Exploring London

No matter how frazzled I’m feeling, a visit to Kew Gardens with a friend always sorts me out. It’s impossible to feel anything but a sort of peaceful joy when faced with trees in their new spring green, the bluebell woods, tree reflections in the lakes, and the variety of colours of the flowers in the Broad Walk. So, if you, too, feel in need of some soothing nature, here is what you can see in Kew Gardens in early May.

The bluebell woods

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Every other Sunday, Leonard’s Shoe Repairs and Dry Cleaners, 22 Chapel Market, Islington, undergoes a transformation. A banner appears over the shop fascia board saying TOM KILGALLON LONDON. Inside, the counter has disappeared, and the shop has turned into a high end Pop Up shoe shop.

Tom Kilgallon’s fortnightly Sunday pop-up shop

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A few days ago, I was leafing through an old scrapbook that belonged to my great-grand-father. He was obviously interested in current affairs and what was going on in the world, and the scrapbook is full of cuttings from periodicals like The Illustrated London News. (There are at least half a dozen cuttings about Brunel’s famous Great Eastern, for example.)

The page from my great-grandfather’s Scrap Book which caught my eye.

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Last week, I had the good fortune to visit the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, founded in 1570, and in Whitechapel Road since 1738. Now, nearly 450 years later, it was to close, and our tour was the very last one. Mr Alan Hughes, the owner, whose family had been there since 1904, and who was born there, was our guide.

Whitechapel Bell Foundry with the ochre shutters

It was the Whitechapel Bell Foundry that cast the 13½ ton hour bell, Big Ben, for the Palace of Westminster in 1858. It also replaced a number of famous church bells lost in the London Blitz, including the ‘great bell at Bow’, as the Nursery Rhyme has it, and the ‘Oranges and Lemons’ bells at St Clement Danes. Whitechapel bells are found in countries as far apart as Australia, South Africa and America.

The foundry’s small back yard. Note the lead water tank, dated 1670, from the original Artichoke Inn, now a planter under the window

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When I first knew the space which is now Culpeper Community Garden in London, it was an unloved bit of waste land, created thanks to the Luftwaffe dropping their left-over bombs on it after raids bombing the Kings’ Cross area. Rosebay willow herb grew there among the remains of bomb craters and bits of brick.

View of Culpeper Community Garden entrance from south. The weeping willow has just come into leaf

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Today, I’m taking a walk along the Regent’s Canal from the Angel, Islington, to the Kingsland Basin, en route to the London Docks.

Backs of Noel Road houses seen from the opposite side of the canal

Looking down on the canal from the bridge above Islington Tunnel, I can see the backs of the houses in Noel Road. In the 1960s the whole area was run down, derelict and renting was cheap. One of the area’s claims to fame – or notoriety – was the playwright, Joe Orton, who lived at 25 Noel Road, was murdered here by his lover, Keith Halliwell in 1965.

Islington Tunnel, opened 1820

I come down onto the towpath by Islington Tunnel and the view instantly opens out onto the City Road Lock. You can see the lockkeeper’s cottage hiding behind a willow. The temperature is barely above freezing but it’s already starting to green up.

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Some years ago, at a Romantic Novelists’ Association conference, I heard Professor Jenny Hartley give a talk on popular Women’s Fiction – she was researching it at the time. At the end, after the questions, she said, ‘I’d now like to ask you a question: how many of you have read Katherine by Anya Seton?’

Katherine

Cover of ‘Katherine’ by Anya Seton (1961)

A forest of hands shot up. The entire conference had read it. I myself read it as a teenager and loved it.  First published in 1954, it’s the story of a herald’s daughter, Katherine Swynford, who was first the mistress and then the third wife of John of Gaunt, a marriage which scandalized all Europe. It is one of English History’s great love stories and it truly changed the course of history; for Katherine became the ancestor of the Tudors and thus of Queen Elizabeth II.

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This is my heroine of the week: the redoubtable – and diminuative (she was only 4ft and 10 ins) – Dame Sarah Ann Swift, the founder of the Royal College of Nursing.

Sarah Swift

Dame Sarah Ann Swift (1854-1937) by Herbert James Draper

Born in 1854, Sarah Swift had had a long and successful career in nursing and proved herself to be an excellent organizer. She had not long retired when war broke out but she immediately offered her services to the government. They accepted and she found herself responsible for the placement of 6000 trained nurses, and VAD nurses, in various war zones. It was 1916, and World War I was about to enter its most bloody stage; the Battle of the Somme, where over one million soldiers were killed.

RCN facing Cavendish Sq

20 Cavendish Square, home of the Royal College of Nursing

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I never thought I’d find myself loving a building site but this one is special.

Gasholder Park

Gasholder, men in hard hats and yellow jackets, machinery, Victorian warehouse: it must be the new Kings’ Cross development!

In the 19th century, the area around King’s Cross station was a hive of industry with barges bringing goods from the Port of London up the Regent’s Canal for storage in the huge warehouses there, like the Granary Building which stored grain. But by the 1970s, the area had become a wasteland, full of decrepit empty buildings, and notorious for drugs and prostitution.

Not any more. It is being totally transformed and this post is a whistle-stop tour of what’s going on. Grab your hard hats and let me show you round.

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What is the Supreme Court? Where is it? What does it do? I have to confess that, until last Thursday, I had only the haziest idea. I knew it was the highest court in the land and I assumed it was somewhere near the Royal Courts of Justice. I felt I ought to know; after all, what the Supreme Court decides affects us all. So I booked in for a tour….

Supreme Ct exterior

Middlesex Guildhall: this is where it now is, opposite Westminster Abbey

I need to start with a bit of background. Please bear with me.

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