A Summer Solstice Perambulation of the Prehistoric Mounds of London

The idea has been with me ever since I first picked up a copy of E.O. Gordon’s ‘Prehistoric London : its mounds and circles’ – to walk between the mounds on the summer solstice. In her criminally under-celebrated book Gordon describes how the mounds and circles of the British Isles are the remnants of a lost culture. No news there when looking at the solstice celebrations at Stonehenge (30,000 pagan celebrants this year), but London?

The only acknowledgement of the significance of these sites was a record of The Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids forsaking Stonehenge in favour of performing ceremonies at Tower Hill in March 1963.
I confess that resonance was added by the fact that at the time I lived yards away from Penton Mound at the top of Pentonville Road. But what vision of the city would be formed by perambulating between its founding sites – the great monuments that were at the centre of a thriving city long before the Romans rocked up.
Westminster/Tothill to Bryn Gwyn/The Tower of London to Penton/ New River Upper Reservoir to The Llandin/ Parliament Hill – a day to achieve it in.
In its original formulation this would have been a grand ritual unifying the city led by the nation’s Druids. In this inaugural event it maybe fitting that it is a family affair – just me and my sister.

I meet Cathy on Broad Sanctuary at 2.15pm after a detour to the Widescreen Centre to pick up a role of TriX black & white Super 8 film to attempt a film of the ritual – a 3 minute in camera edited film. We are delayed longer than planned at Westminster – get caught up with the small good natured demonstration on Parliament Square in support of the Iraqi people. We blow the cover of the supposed Heritage Wardens who confess to being GLA employees spying on the demo (the are barely double figures present). We move on over Westminster Bridge leaving the Royal Gorsedd and cut behind County Hall haunted by the spindly Wicker Man that they call The London Eye. Then its down Roupel Street, Union Street and into the quiet. We ponder upon the fetishisation of dereliction as we marvel at some beautiful crumbling relics – one a stone doorway with the word ‘OFFICE’ carved into the lintel adrift in an empty street. I realise that with my focus being on the film it cancels out words – my notebook virtually empty – the whole 2 hour wander to Tower Hill only inspiring a single note – ‘Great Maze Pond SE1’ which I take to fit in with the pagan theme of the derive (mazes being created in oak groves and markers of places of druidic ritual).
We spend little time at Tower Hill/ Bryn Gwyn – along with Westminster/ Tothill – as I feel an overwhelming urge to deny the desecration of the sites by the invaders – the so-called Parliament at the ancient place of congregation and communal law-making and the Prison on the site of the British people’s fortress where the severed head of Bendigeid Vran, first king of this island, is said to be buried. I record them on camera but we move on enjoying the calm City streets.

Into Barbican from Moorgate through the halls and out into Whitecross Street guided by Hawksmoor’s spire on St Luke’s. On Goswell I show Cathy the Mount Mills fortification and we follow the Cromwellian defences through Northampton Square and out to face Lubetkin’s Spa Green Estate. We skirt its perimeter and I then point out the Mount Zion Chapel – redolent of a riff in Gordon that links the British Mounds to their spiritual cousins in Palestine (a few years ago I emailed Mount Zion Chapel to enquire what had guided the location of their chapel – I received no reply).
Cathy leaves me at the Penton to complete the final leg alone. It’s 7.30pm and I should stop for a cuppa somewhere but Islington at that time on a Saturday is geared up for one thing only. Also as I push on along Penton Street I’m too awash in a sea of memories of my happy years spent living here.
The Penny Farthing has been given a confused make-over and is now a restaurant serving an odd combination of pizza and sushi – I suppose they don‘t attempt to trade in on the pub‘s heritage as the true home of cricket – the pavilion for the club that would become the MCC after they moved across town to Marleybone. Change takes on odd forms – a tattoo parlour has opened next to the corner shop that supplied me with cans of beer and emergency nappies.

Down Copenhagen Street and walks (and blog postings) past come back as do trips to playgroups and the wonderful library on Thornhill Square. I get second wind.
Turning the corner into York Way I shoot some of the old station posts that seemed to have survived the coming of the Eurostar. Then the vista of the day – the cleared scorched earth west of York Way – a train slowly moving across the land below three enormous silos – I consider running off the remainder of my film here – a Tarkovskian landscape worthy of its own 50ft of TriX.

