The Secret Gardens of Spitalfields

I love walking around Spitalfields in East London, along its cobbled streets admiring the wonderful Georgian terraced houses, so when I read about the opportunity to visit some of these houses’ hidden gardens, I just had to make the journey!


These few remaining streets of Georgian townhouses are all that are left after widespread demolition in the 1960s and 1970s. Originally they were the homes of silk merchants and weavers, many of them of Huguenot origin, who fled their homelands due to religious persecution.

Typically the houses had four storeys and a garret. The ground floor was traditionally  used for business purposes, with the kitchens and servants accommodated in the basement.


A bobbin hangs outside a house…a lasting reminder of its silk weaving former occupants


An example of Spitalfields Silk…detail of a Court dress in the Museum of London

The upper floors provided the living quarters and have high ceilings. On the top floor, the garret rooms where the weavers worked, feature large windows which lit the silk looms.


For just one day several local residents had generously opened their gardens as part of the National Garden Scheme Open Gardens 2015 raising funds for charity.



As most of the gardens are so small, visitors were allowed in a few at a time…I wasn’t quite the first in the queue on this overcast Saturday morning in June!

It was wonderful to go behind the grand front doors, passing through panelled halls and  tastefully decorated rooms painted in traditional colours…like a Farrow and Ball paint chart come to life! To be able to access the tiny private gardens if only for a short while was a delight to absorb their atmosphere, meet and chat to their creators and revel in the history of this remarkable time capsule.


The first thing that struck me was the attention to detail and the lavish care and attention that the makers of these gardens had taken. As a Garden Designer many clients complain that these days garden plots are so small, but in Spitalfields today it was inspirational to see just what could be done with a very small space.


A beautiful grouping of different greens and not a slug in sight near the Hostas!


Lots of containers featured in the gardens

Given the nature of the terraced houses all garden materials, compost, pots, plants and trees all have to be brought through the house!



Lush foliage of ivy and climbing hydrangeas adorn the tall walls of the Georgian townhouses, providing vertical accents and added interest.


In tiny gardens, and some of these smaller even than a Chelsea Flower show garden, every surface vertical or horizontal is used to good effect.


Soleirolia or ” Mind Your Own Business” plants thrive in these shady courtyard gardens…spreading in some cases to look like a small lawn!


Roses here must have a head for heights!


Close to the busy Commercial Street and the hubbub of Brick Lane and Spitalfields weekend markets just around the corner, these gardens were a little oasis away from the hustle and bustle of the outside world. With high walls surrounding them the gardens have their own microclimate and touches of the exotic were much in evidence!


A touch of the exotic!


Gardens can never have too many areas in which to sit and relax!



Apart from the temperature this could be Italy!


Or Marrakech!



A mirror fixed to the wall adds another dimension.

Even though the gardens are small, some owners had divided up the space available to make mini garden rooms.



The renovation of these historic houses often reveal old features which can be repurposed!


An old cooking range becomes a stand for plants!

The renovation of one house was unusual using the basement levels for an impressive water feature!


From the house looking out…


and from the garden looking in!

After lunch at SOS at the nearby Spitalfields Market back to investigate more gardens…

One of the open gardens was a commercial property with the stableyard and coach house not an immediately obvious place for a garden!


Once inside though the ingenuity and creativity became obvious! Artificial grass used to good effect too!


Scaffolding, planks and old grey metal school waste paper bins provided the staging and containers


Planted up with flowers and vegetables!


Not an inch of space wasted…even the stairs come in for the floral treatment!

Speaking with the person responsible for maintaining this garden it was clear that constant attention and watering is essential…as was a good pair of stepladders I would imagine! It was good to hear that he sourced his plants from the nearby Columbia Road Sunday flower market. It dawned on me that living in this built up area of the city presented its own challenges when it comes to obtaining and transporting plants and composts, with no DIY store or garden centres close at hand.

The last stop of the day was The Town House 5 Fournier Street a gallery and shop selling antiques and more importantly teas, coffees and cakes in its basement café!


The garden here was full of the open day visitors and I met up again some people I had spoken to earlier in the day whilst we compared our thoughts on the gardens we had seen over a cup of coffee.



Quirky parrot light in the basement café

A look around the shop resulted in an impulse purchase of a print of one of Paul Bommer’s works… “My Cat Jeoffry” an evocative poem by Christopher Smart penned in 1759…a lasting reminder of the day


I have used some images of Paul’s tiles in recent articles and on speaking to Charlie de Wet one of the organisers of the Huguenot Summer Festival running this year, Paul has produced some tiles for an event that will feature in the festival.

As I walked back to Liverpool Street Station through the busy Saturday afternoon crowds I realised how the hidden gardens that I had been lucky to experience were a much needed antidote to living in such a busy City. I am grateful that their owners allowed access to their idiosyncratic private places which they clearly devote much love and effort to maintaining and so obviously enjoy. Thanks once again for sharing them with the wider public.

