The New Kings Cross

I found myself in Kings Cross on Friday and finally made a video documenting some of the new development around the back of the station that has been emerging for a couple of years now. It’s a peculiar new zone of the city that many people seem unaware of, hidden away around the back of St. Pancras International and Kings Cross Stations and off the side of York Way.

Pancras Square Kings Cross

Pancras Square

To remind myself of what it used to look like I skimmed through the Mike Leigh film High Hopes where the main protagonists live in a council flat between the stations in the redevelopment area – their handsome block of flats and the Victorian terraces demolished. Checking an out-of-date A-Z shows that the location used in the film, Stanley Passage is perhaps somewhere beneath the new Google HQ and YouTube Space. Other streets that have disappeared under Pancras Square and Battle Bridge Place include Wellers Court, Clarence Passage, Battle Bridge Road, and Cheney Road.

Stanley Building Kings Cross

fragment of the old Kings Cross

It was hard to look at the tower blocks rising from those fields between Islington and Marylebone and not to think of the lines from Blake’s Jerusalem,

THE FIELDS from Islington to Marybone,

To Primrose Hill and Saint John’s Wood,

Were builded over with pillars of gold;

And there Jerusalem’s pillars stood.

Spirit Roads

Spirit Roads Paul Devereux

“There was an almost universal and abiding belief of great antiquity that spirits cannot cross flowing water, and that rivers were boundaries between the realms of the living and the dead.”

– from Spirit Roads by Paul Devereux

I find two pages of notes inside my copy of Spirit Roads by Paul Devereux. The yellow American size paper dates the notes to sometime around 2010-11 when I was occasionally making work trips the U.S. It’s a fascinating and compelling book, Devereux a key earth mysteries researcher for many years.

He writes about the ‘cognised landscape’ – the mapping of mindscapes that were projected onto the physical landscape in past times.

“Any worldview is dependent on the context to which it belongs”. Belief systems projected into the landscape as “invisible mental structures”.

Countryfolk, Devereux tells us, believed they shared the land with spirits – the Church preached that the spirit left this plane altogether for another, non-physical realm. There was a clear link between ghosts and locality that the Church denied.

Stiles were said to be the favourite perches of ghosts – if you sat there through ‘stile divination you could interrogate passing ghosts’.

“the virtual spirit paths traversing the folk mindscapes of old Europe”.

The Pyramids of Essex – Bartlow Hills

Last May I was taken out to Pinehurst near Hertford by Dave Binns and Gary Lammin to look at a Bronze Age burial mound in the middle of a housing estate. Dave made reference to a paper he’d written about ‘The Pyramids of Essex’ (or that was how I remembered it) which sounded astonishing. A couple of weeks ago Dave led an expedition to the Bartlow Hills – ‘pyramids of Essex’ – with Gary and I in tow. I’m delighted to be able to publish Dave’s paper on the burial mounds at Bartlow. A video of the field trip can be found at the end of the article.

BARTLOW HILLS: PICTURES OUT OF TIME

DAVID BINNS

Bartlow Hills
A little known cluster of burial mounds stands to the south of Bartlow village, on the border of Cambridgeshire and Essex.  More conical in shape than their prehistoric antecedents, the structures are believed to date from late first and early second centuries AD.  That chronology locates their construction firmly within a period (in southern England) of Romanised hegemony, more than a century before the recognised beginning of the uneven, long term decline of Roman material culture. (Foulkner, 2000)  In view of the discovery of foundations from a supposed “villa” and other Roman artefacts in the vicinity (Hull, 1963), it is assumed that the mounds were associated with an established residential presence.

Initially the mounds present themselves as entirely distinct from the more common flat roadside cemeteries of Roman Britain.  As such they provoke reflection on the extent to which relatively indigenous cultural practices continued within the political edifice of empire.  The implications of such a line of reasoning are not easy to codify or contain.  Even so, one approach to interpreting apparently Romanised mound-building practices would aim to situate them within the dynamic and decay of empire itself.

But first, what remains to be seen by travellers to Bartlow?  Four of eight (some accounts suggest seven) original barrows have been spared annihilation by the dual assault of agriculture and railway building.  The tallest of the survivors, astonishingly, peaks at more than thirteen metres above ground level.  In addition to the structures themselves, just sufficient is reliably known to make speculation difficult to resist.  Most of the excavated contents were destroyed by accidental fire mid-nineteenth century, but surviving descriptions indicate rich grave goods, pointing to a high status family or group of families. (Dunning and Jessup, 1936)  The presence of such apparently elite goods suggests the expanding power of consolidating classes, but how far was the associated cultural nexus specifically Roman in character?

