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Reasons to be Cheerful

I’m lucky enough to have Richmond Park on my doorstep. (Well obviously not literally on my doorstep or else I wouldn’t need to work for a living but it is about 10 minutes away.) This means with relatively little effort I can enjoy its pleasures at dawn and dusk – times when despite the 4 million+ visitors every year, I seem to have the 1000 hectares to myself to enjoy the abundant flora and fauna. In 1625 Charles I brought his court to Richmond Palace to escape the plague in London and turned it into a park for red and fallow deer. His decision, in 1637, to enclose the land was not popular with the local residents, but he did allow pedestrians the right of way. To this day the rights of way along with walls remain, although the latter have been partially rebuilt and reinforced. Perhaps because of decisions like this Richmond Park has changed little over the centuries and although it is surrounded by human habitation, the varied landscape of hills, woodland gardens and grasslands set among ancient trees abound in wild life.

There are 2 separate herds of deer – about 300 Red deer along with 350 Fallow deer – who call the park home. The other evening, having entered using Sheen Gate I came across a huge herd almost immediately. They’re very used to gawping visitors but seem to take even less interest at dawn and dusk when they spend their time heads down relentlessly chewing the grass. Having finally settled down – it was more deluge and swollen river than ‘mist and mellow fruitfulness’ a couple of weeks ago – autumn is its normal dynamically changing self. (Isn’t it strange that many of the sayings that you used to scoff at when young turn out to be true – it really has been nice weather for ducks.) The trees here in the park are a glowingly rich tapestry of reds, yellows, browns and green. The ground is strewn with conkers, sweet chestnuts (these seem to be a bumper crop this year) and exotic funghi.

With the views of London sprawling out in the distance (St Paul’s cathedral is only 12 miles away) offering a constant reminder of the modern urban world I work my way towards Poets Corner. Here you can find the Ian Dury Bench. Take your iPod/mp3 headphones along, plug them into the sockets in the arms and you can listen to many of his most popular songs via the magic of solar power. Definitely a reason to be cheerful. The park is also one of the stars of this year’s BBC Autumnwatch – I wonder if they’ll find time amongst the birds, deer and badgers to visit the bench.


And right now everybody who loves the environment needs all the reasons to be cheerful we can find. Just before the Chancellor of the Excheqeur, delivered the coalition government’s Comprehensive Spending Review, Mervyn King, the Governor of the Bank of England said: “The next decade will not be nice”. As we listened to George ‘Oik’ Osborne slash and burn his way through modern life we had many hints of just how ‘not nice’ the near future is likely to be. Amongst other things half a million public sector jobs to be lost, the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to see a 24.1% budget cut over the next four years and planning and development slimmed down to remove burdens from the developer. I can’t help thinking that this isn’t being built on any sound economic foundation but based more on wishful thinking like the lyrics from the Deadwood Stage:

There’s a hill of gold just a-waiting for a shovel to ring.
When I strike it rich, going to sit in a hammock and swing,
twiddling my thumbs and rockin’ away.
So, Whip crack-away!, Whip crack-away!, Whip crack-away!

The devil is going to be in the detail and this review has certainly signposted a lot of detail. Speaking at the Nagoya conference in Japan, Environment secretary Caroline Spelman announced a government commitment of £100m for international forestry projectswhich is greatat the same time as stories began to surface back home that thousands of hectares of UK government owned forest land is likely to be for sale through the Forestry Commission – which ain’t so good. With the Environment Agency and Natural England behaving like Victorian children, cowering in the corner and definitely to be seen and not heard, it has proved incredibly difficult to discover much detail about how the environment cuts will affect us all. All this is very appropriate for Halloween weekend but to quote a well known country & western song this looks like it’s definitely going to be a hard row to hoe –   now how do I get to that bench again? 

It’s not all doom and gloom in the Hero household though. Of course there’s the mighty Chelsea 5 points clear at the top of the Premiership and 4 wins out of 4 in the Champions League. There’s Hitsville USA – a history of Tamla Motown currently airing on Radio 6 and these days I’m working for the RSPB as their London Groups Officer.

Listen to:

Ian Dury & The Blockheads – Reasons To Be Cheerful, Part 3

Smashing Pumpkins – Raindrops + Sunshowers

Bombay Bicycle Club – Autumn

The Kinks – Autumn Almanac

Doris Day – The Deadwood Stage (Whip Crack-Away)

Tommy Webb – Hard Row To Hoe

The Miracles – Got A Job – Single Version

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Sound and Vision

8 August 2010

If you’ve never been to Dungeness nothing can really prepare you for the landscape. As far as I can work out the name derives from the Old Norse where ‘nes’ means nose, with, in this case, the nose attached to Denge Marsh. Others say it’s a derivation of the French for dangerous nose. Wherever the name comes from, Dungeness is a cuspate foreland – one of the largest expanses of shingle in the world – on the coast of Kent. This headland shelters the low lying land of Romney Marsh and is a haven for diverse wildlife and rare plants. Oh yeah and it’s got a nuclear power station as well.

