MOST PEOPLE have a vague idea that the old London Bridge was sold to the Americans in the 1960s. Except that it wasn’t. At least not all of it. The Americans built a reinforced concrete structure for the bridge and only wanted the stone as cladding which means that an awful lot of it was left in London. But where?
For some years I have been collecting information about where the old stones of the demolished 1830s bridge – and the earlier mediaeval one – have survived. When the list reached nearly 30, ranging from a suburban wall in Wandsworth to a public space at Amersfoort in Holland. I thought that must be it. But then I came across Bryan Hewitt, author and gardener at Myddelton house in Enfield which itself is home to bits of the mediaeval bridge.
He told me that in the early 1970s a load of huge granite blocks was deposited by persons unknown on a roundabout on the A10 at Hoddesdon in Hertfordshire. I would guess that they came directly or indirectly from the yard of John Mowlem and Company who demolished the old 1830s London Bridge in the early 1960s when most of it went to Arizona (as chronicled by Travis Elborough in London Bridge in America). According to a letter in the Kew Gardens archives, there were 400 tons of blocks left over in the yard – ranging up to 6′ 3″ high weighing 3 tons.
They are now spread around the Lee Valley Country Park and Bryan kindly took me on a walk last week to see some of them. One of the most iconic is a very large block along the Walton Way section of the River Lee which has a circular mosaic of a fish (picture, above) embossed on it in memory of Izaac Walton, author of the 1653 Classic The Compleat Angler who used to fish along this stretch. The temptation to turn remnants of London Bridge into artworks is also evident in the two sculptured blocks standing sentinel a mile apart on a lane marking the meridian line stretching from Waltham Cross to the Crooked Mile road (above, right).
Outside St Margaret’s Church in Barking (left) two smaller stones have been joined together in a minimalist sculpture. The stone in the most public view stands between the Odeon cinema and the Lee Valley Athletics Centre at Meridian Way, Edmonton (below, left). This stone is dedicated to the Duke of Edinburgh as is a much small one near the toilets at Fishers Green. There are two other similar stones on the other side of the canal to the Lee Valley White Water Centre at Waltham Cross which almost certainly came from the same mysterious drop at the Haddesdon roundabout. I am amazed at the fresh discoveries of bits of the various versions of old London Bridge. If anyone has heard reports of other remnants, I’d be delighted to hear them.
Today’s Somerset House is a wonderful space for art and entertainment contained in a quadrangle mainly remarkable because of the paucity of its neighbours. The original, much grander, Somerset House was built by the rapacious Duke of Somerset, Lord Protector of the boy-king Edward VI (who became sovereign age 9 when Henry VIII died in 1547). He pillaged local inns, churches and other places without compensation to build his grandiose pile. He stole from buildings including the charnel house of Saint Pauls and parts of the Priory of Saint John of Jerusalem at Clerkenwell. He was only stopped from stealing stone from St Margaret’s Church adjacent to Westminster Abbey when his intentions provoked a near riot. It also provoked the intervention of Providence as Protector Somerset died before his palace was completed. Serves him right.
Somerset House was one of a series of grand palaces built along the Strand by bishops and nobility wanting to have a prestigious London pad near the Court in Whitehall. Its neighbours were Arundel House on the east and the Savoy Palace on the west. All of these palaces have now disappeared – only Somerset House, which was completely re-built by Sir William Chambers in the late 18th century, remains as a glimpse of what the north bank of Thames looked like in those days, even though Somerset House lost its river frontage when Sir Joseph Bazalgette built the Embankment.
Fascinatingly, there are still remains of the original building to be found if you know where to look – or if you are given a conducted tour as we were yesterday by Michael Trapp, Professor of Greek at Kings’ College, as part of the Arts and Humanities Festival 2014. The most dramatic remains lie under a glass floor, appropriately in the archaeological department (photo, left below). They include a Tudor wall on the left, the chalky medieval remains on the right by a bed of stones under which was uncovered a rubbish tip dating to the time when the Saxons established the Saxon trading port of Lundenwic along the Strand.
