In Praise of Middlesex County Council

The Deep Topographer Nick Papadimitriou has just relaunched his website Middlesex County Council. It’s a brilliant piece of work. An honouring of the county “utilising prose and poetry, photographs and local history lore. ” Anyone who has seen my films of Nick will be familiar with his unique vision of that area of London only sometimes referred to by its proper name.
The films by the way are: A Blakean Vision, Deep Topography with Nick Papadimitriou, Beyond Psychogeography, From Dan Dare to Pornography

The River Run pages represent a detailed study of the rivers of the borough and are an essential read. I have for two years now always had a bundles of dog-eared beer-stained copies of some of Nick’s writing in my bag. The pages can be downloaded as PDFs so that others can too share this privilege.

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PLAY.orchestra and Tot Hill

Lunchtime today I found myself sitting on a plastic box outside the Royal Festival Hall that produced the sound of a cello when I plonked myself down. People sat on other boxes around me that emitted the noises associated with flutes, violins etc – collectively I suppose we formed a kind of orchestra. The piece is called PLAY.orchestra, although as I sat there as an Oboe I thought Bum Orchestra might not be a bad alternative. You can then download the sound you’ve made to your phone via Bluetooth and use it as ringtone, send to friends, burn to CD or whatever. It’s the second creative use of Bluetooth technology that I’ve come across this week. The other looks like a large advertising stand in the foyer of the NFT (there’s also one in the IMAX) where you can download a clip from one of the many classic CIO public information films currently screening at the NFT. I think the use of Bluetooth as a creative tool and as a means for disseminating artistic material is quickly becoming common practice.

I went over to Westminster the other day in search of Tot Hill, one of the prehistoric mounds of London mentioned by E.O Gordon in her seminal book ‘Prehistoric London: its mounds and circles’. I’ve previously been fixated on the Penton, because I lived about a hundred yards away mainly, but I’m considering a project based around the sites, even if it’s just a walk to link them up. I knew that it was just outside Westminster Abbey but not sure where. Tothill Fields was a feature on London maps till the C18th and is commemorated by Tothill Street. Tothill Fields is now marked by the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre (opened in 1986). A friendly Abbey gatekeeper pointed out where the fields (and supposedly the mound) had been and also told me that a telephone exchange had been on the site and an old derelict building overgrown with grass. Westminster Central Methodist Hall sits on one side and was where the first U.N General Assembly was held in 1946. Along with the conference centre, the Abbey and Houses of Parliament nearby this site has maintained its ancient function as a place of congregation and worship for thousands of years.

Round the back of Middlesex Guildhall I found the relocated gate to Tothill Prison. There are several parallels between the Mounds (Penton and White Mound/Tower Hill the others) that Peter Ackroyd describes far more eloquently than I can (‘London: a biography’ p.13-15) but one symmetry he doesn’t mention is that they all housed prisons – Tower Hill probably the most famous in our history, Tothill being one of the more humane apparently and Penton Mound had the Middlesex County House of Correction on one side in Cold Bath Square.

have a look at a couple of photos I took of Tothill and PLAY.orchestra on Flickr.

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Wanstead Park

We cross onto the flats from Bush Road near a tree which has had its trunk burnt hollow. My 3 year-old explores. Into Wanstead Park over a dried-up brook (Aldersbrook?). We come before a mighty oak, the kind that arouses pagan senses. H says “It’s just so feminine, it’s fertility, like legs spread open”.

We come to the Heron Pond where the light reflects off the water and ripples on the underside of the leaves of a low hanging oak. Wanstead House is gone but the avenue of trees remains to the Temple.

The grand house that was visited by Elizabeth I, Samuel Pepys, Horace Walpole, from where Mary Tudor rode into London to be crowned, gone, a grassy mound. Joggers and cyclists, two power walkers with iPods. “Several Martyrs were sought out from the Forest during Mary’s reign…. John Rogers the first of them….” (‘Epping Forest’, W. Addison 1945).

Doing a Clunn (in the City)

In the footsteps of Harold P. Clunn – The Face of London

We arrange to meet at the Black Friar, 7.30pm Friday night. Jerry and Dave take a bit of coaxing to get them out of the arts & craft splendour of the pub but me and Pete are chomping at the bit (Pete has also already had a couple of hours after-work boozing). Up Queen Victoria Street and we resist the temptation to visit one of Keiller’s most iconic ‘London’ shots around the back of St. Stephen’s-by-the-Wardrobe. But dead opposite we feel compelled to inspect the odd statue rising up from the platform of the brutalist Baynard House (home to the first System X digital exchange). The sculpture is called ‘Seven Ages of Man’ by Richard Kindersley, inspired by Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’. From most angles it seems lost against the plant room behind, grey cast aluminium against a grey concrete backdrop, at best it calls out to the spire of St. Stephens.