It’s just under 100 miles away from London and this makes its bleak and desolate landscape seem all the more bleak and desolate. (Trees are a distinct rarity down here.) But that’s OK ‘cos I quite like bleak and desolate landscapes and I’m very fond of Dungeness. As well as the shingle, rare plants, exotic wildlife and power station there’s a functioning 15 gauge railway line that runs from Hythe to Dungeness. Completed in 1928 the nearly 14 miles of track owed much to the vision of two men; Captain J. E. P. Howey — a sometimes racing driver, millionaire land owner, former Army Officer and miniature railway afficionado along with Count Louis Zborowski — a well-known racing driver of his day (famous for owning and racing the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Mercedes) and considerably richer, even, than Howey. I’m fairly indifferent to this sort of thing but the steam and transport buffs I know get very excited about it and consider it one of the railway wonders of the world.

The RSPB has a bird sanctuary nearby and every year thousands of bird watchers flock (see what I did there) to record sightings of the different birds that live here or who are stopping over while they migrate. In May this year a pair of purple herons nested in the UK for the first time ever at Dungeness and successfully reared two chicks. Purple herons are high up on the list of birds that the RSPB expect to see setting up home in southern Britain as the changing climate pushes them further north. I’m certainly not indifferent to this sort of thing at all and I think the reserve is a great place to spend a coupla hours even if you know nothing about birds.

Close by is sleepy little Lydd Airport from which about 4,000 people fly to and from annually. The owners have renamed the enterprise London Ashford airport. I don’t think even Ryanair fly into places 100 miles from the supposed destination. The grandiose scheme attached to this rename plans to increase the number of passengers to 500,000. This is just plane stupid. If you ask me the south east doesn’t really need any more airports. One here would destroy the natural tranquillity of Dungeness and could see its remarkable wildlife slowly disappear, poisoned by increased levels of pollution or simply driven out by the massive disturbance that such a large airport would cause.

In the later years of his life Derek Jarman had a cottage here, which is remembered for his famous shingle cottage-garden. The house was built in tarred timber and has a raised wooden text on the side of the cottage quoting the first stanza and the last five lines of the final stanza of John Donne‘s poem, The Sun Rising. The cottage’s beach garden was made using local materials and has been the subject of several books. But despite taking a look at all this what we are really here to do today is to take a guided tour of the Sound Mirrors at Lade

These other worldy concrete structures are the remains of part of an acoustic early warning system that was designed to detect engine sounds from approaching aircraft. ‘Staccato signals of constant information‘  as Paul Simon sings from another time. The ones here and just up the coast at Hythe were part of an intended chain defending the south east. The Romney Marsh Countryside Partnership along with the author of Echoes in the Sky, Dr Richard Scarth, have been leading free, non-booking, guided walks out to the Sound Mirrors for over 11 years now. And bloody good they are too. On the site, owned by CEMEX, there is a 20 foot mirror, a 30 foot mirror and a 200 foot wall. Despite being constructed between 1928 and 1930 all are on the Scheduled Ancient Monuments list.


The walk we were on was extremely popular – I stopped estimating at 150 – and extremely well led. (Our guide was featured on the BBC’s Secret Britain series when they covered the medicinal leeches of Dungeness. See I told you the wildlife was exotic). The advent of radar, in 1934, cast this experiment onto the quirky historical scrapheap fairly rapidly and as far as I can work out they were only used in the Air Defence of Great Britain Exercises in the 1930’s. They’re well worth preserving though and fit in very well with all the other outlandish sights to be seen at Dungeness.


Listen to:

David Bowie – Sound And Vision

The Albion Band – Bird-watching

Paul Simon – The Boy In The Bubble – Remastered Album Version

Sound Affairs Band – 32 Cryptograms For Derek Jarman

The Magnetic Fields – Smoke And Mirrors

Stavo Craft – The Sound Mirror (Reprise)

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Walking the Wall

28 July 2010

One of the first things you notice about Berlin is how flat it is and this makes it a great city for walking. It also makes it a great city for cycling. Like lots of continental Europe it seems to have had one of those bike hire schemes for ages – why did it take London so long to embrace the idea? – yet you rarely seem to see anyone biking wearing a cycle helmet. What’s all that about? It’s also got a great public transport system. All in all Berlin is a great city to explore.

We were staying in the former East Berlin, on Landsberger Allee, Friedrichshain. Lonely Planet describes the area as ‘fluid in identity and defiant of all standard labels’. Whatever, we were right near an S-Bahn station, a velodrome (them socialists knew what the people needed) and a Pfennigland Lagerverkauf (whereas your market economy has got it really nailed). We weren’t far from Karl Marx Allee and chose to stroll into the city down this impressive boulevard one morning. We were, however, keen to walk some of the route of the Berlin Wall, not least because last time I was here the Wall was very much still up and functional. (And without it I continually mixed up by my ‘east’ and ‘west’ – ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ indeed.)

