Category Archives: london

Duke of York’s Column, St James’s

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.”

This defeat, and problems in an earlier campaign in Flanders, seems to have spurred Frederick. He instituted a series of reforms of the army that helped professionalise and reorganise it, so it was a much more effective force in the subsequent Napoleonic Wars. Writing 100 years later the military historian Sir John Fortescue said that Frederick did “more for the army than any one man has done for it in the whole of its history”.

On the accession of his brother as George IV, Frederick became the heir presumptive, George’s daughter and heir Charlotte having died in childbirth in 1817. (This means that had George died first, Frederick would have succeeded him. As it was, Frederick died in 1827, and on George’s death in 1830 another brother became William IV.)

duke of york column st james's

The column was financed by all ranks in the army forgoing one day’s wages (how voluntary this was remains a little obscure) and the column (by Benjamin Dean Wyatt) erected in 1832, with the statue (by Richard Westmacott) raised in 1834. Frederick was an inveterate gambler and seems to have been perpetually in debt – the joke that went the rounds was that the statue was erected on such a tall column (it’s a little over 40m high) so that Frederick could keep away from his creditors.

Like the Monument, there is a staircase within the column and a platform at statue level. But this has been closed to the public for over 120 years (Vic Keegan managed to blag his way up a couple of years ago). Perhaps spending a few quid on making this safe and accessible would have been a better way to get people back into the west end than the turf covered scaffolding at Marble Arch; the views, certainly, would have been a lot better.

Holland House – Bury Street, EC3

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 buidling 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.)

Smoke pours from the funnel of the steamship as it breasts the waves on the Holland House sculpture

It was built for the Dutch shipping company Wm H Muller + Co, and its links to maritime trade can be seen in a lovely low relief sculpture on the corner of the building. This is by the Dutch sculptor Joseph Mendes da Costa, and is the front perspective of a steamship ploughing through the waves, a fitting symbol of both the source of the money that built Holland House and of the innovative spirit of the time.

Real World Guiding

With the prospect of lockdown lifting, I’ll be able to get back out into the real world and do some in person tours around the capital. The plan is to start in late June (assuming everything is quite safe by then). But what to do first? I’ve put together a very short questionnaire for you to choose which of my prospective walks most interest you.

Choices include Greenwich, the Blitz, the Rock n Roll history of Soho, the Great Fire of London, Whitehall and Westminster, War Memorials, the Southbank and Southwark, plus more. It would be great to hear what you’d like.

Go here to complete the questions

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.

It was also the scene for the Coronation Banquets, celebrations after the crowning of the new monarch in the nearby Westminster Abbey.

The most lavish of these – so lavish in fact, that future monarchs did away with the tradition for fear of appearing too profligate – was in 1821 for the coronation of that most extravagant of kings, George IV. The former Prince Regent’s banquet cost over £25,000 (the equivalent of £2.5-£3 million today) – the total cost of his coronation was £238,000, or well in excess of £25 million.

This was also the last time that the King’s Champion made their traditional appearance. Riding into the hall in full armour, the champion throws down his gauntlet three times, challenging to trial by combat anyone who disputes the new monarch’s right.

As with much of British society, the role of champion is an inherited one, belonging to the feudal holder of the Manor of Scrivelsby in Lincolnshire, which has been held since the 1300s by the male head of the Cymoke family.

Although not part of coronations since the 1821 Banquet, anyone wishing to challenge a future Charles III to be ‘the right heir to the Imperial Crown’ might want to note that Francis Dymoke, the present champion, is a 66 year old chartered accountant.

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.

In the four days of devastation, over 80% of the City of London was left a smouldering ruin, around 13,000 homes had been destroyed (as had the magnificent medieval St Paul’s cathedral) and up to 80,000 people had been made homeless, many living as refugees in camps in the fields on the roads up to Highbury.

On 10 September John Evelyn wrote “I went again to the ruins; for it was now no longer a city.

Next week I’ll be giving an online talk about the fire on UKToursOnline.com, looking at how it started, its progression through the City and the destruction caused. We’ll look at the plans for the rebuilding from Wren, Evelyn and Hooke, how rumour spread throughout the city that the fire had been deliberately started by the Dutch, or the French, or Jesuits, and how a new city emerged from the ashes of the old.

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