The Roman Wall in an Underground London Car Park

In those few days between Christmas and New Years Day when it seems I am about the only person at work in London, I gave myself extra time to get into the city before meeting my tourists.   Normally busy roads or roads where traffic is at a perpetual standstill were so empty that I could walk freely in the middle of the road and quieter places were of course entirely bereft of people.

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Standing in the middle of a busy London street right in the heart of the City but almost deserted.

I went off exploring as I so often do.   Not that I’d ever advocate trespassing 🙂 I do like to nose around whether at home or abroad.  Sometimes it gets one into a tight spot but generally it opens up doors of opportunity… even if the door says DO NOT ENTER.

The days at the end of December present enormous opportunity to explore and gently push at the boundaries of what is acceptable or rather accessible and it is about the only week where the centre of London feels as open and empty as walking in a forest or mountains; as if I have somehow survived a zombie apocalypse.  Even security guards seemingly are on holiday or they are fewer in number and those you find are more good natured and likely to encourage ones curiosity rather than bar the way… perhaps as they are bored.

If there are any ‘bad’ areas of the City of London and I don’t think there are but if there are then I surely found one or two so much so that I had to check there was no one hiding in alcoves or the various street levels that go from from Roman to modern times and more than once I thought to myself that if anything bad were to happen, I would not be found for at least a week.  It was all rather exciting!

One day I took the opportunity to ‘discover’ a new section of Roman Wall.  There are Roman City Walls in various places (Look at this which I found under a London Hairdressers shop) and some of it is very easy to see whilst others are more tricky.  Some are trickier still to find if they have been knocked down by Georgians, stolen by Vikings or blasted by the Luftwaffe.

As I was meeting my tourists just 15 minutes walk away and I had 40 minutes to play with, I decided to bag myself a new pice of wall and taking advantage of the total lack of cars I walked down the spiral ramp to the underground carpark in the Barbican.  This stretch of wall was only discovered after WW2 when everything above got flattened, for all the destruction they caused, the Luftwaffe actually unearthed plenty of Roman remains in this corner of London.

I found it easily enough even though I wasn’t 100% certain I was in the correct car-park, it was the one that I would have expected it to be in.  I must say that I didn’t expect the car park to be so loooooong, one long line that pretty much goes underneath the cleverly named London Wall street.

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Looking for a Roman Wall in a never-ending underground carpark.

Just when I was beginning to wonder what on earth I was doing, how would I ever get out and is it still socially unacceptable to relieve yourself if you really need a toilet and you happen to be in an empty underground car park, I found what I was looking for.

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Who put a Roman Wall in my parking space?

Sadly the wall itself was fenced off as the City of London Corporation are in the process of presenting this segment in a better fashion and no doubt protect it from parking cars.  I’m not going to comment as to whether I squeezed past the railings.

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The Roman Wall with its characteristics layers of red tile.

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This wall dates from around 110AD and is actually a connecting wall to the Roman Fort and barracks that were at the northwest corner of Londinium with perhaps 1,000 soldiers here though most of the remains of this fort are not generally accessible to the public unless through a special visit with the Museum of London.

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Who would believe that I’m standing 30 feet above a Roman Wall?

You can see my post on the Roman Temple of Mithras    and also the London Colloseum, both of which are underground and both discovered accidentally during the 20th century.   If you’re visiting London and want to visit actual Roman sights with me then check out my London Roman Walking Tour…. I don’t plan to put this stretch of wall on the tour but if you’d like to see it then I’m sure I can squeeze it in!

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Cheers to pub signs!

As we near the darkest and coldest nights in the U.K. many of us will be spending at least some times in pubs.   This would have been even more the case in years gone by.   There have been pubs of one variety or other since at least Roman times and almost since that time there has been pub signs.

In Britain we have a unique heritage when it comes to pub signs and in a manner of speaking they offer us a record of our history and the people who made it. Pub signs depict everything, from battles to inventions, from sporting heroes to royalty.