With the weather bright and sunny we headed towards Treptower Park and started walking alongside the Spree.  Right away you can’t fail to spot the Jonathan Borofsky’s impressive Molecule Man sculptures. They’re not far from where the Wall actually crossed the river. Bits of the Wall survive dotted around the city but for obvious reasons most of the locals couldn’t wait to tear it down and remove all memory of it. As a tourist, though, the chance sightings of random remaining sections are especially interesting. Not least because they all seem to act as local canvasses for the ever present Berlin graffiti. Everywhere blues, reds, and greens creep upwards like a bright giant lichen.

Some portions have been deliberately preserved though and crossing over the baroque Oberbaumbrucke we’re at the East Side Gallery – a 1.3 km open air gallery on the longest surviving stretch of the Wall that offers over 100 paintings commemorating and celebrating freedom. Then it’s back over the Spree via the Schillingbrucke, you then follow some old canals (now pretty rose gardens) going past the old Heinrich-Heine-Strasse border crossing to the Sebastianstrasse/Stallschreiberstrasse residential area. Here you can see what the Wall meant to locals. It was thrown up (and enlarged over the years) down the middle of the street. Friends and families were separated and display boards tell heart-wrenching stories of failed escape attempts where ‘oosties’ tried to tunnel under the Wall to their erstwhile neighbours and freedom.

You can continue the walk but we decided to stop at the iconic Checkpoint Charlie border crossing located at Zimmerstrasse. I’d recommend a visit to Museum Haus that can be found nearby.  The day before we left we made the short trip to Bernauerstrasse to visit the park, observation tower and museum found here – again well worthwhile. The Berlin Wall was a 155 km barrier enclosing West Berlin and in turn isolating it within the German Democratic Republic. Construction began on 13 August 1961 and it was regularly enlarged up until its fall on 9 November 1989. Between 1961 and 1989 136 lost their lives at the Wall – most fatally shot – but these are just the tip of the iceberg when one considers all the suffering created by this monstrous construction.

More information:

Walk the Wall                                        

Listen to:

Berlin – Take My Breath Away – Love Theme From “Top Gun”

Lou Reed – Berlin

Roger Waters – Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2) – Live Version

Highway 61 Revisited – Bob Dylan – All Along The Watchtower

Leonard Cohen – First We Take Manhattan

Nena – 99 Luftballons

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Northern Man

12 July 2010

From the sublime to the ridiculous – not only am I not in London for this blog I’m nearly as far away as you can be and still be in England. I’m 320 miles up north within sight of Hadrian’s Wall outside the hostel at Once Brewed. I’ve journeyed up here to walk a stretch of the Pennine Way – 11k (about 7 miles) from Once Brewed to Greenhead – with the poet Simon Armitage. The 429 kilometre (268 miles) Pennine Way National Trail chases the Pennine Mountain tops along the rugged backbone of England. Its route includes the Peak District through the Yorkshire Dales and over Hadrian’s Wall to the Cheviots and is amongst the finest upland walking in England.

The day started with a poetry reading in the visitor centre but me and Simon had spent the time before chatting about the previous evening’s World Cup Final (he’s a season ticket holder at Manchester United). We were both outraged at the Dutch conduct – total football to total thuggery if you ask me – and fairly happy that this approach didn’t reap any reward. I’ve no idea whether the reading was well attended – Simon seemed happy enough – cos I’ve never been to one before. The weather was great, nice ‘n’ sunny without being too hot but I was fooled into not applying any sun screen and so finished more than a bit ruddy faced in the afternoon.

We were joined by a local – Marjorie – for the first coupla miles. Simon had been saying that he’d seen very few other walkers so far on his journey but today while not teeming with people we saw enough to keep up a fairly regular ‘hi ya’ greeting along the Wall. Right at this point I can hear the more experienced of you walkers out there muttering ‘but he’s walking the thing in the wrong direction’. Well firstly that’d be reason enough for me but he’s doing it from top to bottom  – finishing in Edale – because he lives near there and he likes the idea of walking home. (The existing guidebooks suggest that to keep the weather at your back you should go south to north – aah that would account for my red face then.)

Simon and I have a mutual friend – The Wedding Present’s David Gedge – and although I’m not very familiar with the poetry I’ve read Gig. As a result when we’ve exhausted the football conversation – there’s really only so much a Man U and a Chelsea fan can agree on – we start on music. With its mile forts, funnily enough every mile, Hadrian’s Wall counts you handily along the route. Just outside Greenhead we finally get round to talking about walking (see what I did there – poetry huh?). Just why he chose the Pennine Way for his wandering minstrel begging act? Why walking is important to him and much more. All this will appear in a future edition of walk magazine. Here though in homage to Simon’s interviewing technique is the list of ‘or’ questions along with his answers (underlined) I asked:


Walker or Rambler

Right of Way or Right to Roam

Mountain or Moor

Lady Gaga or Madonna

Goal line technology or No Goal line technology

Shelley or Keats

iPhone or Blackberry

Serena or Venus

Beer or Lager

Town or Country

George Formby or David Gedge

He entered properly into the spirit of this only enhancing his answers twice – he was adamant that town did not include city and that Lady Gaga was chosen for his daughter. All in all it was a great day and I end by wishing Simon well for the rest of the walk especially as the weather forecast for the next few days isn’t as favourable as today. (His exploits from the whole walk – including some poetry – will appear in a new book sometime soon.) I blag a lift back to Once Brewed and begin the long drive south.

