Exploring London

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The Herb Garret, part of St Thomas’s Hospital which was founded in 1552 after the Reformation by King Henry VIII, (it had once been part of an Augustine Monastery) is one of the capital’s most unusual small museums. It is tucked away behind London Bridge station and not easy to find. You enter by a discreet wooden door, climb a steep spiral staircase, remember to duck your head at the top to avoid a low door frame, and eventually find yourself inside what looks like a large attic.

Dried opium poppies hand from the rafters

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By 1938, to many thinking people, the triumphant rise of Fascism in both Italy and Germany was an ominous portent of another war. To others, yes, the situation in Europe was worrying and Fascism was certainly on the rise but another war? Surely not.  Wasn’t the Great War supposed to be ‘The War that ended Wars?’

 

St Leonard’s Court, East Sheen

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‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive / But to be young was very Heaven!’

So wrote the poet, William Wordsworth, about his arrival in Paris in 1790 when he was young, in love, and an ardent supporter of the French Revolution. But Wordsworth’s words could equally describe being young in the 1960s, a similarly heady period when the old social mores were chucked out, and a revolutionary, youth-led counter culture in fashion, ideas, music, and much else, swept in.

Swinging London; note the new Post Office tower – with a slowly-revolving restaurant at the top

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Last week I visited the splendid global headquarters of the Institution of Civil Engineering (ICE) at 1, Great George Street, just off Parliament Square and within a stone’s throw of the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey and the Royal Courts of Justice. It is a huge Grade II listed building, designed by James Miller RSA, and built between 1910-1913, an era of huge (if unknowingly teetering on the cusp of collapse) Imperial self-confidence. There it stands in all its Imperial glory; a ‘monumental neo-classical design’ in Portland stone, and I have to say that it is extremely impressive – both outside and in.

The Institution of Civil Engineering (ICE)

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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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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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