We go through the Kubrick-esque passageways and down onto the Thames Path. Underneath the Wobbly Bridge Jerry relives the recent Social Cinema event that took place there.
It must have been this detour that made us miss the Temple of Mithras because we arrive at Cannon Street without passing it. We quickly find the London Stone, although it’s hard to believe that this is possibly the city’s most important monument, its foundation stone. It’s hiding behind a grill flanked by an array of sportswear adverts – Nike, Adidas, Puma, New Balance. Various stories have been put forward about its origins but I’m settling for the theory that it was the index stone for the stone circle that stood where St. Paul’s now rises.

We duck into Oxford Court to have a look at the Catrin Gwyndwr memorial garden, Dave’s part Welsh so the link to the great Owain Gwyndwr has particular resonance for him. Whilst we’re craning to take photos of the garden through the locked gates Jerry calls us over to look at an enormous empty office block that we later discover is the defunct Barclays Clearing House. Open windowed, darkened it is almost an invitation. Jerry wants to go in. Reclaim this colossal building for the night. We peer over the wall into a deep pit which at first looked like new foundations but Dave spots the signs of an archaeological dig – a partly excavated curved wall and tiers mud and brick beneath ground level. Jerry goes over the wall, it’s about 30 feet down, he balances on an old metal light fitting prepared to jump the rest of the way down. It’s only when we convince him that we’re not going to follow him ( security, CCTV, getting out) that he comes back up – peeved.

In St. Swithin’s Lane a cleaner mops marble steps in the dusk. I wander into the reception of Rothschild’s, the tapestry I’ve been admiring through the window is genuine the security assure me. When I re-emerge Pete, Jerry and Dave have disappeared. Gone. I wait at the end of the lane, do a wide lap of the block down King William Street and back along Canon Street. Dark lanes heading off at all angles. They’ve disappeared into the night, consumed by the London Monster. Then they appear back in St. Swithin’s Lane right at the spot where I’d left them. We move on.

Pete photos a birds nest in Change Alley. Down Bengal Court, the George and Vulture (Est. 1600) Thomas’ Chop House the brass plaque rubbed bare. In St. Michael’s Alley we find the site of London’s first coffee house, conveniently converted into a pub – we pop in for a pint. The Jamaica Wine House sits in the basement, marked by a fantastic art-deco-ish black lantern. We are in a nest of alleys and courtyards, potted Bay trees adorned with red ribbons on the boughs, red & white around the trunks, a lovely garden with tall willowy trees, distant church bells, not those of the Hawksmoor tower of St. Michaels Cornhill that we slide past.

Along Leadenhall Street, through the market which prompts Jerry to talk about Walter Benjamin’s ‘Arcades Project’. There are still a few stray drinkers outside The Lamb Tavern. Benjamin is an appropriate reference as this excursion is certainly more in the spirit of the flaneur than any kind of psychogeography or Sinclair-brew earth mysteries explorations.
At 21 Lime Street the eastern wing of the second Roman Forum is being excavated. Around it business continues as normal in a manner the builders of the Forum would have approved of. We pass under the Lloyds Building. Jerry hates it. I take Pete’s lack of photography as agreement. Over the road St. Andrew Undershaft stands in the shadow of the Gherkin (30 St. Mary Axe doesn’t have quite the same ring).

On Beavis Marks we’re following the line of the London Wall which takes us round to the bus station at the end of The Minories. I’m flooded with memories and associations – this was my first proper view of London, travelling up on the Green Line in 1989 for my first day at City Poly. I recount stories of our occupation of the Polytechnic buildings for 2 weeks in ’91- locking the provost out of his office, he came back fuming with riot vans and the deputy commissioner of the City of London Police who merely said that it appeared that we engaged in a legitimate act of protest and couldn’t do anything. When it ended (after many lentil stews, mass meetings, the national press, sleeping on classroom floors etc.) it was because of the Christmas holidays not the law.

Round by the old student union bar in Fairholt House (where I served in the bar, DJ-ed and performed twice with the legendary Garatholdens) Tubby Isaac’s (1919) is packing away his famous whelk and jellied eels stall. We go round into Commercial Street and into the grounds of Toynbee Hall “the seat of English radicalism” (Jerry), the place where Ghandi made his famous comment when asked what he thought of British civilisation that “it would be a good idea”. It’s after 11pm but Jerry gives us a quick East End tour (that neatly ends in a late licence pub) – the old Soup Kitchen for the Jewish Poor in Brune Street (“the last remnant of the old Jewish East End”), Tenter Ground where the Jewish weavers hung out their cloths, and most intriguingly The White House in White’s Row where local folklore has it as the place where Tory MP Stephen Milligan actually died of auto-erotic asphyxiation, not a posh flat in South Kensington as reported. It is also the house where notorious London criminal Jack Sheppard grew up. At all points round these dark streets resonating with histories of poverty, crime and struggle we are buzzed by an army of trendily clad twenty-somethings drawn east by the folklore created by the likes of Gilbert & George and Tracy Emin. We bring these worlds together by ending the evening at midnight at the Ten Bells in Spitalfields.