Listen to:

Detroit Social Club – Northern Man

Johnny Tillotson – Poetry In Motion

Laura Marling – Rambling Man

Morrissey – Sister I’m A Poet

The Wedding Present – Corduroy – Single Version

 The Fall – British People In Hot Weather


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Hotter than July

30 June & 13 July 2010

All I see turns to brown
As the sun burns the ground’

Well it ain’t that often you’ll see Led Zeppelin lyrics quoted here (Kashmir in case you’re asking) but summer is definitely here and definitely hot. Before I get on talking about the 2 evening strolls this blog is about I s’pose I ought to say sorry that we’re still in London but like people say a lot these days, ‘We are where we are’, and I do live here.


The first stroll is more like stroll+ because it’s a 12k Richmond circular – down to the river, up to the park via Ham Common and then back for a few beers at the White Cross. All very standard stuff but no less enjoyable for all that and 28 other people obviously thought so too. Metropolitan Walkers are trying out new ideas to make their already incredibly successful evening strolls programme appeal to yet more London walkers.

The Thames is always a delight to walk beside but as we pass by Twickenham on the far bank I’m reminded that Alexander Pope made his home there from 1719, where he created his famous grotto and gardens. (They must be famous because there’s a pub, The Alexander Pope, commemorating them.) Pope’s entire life was affected by the penal law in force at the time upholding the status of the established Church of England, which banned Catholics from teaching, attending a university, voting, holding public office or living closer than 10 miles from the centre of London on pain of perpetual imprisonment. (Those were indeed harsh times.) Pope decorated the grotto with alabaster, marbles, and ores such as mundic and crystals. He also used Cornish diamonds, stalactites, spars, snakestones and spongestone. Here and there in the grotto he placed mirrors that were very expensive embellishments for those times. A camera obscura was installed to delight his visitors, of whom there were many. The serendipitous discovery of a spring during its excavations enabled the subterranean retreat to be filled with the relaxing sound of trickling water, which would quietly echo around the chambers. Although the house and gardens have long since been demolished, much of this grotto still survives and now lies beneath St James Independent School for boys, open to the public once a year.

We return leaving Richmond Park and take time to admire the view from Richmond Hill down to the Thames. In spite of the words introducing this blog the scene is still remarkably verdant. The front markers had set a cracking pace and we polished off the 12k in two and a half hours leaving me plenty of time to enjoy some welcome Staropramen in the pub.

A coupla weeks later, with the ceaseless sun giving way to some light drizzle, (not enough for my garden I fear) I’m waiting outside Norbiton station just before 7 pm.  Clare’s leading this stroll as well and this time the invitation has been extended to the other London Rambler groups so we’ve got some representatives from South Bank, Hammersmith and Hampstead there as well. And very welcome they were too.

As we enter Richmond Park using the Kingston Gate we are welcomed by the gleeful cacophony of a flock of ring necked parakeets. These colourful birds thrive round here lighting up the skies with flashes of luminous green while dominating the dawn and dusk choruses with their airborne shrieks. There are estimated to be at least 6,000 Rose-ringed Parakeets (Psitticula kraneri) – often referred to as the Twickenham or Kingston Parakeets – flying wild in the South London suburbs. Their specific origins are unknown, but most likely they originated from a single pair of breeding parakeets which escaped or were released in the mid-1990s. Other origins, however, have been attributed to them: the most popular theory is that they escaped from Ealing Studios, during the filming of The African Queen (which was actually made in the Isleworth Studios) in 1951; they may have escaped from an aviary during the 1987 hurricane; and it has even been suggested that the pair released by Jimi Hendrix in Carnaby Street in the 1960s is to blame. (I really want the Hendrix urban legend to be true and vow to propagate it at every available opportunity!)

We exit the park at Ladderstile Gate and cross the road to the Coombe estate. Coombe is one of the more affluent private estates in south west London and is home to television personality Jimmy Tarbuck, tennis player Annabel Croft, while Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood also lives in an estate on Kingston Hill, located opposite to the entrance of Coombe Park. One of Saddam Hussein‘s daughters had a house in Golf Club Drive for a number of years, and Elisabeth Murdoch also lived here for several years. Dwight D. Eisenhower, when Supreme Allied Commander during WWII, lived at “Telegraph Cottage” in Coombe, which was adjacent to the golf course which he used at weekends. We finish the walk back at the station and then a good few of us repair to The Albert for some well earned London Gold.

