Hidden London: Bloomsbury & Fitzrovia

It’s an odd experience when you follow a walk that includes both your street and your place of work. I suspect I hadn’t got round to doing the Bloomsbury & Fitzrovia walk because I figured I knew most of the facts the book would tell me. Unsurprisingly, I was wrong in my assumptions – I learnt a lot, and can now regale my family, friends and colleagues with new fun facts.

Thanks to the walk’s circular route, I was able to pick it up at the end of my street (where my almost-local pub was one of the listed highlights) and follow the loop around. Several of the listed places were simply roads, parks or squares that I’ve regularly travelled through (in fact, it included the three squares that form the backbone of my weekday running route), and as a result, I did skip bits.

The squares of Bloomsbury & FitzroviaSome of the squares of Bloomsbury/Fitzrovia: Gordon Square in the spring; Russell Square in the autumn; Bedford Square in mid-winter; and Fitzroy Square on a sunny Monday morning. 

The first surprise was that I learnt something new about my place of work! I was very pleased to see St George’s feature as a landmark on the walk and discovered that until 1875 the church hosted an annual Christmas dinner for chimney sweeps’ apprentices – according to the book the church ‘is still known as the chimney sweeps’ church’. I can’t say that it is, but I am aware of a plaque to chimney sweeps on the wall of the church kitchen.

St George's St George’s in the middle of winter – the only time it’s visible through the trees. 

I was also pointed towards a Ted Hughes quote in nearby Queens Square [incidentally, fascinating grammatical fact, the name does not have an apostrophe], forming part of a Jubilee memorial for the Queen (not the same Queen that the square is named for, obviously) and alluding to his ill-fated marriage to Sylvia Plath in the church. (This is my favourite St George’s fact, but other people in the church don’t like to mention it. However, having read the collected works & journals of Plath as a teenager, I was delighted to discover it.)

Queens Square Jubilee Monument

Very excitingly, one of my discoveries was London underground related! The book informed that the mysterious round buildings just off Tottenham Court Road, used as Eisenhower’s underground HQ during WW2, was originally a tunnel intended to be an express version of the Northern Line. An express Northern Line? Can you imagine the joy that would bring to commuters?!

Eisenhower Centre My main joy in this photo is the fact that ‘centre’ is spelt correctly, despite the American connotations! 

Then there’s the places I simply hadn’t heard of – like a hidden mews where the residents like to grow plants:

Coalville PlaceCoalville Place, just off Charlotte Street. 

Or Pollock’s Toy Museum and shop. I didn’t go in, but I admired the splash of colour it brought to an otherwise dull street:

Pollock's Toy Museum

When you know an area well, it’s also interesting what the book doesn’t choose to tell you. On this walk, you crossed Kingsway (the original, tram-related function of the Kingsway tunnel was referenced) to proceed across Red Lion Square to the Conway Hall. However, no mention was made of the interesting things to be found there. Admittedly, my initial excitement in discovering the square three years ago was fiction related. Fans of Ballet related literature of the twentieth century will no doubt be aware of the Drina Ballerina series, in which the erstwhile heroine attends a ballet school in no less a square than that of the Red Lion. For years as a child (and several as not quite a child) I revelled in the descriptions of Drina’s walk from Westminster to Kingsway. But there are other, factual facts of merit that could have been included.

For example, on the southern side of the square is a plaque marking a house in which the pre-Raphaelites lived – pretty notable, surely? Then there’s the statue at the main entrance to the square. Admittedly, I had to look it up, but the character depicted really is fascinating. Fenner Brockway is one of just a handful of ‘private’ individuals (as opposed to heads of state, etc) to have unveiled their own statue – largely owing to him living so long that the planning permission for a posthumous statue nearly ran out! He was an anti-war activist, politician and active member of the decolonisation campaign. The location of the statue is thanks to the square’s proximity to Conway Hall (a non-religious foundation and now home to The Sunday Assembly) and Brockway’s time as President of the British Humanist Association.

Fenner Brockway Red Lion SquareFenner Brockway, and the pigeons. 

Obviously, in some parts of London there are simply too many fascinating facts to include!

When is a retreat not a retreat?

When it’s a pilgrimage that encompasses over 200 miles of travelling; includes three churches, one ruined Abbey and one minster; and eight separate acts of worship – all in the space of 48 hours.

Pilgrimage Places of WorshipPickering Parish Church, Lastingham, Old Bydale, Rievaulx Abbey & York Minster.

