The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior

If you should come into the Abbey through the West Door and into the nave, you will walk over the memorial to Sir Winston Churchill, but  everyone, whether commoner or Queen, walks around the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior.

This is the last resting place of a British soldier, “known only to God” and is a commemoration of British war dead, conceived in the aftermath of WW1. The red flowers around it are paper poppies, a symbol of remembrance from a First World War poem – “In Flanders’ fields the poppies blow, between the crosses, row on row”. Poppies thrive in ground that has been churned up, so the bombed out land and the grave sites away from the front line encouraged their blooms.

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The Museum of the Home

To the reopened (after a 3 ½ year, £18m+ revamp) Museum of the Home, a London Society tour with the museum director Sonia Solicari, and Naila Yousuf, the lead architect on the project from the firm of Wright + Wright.

Way back in the dark ages of the 1980s I lived in Hoxton where the museum is based, close to the Regent’s Canal, just off Kingsland Road. Those were the days before Hoxton became “Hoxton”, stamping ground for the Young British Artists and the ‘bleeding edge’ of privileged urban lifestyles masquerading as slumming it.

The museum was then known as the Geffrye Museum, so named because it was sited in the alms houses built in 1714 that had been funded from the estate of Robert Geffrye (more on him later). It was a series of rooms that captured the furnishings and style of different periods, showing what the living spaces of (comfortably off) families would have been like from the mid-1600s through to the 1950s.

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Eastcheap’s Camels

Eastcheap – from an old english word for market (and “east” to distinguish it from the original Westcheap, now ‘Cheapside’) – runs from Monument tube station towards the Tower of London; its name dates to at least anglo-saxon times.

At number 20 is a bar called Eastcheap Records, but look above the door and you will see a frieze of three laden camels being led by a Bedouin across a desert. The bones of a fourth camel might be made out in the centre foreground.

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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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Ottobah Cugoano – an 18th century freed slave and abolitionist

Much of the narrative on the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire is framed by the actions of the white British campaigners – Josiah Wedgewood; Wilberforce, Thornton and the ‘Clapham Sect’ – with the voices and deeds of former slaves either pushed to the background or disregarded entirely.

However, in recent years the life and works of Olaudah Equiano has become better appreciated. Equiano was a former slave from the Kingdom of Benin, who lived in London as a free man and who published an autobiography that helped publicise the horrors of slavery and of the slave trade to Georgian society.

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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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Chasing the Mallard

mallard

To get into All Souls College Oxford, one has to take what has been called ‘the hardest examination in the world’. The college has no undergraduates, the members of it are Fellows, and over the past 100 years or so these have included Isaiah Berlin, Marina Warner, Joseph Stiglitz and Professor Cecile Fabre.

To be a Fellow of All Souls is therefore to be among the intellectual elite, the brightest of the bright.

Which is why the it is a little surprising to hear about the Mallard Ceremony, held every 100 years (that’s right, just once a century, the last one was in 2001 so we’re none of us likely to be around for the next one).

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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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