Exploring London

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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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Last year, the British Museum opened the Albukhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic World and I went to see it. The press reviews, rightly, raved about the Mosque lamps in glowing colours, the beautifully-decorated jars, and so on. Not only were the objects displayed of top quality but the exhibition space itself had been meticulously designed and lit especially to enhance the visitor’s experience.

I decided I’d go back, photograph of my favourite objects, and write a blog about them. But something happened.

Pottery Jar with Lid

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Recently, I saw the Lost Treasures of Strawberry Hill exhibition at that extraordinary Gothic extravaganza, Strawberry Hill, the summer villa of the author, letter writer, and passionate collector of the Fine Arts, Horace Walpole (1717-1797). Horace was the son of the politician and statesman, Sir Robert Walpole, and rich enough to do what he wanted: travel in Italy, buy art and antiques, and live the life of a cultivated man of leisure. His tastes were unusual and original – and he had the money to indulge himself.

Strawberry Hill: note the Gothic windows, tower and chimneys

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The Worshipful Company of Salters is one of the twelve medieval Great Livery Companies of the City of London, and number 9 in the order of precedence. It was first licensed as a Guild in 1394, under King Richard II, to protect its members who worked in the all-important salt, pepper and spice trade. In medieval times, both sea salt and rock salt were essential to the economy: it preserved food in the days before refrigeration; it was also used in the dyeing trade to fix colours, and in the leather making process. Members of The Salters’ Company became experts in the chemical possibilities of sodium chloride.

Two members of the Worshipful Company of Salters’ Company, Anthony Lybster and Chris Cockcroft, about to show visitors round.

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It’s a sunny, late November day and my friend and I are inside architect Decimus Burton’s newly-reopened, Grade 1 listed, Temperate House in Kew Gardens, the largest glasshouse in the world. I have long wanted to see it but for the last five years it has been covered in scaffolding.

Exterior of the first section of the Temperate House glasshouse

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