Bartlow Hills
An insightful early analysis by Cyril Fox suggests close resemblance between the contents of mounds and flat graves during the Roman period.  Discovery of wooden chests and brick tombs in both types of burial implies, for Fox, that mound burial at the time was “…not associated with any particular rite.” (Fox, 1923, p.198)  A mound, nonetheless, is not a flat grave.  The survival of mound building under occupation complicates the widely assumed image of a systematically Romanised social and political elite.  In David Braund’s strong formulation of that conversion model, across lowland Britain in particular, a thoroughly transformed ruling stratum “…competed to display its wealth through imported styles and architectural splendours.” (Braund, 2000)  Against that perception, while acknowledging the less rounded profile of the Bartlow mounds by comparison with earlier equivalents, Fox concludes that the former denote “survival” into Roman times of an older cultural custom (Fox, 1923, p.199).

Circumstantial evidence including that of accepted chronology provides support for Fox’s hypothesis.  Archaeological views converge on the decades around 100AD as the key phase of development at Bartlow.  The mounds, to put that another way, were raised just half a century or so after the final military suppression of both the Druid core on Anglesey and the specific tribal insurrection associated with Boudica.  The builders of the mounds and most of those whose cremated remains were placed within them were probably closer to Boudica in lived memory than today’s humans are to Winston Churchill or Ho Chi Minh.  It is even conceivable that the Bartlow mound builders were directly associated with the Iceni tribe that Boudica had come to head, with its substantial territories in what is now called East Anglia a few miles to the north and east.

For at least some of those directly associated with the mounds, it seems highly likely – almost inevitable – that recollections and interpretations of what the Roman imperial outlook had disparaged as sub-civilised existence and resistance would, one way or another, continue to reverberate.  Over time those memories, like everything else, were subject to change.  As the immediacy of the invader onslaught receded, culturally transmitted associations would be reinterpreted and reassessed.  Each recollection engendered new adjustments and unexpected tensions.  Eventually some multiply reinterpreted memories took on entirely altered significance.  Remembered, but increasingly distant experiences would shift and realign, recombine and reincarnate within difficult-to-recognise manifestations: a battle chant transformed into a children’s rhyme; a curse morphing into a lullaby, or vice versa.

Such echoes of reflections inspired, consoled and tormented human lives over generations through to the turmoil of the close of the fourth century (Laycock, 2006) and far beyond.  It is highly feasible that tribal identities and alliances of some type, as well as inter-tribal tensions, resurfaced within the implosion of empire.  Recent research tends to support the notion of the revenge of disparaged identity.  The tribalism of the late Iron Age, it is increasingly recognised, already had a fluid and in some respects ephemeral character.  Simon James notes the “often-transient” nature of the “‘tribal’ groupings” of the period.  For James the key to their kaleidoscopic quality is that “…these groups did not yet have substantial contacts with other, obviously different groups with whom to contrast themselves…” (James, 1999, p.94)

The indeterminacy in relation to ethnic identity that James describes has implications for the decades and centuries that followed. Who were the “Romano-Britons” of Bartlow?  How “Romano” as distinct from “British ” or “tribal” were they within the universe of their own self-conceptions?  From their descendents’ point of view, how, if at all, did Rome’s loss of control in the far west of southern Britain by early fifth century (Jones, 1996) impact upon identity in the south east?  Perhaps both most important and most elusive, to what extent did imperial consolidation of the social hierarchy already intensifying before Roman involvement encourage complex, many-sided identities to emerge and in their turn change?   Far from assuming some common early or proto-British identity, such questions permit an approach to ethnicity as fluid, shifting and more likely than not at odds with itself.  They also raise the potential of people, then as much as now, to be underwhelmed by resistible invitations to hide behind a flag – however often such behaviour is mendaciously theorised as a hallmark of being human.

Bartlow Hills
In connection with what is known of Bartlow, artistic and apparently wealth-expressive grave goods are also associated with mound burial in the pre-Roman “Iron Age”.  Typical grave artefacts from that earlier period are in addition commonly taken to signify what James Dyer has called “…a strong preoccupation with the after life.” (Dyer, 1997, p.157)   However that interpretation is interpreted, there is no doubt that on excavation the Bartlow mounds were found to hold remarkable, even poignant depositions.  Archaeologist Alison Taylor writes: “Lamps of iron or bronze had been left burning when each burial was sealed, and when excavated they still contained a ‘fatty substance’ and a partially burned wick.” (Taylor, 1998, p.18)  Such an arrangement strongly suggests intentionally prolonged internal illumination after the tombs were sealed.  Was the contrivance a means to enact some conception of conscious continuity across the transition to another world?  Was there, perhaps in addition, some recognition of the tendency of light – literal or metaphorical – toward eventual extinction?  What precisely did that aspect of entombment signify to the people who witnessed it with anguish, relief, indifference, even curiosity?