Gordon relates York Way’s original name, Maiden Lane to its purpose of leading people to their places of congregation (Maiden Lane that runs through Covent Garden lines up with Parliament Square). I note the street name of a sorry backstreet behind a warehouse – Vale Royal – the last indicator of the rich mythology linked to this area from Boadicea’s last stand to the first Christian Church (in the world!).

I’ve now decided to keep going without a stop till I ascend the top of the Llandin – a continuous yomp from the south end of Tower Bridge. Up along Brecknock Road where the dark ridge of Highgate Woods marks the horizon. Down through Dartmouth Park and I’m there on Parliament Hill Fields. I must be hallucinating because I see a white robed Druid atop the hill – yes. I grab the camera and zoom in – not a Druid but the freshly painted white monument to right of free speech that exists here. I do a kind of stop-frame dance around the stone till the film runs out and the journey is over – 50 feet of film, 10 miles and 6 hours walking.

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Simon Fletcher: A Trot He’s Not: notes on an old comrade


I was intrigued and amused to read the story in The Guardian today that a Channel4 Dispatches report had uncovered that our noble mayor had “links to a Trotskyite faction conspiring to transform London into a “socialist city state”.
If only.
I also used to know one of these alleged Trotskyites conspiring to Sovietise the capital of Capitalism as I was in the Labour Students with Simon Fletcher at City Poly back in the early nineties, when he was President of The Students Union and I was on the Executive and Chaired the Labour Club. If he is now a wild-eyed Trot then that would be quite a transformation – particularly for a fella now drawing a nice fat council tax subsidised salary that another old comrade speculated was in the region of 70-odd grand.
Lovely chap Simon as I remember him and I’d never want to been seen to besmirch his character in any way. But I sniggered into my coffee when I read the following beside a photo of a demonic looking Simon (he was a skinny lad at Poly, like an extra in a Smiths video – see photo, I’m on the right there and haven’t aged much better myself).
“The reports described how his chief-of-staff, Simon Fletcher, began his career working for Tony Benn and won a seat on Camden council in 1993 before becoming involved in Socialist Action. The faction, which sprang from a split in the International Marxist Group, aimed to reconcile its revolutionary programme with cooperation with the Labour party. Its critics claim Socialist Action decided to extend its influence by placing its members in positions of power in a number of organisations.”
Well surely the total failure of any kind of Left-wing influence in the Labour Party today at any level would be testament to the fact that Socialist Action have resolutely failed in their ambition. Hey, maybe they are running London after all, might explain the utter ineptitude of the GLA.

Simon the raging £70k-a-year Trot, was the fella that as President of the S.U. vehemently opposed the student protests that led to us occupying the Poly buildings for two weeks. He ironically viewed it as a Trotskyist manoeuvre and hated the Socialist Workers Party. He was a Bennite like many in the Labour Party at that time, myself included, but more than anything he gave the impression of being a careerist, and why not for a very bright bloke who got a First in Politics and lived and breathed the Labour Party.
I last saw him around the time of the last Mayoral elections looking only mildly embarrassed by Ken’s return to Party that he’d left along with thousands of other activists but who couldn’t bring themselves to rejoin the War Party.

I sense a good old fashioned smear campaign here – a return to Thatcherite style attacks on the Left, ‘Reds Under The Bed’ and all that. And it must just be over the limp Congestion Charge, because otherwise Ken is a model Quisling of the City corporations.

Old Father Thames on Film


I haven’t been listening to my audiobook of Peter Ackroyd’s ‘Thames’. It was sitting down to watch the ‘Fantastic 4’ (2007) with my kids that prompted me to think our glorious river. There is an incredible (or should that be ‘fantastic’) scene where the Silver Surfer drains the Thames dry. One of the finest apocalyptic visions of London I’ve seen on film and actually one of the finest visions of London.
The Thames is a key image for establishing London as the setting of a film so pretty much any London-set movie will have its ‘Thames shot’.