Retreats are meant to give you space away from the rigours of ordinary life. Often, they involve extended periods of silence; time in prayer; meditation; focusing on icons or Bible passages; and generally getting away from it all. But not this one!

Each year, as part of the vicar school programme, we get to choose a retreat. In my first year, I went ‘fingerpainting for God’ [my title, not theirs] and inadvertently created a pair of heavenly orbs. Last year, I was on the only retreat that wasn’t cancelled by snow, a retreat in daily life that lasted the whole of lent. This year, partly owing to some epic diary clashes (all my own fault and largely theatre related), I was prompted to go for the mid-week retreat, rather than a weekend. Plus, this particular retreat looked right up my street. It would be a return to Wydale Hall near Scarborough (where we got creative 2 years ago), which is in a stunning location. And, it involved travelling around North Yorkshire, visiting churches and learning lots of history – basically, what all Clutterbuck family holidays were made of.

There wasn’t much time for sitting quietly, reading and meditating – but there were a lot of other things that you wouldn’t necessarily find on a typical retreat…

1) Steam trains
Sitting in the parish church of Pickering, listening to a talk on its historic wall paintings, I heard the unmistakable “peeeeep” of a steam train whistle. A moment later, I noticed the friend next to me checking the map on their iPhone and  wondered if they were checking to see where the train line was. As we left the church for a short break, it emerged I was correct in my wondering – so we set off to locate the train. Turns out, Pickering has a gorgeous old-school station for the North Yorkshire Moors Railway. ‘School’ was the operative word, as it looked like a location for many of the school stories I hold dear.

Pickering Station

2) Lambs
You know you’re not in London any more when you find sheep in a church graveyard. You’re definitely outside any kind of urban environment when you find a farm next to a vicarage! Up in the tiny village (hamlet, possibly) of Old Bydale, we met brand new lambs, some just minutes old. (In fact, we met a few lamb placentas too, but I decided they didn’t need photographing.)


3) Lectures on the history of spirituality in north-eastern England. As I sat upon the ruins of Riveaux Abbey’s Chapter House, listening to our Assistant Dean tell the story of St Aelread, I reflected that twenty years earlier, I would have strongly rebelled at such behaviour. In fact, I might have stropped back to the family car in protest of my Dad’s (because it is always our Dad who reads aloud from guide books in this way) über embarrassing actions!

4) Ruins
I love a good ruin. Especially on a sunny day and with 90 minutes to spend amongst the stones. (This was the most meditative point of the retreat. I spent a lot of time sitting on stones.)

Reivaulx Abbey

Reivaulx Abbey

5) Actual saints. Some of our contemporaries spent time contemplating icons. We spent a morning taking communion in the crypt of a church built upon the tomb of St Cedd. You can’t get much closer to an actual saint than that…

Lastingham Crypt

All in all, it was an excellent experience – albeit one that I’ve come away from realising that in my life I need both interesting, historical pilgrimages and space to meditate and reflect. At the end of the 48 hours I could have done with a retreat from the retreat!

Spontaneity versus planning

I’m of the opinion that one can be both a fan of the well planned, and inclined towards spontaneity.

I like a good plan. I like to know where my life is headed. I like to know things in advance.
But, I also like having the space into diary to be spontaneous. Or, rather, to have the space in which to be spontaneous. A too-full diary means saying no to fun things that might be last minute, and that would be sad…

This past weekend was an excellent example of this dichotomy. Since January, theatre tickets had been booked for Sunday & Monday. An empty diary for Friday night and some late Thursday night ticket booking allowed for a spontaneous trip to the theatre.

April Musical FunMormon, Commitments & Matilda. Am I annoyed that I forgot to take a photo of the outside of The Cambridge Theatre? You bet I am! 

There is a myth that theatre in the West End is unaffordable and difficult to do at the last minute. Admittedly, ‘affordable’ is subjective, but I consider anything £25 or under to be good value. (I ought to confess that I have also been very lucky in having friends over the years who have secured freebies, so I’m spoilt.) Our tickets on Friday were £20 + booking fee – and they were good.