The Romans had  familiar sounding drinking establishments known as a ‘Tabernae’ or as we might sometimes call pubs, taverns.  Outside a Tabernae there would normally be hung some vine leaves outside to show that they sold wine.  Due to the cooler clime on our shores, vines were harder to grow (though I have several in my garden)  and so instead small evergreen bushes were substituted.

One of the first Roman tavern signs was the Bush’. Early pubs hung long poles or ale stakes, which might have been used to stir the ale, outside their doors. If both wine and ale were sold, then both bush and pole would be hung outside.  I live just a few miles from a pub called The Holly Bush.

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After the Romans left and our islands were invaded by waves of Vikings, Angles, Saxons, Jutes and eventually Normans, the tradition of pubs remained and more than that they thrived.

The naming of inns and pubs became common by the 12th century but as the majority of the population could not read or write it seemed the obvious thing to do was to have a sign outside the pub as a point of reference. By 1393, King Richard II passed an Act making it compulsory for pubs and inns to have a sign (his own emblem the ‘White Hart’ in London) in order to identify them to the official Ale Taster. Ever since then, inn names and signs have reflected, and followed, British life at that time.

The nature of pub signs have changed through the ages and before the reign of the infamous King Henry VIII and the Reformation, many pubs had a religious theme, for example ‘The Crossed Keys’  which were the emblem of St. Peter. When Henry split with the Catholic church, names were changed from religious themes to ‘The King’s Head’ or ‘The Rose & Crown’ etc.   However you can still find names with religious origins and even on my Pub Tour we go past the Jerusalem Tavern and the Knights Templar.

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The ‘Red Lion’ probably beats out the ‘Kings Head’ as the most common name for a pub and this name originates from the time of James I of England and VI of Scotland who came to the throne in 1603. King James ordered that the heraldic red lion of Scotland be displayed on all buildings of importance and he naturally deemed pubs to be significant!

There are various signs have royal links with most ‘White Lion’ pubs dating from the time of Edward IV and the ‘White Boar’ was the emblem of Richard III whilst many Royals as as Queen Victoria and her family are simply named in their honour with less of the symbolism.  I go past the pub pictured below every day and the first in the country to be named after the then baby, now young Prince George.

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The Prince George in Watford.

Inns and Pubs are also named after famous other famous people in history, such as Churchill, The Duke of Wellington and Shakespeare.  Trades and local events are also remembered whereas in more recent times sport, social and industrial change has been reflected in pub names, for example ‘The Railway’ or ‘The Cricketers’.

Infamous goings-on are also remembered: for example, ‘The Smugglers Haunt’ and ‘The Highwayman’ and many pub signs as the only visible reminders of buildings and neighbourhoods that were redeveloped, sometimes centuries ago.

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Finding the ruins of Whitefriars beneath the streets of London

Most people have heard of that very busy part of London known as Blackfriars but fewer know of Whitefriars.  It should be said that the colour here is nothing at all relating to the skin of the friars but rather the colours of the accruements that they wore.  The Black Friars were Dominican friars whilst Whitefriars were actually Carmelite and both found a home on opposite sides of the River Fleet near to the where this river reached the Thames.

Originally the Carmelite Friars lived and worked in the Holy Land at Mt. Carmel. The Carmelite order grew, and began to spread to Europe, before being forced to flee the Holy Land altogether when Acre fell to the Turkish Mamluks in 1291. A small group of Carmelites reached England in 1242.  Eventually some 40 Carmelite communities were established across Britain, where, because on formal occasions they wore white mantels over their brown habits, they became known as the White Friars.

The White Friars first built a small chapel in London in around 1253  just outside the western City boundary, south of Fleet Street.   In time, the Carmelite priory expanded and were the first to develop this once almost semi-rural district into what is know right in the heart of London.  Contemporary accounts mention that they seemingly did a good job as the area was famed for its expansive gardens.

