Exploring London

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‘For they were young, and the Thames was old,

And this is the tale that the river told.’  Rudyard Kipling

The current exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands, Secret Rivers, is about the various rivers which once flowed openly into the Thames but which nowadays are largely hidden from view. The visitor follows the stories of, in particular, the Fleet, the Walbrook and the Westbourne, all now channelled underground.

We begin in the Bronze Age; metal-working is well established and people have settled down in tribes. This is a time when rivers are thought to be mysterious places which marked the transition between two elements, land and water, and, perhaps, between life and death. We can see this in the offerings found in the Thames, particularly near where the Walbrook flowed into the Thames.

This human skull, 1260-900 BC is one of the oldest objects found in the Thames and it is thought, from its condition, to have been put there deliberately

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Room 61, in the British Museum’s Egyptian Galleries, which showcases the wonderful Tomb of Nebamun, is one of my favourite rooms. The display is created around eleven frescoes from the tomb of Nebamun, who lived in the city of Thebes (present-day Luxor) on the River Nile, around 1325 B.C. He was a middle-ranking official scribe and grain counter working at the nearby temple complex; and an important man. The frescoes were acquired by the museum in the 1820s.

The herdsman and peasant farmers herd Nebamun’s cattle to be counted. (Photo courtesy of the British Museum)

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I’ve always loved Victorian magic shows with their sleights of hand and appearances that trick the eye. To my delight, this year’s exhibition, Queen Victoria’s Palace, at the Summer Opening of the Buckingham Palace State Rooms, offers a genuinely Victorian touch of magic with an optical illusion known as Pepper’s Ghost. I couldn’t wait.

But first, a bit of background…

Queen Victoria by Thomas Scully, 1837-9. She’s Queen, she’s unmarried, and Life beckons. Royal Collection Trust/ © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019.

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I have long been a fan of the architect Sir John Soane (1753-1837); and his London home in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, now Sir John Soane’s Museum, is one of my favourite places. I love its quirkiness, its ingenious use of light – long horizontal windows in strange places, like just below the ceiling and skylights letting in light from above – and the unexpectedly vibrant colours he liked to use.

Sir John Soane by Sir Thomas Lawrence, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

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When I was a child, The Armourer’s House by Rosemary Sutcliff, set in Tudor London,, was one of my favourite books. So when I heard that the Islington Archaeology & History Society had arranged a visit to The Armourers’ Hall, I jumped at it.

My first glimpse inside the Armourers’ Hall didn’t disappoint. I loved the red-carpeted staircase with a suit of armour either side and weapons on the walls. 

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It’s a miracle that the Chelsea Physic Garden, London’s oldest botanic garden, has survived at all. Nowadays, it’s in a prime property location in the centre of London but back in 1673 it was simply four acres of land bordering the River Thames well outside London, acquired by the Worshipful Company of Apothecaries who needed a medicinal garden to grow herbs in order to train their apprentices in the identification and proper use of medicinal plants.

Garden Urn, Chelsea Physic Garden: in a 17th century garden, a touch of Classical elegance is expected

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Recently, I re-visited Westminster Abbey; I hadn’t been there for years – the last time I went, there were few visitors and you were allowed to go wherever you wanted. What I remembered was the soaring Gothic architecture and the wonderful fan vaulting of the ceiling. I loved St Edward’s shrine and the various chapels of the early English kings and queens; and I was able to wander round and enjoy the peaceful atmosphere of 800 years of prayer, largely uninterrupted.

St Edward’s the Confessor’s shrine.

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What would a London street have looked like in the 1870s? There would have been over two million horses taking people and goods around the metropolis, for a start. The roads were all cobbled, providing a non-slippery surface for the horses, but there were neither traffic lights nor zebra crossings. Cabdrivers and their hansom cabs or hackney carriages waited for fares in designated cab stands. By law, a cabbie could not leave his horse and cab unattended; if he wanted to nip into a pub for quick bite, he had to pay someone to look after them. If the weather was appalling, he had nowhere to take shelter. London was crowded and noisy, as today, but the noises were different, even the smells were different.

A Cabman’s Shelter Hut, at Temple Place, London, WC2. It now sells coffee and snacks to passers by

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1767. Young Mr Hand, a Huguenot, flees from Flanders to escape religious persecution by the French. He is not alone. Ever since the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, (which had granted French Protestants freedom of religious practice) thousands of Huguenots had fled to nearby Protestant countries – and taken their skills with them.

A formal coat for a diplomat. The first thing once notices is its weight and rigidity. This is about status not comfort.

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