What follows is some wisdom I’ve amassed regarding theatre going in London. It’s my personal opinion (obviously), but some of it might prove to be useful…

Last Minute Tickets
It’s never too late to book tickets. (Well, until the show starts, obviously.) Some of my favourite theatre-going moments were the result of spontaneity. Like £15 tickets to A Chorus Line, less than 2 hours before curtain up. We should have been up in the gods, but ticket sales were low and the upper circles were closed – we ended up in row D of the stalls and had a jolly good time. Tickets were courtesy of the ticket booth inside Leicester Square station (thank you sibling’s out of work actor friends…) and the moral is: never be afraid to ask what the cheapest deal is!

Some shows (not enough, in my opinion) run a lottery for their front row before each performance. It’s a regular occurrence on Broadway, but so far the only shows I know to have done it in London are Legally Blonde and The Book of Mormon – and I’ve benefitted from both. The deal is, you arrive at least 2 hours before the performance, fill in a form & await the drawing of the ‘winning’ forms, which give you the right to bag a bargain. I got Legally Blonde tickets on my first attempt; Mormon ones on my fifth – it can take dedication and good chunks of free time in central London.

Often, there are no ‘bad’ seats
Our £15 Chorus Line tickets were sold to us with the words “there are no bad seats at the Palladium”. One of the tricks to bargain theatre going is getting to know the seating plan. Obviously, the ‘best’ views are the most expensive tickets – but look around. This genius website lets you read reviews of specific seats in specific theatres, rating the view. You might think that sounds ridiculous, but thanks to it, I scored a £20 seat at Billy Elliot, next door to a £60 one. The difference? I supposedly had a restricted view – but the website informed me that the view was fine.

Friday night’s choice was another restricted view (thanks to a ridiculous pillar). We couldn’t check my website friend, but we took the risk – and won. The view was fine, being in row I of the stalls helped a lot (I like being able to see faces), but also, the two seats next to us remained empty, so we scooted over in the interval. You never know when you might get lucky…

Know when to compromise
The 2nd show of the weekend was Matilda, which I’d seen over 2 years ago. But Morv (who I was accompanying to The Book of Mormon for show 3) hadn’t seen it, and we thought we’d fit a performance in. Mormon tickets are pricey (unless you do the lottery), so we didn’t want to pay too much – so ended up on the second from back row of the gods. Morv was desperate to see it, so any seat at all was good for us, even if it meant enduring a Sunday afternoon matinee with a lot of children! (Who, incidentally, behaved beautifully.)

As mentioned, Mormon tickets are pricey and require advance booking (unless you can manage the lottery). Having attempted 3 lotteries with Morv last year, booking tickets had to be the way forward (she lives in Durham, so does not fall into the ‘large periods of time in central London’ category), and we got ours back in January. Booking proved to be tricky, given their policy of not letting you book 2 tickets if it leaves 1 on its own. Plus, it’s the hottest ticket in town and is priced as such (airline style, so prices rise with demand). But, we compromised on view – going for 2 seats in a box that had some form of restricted view. Yes, we compromised WITH A BOX! It was a good compromise – the only bit we couldn’t see was the far end of our side, and very little happened there. Plus, seats in the box (all 4 of them) moved, you could lean out, and it was fine. We didn’t ask how much the couple who joined us had paid for their tickets, given as they’d bought them the night before…

Mormon boxYes, I took a photo of our box. Don’t judge me – Morv took a video of the walk down our own corridor…

Take a risk
Yes, I’d seen Mormon & Matilda before – I’d really enjoyed both of them the first time and would happily see them again – but Friday night’s offering was The Commitments (currently at the Palace Theatre). I’m on intimate terms with the soundtrack (thanks in part to several years singing a Commitments Medley in a youth choir), but never got around to watching the film. Ultimately, I knew it was likely to be fun – and it was. Great music, not much of a plot, lots of cheese – but a great night out. I got to have quality time with a friend and we left the theatre singing the tunes. Good times. There is a lot on in the West End. Some of it is dross (you will not catch me in the queue for Dirty Dancing, for example), but there’s a lot of good stuff.

Take Gin 
Or Pimm’s. Those cocktails in cans are frightfully useful in theatre-going situations. I know how to be über classy…

This final tip’s a little niche. Ever since our first trip to see Legally Blonde, Morv and I have had a soft spot for its leading man. This actor now happens to be playing Miss Trunchbull in Matilda – this fact had absolutely nothing to do with our choosing to see it, it’s pure coincidence. Over post-matinee dinner, I tweeted a genuinely well-meant compliment on his performance and became slightly giddy when he replied. I am very easily pleased.

