The Ascent of W1: the Marble Arch Mound

I actually thought it might be a good idea. It was certainly an idea worth exploring, and perhaps wacky/left field enough to work; plant a hill in the centre of the city, with flowers and trees. Bring a spot of the old rus to the very urbe Oxford Street. Give Nash’s poor, lost, isolated Marble Arch a bit of company.

Mind you, I thought it was going to be an actual hill – several thousand tons of soil compacted into a new knoll/tor/hillock. I didn’t think it would be just a web of scaffolding covered in rolls of sedum and sparse saplings. Nor did I know that the budgeted cost was £2 million (with an actual cost of £6 million: Six. Million. Quid).

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Who was “The Grand Old Duke of York”?

A couple of hundred metres from the much more famous Nelson’s column you will find the slightly more senior Duke of York’s Column (Nelson was unveiled in 1840, the Duke of York in 1834).

This commemorates Frederick, second son of George III, younger brother of the Prince Regent (who became George IV) and commander-in-chief of the British Army from 1795.

Frederick led the Anglo-Russian invasion of Holland in 1799 (yep, the British and their Russian allies invaded Holland who were allying with Revolutionary France in what became known as the War of the Second Coalition). Initial victories by the allies were overturned by defeats and the withdrawal of troops left the situation on land pretty much as it had been before the invasion – a fact satirised in the nursery rhyme: “The Grand Old Duke of York, he had ten thousand men, he marched them up to the top of the hill – and he marched them down again.”

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A steam ship in the City of London

There are quite a number of ‘Holland Houses’ in the capital – the remains of a Jacobean country home in Holland Park, Kensington; a school in Edgware; a student hostel near Victoria – but it’s only outside Holland House in Bury Street in The City (a stone’s throw from the Gherkin), that they still fly the Dutch flag.

This Holland House dates from 1916 and is sometimes called the first modern office block in London. Designed by the Dutch modernist architect Henrik Petrus Berlage, it was the first steel-framed building in Europe, with walls of green glazed terracotta bricks (shipped in from Delft) rising from a black plinth. (It is also said to be the first office block in Britain to have an atrium.)

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The Monarch’s Champion

If you ever have a tour of the Houses of Parliament it is in Westminster Hall where you meet your guide. This is the oldest part of the Palace of Westminster, dating back to around 1100 when it was commissioned by William II (William Rufus), the son of the Conqueror.

Inside Westminster Hall

In this hall, with its magnificent hammerbeam ceiling, kings, queens and commoners have lain in state before their funerals; great trials have taken place, including those of William Wallace, Sir Thomas More, Guy Fawkes, and ‘King and Martyr’, Charles I.

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The 1666 Great Fire of London

Just after midnight on 2 September 1666, the bakery of one Thomas Farriner in Pudding Lane near the north end of London Bridge caught alight. Fires – sometimes major conflagrations – were not unusual in the towns and cities of the time, but this one proved to be a class apart.

Fanned by a strong wind from the east, and with wooden houses tinder-dry from a long, hot summer, the efforts of the citizens, the King and his brother, the army and the navy, failed to halt the progress of the fire until the wind abated and fire breaks were made by blowing up streets in the path of the flames.

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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.

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The US Embassy, Nine Elms

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.

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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.

Given 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.

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Farm Street Church, Mayfair – a gothic wonder

farm st church

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.

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