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!

My suspension of disbelief does not extend to geography…

I was slightly dubious of whether Richard Curtis’ latest offering would captivate me in the way that Love, Actually or Four Weddings continues to do so. It had received some negative reviews and appeared to be more of a ‘male’ film than a chick-flick rom-com. Oh, and Curtis had done himself no favours by revealing in an interview that 500 Days of Summer was one of his favourite films. [See here for reasons why I strongly disagree with such an opinion.] But, following a positive Kermodian review, I was keen to see it.

The stars aligned last Friday, when, with time to kill on my day off, and intention to visit Stratfield (Stratford Westfield, for the uninitiated) later that day, a showing was timed perfectly. It was meant to be.

About-Time-UK-Quad-Poster-585x443A friend of mine has apparently been put off seeing the film by the use (or non-use) of capitalisation on the poster…

About Time has a plot that revolves around time-travel, which was another reason for my hesitation. I’m still of the mindset that The Time Traveller’s Wife is the most perfect example of such a plot. (So much so that I still can’t bear to watch the film lest the book be ruined forever.) Would it get silly? Would it go all sci-fi? Would I be able to suspend my disbelief for long enough that I could become absorbed in a tale that realistically could never happen?

I can confirm that no, it did not get silly. No, it did not go all sci-fi. And yes, I was able to suspend my disbelief around time travel, and Curtis’ associated rules about it, for long enough to become both totally absorbed and virtually unconsolable at the plot’s end.

Rules? Everyone who writes about time-travel has to have rules. In the TTW the time traveller always sheds his clothes when travelling through time; he arrives in the precise state he was in in the future; and he can’t control when or how the travelling takes place. Back to the Future has its own set – I’d explain them, but I’m not that much of a geek. For one to be able to suspend their disbelief, one needs a set of rules that outline the parameters within which this works – time travel doesn’t exist, but at least if there are rules, one can pretend it does. So, in About Time, the male line of one family find themselves able to travel back in time by standing in a dark place and clenching their fists. Once they start having children, they can’t go back to before the child was born otherwise it’s a different sense. Totally logical – and, in the case of the latter rule, it emerges to be totally heart-wrenching.

So, last Friday, I blissfully ignored the rules of physics and wholeheartedly submerged myself in a world in which men travel through time in order to pursue the loves of their lives. However, I snapped out of my other-world-ness when time-travel was required to return to a party taking place in Collingham Gardens, South Kensington…

London is the main character in most Curtis films and About Time is no exception. I love seeing places I recognise, and visit frequently – heck, I even wonder if I might appear completely by chance. (One major plot point in the film involves the unusual restaurant in which a friend had their birthday meal a couple of years ago – I feel like she was way ahead of the game.) You may have no idea where Collingham Gardens is – it’s a fairly typical Kensington terraced street, full of delightful and large white houses with balconies – but I do, because I go there at least once a week. In the middle of Collingham Gardens is a church, the very church into which my theological college moved this time last year. As soon as the name was uttered I gasped in surprise – much to my neighbours’ confusion. (A pair of teenage girls who were irritating throughout, I’m glad I startled them.) In case you think I’m a weirdo, I discovered on Monday that a friend from college did the exact same thing when she saw it the following day – we spent part of our lunch break trying to work out which building they’d used.

Here’s the thing, following their attendance at a party in the aforementioned street, the couple central to the plot then walk all the way to Maida Vale. I may walk huge distances in London, but all of a sudden my mind was pondering whether it was actually within the realms of reality to walk from Collingham Gardens to Maida Vale tube station. The main character had just travelled from the Tate Modern three weeks in the future in order to be at this party, but what did I have an issue with? A possibly unrealistic use of London geography!

It bothered me so much that after the film (and after the obligatory check for mascara that may have run down my cheeks while sobbing), I looked it up on Google maps. According to Google, the walk would take 1 hour 6 minutes, which in a romantic post-dinner, first date scenario is pretty believable.

Collingham Gardens to Maida Vale The beauty of this map is that you can also see the route I take home from Collingham Gardens. My 5 mile walk takes me along the A4 (Brompton Road & Piccadilly) and the A401 (Shaftesbury Ave) and takes me around 1 hour 30mins. It’s a joy.

Richard Curtis, I apologise. You know London (and probably Kensington) well enough not to include spurious or incorrect geographical references in your work. Thank you for making such a lovely, yet emotionally wrangling film. Next time, could you consider providing post-film counselling? It would be much appreciated.