It was also a privilege to see inside these remarkable restored houses in the context of their time capsule streets. I hope that other parts of the area such as the Liberty of Norton Folgate are preserved and through public pressure can manage to resist the current threats from British Land to sacrifice more of the historic Georgian buildings for the sake of yet more high rise glass and steel office blocks. such as those at the end of the street below.

If they go they have gone forever…


Glass and steel dominate and overshadow the domestic scale of the rest of the street


Posted in Huguenots, London, London Gardens, Spitalfields, Spitalfields Gardens | Tagged , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

Flower Power

IMG_2086Time has flown by this Spring and the Chelsea Flower Show has been and gone! This year for the first time in ten years I haven’t visited the show.

When tickets went on sale late last year I decided to give it a miss for 2015 as I had started to feel that the Main Avenue show gardens, whilst beautiful and well executed, were “playing it safe” in order to win the coveted RHS medals.

To me in design terms, few gardens stood out as being different and challenging in recent years and the plants used seemed to be the same old favourites that everybody knows and loves. However I read a newspaper report this morning that said the show this year was less repetitive than in previous years and that the show gardens were more varied. I will be watching the recorded highlights of the show later to see what I missed…

As it turned out, for this years Chelsea week I had to travel to the South West to visit an ailing relative and so have missed most of the coverage in the press. I have also missed the crowds on Main Avenue, the scrum to see the Artisan Gardens and the squawking of the Parakeets accompanied by the bouts of sneezing from visitors brought on by the pollen from the London Plane trees!

So back home in rural Worcestershire after a tiring week, I decided to take a walk around my own modest garden to see what had grown whilst I was away…


My own tiny rural garden seen from above

IMG_2085White allium and lupins at their peak



Oriental poppies in bud

The fabulous long flowering and scented Eastgrove Blue Violas are looking stunning.


I first saw these lovely large flowered perennial violas at Eastgrove Cottage Garden, Worcestershire and bought a plant many years ago which has since died. Sadly, the garden no longer opens but I managed to source a replacement plant from Woottens of Wenhaston in Suffolk a couple of years ago since when it has thrived.


Anthriscus sylvestris “Ravenswing” a ubiquitous plant in Chelsea show gardens seems to have reverted more to green rather than black foliage in my garden!


I really like the leaves of Alchemilla mollis or Lady’s Mantle particularly after rain!


and on the giant leaves of the Hosta…before the slugs find them!


The wallflowers are coming to an end now which is a mixed blessing. Whilst they have been beautiful there will now be more room for other plants…did I mention that I garden with a shoe horn..?


Another Lupin, this one a tree lupin which I bought from Plant World in Devon some years ago…the flowers were described as chocolate coloured…more like lilac and lemon to me but it combines well with the dark purple Clematis recta “Purpurea”.

The eagle eyed reader may have spotted the deliberately planted “weed” in the foreground…White Rosebay Willowherb or Chamaenerion angustifolium ‘Album’ to give it is official name! It seeds freely but I like it!


Perennial stocks demand a place in my garden for their fragrance and the way in which the white blooms “sing out” when dusk falls


Luzula nivea or Snowy Woodrush is a great foil for other plants


Mespilus germanica or the Common Medlar is just beginning to flower. I have never managed to make Medlar Jelly which apparently is a good accompaniment to roast meat. The thing is you have to let the fruits “blet” i.e. go soft but not rotten…somehow I don’t fancy them then!


Purple alliums match the colours in the stained glass panel which I bought from Heyhoe Designs at their Chelsea stand a few years ago

Meanwhile in the greenhouse…


The Agaves are looking good and can soon be released from their winter quarters now all danger from frost is past


Likewise the Aeonium arboretum “Schwarzkopf” is ready for its summer season outdoors and one of them has a huge flower spike!

IMG_2088Back outside…

Iris “Black Knight” which I bought a couple of weeks ago is just coming in to flower


The Geums which have been in bud for weeks, have finally decided to flower


The boxwood hedging is growing fast and will soon need clipping!


Pots feature heavily in my garden too…


Many gardeners have a friendly robin sitting on the handle of their spade whilst working in the garden…I have a friendly feline chum who visits to make sure that I am not cutting his favourite plants down!


His favoured spot is a clump of Stipa grasses which I can’t possibly cut down in the spring as he has made a nest in them!



Keeping a watchful eye on his catnip plants!

The trouble with walking around the garden after a week away is that not only have the  plants burgeoned, so have the weeds! So time to take up the trowel again and carry on gardening before I get back to the drawing board!


Posted in Chelsea Flower Show | 7 Comments

Feline Great!


Well, I bet James Bowen and his loyal ginger cat companion Bob are indeed “feline great” today as the fundraising campaign to assist the opening of Bob’s World Cat Café not only reached but exceeded its target.