View the routes:

Richmond Circular

Norbiton Circular

More information:

For a similar route to the Richmond Circular (and 40 others) see here:

Listen to:


 Stevie Wonder – Hotter Than July

Led Zeppelin – Kashmir

The Faces – Richmond

The Isley Brothers – Summer Breeze

Seals and Crofts – Summer Breeze

Jimi Hendrix Experience – Little Wing

Camera Obscura – Tougher Than The Rest




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Sweet Thames Flow Softly

Thursday 24 June 2010

A picturesque scene it made, too, with Wandsworth dairy farms visible on the far bank; cows roaming the yellowed fields between the cottages, and a church spire rising in the distance.’

This 1849 description of the Thames comes from Matthew Kneale’s novel Sweet Thames . It’s quite surprising to think of Wandsworth being so pastoral just 160 years ago. Surely Victorian London was all teeming slums, smelly sewers and the poor dying in their hundreds of cholera. I’m in Wandsworth to join some friends who are walking the Thames Path. This is the same lot who knocked off the London Loop last year. They’re either obsessive completists  or David Sharp fans (maybe both). I head down to the river from Wandsworth Town station through the pedestrian underpass where several scenes for A Clockwork Orange were filmed. It’s 7.30 in the evening, bright and sticky because the sun has still got plenty of needle in it and the landscape isn’t anywhere near as threatening as that portrayed in the film. The dairy farms, roaming cows and cottages are long gone, replaced by block upon block of luxury riverside apartments.

It’s a fairly short stroll tonight – about 6 km down to Vauxhall. And after starting off the path mostly hugs the river. We pass the London Heliport and are soon approaching St Mary’s Battersea. A striking Grade 1 Georgian building in a spectacular location on the banks of the river. William Blake was married here, Joseph Turner painted here and Benedict Arnold is buried here in the crypt. Then it’s through Battersea Park past the Peace Pagoda. The Duke of Wellington fought his famous duel with the Earl of Winchilsea over Catholic Emancipation in the park (or Battersea Fields as it was then) in 1829. It was reported at the time: ‘The Duke of Wellington and Lord Winchilsea met at the appointed place. The parties having taken their ground, Lord Winchilsea received the Duke of Wellington’s fire [apparently not aimed at him] and fired in the air. After some discussion the accompanying memorandum was accepted as a satisfactory reparation to the Duke of Wellington.’

Once we leave the park we reach a stretch of the path I must have travelled down over a thousand times. When I used to work at the Ramblers I used to jog most lunch times down to Battersea Park and back.  That’s almost 10 years of the Battersea Dogs Home, Battersea Power Station, Tideway Walk and crossing Vauxhall and Chelsea bridges. The major change in the last year is work on the new American Embassy. It is to be built on Nine Elms Lane on the site of the old (now demolished) HMSO offices. Returning to the riverside we see a cormorant perched on a buoy spreading its wings to catch the dying rays of the sun. They’ve been back on the Thames for the last 10 years or so – a daily sight swooping low over the water and catching eels. In fact these days the river is a twitcher’s paradise. It reminds me of the RSPB’s excellent Letter to the Future campaign currently running – please give it a look and then sign the letter.

We finish most appropriately at the Riverside pub in Vauxhall. We started by going through a St Georges Homes riverside development and we end in a pub in a St Georges Homes riverside development. The 3 pints of Youngs London Gold was very welcome and provided a link to our start point. From 1832 to 2006 Youngs had been brewing their famous London beers at the Ram Brewery just down the river in Wandsworth. All our walking was done on the south bank this evening – I’m sure my friends will only feel they have completed the Thames Path when they walk both sides of the river. Visitors to Tower Bridge will have the chance to travel the full 215 miles of the River Thames in just 200 feet when they visit the new photographic exhibition River Thames: Source to Sea this summer. 

More information:

The Thames Path by David Sharp

The London Loop by David Sharp

Walkers London & the South East in a Box





Listen to:


Cherish The Ladies – Sweet Thames Flow Softly

Peter Dawson – Old Father Thames Keeps Rolling Along

Big Audio Dynamite – Stone Thames – 12 inch Remix

Starsailor – The Thames (Acoustic)

Nigel Hess – Thames Journey

Beans On Toast – The Peaches Of Wandsworth



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Smoke on the water

8 June 2010

On a hot September evening in 1666 Samuel Pepys sat in a riverside pub and watched his beloved London burn. He records the scene in his diary: “All over the Thames, with one’s face in the wind, you were almost burned with a shower of firedrops…and in corners and upon steeples, and between churches and houses, as far as we could see up the hill of the City, we saw the fire …It made me weep to see it.” On an overcast evening in June 2010 I led a Metropolitan Walkers evening stroll beginning and ending at the Monument that traced much of the territory destroyed in the Great Fire of London. You’ll be pleased to know that in Stew Lane, Pepys is honoured with a riverside pub named after him – I think he’d have liked that. (A quick google shows another Samuel Pepys in Mayfair, another in Kettering and one in Huntingdon.)

