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!

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…

Hidden London: Soho

It says something for our mutual levels of organisation that, when we discovered we would have a (very rare) Saturday together in London, my mother and I set about planning what we would get up to. In fact, we even planned a wet weather back-up, just in case. What we did not make was a snow plan…

No matter. The first item on the agenda was brunch – a good thing regardless of meteorological conditions. [Bill’s is quickly usurping Le Pain Quotidien as favourite brunch venue. Highly recommended.]

It also didn’t matter because once I knew my mother’s plane had landed safely at Gatwick on Friday, and that she had successfully reached central London, there was really little that could scupper our plans. Yes, London had apparently been paralysed by the white stuff, but in truth, little was sticking around by Friday night/Saturday morning (I hadn’t even got the purple wellies out) and nothing was falling out of the sky. We do love a bit of snow hysteria.

Anyway, brunch out of the way and treacherous weather conditions overcome, we stuck to our original plan of an informative London walk. How I love to combine my passions – walking the streets of London; discovering fascinating facts; and sharing nuggets of information along the way…

In the summer, my parents had a weekend at my flat and made a lot of use of my copy of London’s Hidden Walks (so much use, in fact, that they’ve now done more of them than I have), so my mother had leapt at my suggestion that we do another. Our choice was the Soho stroll, only 2 miles long and within easy reach of home. Exploring the joys of Soho with your mother might sound like an inappropriate Saturday afternoon activity, but fortunately the walk kept us away from the more, er, colourful areas of the neighbourhood.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough. I’m an out and out Londoner and find the walks fascinating – combining art & literature references with popular culture, politics and even churches. (It’s effectively the Clutterbuck holy grail for an excursion.) Yes, it involves walking around the city with what looks like a guide book clutched in your hand, making you look like a tourist. (A woman stopped to ask if we were lost – the humiliation!) Yes, it involves walking around in circles (I like to get where I’m going as quickly as possible). But it’s good to slow down, look, read and discover the hidden parts of the city. Plus, the great bonus is that once you’ve done a walk, you have fascinating facts to share with your companions whenever you pass that way again. Everyone loves a fascinating fact, don’t they?

Here are a few you can toss into conversation, the next time you happen to be in Soho…

Soho is littered with Charles Dickens connections, particularly references to A Tale of Two Cities. I’d long wondered what this golden arm sticking out of Foyles was for – turns out it’s in honour of Dr Manette – after whom the street was renamed.

The area was a hot bed of left-wing radicalism, sometimes very left wing. The Red Lion Pub was the site of the second communist congress, and Karl Marx’s family lived at a couple of different properties on Dean Street. Sadly, during this period three of his children died – one of cholera, ironically just around the corner from Dr John Snow who was awarded a Blue Plaque in honour of his achievements in wiping out cholera.

There is such a thing as a vegetarian pub – who knew?

Finally, when in Soho, there are plenty of opportunities for the statue game. Sadly, we were lacking Mim – the key component of the game – which was especially sad when we discovered this beauty in Soho square:

It’s probably a good thing she wasn’t with us. A subsequent Twitter conversation revealed that her preferred interpretation of it would have involved me being the horse…

Oh, and the squares of London always look good after a little fall of snow:

If you go down to the woods today…

…you’d better be well prepared.

One of the many marvellous things about London is that fact that you can take a short tube journey (20 minutes in fact) and travel from the urban East End to the edge of Epping Forest – a proper forest in which it is very possible to get well and truly lost.

I fully accept that I’m an out and out urbanite. However, I love a good ramble (in the truest Chalet School sense of the word) and quite honestly, is there any better way of spending a damp, chilly May Bank Holiday than tramping through mud with friends and an assortment of children?

As far as I was concerned, I was fairly well prepared – there was water, fruit, biscuits, sweets, an extra jumper & an umbrella in my backpack. I was wearing decent footwear – it was a toss up between wellies or new boots, boots won as the Hunters aren’t great for long treks up hill – but I had forgotten my waterproof. Though it seems my sister was still concerned. I quote her tweet at the end of the day:
“Why in god’s name did you wear your brand new, expensive boots? Didn’t want to get the Hunters dirty? *Bangs head on desk*”

Left, clean shoes on the tube (mine are the mahogany beauties on the top.)
Right, when the day ended.

However, I was thoroughly ill-prepared in comparison with our walking companions – the Jordan clan and friends. In total, we had 10 adults and 8 children (aged 2-14), that’s quite a pack. All the children were clad head to toe in waterproof material; they had rope with which to make a rope swing while having lunch; heck, they even had lunch with them (we invested in sausage/bacon rolls at a bikers’ cafe – I think we won on that score). They also had technology.

Our friend Rachel isn’t known for being terribly proficient with her Android telephonic device. She’s had it since Christmas and it still regularly foxes her, so it was with surprise that I discovered that she was using Google Latitude to track her father. Her Dad possesses a trait in common with my own father – the ability to disappear without a trace on family outings. Arriving at our lunch venue minus one adult and one small child, Rachel took out her phone and tracked him down, giving directions in repeated phone calls. It was really quite genius. I’d suggest my parents invest in the same technology, but it wouldn’t work as:
(i) My Dad doesn’t own a smart phone.
(ii) He has yet to fully embrace the concept of a mobile phone being ‘mobile’.

We had technology too. The rather rubbish official Epping Forest map was supplemented with Google maps and a remarkable number of phone compass uses. Yet still we managed to get lost repeatedly – our main map reader would claim that this was because no one listened to him. He may have been right…

The joys of map reading.
(If you look closely, you’ll spot Andy behind the others. The reason? He’s checking Google maps again.)

Ultimately, you know what you need when walking in Epping Forest? A good old Ordnance Survey map and an unlimited supply of plain chocolate digestives.