A short distance away in the yard where Kings’ students park their bikes is a late 17th century wall (photo, right) which is the only free standing remnant of the old palace. On the other side is the entrance to what for years has been known as the Roman Bath (photo, below) partly because it was mentioned by Dickens and other authors. However, Professor Trapp has established that, although it has been used as a cold bath for periods, it was in fact a much taller structure which fed water into a spectacular fountain in the gardens of Somerset House and was nothing to do with the Romans. Another myth bites the dust.
AT AN auction in Paris in 1865 James de Rothschild, the richest man in the world – far richer than Bill Gates is today – was beaten in his bid for a painting which sold for six times its pre-sale estimate. The man who beat him was the fourth Marquess of Hertford and the painting was entitled Portrait of a Man (portrait d’un homme). Today we know it as the Laughing Cavalier, though the subject of the painting is neither smiling nor a cavalier. It was executed by Frans Hals in 1624 and it is probably one of the best-known portraits in the country if not in Europe – known somehow even to children – and would fetch well north of £100 million if it were sold today.
Except that it won’t be. It is but one of countless treasures housed in the truly impressive Wallace collection in Manchester Square London. It was a condition of the bequest to the nation (by the widow of Sir Richard Wallace, the illegitimate son of the fourth Marquess who collected most of it himself) that the collection should be on view to the public in its entirety: no painting or artefact – and goodness knows, there are plenty of them – should be lent let alone sold. Given the comparatively small area of the house this must make it the densest collection of artistic wealth in the country. And maybe anywhere. And it is free.
Where did the money come from? As with the Grosvenors it came from land and marriage. The louche 3rd Marquess of Hertford married Maria Fagnani in 1798, She was the illegitimate daughter of a former dancer who was bequeathed separate fortunes by two very wealthy men (the fourth Duke of Queensberry and George Selwyn) both of whom thought they were her father. C’est la vie. . . But a detour into the Hertford familly would need a thick book. There are so many pictures in the gallery, many of them masterpieces, including 22 Canalettos, French 18th century classics plus works by Titian, Velasquez, Rubens, Gainsborough, Reynolds and, ooh the Rembrandts, that they have to be tiered along the walls. It feels as if a multibillionaire – only one of the rare ones with taste – has run amok with his chequebook.
I like it a bit more every time I visit it, not least for its intimacy. It doesn’t even have lines forbidding you to go near the paintings. In this sense maybe it is a good thing it is a little out of the way (in Manchester Square) because too many visitors might make it difficult to retain the magic it conjures up. But that shouldn’t stop you going and maybe even making a contribution to its upkeep as you leave – after you have had a glass of wine and a snack under Norman Foster’s glorious atrium. The entire wine list is French, notwithstanding the resurgence of English and Welsh wines, doubtless because the Hertfords were such ardent Francophiles. Sir Richard himself, who had a palatial apartment in the Rue Laffitte, died in one their other French homes, the Chateau de Bagatelle in Paris. In a word that is so often overused. – not least by me – this is truly a gem of London And I only mention the paintings because that is what interests me most but lovers of furniture swoon at the collection which has more Marie Antoinette furniture than Versailles and the biggest collection of armour in the land etc, etc.
The only criticism one can think of is that there are too many dazzling paintings lined one on top of the other. If they had twice the space it would still look crowded so it is best to come regulartly and spend more time on a selected few. In between read the guide book, The Wallace Collection (Scala) which not only enables you to savour some of the smaller items you have missed but gives a glimpse of how the other half used to live. And how . . .
Little known fact: Among Sir RichardWallace’s charitable donations was 50 drinking fountains scattered around Paris which to this day are known as “Wallaces”.
Is there any other part of London that packs so much history into so small a space? The few square metres on which the statue of Charles 1 stands in Trafalgar Square is chiefly known today as the central point of London from which all distances are measured. It is also the oldest surviving reminder of Jacobean London in the square and sits exactly on the site of the much earlier Eleanor’s Cross which dates back to 1294 when Charing was a village midway between the City of London and Whitehall.