The story of the Great Fire is fairly well known. Not long after midnight on Sunday 2 September a stray spark from the embers of Thomas Farriner’s (or Farynor) bakery fire ignited his house in Pudding Lane. The resulting fire gutted the largely timber built medieval City of London inside the old Roman city wall. It threatened, but did not reach, the aristocratic district of Westminster, the still newly restored Charles II’s palace at Whitehall, and most of the suburban slums. It consumed 13,200 houses, 87 parish churches, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and most of the buildings of the City authorities. It is estimated that over 70,000 people were left homeless but the death toll is thought to be small as only 6 deaths were recorded. This reasoning has recently been challenged on the grounds that the deaths of poor and middle-class people were not recorded anywhere, and that the heat of the fire may have cremated many victims, leaving no recognisable remains. In all London was estimated to have a population of 400,000 to 450,000 which was more than England’s next 50 biggest towns and cities combined. It was still haunted by the recent civil war and in the previous year it had been ravaged by the plague which had killed an estimated 70,000 inhabitants. Life in cities in these times was, to paraphrase Thomas Hobbes, ‘nasty, brutal and short’.

We began (and ended) our walk at the Monument. We walked up Pudding Lane, which is about 200 metres away from the Thames. The bakery probably baked meat pies and the ‘pudding’ from which the lane gets its name is the resulting detritius from animal slaughter which they just left to flow down towards the river. Then we filed through Leadenhall Market – famous these days as the film locations for Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley. We briefly headed towards the bottom of Bishopsgate – the eastern boundary of the Fire – and then headed north west journeying up Gresham Street. This street is the home of the Guildhall, the City of London’s present day local government town hall, but back in the 17th century housed many of the headquarters of the city’s Livery Companies. I tend to view these institutions as quaint anachronisms, the first twelve livery companies are known as the Great Twelve City Livery Companies, but of the 108 many are modern. Ladies and gentlemen I give you the Worshipful Company of Security Professionals (I kid you not).

They are nominally trade associations and almost all are known as the “Worshipful Company of” the relevant trade or profession. The medieval livery companies originally developed as guilds and were responsible for the regulation of their trades, controlling, for instance, wages and labour conditions. Some livery companies continue to have a regulatory role today – the Scriveners – and some have become inoperative except as charitable foundations – the Longbow Makers. Most livery companies, particularly those formed in recent years, are primarily social and charitable organizations. The active livery companies play an important part in social life and networking in the City of London, and have a long history of cultural patronage, and control of the City Corporation which still functions as a Local Authority with extensive local government powers. The Merchant Taylors and the Skinners have always disputed their precedence, so once a year, at Easter, they exchange sixth and seventh place. This is one of the theories for the origin of the phrase “at sixes and sevens”.

Perhaps not as well known is the story of the rebuilding of London following the four days of the Fire. Almost immediately people started congregating in the various open spaces like Moorfields and the piazza of Covent Garden. Tents – reminiscent of today’s refugee camps – began springing up everywhere. They would have looked across a devastated city that would need clearing before building work could start. Almost immediately the great and the good like Sir Christopher Wren submitted their visionary plans. However, over the next 25 years London was rebuilt replicating existing property rights. Legal frameworks – the Fire courts – were established in a matter of days to decide who owned what. The Corporation of London appointed Robert Hooke as a surveyor and he was out on the ground immediately – day 6 – it was cool enough to stand on. Ironically a tax on coal proved to be the main source of income to enable this rebuild.

Although the new city sprang from the roots of the old – it took over a year to just clear the site of St Pauls – it was a different place. There was a new attitude to public and private space and although the sweeping boulevards of Wren never materialised, roads were widened and maps and street names began appearing. Both St Pauls and the Monument are built to full modernity – an homage to science that London would be known for throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Indeed the Monument itself is a functioning zenith telescope. A more topographically coherent city emerges – one that still provides endless walking enjoyment and wonder today.

View this route:

Listen to:

Deep Purple – Smoke On The Water

Vice Squad – The Great Fire Of London

Billy Joel – We Didn’t Start The Fire

Kasabian – Fire

Jimi Hendrix Experience – Fire

Sparks – Beat The Clock

Ultravox – Monument


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Message in a bottle

27 May 2010

In Charles DickensPickwick Papers, Sam Weller is said to have a knowledge of London that was ‘extensive and peculiar’ while Sherlock Holmes, according to Dr. Watson, had ‘an exact knowledge of London’. I’ve always been more Weller than Holmes and one of the really great things about being out of work is that I have the time to aimlessly wander round London. And for me one of the things that makes London worth wandering around is the street art.

Unfortunately there ain’t as many Banksy’s around these days but there’s still a fine example near the Barbican in Chiswell Street. Then there’s your more official stuff like the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square. Here you’ve got Nelson atop of his column, fountains and four plinths for statues in the square. Bronze statues stand on three of them: General Sir Charles James Napier is on the plinth in the southwest of the square, Major General Sir Henry Havelock on the southeast plinth and King George IV on the northeast plinth. The Fourth Plinth, built in 1841 in the northwest corner, was set aside for another equestrian statue but has largely been empty. (Can’t think why – it’s not as if we’re short of imperialist warmongers to glorify is it?) It is now the location for specially commissioned artworks. The most recent is leading Anglo-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare’s Ship in a Bottle. This artwork is the first commission on the Fourth Plinth to reflect specifically on the historical symbolism of Trafalgar Square, which commemorates the Battle of Trafalgar (nothing if not literal them Victorians), and will link directly with Nelson’s column. It is also the first commission by a black British artist.