The campaign reached its target of £125, 000 some days ago and closed this morning having totalled over £148,000 donated by cat lovers and James and Bob’s fans from all over the world.

10410987_849176535154161_9047470202994067003_nPeople wanting to support the scheme were given the choice of different “perks” including books, posters and mugs as well as visits to the café. Bob the suave wearer of very natty neckwear was even persuaded to donate a few of his “fan made” scarves to be put up for auction to help raise the funds required!

This is good news for London cat lovers as the café will not only provide a place for a coffee accompanied by cats, but it will also host seminars on animal care, veterinary advice and help with rehoming abused and stray cats.

The campaign hasn’t ended yet and there is still time if you wish to donate towards the costs of the café. See fundraising page at

It is now down to James and Bob and their team to secure a suitable property and to complete all the necessary administration to get the café up and running hopefully later this year…

In the meantime a big high five from Bob!


Posted in London Cats | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Metropolitan Moggies

IMG_1900They have been loved and loathed, feared and revered but since their introduction to these shores by the invading Roman armies there are now some 9 million pet cats in Britain! Cats are definitely here to stay!

Reading recently about the plans for a cat café in London by a Street Cat named Bob and his owner James Bowen (see my last post) led me to think about other famous London cats past and present, and whilst staying in London last month I went prowling around to try to locate some of them…

The first cat had to be London’s most famous folklore feline and its owner, Dick Whittington.  A legendary rags to riches story, much popularised since the 19th century in pantomimes, Dick left his poverty stricken home in the Forest of Dean to seek his fortune in London and thanks to the ratting abilities of his cat became a wealthy merchant and Lord Mayor of London.

NPG D24069,Sir Richard Whittington,by Renold or Reginold Elstrack (Elstracke)

There is much speculation about this story as his family were not that poor, they were in fact minor gentry and it has never been proved that he did actually have a cat! The legends that circulated are maybe based upon a Persian folk tale about an orphan boy who found fame and riches through his ratting cat!

Whatever the story he did become a wealthy merchant and four times Lord Mayor of London. He paid for many projects including the rebuilding of the Guildhall, a ward for unmarried mothers in St Thomas’ Hospital (within the sound of Bow Bells the traditional sign of a true cockney), drainage systems around Billingsgate and Cripplegate and one of the earliest gender segregated public toilets called Whittington’s Longhouse. Seating 128, it was cleansed by the Thames at high tide!

He also had his parish church St Michael Paternoster Royal rebuilt and extended and this is where within its precincts he was buried in 1423.


St Michael Paternoster Royal of Dick Whittington’s time was destroyed in the Great Fire and the baroque church on the site today was built by Sir Christopher Wren. It is also the Home Church of the Mission to Seafarers

I visited early on a Saturday morning and unfortunately the church was locked so I was unable to see the modern stained glass window commemorating Dick and his cat, although I did photograph it from the outside!

DSCF5686A reverse view of the stained glass cat!

I am grateful to Patrick from Purr ‘n’ Furr for allowing me to reproduce his photo of the window.


The window the right way round!

On to Hodge the beloved cat of Dr Samuel Johnson the English lexicographer.

Hodge can be found in a small courtyard outside Johnson’s house in Gough Square just off Fleet Street.


Hodge sitting appropriately on a dictionary with a pair of oyster shells

Johnson’s biographer Boswell observed their friendship…

“…I never shall forget the indulgence with which he treated Hodge…I recollect him one day scrambling up Johnson’s breast, apparently with much satisfaction, whilst my friend smiling and half whistling, rubbed down his back and pulled him by the tail, when I observed he was a fine cat, saying, “why yes, Sir, but I have had cats whom I liked better than this,” and then as if perceiving Hodge to be out of countenance, added, “but he is a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed…”James Boswell the Life of Samuel Johnson 1799


“A very fine cat indeed”

The statue by Jon Bickley was unveiled in 1997 and is at a convenient shoulder height for an average adult so it is ideal for putting ones arm around Hodge! Pennies are sometimes left in the upturned oyster shell as a good luck symbol by visitors and sometimes Hodge sports a very elegant ribbon around his neck.

Oysters in those days were plentiful and a cheap food for the poor and were much favoured by Hodge. Johnson thought that it was too degrading to send his servant Francis Barber to get them so would personally purchase them for Hodge.

In the days before tinned food cat meat was often sold by the “Cat Meat Seller”. Let us be clear this is food FOR cats not meat FROM cats! The Cat Meat Man was a common sight in London between the mid 1800’s and the 1930’s. The meat was often left over or diseased horsemeat and offal from the local abattoir, dyed in bright colours to distinguish it from meat for human consumption and for unscrupulous resale!