Model London

Last week I finally had the opportunity to explore somewhere featured in a Friday Fun from back in March. The ’10 Quirky London Places’ video inspired me to seek out a few places I hadn’t heard of before, including one that I knew I’d passed several times before, but hadn’t realised I could freely explore…

The first stop on their speedy tour around London is the Building Centre on Store Street – a street that runs between Tottenham Court Road and Gower Street. On the ground floor of this building is a truly amazing construction, a scale model of London, showing all proposed building projects – like the Olympics and CrossRail. Last week I was passing and grabbed the opportunity to take a peek. It was utterly breathtaking and totally mesmerising.

This is what you find inside:

Impressive, no? 

And, it’s obviously obligatory to try and find your home (and other personal landmarks) on the map. My old Bermondsey home was just off the map, but the King’s Cross residence was there – and I think this photo shows it, but it’s rather difficult to tell!

Blink & you’d miss it, but there’s a faint red circle where I think I live…

At this point I should probably warn friends that this delight is but a short walk from my abode/workplace, so I can take you to visit with great ease – it’ll be fun, promise! 

Quilting London

I’ve long had a mental image of London as a patchwork quilt with squares that turn from black & white to colour as you get to know various neighbourhoods. Through the middle runs a blue, shimmery river, and across the squares run red threads showing familiar bus routes across alongside golden threads of familiar walking routes. Although I’ve been a resident of the capital for most of my life, I still feel a sense of achievement when I make the connections that enable another a square to turn technicoloured.

A significant part of my geographical knowledge of London is derived from bus journeys – by a long stretch a better way to familiarise yourself with the capital than travelling by tube. It’s thanks to my bizarre ability to remember bus numbers and destinations that I began to figure out how one location connected with another. (It’s also my main method of knowing how to drive places, which isn’t especially helpful given the prevalence of bus lanes and bus only roads. Plus, telling someone that they need to go “along the 205’s route” isn’t much good if they don’t know what it is.) Sometimes I can be spectacularly dense when it comes to London’s geography – like the fact that it was only in July ago that I worked out that Mile End, Whitechapel and Bow were all essentially on the same stretch of road. (In my defence, I’d never walked/travelled along the length of the road in one go before.)

From the ‘Magnificent Maps’ exhibition at the British Library last year – Stephen Walter’s The Island, a unique take on London geography. 

Given the length of time I’ve spent as a Londoner, it’s therefore surprising that, despite its central location, my new neighbourhood fell within one of the black squares. Even more surprising given that it is completed surrounded by coloured squares – the neighbourhood of my first year Halls; one of London’s main arteries; the location of my university; and London’s most academic square. [Russell, obviously.] Driving back from the flat after dropping the first load of stuff off, I was stunned to discover just how close Rosebery Avenue was and that I was now just minutes from my 1st year haunts and the fabulous Exmouth Market.

I’m still figuring out routes between my flat and the church, but I have certain landmarks that I aim for – like the wonderful Brunswick Centre (how wrong is it that my nearest decent sized supermarket is a Waitrose?!) and Coram’s Fields (from which you’re banned unless accompanied by a child – I need to find one to borrow). It’s only now dawning on my why this area is such a black hole in my geography – no buses travel between the Gray’s Inn Road and Southampton Row so I’d never have accidentally passed through. In fact, I only discovered the Brunswick Centre by accident when lost a few years ago (lost and hungry, so a total answer to prayer).

There are certainly many, many bonuses of this new neighbourhood:

  • Myriad blue plaques to read and memorise. (I discovered a former residence of Lenin’s on my way to Tesco the other evening.) 
  • Celeb spotting. (Haven’t spotted any yet, but I did have lunch with a view of Rupert Everett’s house yesterday.) 
  • Beautiful architecture, pleasant squares, parks and community gardens.
  • Innumerable pubs that one can actually drink in without being attacked. (In Bermondsey it was a struggle to find establishments that weren’t Milwall FC supporting.) 
  • So many independent coffee places that I need never darken Starbucks’ door again. 
  • Proximity to friends’ workplaces – including one such independent coffee place, and my favourite corporate whore’s post work watering hole. 
  • A multitude of hospitals – it’s an excellent location in which to be taken ill. 
  • More libraries than you could shake a stick at, including the Soviet style Senate House; my own personal Hogwarts; and of course the British Library.
  • I could be in Paris within 3 hours of leaving my front door. [We will gloss over the fact that such a journey would cost me money I don’t have.] 

And probably many, many things I have yet to discover. It’s terribly exciting, and lucky that I’m so passionate about walking the streets of London.