The poverty of available facts is an unavoidable element of the situation.  Imagination, it follows, must play a part in any attempt to account for the meaning – or meanings – of the flames of the Bartlow lamps to those who placed and observed them alongside the human remains that they illuminated briefly.  Ambiguity pervades all possible theorisations of those perishing flames which could even, in the end, be the most relevant metaphor for the changefulness and multi-potentiality of identity and ethnicity.

Certainly the presence of Bartlow’s towering “fairy hills” – as ancient and prehistoric barrows have been popularly visualised and imagined (Harte, 1997) – lends an otherwordly quality to the landscape of which they remain a part.  Much as with the mounds of Neolithic and Bronze Age centuries, it seems unlikely the creation of that experience of “otherness” is an unintended consequence of landscape transformation.  Go among them and to this day you enter another kind of space.


Selected sources:

Braund, D. (2000) “”Britain AD”, “History Today”, Jan. 2000.

Collingridge, V. (2006) “Boudica”, Ebury Press/Random House, London.

Dunning, G.C. and Jessup, R.F. (1936) “Roman Barrows”, “Antiquity”, 10.

Dyer, J. (1973) “Southern England: An Archaeological Guide”, Faber and Faber, London.

Dyer, J. (1997) “Ancient Britain”, Routledge, London.

Faulkner, N. (2000) “Decline and fall”, “British Archaeology”, 55, Oct 2000.

Fox, C. (1923) “The Archaeology of the Cambridge Region”, University Press, Cambridge.

Harte, J. (1997) “Hollow Hills”, “At the Edge”, 5.

Hingley, R. (2005) “Freedom Fighter – or Tale for Romans?”, “British Archaeology”, 83, July/Aug 2005.

Hull, M.R. (1963) “The Bartlow Hills” in “Victoria History of the Counties of England”, ed. R.B.Pugh “A history of Essex” vol. 3, University of London Institute of Historical Research/Oxford University Press.

James, S. (1999), “The Atlantic Celts: Ancient People or Modern Invention?”, British Museum Press, London.

Jones, M. (1996) “Rebellion remains the decisive factor”, “British Archaeology”, 20, Dec. 1996.

Laycock, S. (2006) “Britannia: the threat within”, “British Archaeology”, 87, March/April 2006.

Taylor, A. (1998) “Archaeology of Cambridgeshire Vol 2: South East Cambridgeshire and the Fen Edge”, Cambridgeshire County Council.

Text copyright David Binns_(c)2009

 

Corruption and prostitution in 17th Century Holborn

I have a copy of the Middlesex Sessions Records 1612-14 sat on my floor. I feel guilty for leaving it there, pick it up and open at random:



26 July, 11 James I [A.D. 1613].

Roger Williams [Williamson] alias Davies  of St. Andrew’s, Holborn, scrivener, and Margaret his wife, for being common barrators and disturbers of the peace at the same; and for keeping a common bawdy house at the same.

Both guilty. To be carted in a cart from the gaol to their own house, the said Margaret in a blue mantle like a bawd, and there to be openly set in the stocks, and afterwards to remain in prison till they find sureties for their good behaviour.

Prosecutors:- Giles Henley, William Dennis, Roger Usherwood, Christopher Archer, Nicholas Elmye, Robert Osborne.

Sureties for the said:- John Askewe of St. Gabriel’s, Fenchurch, gentleman, and William Roberts of St. Bartholomew’s-the-Great, tailor.



Roger and Margaret sound like a right pair – aside from keeping a brothel and generally creating a racket, barratry was the crime of “bringing a groundless lawsuit or lawsuits” or the corrupt practice of the “sale or purchase of positions in church or state.”

The Record Shop That Never Was

I was taking a walk in the rain yesterday morning when I remembered the time on a day just like this one in 1992, at roughly the same hour of the day, that I impulsively bowled into Barclays Bank on Mare Street, Hackney dressed in my baggy blue sweat pants and HUGE green jumper that I’d slept in and asked for an appointment with the small business adviser. It was only when I was sat there answering questions I’d never considered, like ‘Did I know anything about running a record shop?’ that I realised I should have thought this through a bit more.
I didn’t get the loan. I never opened that record shop.