The sellers had a local regular neighbourhood round of the houses usually of well to do merchants, tradesmen and mechanics and it was said that cats in the area could distinguish one seller from another by the rendering of their song, which was sung to the tune of “Cherry Ripe” a song popular in the mid 1800’s

“…Cat’s-meat, cat’s-meat, meat I cry, On a skewer – come and buy! From Hyde Park to Wapping Wall all the year I cat’s meat bawl! Cat’s-meat, cat’s-meat, meat I cry, On a skewer – come and buy!…”

Social researcher and journalist, Henry Mayhew wrote about cat’s meat vendors in his record of London life, “London Labour and the London Poor”  in 1861

“…the carriers take the meat round town wherever their “walk” may lie. They sell it to the public at the rate of 2 and a half pence per pound, and  in small pieces on skewers at a farthing, a halfpenny and penny each…”

He noted that the sellers at this time wore a shiny hat, plush black waistcoat, blue apron and corduroy trousers with two or three spotted handkerchiefs around their necks.

The meat was chopped up on a little board on the back of their cart and threaded on the skewer which could be put through the letterboxes of regular customers!


Two eager customers look on longingly as their food is prepared

Thank goodness for tinned cat food today!

Diverting now to some cats featured in London architecture.

A few years ago I took a trip to Camden to find the former Carreras Cigarette Company factory situated in Mornington Crescent.

The vast factory was built between 1926 and 1928 on the large communal gardens of Mornington Crescent. The architects, M.E and O.H Collins and A.G Porri chose to use the Egyptian Revival style which had become very popular since the discovery of the Tutankhamen tomb by Howard Carter a few years earlier and this exotic style would become a frequent feature of this Art Deco period.

untitledThe building was the first factory in Britain to make use of pre-stressed concrete technology and incorporated a dust extraction and air conditioning plant. It opened to great fanfare with the streets being covered with sand to give a truly desert feel in front of the 168 metre long frontage, and cast members from a London production of Aida in ancient Egyptian costumes, formed a procession. A chariot race was also held nearby on the Hampstead Road! They certainly knew how to celebrate the opening of a new building back in the day!


The former factory today

The entrance to the building was dominated by two 2.6 metre high bronze cat statues based on the Egyptian god Bastet


Carreras continued in business on the site until they merged with Rothmans of Pall Mall and transferred their operations to Basildon in 1959, moving one of the sentry cats to their factory there, the other being transferred to their Jamaican factory.

The building was converted to offices in the 1960’s and much of the Art Deco detailing was lost. Renamed Greater London House the features have now been restored and it is still used for offices and ironically giving its former usage as a cigarette factory it is the home of the British Heart Foundation!


The replica big cats still flank the entrance

Carreras were famous for their cigarette brands “Craven A” and “Black Cat”


Old Advertising Sign


The black cat logo can still be seen today


Egyptian detailing now restored



The building is truly a mecca for fans of Art Deco and of course cats!

Not far from Camden a big cat slumbers on the gravestone of his owner George Wombwell in Highgate West cemetery.


Described as a “menagerist”  Wombwell ran a travelling zoo during the late 18th and early 19th centuries and allegedly allowed his pet lion Nero to sleep at the foot of his bed!

Another of my favourite big cats in the city has to be the Coade stone lion near the London Eye which  gazes haughtily at the passing traffic on the south side of Westminster Bridge. Coade stone, developed by Eleanor Coade at her factory in nearby Lambeth was a type of high fired ceramic and was a popular medium for sculptures in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Thames river images (142)

This lion made at the Coade factory, was originally painted red and once crowned the parapet of the Lion Brewery beside the Hungerford Bridge

Probably London’s most iconic big cats, have to be the bronze lions at the foot of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square.


Landseer’s bronze lion

Sculpted by Edwin Landseer these bronze creatures occupy the space originally intended to house four stone lions which were the the work of Thomas Milne and were named “Vigilance” and “Determination” to reflect the qualities of the Admiral, and “Peace” and “War”.

These “reject” sculptures were bought by the northern industrialist and philanthropist, Titus Salt and sited near his vast factory in Saltaire in North Yorkshire…where they still reside today.


The stone lion named “Peace” in Saltaire…looks like he is enjoying an ice cream!

I digress so now back to smaller metropolitan moggies!

I had recently heard the story of Kaspar the cat who resides in the lobby of the Savoy Hotel and just had to check him out.

I walked off the busy Strand into Savoy Court which leads to the hotel and theatre.


Note the registration plate!

This is one of the few places in London where one drives on the right! This harks back to the days of horse drawn carriages when ladies would sit on the right behind the driver who could then open the rear door without alighting.

Although the driveway is private property, a special Act of Parliament gave permission to contravene National driving laws as guests and theatre goers could be dropped off by taxis outside the doors. After negotiating the small roundabout (which has a turning circle of 25 feet – the same legal turning circle today for all London taxis) cabs could then pick up fares on the way out!


