarantee Corporation which, through various takeovers and mergers, is now just a footnote in Aviva’s corporate history.

The building itself was designed by Aston Webb, that great exponent of Imperial architecture and the man behind Admiralty Arch, Imperial College and the Brompton Road entrance to the V&A.

The lighthouse model is 15 foot (4.5m) high and in Portland stone, and the niche in which it sits is decorated with a frieze of ships in sail. At one time the light even worked (although I can’t find out whether it flashed lighthouse style, or was just a steady beam) and I suspect that if Habib Bank, the current tenants of the building, spent a few quid to get that working again there would be general rejoicing.



Bleeding London

Bleeding London avatarBleeding London is an exceptionally ambitious, and potentially quite wonderful, project to capture a picture from every street in London.

It wasn’t something I was aware of until I stumbled across a piece about it on the BBC News site and (I may be wrong) it doesn’t seem to have had a huge amount of other publicity, but it’s the sort of thing that’s worth getting behind, particularly as “Anyone can participate and pictures can be taken on any device. There are no restrictions on subject matter”. I might even dust off the old box brownie, set the fedora at a jaunty angle and hit the streets round SW11.


My favourite piece in the British Museum

IMG_0435-2You can keep your hoards of gold and silver, your Egyptian mummies, your blockbuster Viking exhibitions. For me, the most wonderful piece in the whole British Museum is a bit of graffiti, not done by any artist or craftsman, but by a bored squaddie looking for ways to kill time.

Scratched onto a flat part of the base of one of the extraordinary Assyrian winged bulls are a couple of dozen squares. They’re the board for a dice game and were incised around 710BC (although earlier examples of the game have been found dating back 4500 years). The thing seems to have been a sort of “race” game with counters (think of Ludo).

Continue reading

Henry VIII’s Wine Cellar

Photo: POA(Phot) Amanda Reynolds/MOD
Buried under the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall is an extraordinary historical survivor.
Henry VIII’s Wine Cellar is one of the few remaining parts of Whitehall Palace – the main London residence of Kings and Queens (and Lord Protectors – because Oliver Cromwell also lived there) for over 150 years. Today Whitehall is the name of the broad road linking Trafalgar Square and Parliament Square, or it’s used as a synonym for ‘government’, but Whitehall was once the biggest palace in Europe – bigger than the Vatican, bigger even than Versailles – covering over 93,000 square metres between the river and Green Park.
It became a royal palace when Henry VIII confiscated a residence called York Place from Cardinal Wolsey. As well as being Lord Chancellor of England and the most powerful commoner in the realm, Wolsey was also Archbishop of York whose London seat since the 13th century had been York Place.
When Wolsey failed to get Henry’s marriage to Katherine of Aragon annulled, he found himself at the wrong end of the King’s displeasure. His property became forfeit to the Crown and Henry got his hands on Hampton Court Palace and York Place. Henry then spent a huge sum (well over ten million in today’s money) developing and expanding it. He added more rooms, and tennis courts, and a cockpit, and even a tiltyard for jousts. It became know as Whitehall after the white stone used for the great hall. (“You must no more call it York Place: that is past; For since the Cardinal fell that title’s lost. ‘Tis now the King’s, and called Whitehall.” (Shakespeare, “King Henry the Eighth”).

Henry married Anne Boleyn at Whitehall in 1533. And Jane Seymour in 1536. And he died there in 1547. Continue reading