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 (there 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.
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’.
Needed to blow out the Crimbo cobwebs and the remnants of a belligerent stomach bug, so headed off for a wander. Instead of a write-up I’ve posted a video of the walk scored with a soundtrack I made before going with my old 12-string and a kids accordion.