The small roundabout with fountain outside the hotel doors

I passed by the Bentleys and the supercars offloading their wealthy guests and their mountains of luggage and then walked through the revolving doors of this famous luxury hotel. Built by impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte from the proceeds of his Gilbert and Sullivan operas it opened its doors in August 1889, and was the first of its kind to have electric lights, lifts and bathrooms with hot and cold running water in most of its rooms.

I asked the concierge where I might find Kaspar and there he was sitting handsomely on a highly polished table in the lobby!


Kaspar the Art Deco cat sculpture by Basil Ionides

The story of Kaspar began in 1898 when a diamond magnate, Woolf Joel had booked a table for dinner at the Savoy for 14 guests. At the last minute a guest cancelled and the other guests felt that it was unlucky to dine with only 13 people. Joel scoffed at his fellow diners superstitious beliefs and they all sat down to eat. A couple of weeks later Joel was shot dead.

Naturally the hotel’s management felt this was not good publicity and for almost 30 years asked a member of the hotel staff to join the tables of 13 diners.

Diners were unhappy about having a waiter sitting with them at dinner so in 1927 Basil Ionides created “Kaspar” a two foot high wooden black feline sculpture to act as the 14th guest at dinner!

Legend has it that Kaspar was briefly catnapped during WWII and was flown to Singapore by mischievous airmen. Winston Churchill well known for his love of cats, and who often had Kaspar to dine with him, demanded his instant return.

Speaking to a member of the hotel staff I found out that Kaspar is still in gainful employment today and regularly joins dinner parties. He wears a white linen napkin tied around his neck and is served exactly the same food on the same china as all the other guests. Of course the person who made the dinner reservation has to pay for Kaspar’s meal too!


In 2013 the hotel’s River Restaurant was renamed Kaspar’s in honour of the mascot

On Sunday morning after a hearty breakfast at Smiths of Smithfield, a great place to start the day and also wait for the rain to stop, I set off to find a tiny cat in the church of St Bartholomew the Great.


Part of the main entrance remains recognisable by its half-timbered Tudor frontage


Approaching the gateway it is hard to believe the huge church exists at the end of the narrow passageway

Also known as Great St Barts in West Smithfield, this Anglican church and nearby St Barts Hospital was founded by Rahere in 1123 as an Augustinian Priory.


A sunnier view of St Barts on a previous visit…the Barbican looms in the background

The service had just ended as I stepped inside where the air was thick with the smell of incense which just seemed to add to the ambience of this ancient place of worship.

I was welcomed by the new verger who showed me a short video of the church before pointing out the small cat that I had come in search of.


Hard to spot and even harder to photograph this little stone cat corbel sits high up above the south transept

Cats don’t often feature in church architecture so this little chap is something of a mystery!

Remarkably parts of the church survived the Reformation and the Great Fire although very little of the early monastic buildings survive except the cloister which now houses a café.


Cloister window

The church has featured in many films and is probably most famous as the location for the fourth wedding in “Four Weddings and a Funeral”.


The oriel window overlooking the high altar was installed by the Prior in the early 16th century so that he could keep an eye on the monks…literally Big Brother was watching them!

Back outside after having spent a fascinating hour in this little gem of a church, I made my way through the narrow streets towards the Museum of London, pausing to admire the house once lived in by John Betjeman a former Poet Laureate. Given the proximity of St Barts and other city churches, it is no wonder his autobiography was entitled “Summoned by Bells”.


Blue Plaque marks Betjeman’s home in Cloth Court


Back alleyways of Smithfield


Another encounter with Dick depicted in the tiles on stairs leading to the Museum of London


and his cat scampering on ahead on the first floor landing!

Whilst researching other matters here today, guess what… I came across another cat!


Novelty jugs such as this one in the shape of cats were popular in Stuart London and used for cream, milk or wine. This one is an example of English tin glazed ware

After my visit to the Museum which is never complete without the purchase of at least a couple of books from their excellent shop, I headed off to Bloomsbury in search of Sam.

Not much is know about Sam but I had heard that he resides on a small brick wall in Queen Square. On my way up Old Gloucester Street, I passed by the Alf Barrett  children’s playground and spotted another cat…not Sam but “Humphry”!


Humphry sculpted in 1997 by Marcia Solway

Humphry the cat (1973 -1992) was a ginger tom who had lived at the Mary Ward Adult Education Centre situated at the corner of the road and his statue was originally sited on Queen Square. It was relocated in 2001 and is the only complete sculpture by Marcia Solway, an epilepsy sufferer who attended sculpture classes at the centre and the nearby National Hospital for Neurosurgery until her death aged 34.

These days children from the nearby Great Ormond Street Hospital visit the playground and apparently, Humphry is a great favourite.


Even the children’s ambulances feature cats!

