A History of London – free talk recording

Last week I did a Zoom talk for 40 or so people as a fundraiser for Prostate Cancer UK.

Called “a history of London in eight (and a bit) structures” it looks at bridges, churches, walls and other constructions, tracing the history of the city from the Romans through to the 21st century. On the way there are stories about the monarchy, the Reformation, the rise of parliamentary democracy and the growth of London as one of the great centres of trade. There are invasions, conquests, eccentrics, geniuses and some of the world’s most recognisable buildings.

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Londinium: a new place to see the capital’s Roman wall

vine street london roman wall

Typical, you wait ages for a post about Roman London, then three come along at once. After the Mithraeum and the Billingsgate bath house, here’s a bit about the wall that the Romans built around their city.

Right by Tower Hill station there is an extant section of the Roman wall, a few dozen metres of the colossal building project that encompassed the whole of the city of Londinium on the north bank of the Thames.

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Londinium: the Billingsgate Roman Bath House

billingsgate roman bth house - caldarium hypocaust

Dig a hole in the City of London and a few metres down you will hit Londinium, the original city, because before the Romans there seems to have been no major settlement.

For nearly 400 years from around 45CE this was a major Roman centre, and although it declined from the late 2nd century onwards (and was destroyed at least twice, the first time in 60CE by Boudicca, and then by a huge fire around 125) it boasted temples, a forum (the biggest north of the Alps), a governor’s palace, nearly 4km of wall, an amphitheatre that could 6,000 spectators and, because the Romans loved bathing, a number of bath houses.

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All Hail the Sacred Dung Beetle!

When Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, sold his collection of antiquities to the British Museum in 1816, the museum acquired not only his once eponymous marbles, but many other Greek and Roman artefacts, including statues, pottery, jewellery and more.

There was also a piece that was originally from Egypt, a monumental scarab from, it is thought, the 4th century BCE, bought by Elgin in Constantinople when he was the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.

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Contemplating the Infinite in the British Museum

star carr red dear headdress in the british museum

In Douglas Adams’s Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, the Total Perspective Vortex gives “one momentary glimpse of the size of the entire infinity of creation along with a tiny little marker saying ‘you are here’”.

I occasionally get a similar feeling – being hit with the complete and utter inconsequentiality of our individual existences – when I visit the British Museum.

On one of their ‘show and tell’ desks where visitors can handle artefacts from the collection I was allowed to pick up a flint hand axe that was made over a quarter of a million years ago, the smooth base of it fitting as comfortably into my palm as it must have done for my impossibly distant ancestor. 

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Leake Street – London’s Street Art Tunnel

leake street sign

I feel almost embarrassed to admit that I’m not a huge fan of ‘street art’. One can admire the draughtsmanship, say, or the use of colour, but (for me) there’s rarely anything that gives any sort of emotional engagement. I can find it impressive on one level, but superficial (literally) and frequently trite.

And these days if an area is developing commercially, but wants its market to still think of it as ‘edgy’, it will commission big name artists to do their thing and so encourage visitors to come and spend at local outlets. (“Turning rebellion into money” as Mr Strummer sang)

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Gluttony and grave robbing – Pye Corner in Smithfield

the golden boy of pye corner

Stroll up Giltspur Street towards Smithfield Market and look up to your left at the building on the corner of Cock Lane. In an arched niche in the wall of a late 20th century office building is a golden statue of a chubby little boy.

This is the ‘Golden Boy of Pye Corner’, a 17th century wooden sculpture (gilded in the 1800s, but previously painted naturalistically) which, according to the Historic England listing also formerly had wings, making the young chap something of a cherub.

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Albert Bridge: “A temporary gangway flung across the river”

One of my all time great London moments was a late summer evening about 30 years ago when I was walking home from a meeting in Chelsea. Although Albert Bridge was closed to traffic, and although pedestrians could cross I was the only person on it. At the middle I paused to look downriver and at that very moment all the 4,000 lights that illuminate the bridge came on. Magical; it felt like this was being done just for me.

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The Blue Bridge in St James’s Park

It’s the platform for a trillion photos – to the west is Buckingham Palace, framed by trees, and look east to see Horseguards, the London Eye and the chateau-style roofline of Whitehall Court. Try to cross on a day when there is the Changing of the Guards and it seems like half of humanity is being funnelled through its narrow footway.

This is the ‘Blue Bridge’ that spans the lake in St James’s Park, a blandly functional crossing erected in 1957, made from two concrete beams, with railings painted a sky blue (hence, of course, the name). 

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Henry VII, Ted Lasso, and the Richmond greyhounds

Henry Tudor, had a pretty tenuous claim on the English throne. His mother, Margaret Beaufort, was a great granddaughter of John of Gaunt (third son of Edward III), so he had only a smidgin of royal blood in his veins, but this was enough to make him the leading candidate for the crown for the House of Lancaster in the late 1400s.

Because we’re in the century of the Wars of the Roses, the country riven by conflict and the throne passing from Yorkists (white rose) to Lancastrians (red) and back again. 

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