Writer and Deep Topographer Nick Papadimitriou explains some of his theories about the sacred landscape of the London Borough of Brent.
Writer and Deep Topographer Nick Papadimitriou explains some of his theories about the sacred landscape of the London Borough of Brent.
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).
I can feel myself caught in a web of intersecting symmetries relating to the current wave of suspected and real terrorist activity. The house in Forest Gate that was wrongly raided is very close to a house I lived in whilst a student in Lancaster Road. You can trace a direct line from there through where I’m sitting now to the recently arrested suspected jihadists in Walthamstow. If I attempt to escape across London back to my hometown I must first pass the house of another suspect in Leyton and eventually find myself back in High Wycombe where several of the other accused would-be martyrs live. Such a journey would take me via my former home at Angel just near the tube bombings at Kings Cross and on the ill-fated No.30 bus route.
I have turned a wall in my house into an incident room to further track these developments. Comments on this subject are most welcome.
tags: Terror plot
In an attempt to escape the South Bank crowds I headed over Blackfriars Bridge, up along Queen Victoria Street and found solitude. I ended up on Canon Street and drawn into Salters Hall Court. There I found the Catrin Glyndwr – St. Swithin’s Memorial, a small raised garden well kept, tranquil with a curved statue in the corner dedicated to Catrin’s memory. A Corporation of London plaque told the story of Catrin – taken to the Tower of London in 1409 with her children during Owain’s Welsh uprising due to her children’s potential claim to the throne through her marriage to the rebellious Edmund Mortimer. Four years later both her and two of her children were dead and she was buried in St. Swithin’s churchyard. The garden is dedicated not just to Catrin but to all women and children who suffer in war. It was a poignant find on the day when people marched in London calling for a ceasefire in Lebanon. Hundreds of empty children’s shoes were laid in front of 10 Downing Street to symbolise shocking scale of child victims of the conflict.
Penton Villa, Leyspring Road. It struck me straight away. I used to live just off Penton Street, Islington, and have written before on this blog about the significance of the site. This is partly based on the etymology of the word Penton (derived from the Celtic to mean rising hill or spring) and E.O. Gordon’s idea of Penton Mound being one of the great mounds of London. Of course the other explanation of the Penton reference is that the land was originally developed by the C18th landowner Henry Penton, hence Pentonville Road.
So what is this Penton Villa doing in Leytonstone? In Leyspring Road as well – enough to arouse the interest of any crypto-topographer. Does one explain the other. Ley = “a field covered with grass or herbage and suitable for grazing by livestock” , and there is still pasture land at the end of the road and cattle were grazed there till quite recently I think. The name of the road though probably came from Leyspring House “Away from the High Road, “Leyspring House”, a fine house with a spring in the courtyard, stood in 33 acres of ground stretching from Browning Road and Bushwood to Mornington Road.” No link to Henry Penton but the spring is there and Leytonstone sits upon high ground as the fantastic views of the city from Gainsborough Road and Blake Hall Road testify (a quick check on google earth shows that the woods at the end of the street are at a similar altitude to Penton Mound 112 ft to the Penton’s 138ft). So a spring on rising ground. Another link back to the Penton Mound is the significance of a spring on high ground near an oak grove being a likely place of Druidic worship, and there are clusters of oak trees just off the end of the road on Wanstead Flats that would have spread much further before the area was heavily developed. As Peter Ackroyd writes: “It is known that in prehistoric worship a holy place was marked by a spring, a grove and a well or ritual shaft.”
What firmly places this in my autotopobiography is the fact that there is another Penton Villa, in Tormoham, 1 mile west of Torquay in North Devon (see comments) not far from where my parents live. And this in turn leads us back to Islington and this blog with the naming of streets and buildings around Rosebery Ave and Grays Inn Road after places in Devon (the link being the developer James Hartnoll from Devon).
note: I recently realised that Penton Villa is in fact in Lister Road and not Leyspring Road. The etymology is too good to resist though and I shall cling onto that chain of association on the basis that Leyspring Road is just around the corner and it is still likely that Penton Villa sits within the old Leyspring Estate. On the hand I’m giving up on indulging in any associations that may arise from the recent conviction of two men who were operating a gun-making factory in their Lister Road house.
I live in Twickenham Road E11, which has a pub called the Heathcote Arms near one end. On the other side of London there is a Twickenham Road, nothing strange there, which has a junction with Heathcote Road.
I’ll have to look into this. There’s often an interesting story behind these symmetries.
I’ve become slightly obsessed with the view from my bathroom window. It’s a glimpse of a tower block that sits behind a tree and is beyond the roofline of Norlington School for Boys that dominates the vista. The window itself is not a grand affair, it’s the small one at the top of the frame, but it’s head high and everytime I go into the bathroom my eyes become drawn to this horizon then lock onto the tower. It started off as merely an intriguing sight, but has since gained a greater hold over me. Now I feel that it is trying to communicate with me, calling out, transmitting a signal that so far I can’t unscramble. When I had to get up in the middle of the night to comfort one of the children it appeared there as a strip of light, the illuminated stairwell, suddenly I didn’t mind so much being woken at 3am.
I have so far resisted the temptation to visit it up close for fear of disappointment. I would like it to remain as a slightly unfixed, unreal location, a floating tower, a bit like the ships that I used to watch sail across the horizon at night from my bedroom in Collaroy, Sydney. There is every chance, that up close, I wouldn’t recognise it that it would continue to appear as a point in the distance.
It is only recently that I realised that this tower could be a manifestation of the one in John Smith’s classic film ‘The Black Tower’. That film had infiltrated my consciousness years before I moved out here, half a mile from Smith’s house and the location of the film. Maybe it drew me east from Islington. Called me over from the high ground of Penton Mound to a similarly elevated part of London. Maybe I should make a film as Smith did in order to understand my relationship with this mystical object. Although I think I’ll just keep gazing at it from the bathroom window for now.