Crossing into Queen Square I soon found Sam descending a wall in the south western corner of the park. Whilst little is known about him, Sam was owned by Patricia Penn (1914 – 1992) also known as Penny, a local cat loving resident who was an active fundraiser and campaigner in the area


Sam preparing to descend his wall set in the flower beds


Sam is clearly popular as like Hodge, he has amassed a few donated pennies! Pennies for Penny perhaps?

My last cat to track down was south of the Thames and was a favourite pet cat of the Salter family. Dr Salter, a 20th century reformer along with Ada his wife did much to alleviate poverty in the local area.

The scuptures by Diane Gorvin were first installed in 1991 and featured Dr Salter, his daughter Joyce and their pet cat sited next to the Thames on Bermondsey Wall East. Unfortunately in 2011, Dr Salter’s statue was stolen by metal thieves and the girl and cat were taken into the care of Southwark Council. They have been recently been reinstalled and reunited along with a new sculpture of Mrs Salter. I plan to write a more full account of the Salters in a future article.


 The cat ready to pounce, now back in his former home on the wall of the Thames

One London cat that must get a mention is Mr Pussy, the sleek black muse and companion of The Gentle Author, of Spitalfields Life. It was The Gentle Author’s daily blog posts about the life and lives of the people of the area which encouraged me to begin writing my own articles. IMG_1936

Many thanks to the Gentle Author for permission to use this lovely photo of Mr Pussy relaxing at home with his spring flower arrangements

Although I have never been fortunate enough to meet Mr Pussy “in the fur” so to speak, I feel that I know him very well through the carefully observed articles about him that his owner occasionally writes.

I came across many real life cats whilst tracking down the more celebrated Metropolitan Moggies, so here are a selection of these unsung felines!


A sleek cat having a wash and brush up at the Clerks House next to St Leonards Church Shoreditch


Not a real life cat but one who presided over the former pottery behind Columbia Road


Gilbert Laxeiro the fluffy white cat who lives at the Laxeiro Spanish restaurant on Columbia Road even has his own Facebook Page!

DSCF5554Another white cat living happily aboard a Dutch barge on Greenland Dock

London bikeathon 021Ham Common cat on sentry duty!

DSCF5557Enjoying the spring sunshine, Deptford!

DSCF5378Halt who goes there?

Finally I went to find possibly London’s smallest sculpture which given its subject should be of great interest to most cats…MICE!


In Philpot Street in the shadow of the new “walkie talkie” high rise office block, on a building which now houses a coffee shop, is a tiny sculpture of two mice and a piece of cheese!

Probably unnoticed by most of the café patrons and passers by, the sculpture picked out in brown and yellow is tiny and not very easy to photograph.


There are many urban myths about the sculpture and its provenance. The most commonly held belief is that they are there as a memorial to two builders who were working high up on scaffolding. During their lunch break a fight broke out when one accused the other of nibbling his cheese sandwich! It seems that as a result both the builders fell to their deaths from the building. Later it became apparent that mice had been the culprits all along! Maybe they should have had a cat on the building site..?

Since writing and researching this piece I have discovered several more moggies in the metropolis which will be the focus for another journey and maybe a future article.

In the meantime, I will leave you with a photo of my feline friend, who although actually living next door, spends much of his day curled up in my kitchen or lazing in my garden.

That’s cats for you!




Posted in London, London Cats, Public Sculpture | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Bob…a London Cat

A few weeks ago I received an email from a crowd funding group alerting me to a new campaign to open a Cat Café.

Bobs World Cat Café is the brainchild of James Bowen former Big Issue seller and popular busker in Covent Garden, and his constant furry ginger companion “Street Cat Bob”, who has become a star in his own right featuring in several best selling books.


The books tell of James’s story and his friendship with Bob.

“I was homeless and struggling with substance abuse before I met a little ginger stray tom cat, whom I have named Bob, who has helped me realise that there are more things in life to focus on than drugs. He helped me overcome addiction, by being a loyal and compassionate companion, and giving me something other than myself to look after. He has simply become my best friend, and has looked after me just as much as I have him.”….James Bowen


James and Bob

The cat café which will be called Bob’s World is aiming to open in the North London and will be populated with cats that have been rescued, providing “a home for homeless, abused or unwanted cats” as well as a place for “other like-minded individuals to come in and have tea, coffee and refreshments whilst being surrounded by cats”.

To read more about the campaign and donate towards its fundraising go to

I have published this in advance of my next blog on London cats in order to highlight Bob’s campaign which closes in mid April.

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The Passage of Time and a Face From the Past

Whilst in London last weekend I took the opportunity to visit the magnificent Queenhithe Dock Heritage Timeline mosaic produced by the Southbank Mosaics team along the eastern wall of the Queenhithe Dock. DSCF5690 Whilst I had seen photos of sections of the mosaic, to see it in its entirety, all 30 metres of it was truly spectacular set in the narrow passageway above the historic dock!