Gaumond Matilda tweet

Hidden London: Spitalfields

Having re-discovered the joy of the Hidden London book while walking around the City, I have resolved to complete the ones that are easily accessible from my central London location – which is several of them!

Last Monday, I had a rather unhelpful 4 hour window in between meetings that were both located in the Spitalfields/Brick Lane area. (Actually, it could have been worse, it was originally meant to be a 5 hour gap.) While I might have used this for reading some feminist theology in an attractive café, I decided that as it wasn’t raining (and I’d fortuitously stuffed the Hidden London book into my handbag) I’d get the Spitalfields walk crossed off the list.

The book suggests doing the walk on a Sunday, as that’s when the area’s markets are in full flow. While there might be merit in this, anyone who’s attempted to walk down Brick Lane on a Sunday will know it’s not a place to stop and gaze at objects of historical interest. To be honest, early on a Saturday/Sunday might work, as might mid-morning on a weekday. What does not work, is doing the walk (particularly the latter half) on a weekday afternoon/early evening. The Whitechapel Road at 5.30pm on a Monday is not an ideal sight-seeing venue.

Also, to be honest, this isn’t a part of town where I feel terribly comfortable looking like a tourist. One, I like the area a lot and spent a lot of time there, so I don’t consider myself to be one. Two, people who look like tourists there might make themselves a little vulnerable. If you get what I mean. Plus, this was a walk in which several parts of the route are currently obstructed by Crossrail works, which is a tad frustrating.

Warnings over, let’s get on with the discoveries…

Of all of the walks I’ve done from the book, this is the one where I’d already explored a lot of the area. There were quite a few things I was able to miss out (happily, once it emerged how long it was going to take me!). For example, I felt no need to walk all the way to the Bethnal Green Road end of Brick Lane in order to visit a Bagel Shop, because it’s something I do fairly regularly (and in fact did, some 7 hours after reaching that point of the walk). Should you do it and not know the Bagel Shops, you *must* go – it’s practically the best bit!

While the main features of the City walk were churches, in Spitalfields it was interesting housing and architecture. A high point was Puma Court – a gorgeous hidden corner street near the market, but I didn’t take photos as a lady was putting out her bins. (Always important to respect privacy when on walks…)

Dennis Severs’ House on Folgate Street. (Open to the public at certain times.)

IMG_6161Weavers’ homes on Elder Street.

Old Tea ShopIf only more tea shops looked like this. (Not that it still seems to be functioning.) 

There were some churches though. Christchurch Spitalfields features, but I spent two nights in there last summer recording Songs of Praise in very sweaty circumstances. [Incidentally, etymological discovery of the walk: 'Spitalfields' derives from an abbreviation of hospital. I'm staggered I'd not discovered that sooner.] But there was also a destroyed church – the remains of St Mary Matfelon, in Altab Ali Park (named after a Bangladeshi man killed in race riots in 1978.) Apparently, it was the white-washed walls of this church (destroyed in the blitz) that generated the name ‘Whitechapel’.

IMG_6131The remains of the white chapel.

The book does an excellent job of chronicling the social history of the area – from its tides of immigration (Hugenots, Eastern European Jews, Bangladeshis…) to its role in social justice (the site of William Booth’s first meeting of what would become the Salvation Army features). In fact, there are more synagogues (or former ones) featured on this walk than churches. And, if you’re a little more blood thirsty, plenty of Jack the Ripper facts get thrown in too.

Entrance to the 4% DwellingsThe entrance to what was once the Charlotte de Rothschild Model Dwellings – the 4% was the expected rate of return to investors. (Lower than usual, which enabled rents to be lower – thus was a form of social housing.)

IMG_6162The Truman Brewery on Brick Lane.

There is a temptation to think that Spitalfields is all trendy shops and commuters; that Brick Lane = curry; and that the only history in Whitechapel is murder-related, but there is an awful lot more to it than that! It’s one of my favourite parts of London and I thoroughly recommend discovering some of its hidden gems.

Hidden London: The City Edition

It’s been nearly 3 years since I acquired the fabulous London’s Hidden Walks book, but my ability to actually do many of the walks has not been great. In fact, my parents completed more of them over a weekend in 2012 than I had till this weekend! [I'm now on a mission to do several asap - I did another on Monday, in fact.]

But, the presence of my mother this weekend encouraged us to head out on one that even they hadn’t managed (following on from a Saturday we spent exploring Soho last year) – specifically, the Western City walk. This one, handily included sights not 20 minutes walk from my flat, so we were able to join the loop at hidden feature number 7 and continue around from there.