The statue itself has not always been there. It was commissioned by Richard Weston, later first Earl of Portland, in the early 1630s. The plinth was made with Portland stone – geologists have found Jurassic oysters embedded within – and reputedly designed by Christopher Wren with carvings by the eminent Grinling Gibbons. The statue first stood in the grounds of Weston’s Surrey mansion but after the execution of Charles 1, Parliament ordered its destruction.
Fortunately, the man entrusted with this task, a Holborn brazier aptly named John Rivett, hid it – probably in the crypt of St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden – while the civil war raged. After the Restoration it was rediscovered by Portland ‘s son but Rivett was unwilling to give it up until Parliament confiscated it on behalf of Charles 11 who had it erected at Charing Cross, bizarrely, looking down Whitehall at the Banqueting Hall where his father Charles 1 was executed. The Banqueting Hall and the statue are the only two structures from the period still standing. Charles has been there all the time since then except during the Second World War when he was evacuated to Leighton Buzzard.
The space near the statue was for a long time the site of a pillory (picture above) and also a place of public executions including those of the regicides who had signed Charles 1’s death warrant, most of whom are buried under the churchyard of St Margaret’s next to Westminster Abbey.
Eleanor’s Cross was erected in the early 1290s. It was the original Charing Cross, Charing being the name of a village largely owned by the Abbot of Westminster and mainly inhabited by fishermen and farmers. The cross was the last of 12 large crosses laid down at each of the places where the body of Edward 1’s beloved wife Eleanor rested overnight on its journey from Lincoln where she died to Westminster Abbey. It was part of an extravagant series of bequests that Edward, known as Longshanks because of his height, made in honour of his wife.
The cross was demolished in 1647 during the civil war and later replaced by the statue of Charles (map, left) but a Victorian copy of what it might have looked like still stands in the forecourt of Charing Cross station where it was placed to boost the attractions of the Charing Cross Hotel. Only three of the original crosses survive, all heavily restored and without their original wooden crosses on top. Some of the statues from the original Waltham Cross were transferred to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
All of the old village of Charing Cross – the Royal Mews, the village, Northumberland House and Dickens’ Golden Cross tavern – has been demolished. How Charles 1 alone managed to survive all this is hard to fathom. Maybe his ghost has been hovering near.
The “Dolphin” lamp standards have been burning gas for over 125 years
Sir Joseph Bazalgette, the great Victorian engineer, has a very modest memorial. It is embedded in a mausoleum-like wall opposite Embankment Station (see, below), easily passed by without being noticed. A few hundred yards down the road towards Blackfriars there is a much grander statue of his better known contemporary Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Maybe Bazalgette doesn’t need a statue. London is his memorial. No-one but no-one has had a greater effect on the way Londoners live than he, even including Sir Christopher Wren who left his mark over a much smaller footprint of land. If he had only built his bridges (Putney, Hammersmith and Battersea) that would be monument enough for anyone else. But Bazalgette, as chief engineer of the Metroploitan board of Works, also expanded the landmass both sides of the Thames by building embankments from Lambeth Bridge to Blackfriars. Without his achievements there would have been no land on which to build today’s world-leading entertainment complex on the south bank, nor the wonderful gardens on the north bank. He built roads such as Shaftesbury Avenue, Nothumberland Avenue and Charing Cross and shaped Clapham Common, Battersea and other parks. He even built schools. As Stephen Halliday recalls in his excellent book,The Great Stink (from which I have liberally drawn): “The millions who use his parks, streets and bridges every day rarely speculate about how they came to be built. Without Sir Joseph Bazalgette they might never have existed at all”.
But his biggest bequest by far to London cannot be seen at all. It is a vast underground system of ordinary sewers and intercepting sewers (which catch most of the sewage flowing towards theThames and divert it to treatment plants in east London). This made London a modern city.