Bloody good it is too. It’s drawn admiring crowds since it’s unveiling on 24 May and the day I was there I stood next to actor Bill Nighy discussing its merits. He was a fan too. As Yinka Shonibare himself says his piece will reflect the story of multiculturalism in London: “For me it’s a celebration of London’s immense ethnic wealth, giving expression to and honouring the many cultures and ethnicities that are still breathing precious wind into the sails of the United Kingdom. A ship in a bottle is an object of wonder. Adults and children are intrigued by its mystery. How can such towering masts and billowing sails fit inside such a commonplace object? With Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle I want to take this childhood sense of wonder and amplify it to match the monumental scale of Trafalgar Square.” It has been commissioned by the Mayor of London and supported by Arts Council England and The Henry Moore Foundation with sponsorship from Guaranty Trust Bank. (Glad to see a bank doing something worthwhile as opposed to just screwing the global economy while paying out obscene bonuses to the culprits.)

The art gives us a reason to reappraise London’s architecture and geography and see the unifying spirit behind its sprawling diversity. It’s good to look at as well. Right now London is hosting the biggest outdoor event ever – the Elephant Parade. As the Evening Standard says: “A Jumbo Jamboree”.  Organised by conservationist Mark Shand to raise money for the endangered Asian elephant, 258 individually artist-decorated fibreglass statues are dotted around London in prominent locations.  Throughout May and June from Heathrow to Greenwich you can check them out undertaking your very own elephant safari. What better excuse do you need to tramp London’s streets?

Not that I’m any sort of expert but as all the ones I’ve seen are tuskless I’m guessing that they’re all girls. Most are already sponsored, though some can still be ‘adopted’ for charity and all of them will be collected and auctioned off on 3 July. If you’ve neither the funds nor the space for a 2 metre high elephant you can buy miniatures from Selfridges. I’ve seen quite a few so far. Before playing softball the other evening I investigated the 6 that sit behind the railings at the east end of the Serpentine in Hyde Park. The royal parks are good locations for the statues. In St James Park you can see a line of them – for all the world like Colonel Hathi’s troop in The Jungle Book. I especially like the ones in front of the Royal Exchange. Paul Smith has designed a cool stripey version.

It’d take a few trips to catch ‘em all but I make a mental note to journey south of the river to view the one outside the Elephant & Castle shopping centre before the end of June. Public art in public spaces for the public benefit – it makes you proud to be a Londoner. It helps you reconnect with the city and the various bodies responsible for all this should be congratulated on their vision and willingness to put these displays together.

Listen to:

The Police – Message In A Bottle

Bright Eyes – Ship In A Bottle

Sara K. – Ship In A Bottle

Toy Dolls – Nellie The Elephant

Fleetwood Mac – Tusk – Remastered LP Version


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Everybody Yurts

Thursday to Sunday – 13-16 May 2010

Fed up with this new posh boy coalition politics I’m down in Brighton looking for evidence of the Green revolution. Caroline Lucas and her 1252 majority is a refreshing contrast to my new MP, Zac Goldsmith, with his floppy blonde hair, perfect teeth, roll-ups and numerous indentikit staff. I’m just thankful he never scooped a government job as well. I’m also here to visit friends, go and see some of the bands playing The Great Escape and attend a mate’s stag do. (Yet another Paul – I know a lot of Pauls.) Not much time for walking there then but it would be a waste to be here and not do just a little promenading.

Well I got some walking in early just in case. After picking up my wrist band, enjoying a couple beers with an old friend we walked back along the splendid prom towards Hove. She headed home and I turned inland at some brightly coloured beach huts. Apparently Hove resident Nick Cave owns one and you can see him and his family here often – being dark, deep and satanic no doubt. Personally I wasn’t that impressed with the bands I saw Thursday night. I ended up seeing the Cribs who were decidedly average. Was stalked by Mika though – well he seemed to be at every gig I was at. Perhaps I was stalking him.

Started early on the music (and the beer) the next day. Saw Fionn Regan and then The Chakras in a small room upstairs at the Prince Albert. Bit wasted on The Chakras who’ve worked hard on that stadium sound. My ‘girlfriends’ tell me that the lead singer is well fit innit though. Took a short break for a walk round Brighton followed by sit on the sea front with Everything, Everything hauntingly playing in the background – couldn’t get in the venue though ‘cos it was packed. Considering it was mid-afternoon it was crowded – doesn’t anyone work in Brighton? Perhaps this is the reality we’ll all be looking forward to and I’ve just got here a little earlier. The evening was the Goldhawks, Delphic and Reverend and the Sound System – all good stuff – and then a cab home.

