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: 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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The Henry Fawcett Memorial, Embankment Gardens

WHAT: Henry Fawcett Memorial

WHERE: Victoria Embankment Gardens (map)

BY WHOM: Mary Grant

WHEN: 1886

There are numerous late Victorian statues and memorials in Embankment Gardens, the very pretty public park that occupies the land reclaimed from the Thames by Bazalgette that lies between the Adelphi and the river.

Walking through there recently (admiring the extraordinary beds of tulips) I was intrigued by the memorial to Henry Fawcett because a) the subject is obviously blind and b) it is inscribed “erected … by his grateful countrywomen”.

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No Pasaran! The Jubilee Gardens Memorial

no pasaran the international brigades memorial in jubilee gardens london

The British and other foreign fighters travelling to Ukraine to resist Putin’s invasion are an echo of 85 years ago, some 35,000 non-Spaniards (2,500 from Britain) joined the ‘International Brigades’ to go to Spain to fight for the Republican forces against Franco’s Nationalist rebels in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39).

Some 50 years later, in October 1985, a memorial to the British members of the International Brigade was unveiled in Jubilee Gardens on the South Bank by the then Labour Party leader Michael Foot.

Called ‘No Pasaran’ (“they shall not pass”, the call to arms in a speech at the start of the Battle of Madrid in 1936) it is a bronze by the sculptor Ian Walter. On one face of the plinth is an inscription honouring “The 2100 men and women who left … to fight side by side with the Spanish people” (526 of these were killed) and on another  “they went because their open eyes could see no other way”, and adaption of a line from Cecil Day Lewis’s poem ‘The Volunteer’. 

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Stockwell’s concrete cathedral for buses

stockwell bus garage interior

Fall asleep on a Go-Ahead bus and you might just be lucky enough to wake up in the depot – the soaring, concrete cathedral that is Stockwell Bus Garage. (It’s 100m or so from Stockwell station.)

Opened in 1952, at the time it had Europe’s largest unsupported roof span, the vast space inside (6,800 sq metres, or roughly ten football pitches) able to house 200 buses.

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The Chapel of St John the Evangelist

One of the loveliest and most peaceful spaces in London is literally in the centre of one of the busiest. The Tower of London gets some two million visitors a year, and in high season one can wait several hours to shuffle past the Crown Jewels, and the space in the White Tower around the armour of Henry VIII and Charles I is as jammed as Selfridges on the first day of the sale.

But walk up to the next level of the Tower and you go through an absolute architectural gem – the Chapel of St John the Evangelist – which manages to be utterly tranquil despite the hordes.

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National Covid Memorial Wall

Along the Albert Embankment wall of St Thomas’ Hospital, directly over the Thames to the Houses of Parliament is an incredible piece of public guerrilla art.

Hand painted on the wall are thousands upon thousands of red and pink hearts, each one representing a victim of the Covid pandemic. Some have the names of individuals written in, there are other hearts drawn by family members, messages have been appended.

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The House Where Churchill Died

Hyde Park Gate is a cul de sac off the Kensington Road, a stone’s throw from the Albert Hall and Albert Memorial. It’s a mix of houses from the second quarter of the 19th century and some fairly dreadful modern additions.

Wander down the street and you’ll pass blue plaques to Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Scout movement, to the author Enid Bagnold, Sir Leslie Stephen (father of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, both of whom were born here) and the sculptor Sir Jacob Epstein*.

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Ghost stories! Spooky London tales for Hallowe’en

Another free online talk for you. Me and the rest of the gang at UKToursOnline did one of our ‘chats’ yesterday evening where we talked ghosts, witches, the supernatural and other bits of London lore and legends.

You can see me discussing the Battersea Poltergeist, Tim Barron talks about haunted theatres, Rachel Pearson looks at witches, Emma Matthews visits haunted pubs and Leo Heaton introduces us to the Black Dog of Newgate.

For more like this, follow UKToursOnline on our Facebook page.

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