The wrought iron lamposts with their sculpted Dolphins, which to this day run 70 feet apart – all numbered – along the length of the Embankment, are his above ground memorial. They are still lit by gas which, appropriately, they get from stretching down to the subterranean world that Bazalagette created and which plaŷed a major role in eliminating cholera, typhoid and other water-borne diseases from the Capital. They still bear the initials (MBW) of his employer the Metropolitan Board of Works (see, left) and the foundry that made them, Masefield of Chelsea. Curiously, they were not always gas fired. As Halliday recalls, large crowds gathered on the Embankment in 1878 to watch the great switch over from gas to a new invention called electricity using a technique imported from Paris. The experiment failed. Five years later they switched back to gas and have kept to it ever since.
Bazalgette did many other things that enriched London, not least beautiful sewage pumping stations such as Crossness which would feel more at home in the Victoria and Albert Museum than as part of a sewage system. It us unlikely that sewage works will ever be built like that in the future. That’s because there is unlikely ever to be a person like Bazalgette again, with the power and ability to build to replan an entire city from top to bottom.
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The extension is below the arrow on the left – and Wren’s design for the final stage on the right
The interior of Westminster Abbey is huge and sublime. But we only see part of it as the very spacious Upper Gallery or Triforium – some seven storeys high – has been closed off. But not for much longer. The Abbey is about to apply to Westminster Council to build new stairs and lifts between Poets’ Corner and the Chapter House to enable public access which is only possible at present by way of a small spiral staircase.
The model for the new access, which members of the Thorney Island Society had a preview of yesterday (see arrow, above left) shows how the Ptolemy Dean – an architect with a name even more historic than the Abbey – has tried to overcome the difficult task of harmonising the style with the rest of the Abbey. In common with many other medieval buildings it will be clad in lead rather than stone which is too bulky for the constrained space.
The Triforium, which boasts spectacular views of the inside of the Abbey, will be used as exhibition space for the numerous treasures that the Abbey is custodian of. If planning permission is granted it could be open to the public by 2017. But this doesn’t mean that building work on the present church, (technically it is not an abbey) completed by Edward the Confessor in 1160 on the site of an earlier church, will be finished. The first stage was an education centre and delightful cellarium, where I often have an afternoon coffee, while the third stage will be construction of a spire (above, right) as conceived by Sir Christopher Wren over three hundred years old. Since the original foundations were planned conservatively to support a spire there is apparently no need for further re-inforcement. All that is now needed is someone with pockets as deep as the spire is high.
It is not often that we London bloggers stumble across something that stops us in our tracks – but it happened yesterday. Twice. The first time was during a delightful tour of the venerable Apothecaries Hall in Blackfriars whose alumni include John Keats, Agatha Christie and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the first woman to blast her way – and it needed some blasting – into qualifying as a doctor. The tour itself, organised by London Historians, was memorable. Apothecaries are the largest City livery society (indeed, the only one as the others which dirty their fingers in trade are mere companies) and has a dizzy array of panelled halls and rooms replete with portraits of its illustrious leaders (see, below). Well worth a visit on the few days it is open to the public.
But the Hall is also of interest because it sits on the site of the medieval Blackfriars Monastery where Parliament once sat and where Catherine of Aragon defended herself when Henry VIII divorced her for Anne Boleyn. William Langland in the ancient poem, Piers Plowman, railed against the loucheness of the monks, but that’s another story. After the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s Blackfriars became a posh residential area and the site of two theatres, the first of which used some of the space now occupied by the Apothecaries Hall and the second was Shakespeare’s indoor theatre which was immediately south of what is now the hall.
Hardly anything of the monastery now remains apart from a tiny section of wall and part of another wall lost inside a nearby office block which very few people have seen. So, imagine our surprise when we asked our admirable guide, the Beagle, Gary Howe, whether there were any traces of the old monastery left. At first he seemed to say No but then added that comparatively recently they had found a crypt-like arched room 20 metres long after lifting some carpet tiles and descending down a narrow opening. They didn’t take any photographs so this hidden gem – for once the term is correctly used – still remains hidden. He was kind enough to lift the carpet tiles, tantalisingly, for us (above, left) which are immediately in front as you walk in the main door and the remains of the monastery would run roughly beneath the front of the building (above, right), where some London Historians are standing).