[To clarify, I don’t mean taking to the streets in a lady of the night kind of way. Just because I’ve moved to King’s Cross and changing career does not mean that I’m going in that direction…]

In search of Hawksmoor

Today’s officially my first day of holiday and, miraculously, the sun has shone for the third day running. Perfect weather for a three hour brunch (bread & white chocolate spread courtesy of Le Pain Quotidien) and an insanely long walk in search of churches…

The thing that I find particularly interesting about this afternoon was that the friend who instigated the church hunt is not a ‘church friend’ – she is in fact my long-standing, first day of secondary school friend, who doesn’t particularly do church. [I feel an appropriate indication of our level our friendship was the fact that we wore matching hair accessories, unintentionally. Well, it’s either that or further proof of H&M’s ubiquity.] As part of an art degree she’s exploring the connections between a group of six London churches designed by the same architect – Nicholas Hawksmoor. This sign (found today) gives a fairly decent explanation of his achievements:

The rules (oh yes, there are rules…) to her project include the banning of public transport and maps in finding your way between churches. Other features including the documenting of discoveries – both at the churches and along the way – via a range of mult-media forms and iPhone apps. I documented our adventures the usual way – taking photos and making mental notes of potential blog fodder. Our mission began in Greenwich and didn’t end until several hours later when we made it to Wapping – quite an energetic afternoon.

First up was St Alfege’s in Greenwich. A beautiful building in a neighbourhood of stunning architectural beauty, though with odd ornamental features that don’t seem to fit in with the general style.

Another feature of the project is that you just feel your way (hence the no maps rule), so as I’d not visited any of the churches before, it was up to me to suggest our direction. As all I knew was that the next church was in Limehouse, this left me with quite a route to navigate – the first issue being the small matter of the River Thames. However, Greenwich is a place where you can cross the water in something of a unique way – well, unique to pedestrians – i.e. under the river, courtesy of one of Brunel’s fabulous (if somewhat scary) tunnels.

Towards the Island Gardens end of the tunnel 
– where it looks as though it’s been reinforced somewhat.
Rather disconcertingly, the rest of the tunnel’s tiled and looks like it might be leaking… 

Happily, once over the river, Babs revealed that she’d never yet made it to Limehouse without getting lost in the maze that is the Isle of Dogs – massively reassuring, as the sun started to disappear from the sky. When you’re not using maps, you’re reliant upon certain landmarks – not just hugely obvious buildings like Canary Wharf, or the distant (incomplete) Shard, but bus stops and the DLR. It’s amazing how reassuring the DLR line running above you can be, knowing that your destination is ultimately somewhere along it. We didn’t get too badly lost, except for some short moments of confusion in Canary Wharf (which is ridiculously confusing) and along the way discovered the peace and tranquillity of Mudchute. Yes, ‘Mudchute’ – literally, a place at which mud was dumped, now the site of a city farm and general fieldy-ness. After some sustenance in Canary Wharf, we continued in search of that other useful landmark – water – and soon emerged in Limehouse, site of St Anne’s. 

 The entrance to the church is actually up a side street & alleyway – cunning.
Hawksmoor also had a bit of a thing for pyramids and obelisks.

Fortunately it was a much simpler matter to get from Limehouse to Wapping (heck, it’s all of two DLR stops…) and en route I finally found myself in familiar territory, spotting a favourite religious conference centre as well as taking a photo opportunity I missed on a canal walk a year ago. Once in the Shadwell-Wapping vicinity I knew exactly where I was and began being able to share my own geographical discoveries – but before I could share a favourite, we had to observe St George in the East [great name], Wapping. 

An excellent example of how to rebuild and use a church building after bomb damage. 
Left as a shell after WW2, the building consists of worship space, flats & a Montessori School – and fabulous ground. 

From the church, the ever-intriguing Tobacco Docks was but a stone’s throw away, so I took immense pleasure in sharing the spooky deserted shopping mall. An added bonus being that Babs discovered that it was the location of a fondly remembered childhood photo of her and two of her sisters next to the Three Sisters – the ship moored in the dock. The glorious finale to the exploration was a pint in the Captain Kidd, one of London’s most endearing pubs, where our feet protested at any suggestions of a move towards Christchurch, Spitafields.
So that’s three of the six churches ‘found’ – three more to go, so there will be a part two to this adventure. Who knew that after years of enforced church architecture lessons on family holidays, I’d willingly spend an afternoon following in the footsteps of a church architect? The tour raises a few questions for the church at large too – why are so many churches behind locked gates? How can an interested observer find out more about what’s going on inside the church? Are the churches just a throwback to a bygone age and no longer relevant to today’s society? One final – none church – question: why is Canary Wharf and the Isle of Dogs in general so flipping hard to navigate??