I started to have a quick rummage amongst my dvds for other key images of the river that gave us the city, shots that show us a how its representation has evolved.


This scene from the Lavender Hill Mob (1951) really struck me when I first saw it (along with Blitzed views from Holborn Viaduct) just for how accessible the working river of the 1950’s was. I’m guessing that this scene was shot somewhere between Waterloo and Blackfriars Bridges, judging from the city spires in the background, now a moribund stretch of managed footpath.

 The Sandwich Man (1966) surely has one of the best sequences ever shot on the Thames starting with lead actor Michael Bentine joining a queue for the river taxi (somewhere up west past Westminster) and then witnessing as a fashionable party set out on a punt which is set into a vortex by a careering water-skier sending them into the path of a practising rowing team coxed by Eric Idle who are then sunk, which causes the team’s coach to fling himself off a bridge with a life-belt around his waist resulting on the water-skier being splayed across the front of a pleasure cruiser. It is rounded off by Bentine cadging a lift in a car that converts to a boat and carries him home along the river to a pre-yuppified docklands.

The stills from The Flipside of Dominick Hide (1980) are not so much in for the distinctiveness but the fact that they are the views from a time-travelling flying saucer – the only such scenario I can think of involving an aerial view of the Thames.

And Keiller’s opening image of Tower Bridge from London (1994) with Paul Schofield’s dryly camp narration is one of the river’s definitive cinematic appearances.
That was as far as I got as I then got drawn into re-watching ‘The Flipside of Dominick Hide’.

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Have you seen London?

I found this passage in HV Morton’s ‘In Search of England’ which expresses a common refrain of the topographical writers of his time – that London is no longer London but a metropolis built over the real thing, maybe that’s what people such as myself and Nick and countless others are attempting, to see or at least feel London: ” Of course, no living man has seen London. London has ceased to be visible since Stuart days. It was then possible for the last time in history to stand among the water meadows at Westminster and to see London riding on Ludgate Hill escorted by her church towers and spires. Plantagenet London must have been the best of all the London’s for the purpose of a farewell speech: a city behind its walls, something definite to see and to address. To-day, even if you climb to the dome of St Paul’s you see not London the City State but London the Labyrinth.”

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The Virgin of Aldermanbury

Here’s an image to savour when stuck in the traffic choked City shoulder to shoulder with pin-striped city boys scuttling between the towers of glass and steel:

“There was a time just after the great fire of December 1940 when all the land between St Mary-le-Bow in Cheapside and St Paul’s Cathedral was wasteland. On sunny days office girls in summer frocks sat talking or reading in the long grass, which was criss-crossed by paths bearing such famous names as Old Change, Friday Street, Bread Street, and Watling Street. Traffic continued to run, of course, along Cheapside and Cannon Street, but everywhere between these two thoroughfares grew long grass and wild flowers. Occasionally one would come across a mason chipping stone as peacefully as if he were in the middle of a Yorkshire moor, and he would have made a very pretty subject for a seventeenth-century print. The only landmark to remain standing was the tower of St Augustine’s, Watling Street, which nestles up against the gardens of St Paul’s Churchyard.”

This is from ‘The Virgin of Aldermanbury’ by Mrs Robert Henrey (1958). The book opens with this description of the City of London during the second world war:

“From the bastion of the Roman Wall at Cripplegate, to Moorgate, are patches of bracken as tough stalked and as delicately leafed as you will find in Richmond Park…Take a deep breath, for ragwort scents the air, and from the walled and suspended gardens come breezes laden with the perfume of white and mauve lilac in full bloom.”

I was out on Sunday with the New Lammas Lands Defence Committee to protest at the proposed digging up of a corner of this Marsh Lane Fields to make way for the Hackey allotments being concreted over for the London Olympics. The logistics of the move would see the shady Marsh Lane widened to make way for earth-movers and tipper trucks, and the fencing off of land that has been held in common since it was drained by Alfred the Great in the 9th Century. By the time of the Olympics in 2012 the wild flower haven where horses graze beneath the pylons would seem as exotic as Mrs Henrey’s description of the City.
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Catrin Glyndwr memorial

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.

Jake Arnott short story about St. Swithin’s Churchyard

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