If that wasn’t enough for one day we took a visitor from New York around the corner through Playhouse Yard and along Ireland Lane to show her the Cockpit Pub on the site of the only property Shakespeare is know for certain to have purchased . But when we got there we bumped into the Chambers director of the building opposite who not only claims that it is the true site of the gatehouse but points to a new plaque on the wall, approved by the Corporation of London, which has endorsed it. I will need more evidence before I take sides in this Shakespearean turf war – and in any case there is a limit to the number of surprises you can take in a single day.
Medieval stained glass, (above) and dining hall, below)
Phials containing water untouched in 129,000 years
LONDON owes its existence to water. Without the Thames there would have been no point in building it. In olden days Westminster – Parliament, the Abbey and the School – were built on an island (Thorney) surrounded with water from the delta of the Tyburn and the Thames. And if you want to be nerdy London itself has become an island thanks to the canal system around its perimeter.
So it is wonderful for London to have a Museum of Water which has been created by the artist Amy Sharrocks (below, right) at Somerset House (but be quick, only till the end of the month). I found it a rather magical experience.
Amy Sharrocks (right) shows samples to artist Joan Edlis
Visitors are encouraged to bring some bottled water and to attach a message saying what it means to them before they are lined up on shelves around the cave-like interior (the bottles, not the visitors). By the time I had left this evening 487 people had deposited a bottled-up part of themselves there including one from me (number 486 since you ask). They range from one of Amy’s own (from the Grand Canal in Venice) to a jar of water left to evaporate on the death of a loved one leaving nothing but memories. A 4 year old girl left water collected from a sea filled with jelly fish in Malta while another took sea from the north of Scotland where the Atlantic Ocean meets the North Sea. There is a core sample taken from the exceptionally cold weather around 1816 when it was too cold to go out which, apparently left Mary Shelley, Byron and friends to tell ghost stories to each other which led to Mary writing Frankenstein (and Munch inspired to paint The Scream). A clergyman wept tears of joy on learning he had been accepted for ordination. My fave was three small phials containing water donated by someone on the British Antarctic Expedition (see above) which was 129,000 years old. Wow.
My own was a sample collected that morning from the Thames on the south side of Vauxhall Bridge where 6,000 year old piles appear only at very low tide. In between they have been saved from deterioration by the protection of Father Thames as a curator of his own history. I was interested to see that after the container had been left standing for a few hours the mud settled leaving almost clear water – a glimpse of what the Thames would look like if only there wasn’t mud underneath.
There were some strategically placed buckets of water which I presumed were part of the exhibition but turned out to be catching drops from a leaky roof. But it is still water so is part of the show. That’s the magic of it. Everything is the same (it’s only H2O) yet everything is different because of the context. And this show could hardy have a better context than the leaky subterranean depths of Somerset House which itself lost its river frontage when the Embankment was built.
Click here for my interview with Amy
Trafalgar Square today with King Charles l looking down Whitehall towards his place of execution
Nothing is quite what it seems in Trafalgar Square. It is umbilically tied to Nelson’s column in popular imagination but it was not meant to be. It was never intended to have a statue of Nelson there at all. The column was an afterthought when a parliamentary committee imposed Nelson there to the chagrin of the architect Sir Charles Barry who had intended to build the Royal Academy in the middle of the square as a complement to the National Gallery in the north. The name Trafalgar Square was also an after thought. It was originally going to be called “King William lV’s Square”.
Poor King William. He not only lost his square but his plinth as well. What is now called the Fourth Plinth on the north-west side of the square – these days a permanent home for temporary statues – was originally intended for a bronze statue of William IV but no one could raise the money for it and the plinth remained empty until 1998 when the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) suggested the idea of rotating a series of modern sculptures. They generate praise and scorn in equal measure but have the exhilarating effect of starting conversations in the open air about modern art in the middle of a capital city.