The timeline is the result of historical research and mosaic making volunteer groups from all walks of life led by Southbank Mosaics team, using the indirect mosaic method.

For someone like me who has only produced one small sized mosaic, the sheer number of hours of work which the teams must have put in and the detailing was simply amazing. DSCF5689 Beginning with the Roman invasion, it charts London’s history as a timeline.

DSCF5691 I particularly liked the different types of fish, fauna and plant life all presumably once found in and around the Thames and perhaps making a comeback today…DSCF5692The border surrounding the mosaic appropriately incorporates finds from the Thames foreshore, shells, tiles, clay pipe stems and pottery sherdsDSCF5694 DSCF5695 DSCF5693 DSCF5696 Even the rats look cute! DSCF5697 Dick Whittington seems to be protecting his cat from a dog! DSCF5698 Commemorating skating on the Thames in the last Frost Fair when winters were harsher than they are today! DSCF5699 Glad to see the London saxifrage flower, immortalised in song by Noel Coward, gets a mention! DSCF5700 Given today’s London skyline it is hard to believe that the first skyscraper was built in only 1979! DSCF5701The timeline finally brings us right up to the present day with wind turbines harvesting power out on the river as a grey seal waves us farewell!

This artwork is truly a tour de force and it is well worth a detour off the Thames Path walkway into the passage above the dock to admire it and learn more of the capital’s history.

To see a video of the volunteers mudlarking for finds to include in the mosaic, open my main blog site and click the link.

To see a video of the installation of the mosaic open my main blog site and click the link.

As the tide had just gone out, I couldn’t be this close to the foreshore without a quick look so I had a quick ten minutes mudlarking foray under the Millennium Bridge. Almost  straight away I noticed an “eye” peeping out of the sand at me!

Could this be part of the face of a Bellarmine Jar also known as a Bartmann Jug which were used as storage for food, wine and transporting goods in the 16th and 17th centuries? Brushing away the sand… indeed it was…and a very nice little fragment too with complete eyes and nose! IMG_1935 I met up with a lady who was today enjoying her first ever search on the foreshore, talking with a very experienced mudlarker who was helping to interpret her finds. This gentleman also confirmed my identification of the Bellarmine “face” and explained how the jugs had come by their name.

Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621) was a Roman Catholic Cardinal and leader of the Counter Reformation. He was much loathed by Protestants in England, the Low Countries and Germany who ridiculed him by putting his face on their storage jars.


These containers were used for storing all manner of goods including mercury as well as alcohol which is appropriate given Cardinal Bellarmine’s anti alcohol stance! Protestants often used these vessels then smashed them deliberately before throwing them into the river. Their alternative name “Bartmann Jug” comes from the German for Bearded Man and may derive from the wild man image often appearing in European folklore.


A still life painted by Georg Flegel in 1635 shows the Bellarmine jug in daily household use.

These stoneware bottles, jars or jugs were made in Frechen near Cologne in the 16th century and have a dark grey clay body with an iron-rich, brown surface and salt-glaze treatment producing a characteristic mottled ‘tiger’ glaze. The significance of these jugs lives on today in the City of Frechen’s coat of arms.


Possibly due to their sinister faces some of these jugs were used as “Witches Bottles” in the 16th and 17th centuries as a type of counter magic.The jugs would be filled with pins, nails, stones and sand and then urine and hair and nail clippings were added before the jug was sealed up. It was then buried in the furthest corners of a property or beneath a hearth in order to ward off bad luck and evil spirits!

As I had planned to visit the Museum of London the following day I had to take a look at their ceramics section and what did I find displayed in a beautifully lit glass cabinet? IMG_1903 A complete Bellarmine Jar or Bartmann Jug!

It never ceases to amaze me that a chance find from a ten minute mudlark can open up a whole new world of research and interest. The next challenge is how to display my find as to me it is too fascinating to languish in a box!

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Mudlarking and Mosaics

DSCF2901Whilst staying in London for a long weekend last Spring, I carefully checked the tide times for the River Thames before heading off towards Millennium Bridge to do a spot of “mudlarking”.

Mudlarking these days refers to the riverside equivalent of beachcombing. However during the mid 18th century, through until the early 20th century it was a recognised occupation of many destitute Londoners. These mudlarks earned their living by picking over the debris lying on the foreshore of the Thames, seeking out lumps of coal, bits of old iron and other detritus that fell from ships in the port of London, in fact anything which they could sell for a few pence.

These poor unfortunate people were most vividly evoked by Henry Mayhew, a journalist, social researcher and one of the co-founders of the satirical magazine Punch, in his book  London Labour and the London Poor published in 1851.