Everything went well from them until the infamous King Henry VIII in 1538 closed down the monastery as he did with similar institutions across the country.  The estate fell into disrepair and the haunt of criminals that somehow successfully argued the area should retain its Holy right to sanctuary and so be safe from prosecution.   In fact it became known as Alsatia, derived from the strip of land between France and Germany that changed hands frequently and was in a perpetual state of lawlessness and discontent.

It also became a centre for theatre and acting as such pursuits were frowned upon in respectable areas, hence The Globe and other attractions to the south of the Thames and some of its street names that still exist include Blood Bowl Alley and Hanging Sword Alley before the area turned to industry and eventually the famous newspaper trade for which Fleet Street is famous.

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Whitefriars underneath a modern towerblock

Naturally with all this going on and centuries of development occurring over what was perhaps the most busy street in London for a time, White Friars didn’t just fall into disrepair but was almost totally forgotten about until in 1896, the  owner of 4 Britton’s Court off Whitefriars Street was having his premises surveyed prior to selling them.  The estate agent noticed a Gothic vaulted ceiling in the basement.

The room was piled high with centuries of rubbish and coal that had been stored there, and when this was cleared away to it revealed part of a late 14thcentury crypt.  The experts concluded that this was a section of cellar from the Prior’s house. The top of the ceiling was a couple of feet below ground level, the room was 12 feet square and with a small doorway, which it is thought once led into the friary grounds.

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Whitefriars as it is today.

A few years later, the site was purchased by the News of the World, whose owners decided to restore the crypt in the 1920s. They would also allow members of the public to see it, by prior arrangement. In the redevelopment that followed the departure of News International in the 1980s, however, it was decided that this last visible reminder of the White Friars was in an inconvenient place. So it was surrounded by a steel cradle and lifted to a completely new position though I would say uniquely difficult to find.

According to the plan displayed in the window these ruins are located it’s just about where the latrines would have been which is somehow rather apt.

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Whitefriars from the street level

You can see another old ruin I found a year ago in Aldgate. Aldgate Priory – the medieval ruins inside a 21st century office block.

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Ivinghoe Beacon – From the Bronze Age to a galaxy far, far away.

Situated in the beautiful Chiltern Hills, Ivinghoe Beacon is a prominent hill and landmark in Buckinghamshire, England, in the United Kingdom, standing 233 metres  or 757 feet above sea level.

It’s relatively grand height has meant it has been an important point for humans for thousands of years with evidence of people living here with evidence of an Iron Age fort and Bronze Age activity too.

For over 5,000 years Ivinghoe Beacon has been part of the Ridgeway, one of the oldest continually used long-distance pathways in the world.  It’s height and firm ground gave travellers an ability to more easily cross south-east England and avoid the low levels that could be home to unseen predatory animals or impassable marshes.  It also allowed those en-route to be able to see any potential human threats down in the valleys.

It’s special chalky soil, which is a feature of the Chilterns, supports rich grasslands that provide home to rare plants such as orchids and endangered species such as butterflies.

It is named Invinghoe Beacon as in times gone by it has been home to a beacon that could be lit in the event of such catastrophes such invasions, wars and deaths and by this method an alert could be quickly transmitted across hundreds of miles in hours, if not minutes.

Ivinghoe Beacon seen looking north from The Ridgeway.

Ivinghoe Beacon seen looking north from The Ridgeway.

Ivinghoe might look remote but it is very accessible to NW London and particularly Leavesden (where I live) Studios and so it has appeared in various Harry Potter films as well as a wealth of British shows in the 1960’s.   When i was watching the new Star Wars film I noticed that the moon that the second Death Star had fallen into was actually a lot closer to home!