What I love about this book is that no matter how well I know the area, it always manages to tell me something new. For example, we began our walk at St Sepulchre’s, where a friend of mine is the vicar, but until the walk, I’d no idea that John Smith (of Pocahontas fame) was buried there. Also, despite the area of the walk being one I walk through on a very regular basis, I discovered places I never knew existed – so there is always something for the confirmed Londoner to learn! And I learnt a lot…

If you ever fancy taking a walk around the City, do it on a weekend because it’s totally deserted and you can stop and stare at things without ending up under the feet of a commuter. Saturday was quiet and sunny. The only time we had to deal with people was on the Thames’ Path & St Paul’s, towards the end of the walk. Also, in a first, we bumped into someone else doing the same walk. Fortunately he was either very fast or we were very slow, as we didn’t see him again – doing the walk in tandem could have been awkward, especially after Mum observed that “if we’d been in a Richard Curtis film, you’d have been married by the end of it!”

Newgate drinking fountainThe Newgate Fountain – I’ve walked past this countless times & never noticed it.

Sherlock graffiti

A nugget of info that will probably be included in future books is that Giltspur St is the street onto which Sherlock fell from the roof of St Bart’s. A nearby phone box is dedicated to Sherlock themed graffiti – I was impressed.

Sherlock graffiti

Emerald in the CityA bit of the Emerald City in the City. (Aldermanbury Square)

Shakespeare's Folio Shakespeare gets mentioned a lot around the City – in this instance, a celebration of the first performance of his First Folio at a church that was subsequently destroyed in the blitz.

The GuildhallThe Guildhall. Incredibly, I’d never stood in this square – on a sunny Saturday it was simply stunning. Almost like being in Sienna. Yesterday when walking down Cheapside I realised I could glimpse down one of the sidestreets…

Wren, ReflectedWren, reflected in modernity. A frequent explanation in the book was “the church xxxxx was built in the 12th Century, destroyed in the Great Fire of London, rebuilt by Wren and then gutted in the blitz…” In several cases, only a garden marked the spot (God bless consecrated land!), in others just a tower. In one case, the remains were shipped to Missouri. As you do. 

Our walk also took us through Postman’s Park – which I only discovered the joys of last month – and took us right up to Wesley’s Chapel. The joy of these walks is that you can skip the bits you already know. There’s no need for one Methodist minister and one former Methodist to pay homage to Wesley – we could both name numerous visits there in the past. But, we did take the opportunity to have lunch in the cemetery over the road. We’re classy like that.

One last thing (and you may want to skip this if you’re of a sensitive disposition). The information provided about the walk also gave me a valuable insight into the motivation Medieval street namers had. I’m very fond of unusual/funny/possibly rude street names, and now realise that modern day readers’ minds may not be as dirty as first thought.

Comedy Streets

Take the streets above. That first one is a street I pass frequently – and yes, I took a photo the first time. I’d imagined it had no ‘rude’ connotation but was perhaps connected to poultry (it is close to Smithfields Market) or fighting birds. Our guide instead revealed that this was one of the earliest red-light districts in the City – no dirty minds required here, it’s plain fact! Brilliantly, the guidebook also re-told a story about a scandal that took place on the street in the 18th Century, involving ‘the Cock Lane ghost’. The story is a little complicated, but involved a woman called Fanny who was having an affair. Ultimately, it resulted  in fascinated visitors to the street being invited to communicate with the “scratching Fanny of Cock Lane” – i.e. a ghost. The hilarity.

Love Lane was also a red-light district, as was another street just off Bow Lane. The street no longer exists (or was re-named) but involved the word ‘grope’ and a name for a body part that might be described as Chaucerian. Those Medieval street namers were nothing but forthright!

And as for Prudent Passage? I’ve no idea. It wasn’t a red light passage, it simply amused me and will be added to my collection…

Friday Fun (for a Saturday evening)

Apologies for the hiatus. When one has to hand in 8,000+ words of essays, immediately followed by a similar number of words across 3 sermons, the desire to write any other words is minimal! Still, the break means that there’s plenty of fun for this week!

[Also an apology for the fact that I wrote most of it on Friday, but then got distracted and forgot to post it. Rather than extending my hiatus further, I thought I'd better publish it now. Fun is fun regardless of the day...]

