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.
In the British Museum is a remarkable Iron Age corpse, a wonderfully preserved ‘bog body’ from the 1st century CE discovered in a place called Lindow Moss near Wilmslow in Chesire in 1984.
Lindow Moss is a peat bog and while workmen were harvesting this peat they discovered a leg. The previous year the head of a woman (dated to the 2nd or 3rd century CE) had been found, so the archeologists were called in.
Walk into Room 40 in the British Museum via the staircase in the entrance lobby and the first thing that hits you is this wonderful piece of medieval metalwork – The Royal Gold Cup, created around 1380 in France by John, Duc de Berry for his brother Charles V (or, some sources say, for his nephew Charles VI).
It’s a lidded cup that weighs just under 4kg (so just over 4lb) is around 23cm (9 inches) tall and is made from gold with ‘basse-taille’ (low relief) enamelling that tells the story of the martyrdom of St Agnes (Charles V birthday was St Agnes’ Day – 21 January).
[Here’s me doing an online talk about the Cup and explaining more about the story of St Agnes]
Up in Room 40 of the British Museum you will find one of the most stunning bits of medieval carving to survive – a citole (an early type of guitar) that dates from around 1300.
It’s carved from box (a slow-growing shrub that produces dense, hard wood). When it was nearly 300 years old, someone decided that citoles were so last year and converted it into a violin, but the neck and main structure were retained (the finger board and top of the sound box are ‘new’). Continue reading →
My Instagram Live talk from today about the Cabinet Room in the Central War Rooms and how it was used in WW2.
“This is the room from which I shall direct the war” said Winston Churchill in May 1940. Click on ‘play’ to hear about the set up, the atmosphere, the tense meetings and arguments that took place beneath the streets of Westminster, and to see some of the incredible artefacts that have been preserved in the space.
The rooms were recreated in the studio for the Darkest Hour movie but – spoiler alert – the climactic meeting between Churchill and those who wanted to negotiate with Hitler didn’t take place here (The Blitz had not started at that point, so cabinet meetings were still being held in Downing Street.)
With us all locked down it’s impossible to do tours at present, so I’ll be experimenting with some online tours. This is the first effort (at the risk of underselling it, I’m hoping they’ll improve with practice) – an introduction to the Churchill War Rooms.
I’ll do a couple more on the Cabinet Room and the Map Room in the next couple of weeks, but this one attempts to set the context for their creation and introduce a couple of characthers that you may not have heard of.
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 →
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. Continue reading →
You’ve almost certainly heard of Poets’ Corner, the spot within Westminster Abbey given over to the commemoration of the nations’ authors, poets and playwrights. Amongst dozens of others you’ll find Chaucer’s tomb, plaques to Edward Lear, Wordsworth, D H Lawrence and the Bronte sisters, the graves of Dickens and Browning, a statue of Shakespeare and the bust of Longfellow, windows to the memory of Marlowe, Oscar Wilde and Mrs Gaskell.
But it’s not the only such grouping within the Abbey. There’s ‘musicians’ aisle’, the ‘statesmen’s aisle’ and, in front of the choir screen that divides the nave, ‘scientists’ corner’.
This is the group of graves and memorials centred on the grave and commemorative statue to Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727), the eminent scientist of the period. Responsible for advances in mathematics, optics, physics, astronomy; deviser of calculus, laws of motion and gravitational theory, he is one of the towering figures of science. “Hic depositum est, quod mortale fuit Isaaci Newtoni” says the epitaph on the grey marble slab that covers him: “here lies what was mortal of Isaac Newton”. The English translation is repeated on the nearby memorial stone to Stephen Hawking, a successor to Newton as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University. Hawking’s ashes were interred in the Abbey in 2018. Continue reading →