History

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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The thought struck me recently that I live in a house with a number of objects which are nowadays more or less redundant, like paraffin lamps, warming pans – and door stops.

I grew up in a large country house where almost every room had its own cast iron door stop. There was a large handsome painted one of Mr Punch by the front door, for example; and the one pictured below in the morning room. Elsewhere, there was a horse door stop, one of a sheep, and another of an early locomotive, possibly The Rocket, (I come from a railway family), as well as plainer ones.

Two Figures at a Well door stop

Why, did we need so many? I can see that the front door might need to be held open on occasions, if luggage, say, was coming in or going out. But otherwise?

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This is the culprit – one of the items in the Undressed: a Brief History of Underwear exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum. The signage tells us that it is a cuirass bodice dress in silk satin and lace, dating from 1876 and adds that it was considered shocking at the time because….  I thought it might be fun to look more closely at why it was so shocking.

Cuirace dress close up

Cuirass bodice dress, 1876

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Ever since Roman times, the rich and powerful have built villas in the hills surrounding Rome to escape the summer’s heat. Some, like Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli, still survive. Others, like Castel Gandolfo, built in the 17th century for Pope Urban VIII as a summer palace, were built on top of Roman villa sites. And why not? The land was already levelled and useful top quality building material was there for the taking.

Castel Gondolfo Pope's palace

Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer palace

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Some years ago I saw a rom.com where the American heroine visits London for the first time. She lands at Heathrow and takes a cab to wherever she’s staying – somewhere fashionable with a SW postcode. She peers excitedly through the cab window as Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament, St Paul’s Cathedral and Tower Bridge whizz by. I thought: where the hell is the cabbie going? Then the penny dropped: his circuitous route in the wrong direction had nothing to do with the real London; it was a fictitious ‘London’.

Alcazar courtyard 2

The Alcazar: the Spanish Royal family’s summer palace in Seville

I’d always felt much the same about the cigarette factory in Seville in Bizet’s opera Carmen. It must be fictitious. Bizet took his plot from a novella by Prosper Merimee and I doubted whether either of them had actually been to Spain. Merimée probably thought Seville sounded romantic and what was really important wasn’t the unlikely cigarette factory but the romantic toreador at the centre of the story.

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In June 1529, Queen Katherine of Aragon came in person before the legatine court at the Dominican Priory of the Black Friars. At stake was a divorce proposed by her husband, Henry VIII. Henry was desperate to marry Anne Boleyn and sire a male heir and needed his marriage to Katherine to be nullified. He wanted the case to be heard in England. Katherine did not agree.

Catherine_aragon

Katherine of Aragon

The situation was designed to intimidate her. The room in the Dominican Priory was, by definition, exclusively male, and the men she faced carried the full authority of the Catholic Church: Archbishop Warham, six other bishops, and the duplicitous Cardinal Thomas Wolsey who hoped to broker the deal. His line was that he was impartial and well able to deal with the case in England.

Court room general

The Court Room

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When I was a child, one of my favourite books was Adventures in Archaeology. I was thrilled by Schliemann’s discovery of Troy; Sir Arthur Evans’ of Knossus, and, of course, Howard Carter’s spectacular discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb. There was something very exciting about digging and finding something which has been hidden for hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of years. And I longed to see these places for myself.

And I confess to still feeling that same delight now I’m grown up – or, perhaps, not so grown up. So when I actually saw the spectacular Bronze Age horses and chariot burial which made World News in 2008 under the Karanovo tell in Bulgaria, I assure you that the hairs on the back of my neck stood up.

Karanovo horse burials

Horses and chariot burial

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