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Star Wars at Invinghoe Beacon passing as the moon Kef Bir

So I went home and quickly found these photos from a year or so ago when they were filming.  One way or the other lots of Star Wars has been filmed around here with the original films being made at Borehamwood about 5 miles away, the prequels at Leavesden with the dreaded Jar Jar Binks living in a forested, watery planet where I go for walks just 4 miles from home and much of the latest trilogy filmed just a few miles away plus an beautiful sequence in the Lake District Star Wars: The Force Awakens Review (No blasters, no bla… I mean spoilers).

Evidently they used CGI to make regular horses look a little alien and for the steep northern edge of the escarpment to be cliffs that drop into a stormy sea in which the ruins of the Death Star sit just out of reach.

If you’re wondering what the view is like from the top of the beacon then this photo from the Marylebone Mountaineer Club gives a little indication.

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Though I have been by it many times, I’ve not yet gone up to the top of Ivinghoe Beacon but hopefully one day soon I will do.

 

 

 

 

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My new Nursery Rhyme Tour of London

It’s at this time of year where as near as possible I have a slightly easier life.  Fewer tourists though doesn’t mean I’m not working.  In an ideal world I would be using January to write books but I’m still busy with work but working from home and so I have been researching new tours in London.

One that I have been meaning to create for 6 months or so is one based on nursery rhymes.  Those child-friendly rhymes that most of us have sung at some point in our lives generally have inspiration from real events and in those days it would have been unacceptable and unsafe for people to discuss or gossip about controversial figures and events.

 

Take for example “Three Blind Mice” which is supposedly  an ode to Bloody Mary’s reign, with the trio in question believed to be a group of Protestant bishops namely Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Radley, and The Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer.  Having conspired to overthrow the queen and failed, they were burned at the stake for their heresy. The blindness in the title refers to their religious beliefs and inability or refusal to acknowledge the obvious righteous Catholic beliefs of their queen.

This is one of the reasons why nursery rhymes though seemingly made for children often have quite violent events such as blind mice.

Some nursery rhymes are easier to connect to actual events.   London’s Burning, London’s Burning is obviously about The Great Fire of London and with London Bridge is falling down, it isn’t to hard to guess what was going on.

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Some nursery rhymes don’t quite make sense to us.   Humpty Dumpty Sat On A Wall often depicts some sort of humanoid egg for reasons I can only put down to Alice In Wonderland.  It is thought though that the real Humpty Dumpty was a cannon that was sat on the ramparts of a castle and during a battle it that fell off and was badly damaged by the impact.  All the kings horses and all the kings men, couldn’t put Humpty together again.  There are are several like this such as Jack and Jill and also Rockabye Baby, both actually related to Royals.

Because the origins of the rhymes have often been forgotten, some have been deemed offensive.   Baa, Baa, Black Sheep of course it doesn’t and is based on a real and very unpopular wool tax introduced in 1275 introduced by King Edward I to pay for his military.  One-third of the price of each sack sold, was for the king (the master); one-third to the church (the dame); and one  to the poor “shepherd” boy who cries down the lane.  Obviously the rhyme highlights the unfairness of the tax on the poor shepherds who had tirelessly tended and protected the flocks.  Originally wording of the last line was ‘the little boy who cries down the lane’ but this was later changed to make it more appealing to children.

The Nursery Rhyme Tour of London goes all around the old lanes of the old City of London, generally well away from tourists or even locals and lets people see a different and authentic side to the city as well as learning history and finding out the origins of rhymes that we’ve been singing in some cases for almost 1,000 years.

Some of the rhymes or tales covered include Here We go round the Mulberry Bush,
Old Mother Goose, Oranges and Lemons, Londons burning, London bridge is falling down, Hey Diddle Diddle, Humpty Dumpty, St Swithin, Dick Whittington and his cat, Baa baa black sheep, Doctor Foster went to Gloucester, Three blind mice,
Mary, Mary Quite Contrary, Ring a ring of the roses and Pop goes the Weasel.

You can see the tour at  The Nursery Rhyme Tour of London or visit Ye Olde England Tours.