So, for starters, some London fun. Firstly, there’s been a lot of excitement on Twitter about the forthcoming opening of the Mail Rail as part of the Postal Museum due to open in a couple of years time at Mount Pleasant. I’ve mentioned the Mail Rail before – it’s a classic piece of hidden London geekery and thus the prospect of actually getting to ride is quite exciting. In case you’ve no idea what I’m talking about, Time Out have a collection of photos that takes you behind the scenes of the currently mothballed postal transport system:

Mail Rail

Moving on to the better known London underground network… Someone this week announced that they’d visited every single tube station and taken a photo of the roundel there. Excellent work Mr Mike Turnball!

Roundels...A screenshot from his Flickr stream.

This then opened the floodgates to others who had completed a similar feat. I loved this photo of a roundel made up of roundel photos:

Roundel, CottonSteve Cotton’s Roundel, via Londonist.

Other people turn their photos of roundels into videos. I liked the animation-style element of this one:

To wrap things up for this week, we return to a Friday Fun theme of old – the dulcet tones of the Swingles. This is one of their latest video offerings, a cover of Mumford & Sons After the Storm. [Warning: if you're anti-beard, you may want to watch this from a distance as the camera goes rather close up to the epic beard sported by their hirsute tenor.]

Short & sweet Friday Fun

I’m in the mire of two big deadlines (8,000 words in total) due next week, so I haven’t the time to do a ‘proper’ Friday Fun, despite having plenty fodder.

BUT, there is one thing that’s brought me respite at intervals through the week which I’d intended to share – given that it’s fun and transport related. Out there, some brilliant geeks are working on a metro game, where you can create your own transport system. You connect stations; cross rivers; resolve capacity issues; and ultimately aim to safely carry as many passengers as possible. The game is over if serious over-crowding occurs, just as in real life.

It’s in beta, so they’re welcoming feedback and in the course of the days that I’ve been playing it I’ve noticed both bugs and improvements, so you’d actually be contributing something too! This is what the developers have to say:

Mini Metro is an upcoming minimalistic subway layout game. Your small city starts with only three unconnected stations. Your task is to draw routes between the stations to connect them with subway lines. Everything but the line layout is handled automatically; trains run along the lines as quickly as they can, and the commuters decide which trains to board and where to make transfers.

Mini MetroThis was one of my more successful escapades. I think I got 397 passengers [note the number in the bottom right corner] before over-crowding shut down my system. The circle on the bottom left is a new station – they appear at intervals and you have to work out how to incorporate them. The symbols at the stations are passengers waiting for trains – panic ensues when those lines grow longer! But each time Sunday rolls along (see the clock in the top right corner) you are offered a choice of bonuses, from extra capacity trains, to additional river tunnels.

At times it seems fiendishly difficult, but practice improves things! (Although I did note that my friend Matt had already reached 471 when he sent me the link, but he is a techy nerd, so maybe he’s just better at these things!)

Anyway, there’s your challenge for the weekend! Enjoy!

Women in Waiting

Today is the 20th anniversary of the ordination of the Church of England’s first female priests. Last night, I listened to a debate on whether gender is relevant in the question of church leadership, where many of the same issues and disagreements overcome in the ordination of those women arose again in the questions of women in the episcopacy and women in the Roman Catholic Church.

Prejudice against women is still very much in evidence, despite the progress that has been made. There’s still a long way to go…

The debate was part of the launch of a new book celebrating women in the church. Julia Ogilvy’s Women in Waiting: Prejudice in the heart of the church is a collection of interviews conducted with a collection of women in the church over the last year. It’s a diverse group – lay and ordained; married and single; academics; senior clergy; parish priests… and this diversity helps the book paint a broad picture of where women in the church were at during 2013.

Women in Waiting

The timing is an important factor in the book, coming just a few months after the failure of the women bishops vote in November 2012, but prior to the quick progress that has been made at the November 2013 and February 2014 General Synods. In the years to come it will be important to have a record of how people (especially women in the church) felt at that moment of time and not to lose the memory of it in what we hope will be a yes vote next time around.

Being a collection of interviews, this is not a demanding read, but it is an inspiring one. As a female ordinand, it was fascinating to read of other women’s journeys towards ordination – including the barriers they had to overcome and what encouraged them along the way. It would be a perfect book for anyone exploring a call to ministry, regardless of their gender. It also serves as an important reminder that women do not need to be ordained to have a voice in the church (Elaine Storkey’s story is particularly significant for this reason) and that those outside the Church of England can have a voice in the campaign too. Having read Baroness Helena Kennedy’s interview and heard her speak passionately last night, I am very convinced that this is important.