View Pete’s photos on his Flickr page

note: the title of this post is a reference to Harold Clunn’s classic book ‘The Face of London’.
Look out for a future posting probably called ‘Doing a Kent’, confusingly, again in the City, in homage to William Kent’s ‘London for Everyman’ (1931) and ‘Lost Treasures of London’ (1946).

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Beating the Bounds on the Lammas Lands

beating the bounds leyton

Went out beating the bounds on the Lammas Lands of Leyton Marshes Sunday after seeing an article about it in the Leyton & Leytonstone Guardian. It rained all day but still at least 20 hardy souls turned out to enact this ancient ritual led by local activist Katy Andrews of the New Lammas Lands Defence Committee and Rev Dr Meic Phillips.

My interest in the practice of Beating the Bounds comes from the Remapping High Wycombe project when I did my own symbolic circuit of the town’s boundary. I was intrigued to see it done for real though, particularly as here on Leyton Marshes it wasn’t just a quaint re-enactment of an old custom whereby the devil was beat out of the locality and youngsters where shown the parish limits, it carried a real political message.

beating the bounds leyton

The idea of Lammas Lands is based on the Celtic system of cattle grazing. Parishioners had common rights to graze cattle on these lands from Lammas Day (1st August) till the old Celtic New Year’s Day of 25th March. People stopped grazing cattle here some time ago, after the railways carved up the area, but in 1905 a determined group of local people got together and fought for the of the Lammas Lands to be “devoted to the purpose of an open space in perpetuity.” This still stands and the right to free access to the land and for it not to be fenced in is an important local right, especially at a time was more and more of London is being taken out of circulation by developers. But with the 2012 Olympics on its way, the London Development Agency have their hungry eyes on all the spare land they can grab, and without a word to anyone, they’ve decided that a chunk of the Lammas Lands would be a good place to relocate allotments from Hackney that are going to end up as a Badminton Court or something else equally useful.

Leyton Marshes are a great expanse of land, the like of which you just don’t expect to see in London. Horses grazing, some tethered to the great electricity pylons that straddle the Lea Valley. Into it we plunged with our willow wands bedecked with ribbons. I missed the first “child sacrifice” because I got lost on the pitch and put. I was slightly surprised that this bumping of a child would be carried out, however traditional, the idea of Druids carrying out child sacrifice is now thought to have been Christian propaganda aimed at undermining the influence of pagan practices.

beating the bounds leyton

Rev Dr Meic Phillips boomed out snippets of local history and oddities of English law, such as the way that footpaths are established (by carrying a coffin between a dwelling and a church – and you can still do it if you can find a dead person). I struck up conversation with the vicar of the Parish of Clapton and it dawned on me how this distinctly pagan ritual is being appropriated by the church, but not in a christianised form but a blatantly pagan one. Looking and listening to Rev Dr Phillips, I could see that he was just a Druid in disguise, and I started to wonder whether the Druids hadn’t died out but they’d just entered the fledgling Church of England and quietly subverted it.

beating the bounds leyton

Opposite the River Lea Navigation Katy pointed out the former site of James Latham’s timber yards, currently been turned into the sort of Legoland housing estate that John Prescott plans to have spreading throughout southern England like an outbreak of measles. This was the place my Dad had told me to look out for. He used to drive up from Wycombe to pick the timber up from Latham’s wharfs, back in Wycombe it would be turned into veneered panels. The Lea Bridge Road is my old man’s only point of reference in this neck of the woods.

Through a ditch and up a muddy bank, the rain lashes down, people going down left right and centre, I fall head first into a patch of stinging nettles. This is the stuff, there won’t be a riot like there was in 1905, but we’ll at least get some mud under our nails.

Eton Manor plaque

On we go around the marshes, with references to how the calendar change of 1752 divided the grazing practices of the parishes Leyton and Walthamstow who had peacefully co-existed for thousands of years (well a couple of thousand at least). It meant that the people of Leyton who had adopted the new calendar had to take their cattle off the Lammas Lands eleven days before those of Walthamstow who had stuck with the old system. Caused a bit of a row back then apparently.

All along the way there were reminders that our common land rights are under greater threat than ever. There was a real mood of protest and defiance, however twee we must have looked with our ribbons fluttering in the wind.

beating the bounds leyton

At the end of the walk, drenched, we cast our willow wands into the Dagenham Brook, a symbolic act of returning the willows to water. The next symbolic act was the adjournment to the Hare and Hounds for a pint, where it all started back in 1905.