If the origins of words and sayings interest you then you might like to read my book Straight From The Horse’s Mouth.

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Are pubs making a comeback?

Most people around the world know that British pubs are a national institution but from 2001 to 2018, 25% of our pubs closed due to the changing nature of our societies, work-life patterns, availability of cheaper drinks elsewhere and other factors such as the use of social-media which has reduced people actually going out and the banning of smoking back in the time of Tony Blair which showed up the fact that the heavy smoking pub-goers also drank a lot and the people who complained about the fact that they would go to pubs more if only there was no smoke, largely didn’t.   The pub trade was also affected by devastating changes to business taxes and alcohol duties.

However, the decline of the British pub may have not just ended but gone into reverse as for the first time in over a decade we have ended up with 320 more pubs than a year earlier with Office of National Statistics recording 39,135 pubs nationwide.

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Whilst still much reduced from the turn of the millennia and only a fraction compared to a century earlier it marks a dramatic turnaround compared compared with recent years when around 732 pubs a year closed on average.

The upturn in fortunes is likely to increase further with chains such as Wetherspoon announcing £200 million expansion plans for additional pubs which will also create 10,000 new jobs.

What is it that it behind the reversal of fortunes is hard to pin down but it seems pubs have upped their game somewhat with improved food menus and some offering accommodation and more or better live music, almost as they would have once been the centre of the community in centuries gone by.

In fact communities have played an important role as recently introduced powers have allowed communities to save their beloved locals from redevelopment into more lucrative housing.   With the continued stagnation of high-street shopping and so many other places where people can stop and interact in a leisurely manner with strangers and friends alike, pubs are becoming even more vital for those who want to mingle and spend time with living people rather than screens.

Booming cities and tourist hotspots in the countryside are doing best of all but in other places such as the suburbs where there can be a near dearth of community spirit and more impoverished towns and rural areas where there isn’t the spare cash, pubs are still closing down.

Through Ye Olde England Tours, I do some great pub tours to authentic pubs that are mostly well away from the tourist crowds so if you fancy a good walk, history and the odd drink then why not join me and find out just how great and different British pubs can be.

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My 2019 Year in Review

2019 was a busy old year and in keeping with most of the previous 44, not particularly good though far from the worst.  I guess that’s why I never celebrate New Year!

Two of the highlights were definitely getting to see my first ever MLB Baseball game and even better than that, my beloved Boston Red Sox in mid-summer and then more recently my first NFL game also.

Whilst out and about on my tours I watched them filming the new James Bond film which will handily go on my James Bond Tour.  I also met plenty of big names whilst out and about in London and was on the television news in the spring and then picked by the BBC Comic Relief show to do a special Sherlock tour for some lovely prize winners which also involved giving a tour to some great Sherlock actors which started off scary, went through a weird phase and ended up being a lot of fun.

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Again, I haven’t had a day off all year one way or the other but that’s ok.  Apart from the buses where I live, the worst aspect were the continual Extinction Rebellion protests which were seemingly timed for when politicians were away, the weather was nice and people were on holidays which of course made my job a complete nightmare!

As for writing, I haven’t done as much as I would have hoped.  I’m probably 50% through writing a new book on the Secret Sacred Gardens of the City of London, based on the tour of the same name!  But I’ve been too busy to finish it off so far.

I became a member of Middlesex Country Cricket Club earlier this year as I love cricket. However I hate the short 20.20 games and that combined with my work schedule, long travel times to the games, I only got to see one day of games all year.

Hopefully that might change one day soon as I am hoping to move house in the next month or two.  I had expected to move before Christmas but my previous buyers quit on the day we were signing contracts and delayed everything by two months.  Please join me in sending them very bad psychic thoughts their way!

Even more bad thoughts should be sent to the man who attacked me nearly 2 months ago.

I would say lets hope for 2020 to be different but who am I kidding!  Happy New Year to those who celebrate!

 

 

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