Personally, I was incredibly affected by Lucy Winkett’s re-telling of what she faced when she became a minor canon and chaplain at St Paul’s Cathedral. Back in 1997, when the press were covering every element of the debate regarding her appointment, I wasn’t terribly aware of what was going on. [In 1997, I was a lot more concerned with the general election; the plot of Friends; my GCSE's; and whether Keanu was hotter than Alex James - big issues!] But, as a woman facing the fact that in a few short months I’ll be ordained and potentially facing opposition from those who are not in favour of women’s ordination, her stories provided much to think about. It wasn’t doom and gloom though – there was certainly hope, as this story shows:

“There’s another amazing story of one of the servers, Ron, who was incandescent that I was there, and he started this thing of the servers all coming up and then refusing communion… It was absolutely horrible and all done very publicly. But after five years of me being there and getting on quite well personally, something happened. It was communion one Sunday morning, with hundreds of people milling about and everyone there under the dome. And I go along the row and I’m just about to miss out Ron. And I see these little tremulous hands held out like this, so I just…I was completely overwhelmed and so was he… It was just a miracle.”

(Women in Waiting, pp.17-18)

Don’t be fooled into thinking that a collection of interviews will be theologically light though. One of the most helpful interviews was with Sarah Coakley – an ordained academic who is writing some of the most exciting systematic theology of the moment. ['Exciting systematic theology'?? Those words belong more to my tutors than me...] I heard her speak at Heythrop College last term and struggled through a chapter of Powers and Submissions for an essay on gender – but reading her explanation of how she came to study this area of theology really gave me an insight that encourages me to get stuck into more of her work, which is definitely no bad thing!

While this isn’t a book that theologically lays out the arguments in favour of women leading in the church, [there's an imminent book that does just this that I will blog about as soon as I've got hold of a copy & read it!] it is a book about women. It’s about sharing the experiences, feelings and hopes of those who have sought to overturn prejudice in the church and get on with what God has called them to do.

First Women Priests 1994The Times reports the momentous day 20 years ago. Here’s to another momentous day in the near future. 

*Disclaimer: Bloomsbury Books sent me a review copy of the book – but my views on its contents are entirely my own opinions. 

In praise of Karen

There was more than a tinge of sadness this evening as I caught up on last week’s episode of Outnumbered. As the final episode of series 5, it’s almost certainly the last ever episode and all in all [no spoilers] I think it rounded off the series well. The fabulously awful Aunty Angela returned; Grandad was involved (although not seen); past incidents were referred to; and ultimately, things seemed to be working out ok in the Brockman household.

I wasn’t just mourning the end of a TV series that I’ve always enjoyed (despite those who criticised it for being the epitome of middle class England – I loved it for the fabulous children and their use of improvisation), I was mourning the growing up of children I’ve known for seven years – when the youngest was just 6. Unsurprisingly, given that these are real children, not Simpsons characters, they had to grow up.

OutnumberedOutnumbered, 2014

When this last series began last month (which is also when I began writing this post, albeit on a slightly different angle) there was much consternation amongst fans regarding just how much this youngest child – Karen – had aged. Quite why we were all surprised is a mystery. It had been nearly 2 years since the last series, and was now at secondary school. She wasn’t going to stay 6 forever…

Outnumbered 2007Outnumbered, 2007

Everyone in my family has had a soft spot for Karen. Her ability to say just the wrong thing at exactly the right time was in evidence right from the off. When the last episode ended this evening, I went straight back to episode 1 of series 1. [Thank you iTunes freebie several years ago, which slightly makes up for the fact that I have no idea where my DVD of series 1 currently is.] In it, Karen regales her bemused father with words she learned the night before, when over-hearing her parents argue. It’s fabulously real and utterly hilarious. Throughout the early series, all the best moments were Karen’s. Two of the best also happen to involve the church…

First up, series 2 episode 2, ‘The Dead Mouse’. Hands-down the best example of how liturgy meeting a modern context, and an excellent use of a cheese sandwich. Karen conducts a mouse’s funeral:

“Dust to dust. For richer and for poorer. In sickness and in health. May the force be with you. Because you’re worth it. Amen and out.” Genius.