It goes on. The National Gallery itself was never intended to look quite like that. William Wilkins, the Gallery’s architect, was very miffed when he was forced to incorporate columns and capitals from the nearby Carlton House (roughly where the Duke of York’s column now is in the Mall) which had been lying in shortage since its demolition. This gave rise to widespread criticism at the time that the square lacked grandeur. Well, you can’t win every battle.
The little noticed bronze statue of George IV on the north-east of the square was never intended to be there either. It was originally planned for the top of the Marble Arch – at a time when the arch itself was going to be outside Buckingham Palace – but he was plonked on this plinth as a temporary resting place and has been there ever since.
Another statue that has gone walk-about is General Gordon. There used to be an 18ft high (pedestal) statue of him in the square between the two fountains before it was removed in 1943 and re-sited on the Victoria Embankment a decade later. And the fountains themselves are not the original ones which were erected there to prevent large numbers of potential rioters assembling together. They were given as a present to Canada and replaced by new ones designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens in 1937-39. Another statue – of the discoverer of vaccination, Edward Jenner – which once stood in the south-west part of the square next to Sir Charles Napier (who was still there at the time of writing) was shipped off to Kensington Gardens in 1862. The shortest journey was made by the earth excavated from the square. It was taken to nearby St James Park to level the land.
If Trafalgar Square is beginning to look like a game of musical statues we may be tempted to look for continuity at the statue of the executed Charles I (below) situated at the southern end of the square looking down Whitehall to his place of execution outside Inigo Jones’ Banqueting Hall. It is the oldest equestrian statue in London, created by a French sculptor Hubert La Sueur in 1633 and is still there. Except that it hasn’t always been still there. It was ordered to be melted down by Cromwell’s Parliament after the Civil War. For its present presence we have to thank the brazier who, instead of melting it down, hid it and sold it back to Charles II after the restoration of the monarchy where it has remained ever since The statue was erected on the site of the original Charing Cross, created by Edward l in the early 1290s as a memorial to his wife Eleanor. It can be regarded as the centre of London as distances from the centre of the capital are measured from a point underneath the statue.
A royal presence is fitting because Trafalgar Square is actually owned by the Queen though the roads around it are controlled by Westminster Council. The square is now a revered place, especially since the northern end has been pedestrianised transforming it overnight into a bubbling public space for gossiping and entertainments of all kinds from Opera to food markets and celebrations of the Chinese New Year.
There may be a moral to this. Maybe we should rotate all our statues on a regular basis so new ones can replace the giants of old who have long-since faded from the popular imagination.
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Left, remains of monastery wall. Right – Cockpit pub, site of Shakespeare’s house
LONDON is often accused of hiding its history but seldom has anything been as well buried as the history of Blackfriars. I walked to work for many years up the deeply uninspiring Farringdon Road without any idea that on the (eastern) side of the street once stood the monastery of the Dominicans or Black Friars from 1276 until the Dissolution in the 1530s when it was divvied up among Henry V111’s cronies. In Henry’s time the former refectory was often used for meetings of Parliament and in May 1529, the Parliament Chamber – later to become Shakespeare’s indoor theatre – was where the annulment of Henry V111’s first marriage to Catherine of Aragon was debated.
Blackfriars played a seminal role in Shakespeare’s life because when his troupe was forced to leave The Theatre in Shoreditch in 1598, it tried to set up in The Blackfriars precinct only to be thwarted by a group of aristocratic Puritans led by the uber-connected Lady Elizabeth Russell whose single-mindedness makes Mrs Thatcher look like a girl guide. As a fascinating book just published (Chris Laoutaris, Shakespeare and the Countess) argues, it was only because Shakespeare’s troupe – led By Richard Burbage – was thwarted in Blackfriars by Lady Russell and her neighbours that it had to resort to Plan B – to build the Globe over the Thames on Bankside out of timbers recycled from The Theatre. Without Lady Elizabeth’s nimbyism, there may have been no Globe. Anazing thought.