The Great Escape continued the next day but I had other plans. I cut my non-transferable wrist band from my wrist and transferred it to another friend. Reuse – isn’t that part of the Green revolution? Took a head clearing stroll on a beautiful early summer morning, headed for a pub just after lunchtime and settled in to watch the mighty Chelsea double-up by soundly beating Portsmouth in the FA Cup Final. Moved off the lager briefly to drink some of Arundel’s very pleasant Sussex Gold. Great way to start a stag night!

Quite an untraditional stag it was too – well except for the alcohol. We stocked up at the local Co-op, drove in convoy past the in-construction Brighton and Hove Albion stadium,headed for Stanmer Organics in Stanmer Park and a yurt that ‘s part of Brighton’s alternative culture. No strippers, no fancy dress costumes – just fresh air and bar-b-q’d food. A yurt (in case you didn’t know) is a portable, canvas or felt-covered, wood lattice-framed dwelling structure traditionally used by nomads in the steppes of central Asia. Bit like a spacious tee-pee or wigwam if you ask me but then again I might be making a fundamental error there. Up the path was The Brighton Earth Ship and all around were dotted organic allotments. Aah here it was – the real Brighton Green revolution. And you know what  – I liked it.

Well sorry there wasn’t much about walking in this blog but it’s not too much of a stretch to say that The Great Escape really works as a festival because you can walk easily between the 30+ venues on offer.

Listen to:

R.E.M. – Everybody Hurts

Movie Sounds Unlimited – Theme From The Great Escape

Nick Cave & Warren Ellis – The Money Train

The Cribs – Victim Of Mass Production

Fionn Regan – Be Good Or Be Gone

Goldhawks – Running Away

Delphic – Acolyte

Reverend And The Makers – Heavyweight Champion Of The World

Harry J Allstars – Liquidator


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Walking to work

Thursday 29 April

Last week (26-30 April 2010) was Walk to Work Week. This is brought to you by Walking Works and has been running for a few years now. Despite this, and despite walking part of my way to work for years this is the first time I’ve taken part in the week formally. So if I haven’t got any work to walk to does this make this an ironic act? Irony can certainly be defined as an instance used to draw some incongruity or irrationality but I didn’t set out for it to be this. I get a bit confused about irony these days. It seems to me it’s often used to camouflage racism, sexism and all other sort of isms and Alanis Morissette (probably the most mis-spelt artist in modern music) wrote a song called Ironic that’s just a list of examples of bad luck.

“It’s a death row pardon two minutes too late
And isn’t it ironic… don’t you think”

 Well no actually, since you asked, Alanis.

Anyway, semantics apart, my mate from Metropolitan Walkers, Paul (a Bristol Rovers fan hence the replica shirt) has been walking once during Walk to Work Week from his home in Croydon to his workplace in Kings Cross for the last 4 years. This year he’s linked the 13 mile journey to a fundraising exercise for CJD research. Julian Bailey, another Bristol Rovers fan, recently died from this horrific disease and Paul thought it would be appropriate to raise some money for the CJD Support Network. (Check out the links and please donate to this worthy cause via Paul’s justgiving page.)

I was aiming to hook up with Paul and his mate Dave (who was joining at Crystal Palace) at Oval station at 7.30 am. On my way to Kingston station to catch the 6.34 I was struck by how well the cherry blossom trees are doing this year. They certainly seem to have benefited from our long dry spell. I think it was that Shropshire lad AE Housman, who, when he was living in London, wrote “Loveliest of trees, the cherry now” – you might almost say it springs to my mind. The Natural History Museum is currently conducting a national survey of cherry trees, which is bloomin’ great idea. I know I don’t commute much these days but ain’t the early morning journeyers different from those later – not many suits evident on this train, mostly overalls and jeans.

Waiting at Oval station just before 7.30 the commuting crowd was smarter dressed and as the hordes bustled by with their coffee and free papers I couldn’t help thinking how good the public transport is in London. Apparently 13 million work here every day and if my observations are anything to go by an increasing number now choose to cycle in. Rather surprisingly I heard the other day that 24% of the population in Manhattan walks to work every day and while in the USA as a whole 90% drive to work, 60% walk, cycle or use public transport in New York city. (I quite like statistics – my favourite is that 6 out of 7 dwarves aren’t happy and there’s always Vic Reeve’s assertion that 88.2% of statistics are made up on the spot.)

I’d missed Love Walk but I completed about a quarter of Paul’s route to his finish at Kings Cross. We were lucky that the weather was so mild – 1 layer and short sleeves for me at that – and all in all it was a very pleasant experience – except maybe for Dave who had developed an impressive blister by this time. Remember walking to work shouldn’t be just for a week but you don’t need to walk all the way. Go on give it a go, it’ll definitely help with your health and you’ll get to see parts of town that you don’t normally notice. I’ve got the walking part nailed down all I need to sort out now is the work thing.

More information:

Paul’s justgiving page:

Listen to:

Public Enemy – He Got Game

Ricky Nelson – I’m Walking

Jackson Browne – Walking Town

Elmer Bernstein – Walking Through Town

Epic – Walking Around Town





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