Secondly, why you should be careful in getting involved in theological discussions with children. This is more a Ben moment, but Karen’s interjections are fabulous:

But do you know why my family particularly liked Karen? Because in many ways she embodied some of the things that me or my sister did while growing up. The guilt-tripping of a mother after the mouse death? Totally my sister. The grilling of a vicar? Me. My Dad even brought it up in the letter he sent me on the eve of my selection conference for ordination! His tip was to treat everyone with respect, even idiots – a reference to ongoing list of idiots that Karen kept in early series, which was reminiscent of something I had done at the same age. (I think I may have had an idiots’ notebook…)

However, series 5 Karen was different. I did not have as much in common with a 12 year old Karen. A Karen who intimidated her swimming competitors in an effort to win, because she was that competitive. [Well, I'm competitive, but not psychologically intimidatingly so...] She didn’t use punctuation correctly. [As if I would stoop to that level!] She was struggling with school. She was convinced her lost hamster was alive and living in their home’s crevices. Life was not going brilliantly for Karen.

It wasn’t until the penultimate episode when a chink of light appeared in this darker world. Karen had a brief return to classic form, having written a detailed letter of improvements her school could make, and sent it to the school governors. The Headmistress (played fabulously by Rebecca Front) wasn’t impressed and called her in to talk, giving her a talking to that seemed to do what nothing in the preceding 7 years had done – repressed the irrepressible.

Maybe, just maybe, Karen will turn out to be as well adjusted as those who preceded her. She too could be an eccentric, but well loved, secondary school drama teacher or a vicar-to-be ready to answer a new generation’s precocious questions.

Here’s to all the Karens of the world – may they not tolerate fools gladly for as long as they live!

Hidden corners of London

It’s amazing what you can discover in parts of the city that you thought you were familiar with. One diversion, or an attempted short-cut, and all of a sudden you’ve made a delightful discovery.

Lately, I’ve taken to running (on Saturdays – on weekdays, this would be a no-go) through The City, particularly in and around Bart’s Hospital, Smithfield and the Barbican. It’s an area I often walk through, but my most recent discovery was made when realising I’d taken the wrong road and needed a route back to the right one. Spotting a park, I realised it would work as a cut through, so I hot-footed it through it.

I noted it as a nice spot to have a sit down amid the busy-ness of central London and found myself back there while on a head clearing stroll. I posted this picture on Twitter and was rather surprised at the response it received (especially as I don’t consider it to be up to my usual photographic standards!):

Postman's ParkThe fountain in Postman’s Park

Several people seemed to be familiar with it, which I considered slightly odd, given that I’d never heard of it and it’s virtually on my patch. Then I had a tweet that mentioned some memorials – someone else concurred that these were a must-see and I realised that I’d clearly missed something. On that particular afternoon, I entered on the Aldersgate side (next to a Wesley tribute) and had only ventured as far as a bench by the fountain before turning around and leaving again. On my run, I’d entered at Little Britain [yes, that's an actual street name] and passed through to Aldersgate – so the key feature of the park hadn’t featured either.

What I had missed is actually visible in the above photo. Beyond the fountain, beneath the low roof, is a collection of memorials to those who have died in saving others – officially known as ‘The Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice’ by George Frederic Watts. It’s a collection of plaques remembering just some of the many who have committed such acts and once I successfully found the park’s key feature this afternoon, I realised just how utterly beautiful it is.

Memorial to Heroes

The inscriptions were varied – from children saving playmates from icy water; to men saving women from ‘unmanaged’ horses; to a lady saving a fellow pantomime cast-member from a burning dress; and the first memorial in over a decade – to a hero from 2007:


The park in question is known as Postman’s Park, owing (thanks to Wikipedia) to its proximity to the former GPO and the fact that postmen liked to sit there – got to love a honest-to-goodness place name! It’s just across from St Paul’s station, in between Little Britain and Aldersgate, and is thoroughly worth a visit.

Just up from Postman’s Park (either Little Britain or Aldersgate, to London Wall, then left, then another left at a road after Barbican station), is Charterhouse Square. Located behind Smithfield market, my discovery of it last Thursday finally answered a question I’ve been pondering for some time [well, at least 2 weeks]: What’s behind the long brick wall on Old Street, just past St John’s Street? Answer:

Charterhouse The Charterhouse

Super lovely and well-worth a wander to, should you ever be in the vicinity.

Seriously, this city surprises me on a near-daily basis. Long may it continue!