Old wall (left). Playhouse Yard (right). The theatre was near the pillared building at the back
Later on in 1608, after Lady Elizabeth’s death, Shakespeare and his King’s Men were able to occupy, or re-occupy the (much more profitable) Blackfriars site in the Parliament/Refectory hall where they staged Henry V111 (originally called All is True) in the very hall where Henry’s divorce petition against Anne Boleyn had been debated years earlier and using some of the actual words mouthed by Catherine.
In Staunton, Virginia, the Americans have built a full-scale replica of the Blackfriars as a tribute to Shakespeare. An American – Sam Wanamaker – was also responsible for building a replica of the Globe on Bankside. London is greatly in debt to the endeavours of Americans for maintaining interest in these two iconic Shakespearean theatres. Meanwhile, the site of the original Blackfriars theatre remains invisible without even a plaque to acknowledge its existence.
If the Thames is the bit of London that most Londoners take for granted then the Thames foreshore is the bit they would also take for granted if only they knew it was there. That may sound cynical but there is no doubt that the foreshore is the most forgotten part of the city. Which is a pity because it is the curator of London’s memories going back over the centuries, an organic museum which changes every day in response to wind and tide. We were lucky today to have the company of three Museum of London archaeologists working with the Thames Discovery project (Twitter @ThamesDiscovery) who opened our eyes to some little known facts about the foreshore at Rotherhithe (Think Mayflower and Angel pubs). Rotherhithe was not long ago a centre for ship breaking. Ships passed their sail-by dates from Turner’s Fighting Temeraire downwards came here to be broken up, recycled and sold to the highest bidder. Many of the timbers were used to build causeways and platforms (see photo above) with Victorian timbers so strong they are still embedded in the foreshore surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of nails. Big patches of white (below) turn out to be chalk imported to provide a flat surface for the boats while round yellowy stones were once London bricks sculpted by time and tide. Most of the shingle that populates the banks turns out to have been deposited there by humans as are many of the stones ejected from ships to create space for the return journey.
We found 17th century pipes of the kind Sir Walter Raleigh would have used and bits of Delf pottery (below) from a little later probably surplus to requirements from nearby potteries. We were shown part of the causeway opposite Wapping Steps (above, left) and a rare section of a medieval wall on the foreshore (above, middle). Our archaeologists had amazing knowledge but even they were stumped, if that’s the right word, by the piece of timber (below, left). They can’t figure out what those slots are for at the front. Can you? They left us with a tantalising glimpse of a site nearer Tower Bridge where neo-lithic remains are thought to reside. We will probably have to wait until the Thames sewage tunnel reaches here when a fresh archaeological dig is likely.
Road works in our street in Victoria to install new electricity cables this week have uncovered part of the entrance to a vast Victorian prison. The old bricks (above) which are from the right side of the trench (below, right) are from the prison known as Tothill Fields Bridewell built in 1834 on the site of what is now Westminster Cathedral and surrounding mansion blocks. The prison extended over what is now Thirleby Road as can be seen from the illustration (below, left) which overlays a current map of the area on a map of 1862 showing the extent of the prison. The long trench in the photo runs from the beginning of Thirleby Road at the Francis Street end. It can be seen that the remains of the wall were very near the entrance to the prison and the fragments of stone (bottom photo) may have been part of the entrance (reproduced in the print below). Bones were also found during the excavation of the trench.
Roadworks offer an unusual opportunity for amateur archaeologists to exercise their curiosity. Among finds I have come across recently in this area are two separate sightings of the Tyburn River and part of the foundations of Whitehall Place.
Tothill prison was built on the site of an earlier prison on an 8 acre site along open principles espoused by Jeremy Bentham as a House of Correction for vagrants. Bridewells became the generic name for prisons after Bridewell Palace by Fleet Street, built by Henry V111, was converted into a goal. Tothill had a reputation for being well managed – which may account for the fact that it had a high degree of re-offenders who rather preferred the goal to the outside world. The stone entrance to the prison (seen at the rear of the courtyard below), can still be seen as it was transported to the rear of what is now the Supreme Court in Parliament Square.. This is the only remnant of the original prison I have come across – apart from some bricks recovered from this week’s excavations which I am keeping as a souvenir.