George Orwell and the Walberswick Ghost

Orwell-sml

Whilst waiting for a video to render the other day I turned round and took Vol.1 of George Orwell’s Collected Essays and Letters off the shelf and opened it at random on Orwell’s letter to his friend Dennis Collins dated 16th August 1931. The correspondence wasn’t concerned with Orwell’s investigations into the condition of what he refers to as the ‘Lower Classes’ in the letter but ‘a ghost I saw in Walberswick cemetery’.

Collins lived in Southwold where Orwell spent time at his family home, across the River Blyth from the ancient village of Walberswick.  He produced the hand-drawn sketch (above) of Walberswick Churchyard, where the ghost sighting took place, to illustrate the experience which occurred at 5.30pm on 27.7.31

IMG_7695“I was sitting at the spot marked X, looking out in the direction of the dotted arrow. I happened to glance over my shoulder, & saw a figure pass along the line of the other arrow, disappearing behind the masonry & presumably emerging into the churchyard. I wasn’t looking directly at it & so couldn’t make out more than that it was a man’s figure, small & stopping, & dressed in lightish brown; I should have said a workman. I had the impression that it glanced towards me in passing, but I made out nothing of its features. At the moment of its passing I thought nothing, but a few seconds later it struck me that the figure had made no noise, & I followed it out into the churchyard. There was no one in the churchyard, & no one within possible distance along the road – this was about 20 seconds after I had seen it; & in any case there were only 2 people in the road, & neither at all resembled the figure. I looked into the church. The only people there were the vicar, dressed in black, & a workman who, as far as I remember, had been sawing the whole time. In any case he was too tall for the figure. The figure had therefore vanished. Presumably an hallucination.”

He then goes on to talk about making arrangements to go hop picking and the fate of some tramps he’d met.

I’ve always thought of Orwell as such an arch rationalist that it came as a real surprise that he even entertained the notion that what he’d seen was a ghostly apparition.

 


When I wrote the original draft of this post and scheduled it for publication today I had no idea that it was the anniversary of Orwell’s death in 1950 – spooky coincidence

London beers #2: Partizan Pale, Clarkshaws, and Pressure Drop

Three more cracking Capital ales from The Wanstead Tap

pressure drop strictly roots

How could I resist the invitation to try a bottle of Pressure Drop Brewery’s Strictly Roots Dandelion and Burdock Porter brewed in collaboration with the legendary wild man of the marshes John the Poacher, when plonked on the bar of the Tap by Dan. I’d picked up a copy of John’s book in Leyton Library and stupidly only skimmed it in the Leyton Tech but it appeared to be full of stories of catching rabbits on Hackney Marshes. I’m making the assumption that he foraged the Dandelion and Burdock on the marshes for Hackney based Pressure Drop. Like one of John’s gamey marsh rabbits Strictly Roots can best be described as an acquired taste (I grew up on wild rabbit for the record) with strong hints of alluvial deposits from the river Lea and an intense muddy aftertaste kicking in after a liquoricey opening salvo. Best consumed sat on the banks of the Lea with a copy of Marshland by Gareth Rees.

Clarkshaws Strange Brew

There seemed little strange about this  ebullient bottle of sparkling amber ale from Clarkshaws after the Strictly Roots. Cooked up in East Dulwich, Strange Brew No.1 went down beautifully in the evening sun. I was drawn to this beer amongst the 100 on offer at the Tap by the modesty of its label amongst a veritable gallery of vivid branding lining the shelves. Surely this indicated that the beer would speak for itself. To be honest I was also sucked in by the individual bottle numbering (this one was Batch No. 1, Bottle No.54) giving it the feel of a limited edition. Not only did the beer speak for itself it sat there on the table reciting poetry before breaking into arias and sea shanties. Apparently it’s vegetarian as well.

Partizan Pale Ale

Partizan Brewing from Bermondsey have a distinctly different attitude to beer labeling on their seductive range of ales that even include a Saison Iced Tea. This zesty, citrus-tinged Pale Ale had my taste buds dancing round my gullet in the kind of kooky oompah-band hanky-waving gyrations that the figures on the bottle look like they are about to burst into. It then made me want to get up and do a few laps of the table to Half Man Half Biscuit’s All I Want For Christmas is a Dukla Prague Away Kit. Sign of a good beer.

 

These are dozens more are all available from The Wanstead Tap or direct from the breweries.