Stone from the entrance to the prison (left) and print of the original entrance to Tothill (right)
Me (left) sampling Forty Hall – Chateau Tooting (centre) – and Olding Manor, right
A highlight of my sojourn among English and Welsh vineyards last year was the almost biblical sight of volunteers toiling among the ten acres of grapes at Forty Hall (photo below) in Enfield, probably the biggest vineyard in London since the Middle Ages. Yesterday I had my first taste of the 2013 vintage at the Real Wine Fair at Wapping. Davenports the highly regarded vineyard in Sussex which made wine from the Forty crop was also at the Fair. And the result? Young but fruity and very palatable, the best of the new London vintages I have tasted this year.
This was one of about 200 bottles of still white wine (the sparkling, which takes longer to mature, is yet to come) produced in this pioneering year which will mostly go to members of the community who have given their time or donations to bring to fruition a project that is the pacemaker in the sudden revival of winemaking in London.
But it is not yet the biggest despite Forty’s plans to expand eventually to 10,000 bottles. London’s current leading wine producer couldn’t be more different. It is Chateau Tooting, which I have written about before, is producing nearly 700 bottles of wine – with ambitious plans for expansion – from anonymous grapes submitted by volunteers from their gardens and allotments. I was so surprised by the quality of the Tooting wine considering the changeling circumstances of its birth that I asked their winemaker, the multi-prize winning Bolney Estate in Sussex, what sort of alchemy they had employed.
Sam Linter, managing director of Bolney, commented: “When the grapes arrived we thought this is going to bean exciting challenge. All our experiences and skills were needed.” She said the batch was a mish-mash including ripe, overripe and under-ripe grapes. Among the techniques used to cope with this were to reduce acid at the pre-fermentation stage, put in a few light oak chips while fermenting and ensure a gentle pressing so unripe grapes not would not be squeezed so hard. How would she judge it in a blind tasting? She replied that it was the best Chateau Tooting yet and she had drunk an awful lot worse in supermarkets. It was, she said, “easy to drink though with no real complexity, but is clean, fresh, with some fruit, a sound wine.” The lesson, it seems, is that you can make drinkable wine from poor grapes as long as you have the right techniques and equipment. However, she emphasises that top quality wines still require the best quality grapes!
Camley Street vineyard, Kings Cross (left) – Paul Olding (right)
If Forty and Tooting are Premier Division, there is a growing number of smaller operations such as Paul Olding (above. right) who produces around 100 bottles of Olding Manor – very drinkable whites and reds – from his 42 vine allotment in Lewisham which he kindly gave me a tasting of. It is already proving contagious as eight out of 15 nearby allotments have taken his cuttings and he himself wants to buy land in Kent for a proper vineyard.
Alex Smith, founder of Alara Wholefoods and one of the pioneers of urban winemaking, has wrapped some vines around the perimeter fence of his works in Camley Street, King’s Cross (above, left) and has produced around 70 bottles this year. Tony Hibbert, who writes about his experiences as a small-scale grower in UKvine.com, hopes to produce 200 bottles a year eventually but this year his main crop was 24 bottles of red from his Pinot Noir vines which he is rather pleased with. Marko Bojcun has planted a vineyard called Hawkwood in Chingford to grow for the local community making wine for dozens of households who bring their grapes to him.
All these projects have one thing in common. Community. They are run by volunteers doing something for the common good which purely commercial considerations might rule out. Whether it will all wither away or, helped by global warming, grow to become a national phenomenon remains to be seen.
Of course, the price of land in London rules it out as a source of major vineyards but you only need to take a train journey to see an abundance of wasted land either side of the tracks which, with suitably secure fences, could be put down to grapes as could gardens and allotments up and down the country.
The quality of the wine could easily be improved by coordinating the efforts of volunteers to plant one particular variety which grows well in England and Wales – say Bacchus or Seyval – and exchanging regular advice on best practice. London used to have lots of vineyards including at Westminster, Piccadilly, St Giles, Holborn, Lambeth and Bermondsey. Now there is a revival, thanks at least in part to global warming.
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