…”They may be seen of all ages, from mere childhood to positive decrepitude, crawling among the barges at the various wharfs along the river; it cannot be said that they are clad in rags, for they are scarcely half covered by the tattered indescribable things that serve them for clothing; their bodies are grimed with the foul soil of the river, and their torn garments stiffened up like boards with dirt of every possible description…”


Alongside these poor scavengers combing the river’s mud could be found another group the “toshers” whom Mayhew describes as follows…”The sewer-hunters were formerly, and indeed are still, called by the name of ‘Toshers’, the articles which they pick up in the course of their wanderings along shore being known among themselves by the general term ‘tosh’, a word more particularly applied by them to anything made of copper.”


DSCF4309 The popular riverside pub near Borough Market still keeps their memory alive


Back to the present day! Instead of scavenging to survive, todays mudlarks like myself, have a keen interest in the City’s rich archaeology and history. With its twice daily scouring tide, the Thames foreshore is probably the longest outdoor archaeological site open for all to investigate. Anyone can walk the shoreline and pick up loose items although no digging or use of metal detectors is allowed unless a permit from the Port of London authority is obtained.

Members of the Society of Thames Mudlarks work closely with the Museum of London adding to the museum’s collections and many finds are recorded by the Portable Antiquities Scheme which assists at mudlarking walks, identifying and dating items found.

Today I decided to search the foreshore on the north bank of the river below the Millennium Bridge.

This iconic 325m long bridge was the first new Thames crossing in over 100 years, was designed by Sir Norman Foster and sculptor Sir Anthony Caro and engineered by Arup. It was nicknamed the “wobbly bridge” on its opening in June 2000 when the many thousands who walked over it felt the bridge start to wobble!


This “wobble” turned out to be caused by the natural sway of people’s footsteps which created small sideways oscillations in the bridge thus resulting in pedestrians beginning to sway in step with the bridge; a phenomenon known as “synchronous lateral excitation”! The bridge was closed for shock absorbing type dampers to be installed…no wobbles now!


 One of the many dampers fitted to fix the wobble!

Nearby stands the London Millennium Inclinator, an inclined lift installed to make Peters Hill and the Millennium bridge more accessible to and from the Thames footpath.



And so on to mudlarking… I headed up the steps, over the wall and down the steep steps to the foreshore…and I was not alone today!


Making my way from the bridge and walking the foreshore down river towards Southwark Bridge, I soon left the families with excited children happily playing in the spring sunshine. As usual on the Thames, there was a calm and quiet atmosphere along the foreshore.

The air down here was rich with the smell of ozone and peaceful being below the sounds of the bustling city. The silence was only broken by the odd siren, waves breaking onto the shore from the backwash of the high speed Thames Clipper boats and the sound of the commentaries from the tannoys on board the tour boats.


Mudlarking, like fossil hunting another of my favourite pastimes, involves getting your eyes to focus in on the unusual at your feet. When fossil hunting it is helpful to know the geology of the site which will determine what types of fossils you are likely to find.

In comparison, when mudlarking on the riverbanks of a city as ancient as London, each turn of the tide can reveal clues of the city’s social history. All of London’s past and present life is here washed neatly onto the foreshore under your feet waiting to be discovered. Amongst the broken bricks and lumps of chalk and flint, you never know what you will find…


I wasn’t expecting this!

London 10.05 086

Or this…a bad day at the office perhaps?

The banks on this part of the Thames have been a focus of London’s life and commerce for centuries and the flotsam and jetsam washed up on the foreshore is testament to this. Trade unionist, Liberal politician and MP for Battersea in 1892, John Burns who was an expert on the City’s history, coined the evocative phrase “the Thames is liquid history”.


Can you spot the clay pipe stem?

Local inhabitants would use the river as a twice daily tidal dustbin, throwing in broken items of pottery, household rubbish and old bones. Cargo could be dropped from and between boats, roof tiles would fall from nearby buildings, glass bottles would be casually thrown in and clay pipes once smoked were tossed in. Oysters now an expensive delicacy, were once a staple diet of the poor, and their empty shells can be found in abundance.



Even Samuel Johnson fed them to his beloved cat Hodge!

Now for the practical bit…I always like to walk out on a falling tide and I would urge the novice mudlark to check the tide times carefully on The Port of London Authority website for the area you intend to walk and to follow their helpful guidelines. Don’t forget to check whether the time listed is BST or GMT! Take a mobile phone and tell someone where you are heading too!


You don’t want to be left clinging to one of the ropes or chains hanging on the river wall!

The Thames rises and falls by over 7.0m twice a day the current is fast and the water is cold! It is easy to get cut off as the shoreline has many inlets, curves and outfalls and piers of bridges. Whilst there is sand and shingle in places, it is also very muddy, rocky and old wooden jetties protrude from the mud. The stairs down to the river are steep and can be treacherous when green! So strong shoes or wellington boots are recommended, even if you get strange looks when sitting on a busy tube train covered in mud with a bag full of clanking finds!

Thames river images (59)

I normally search the shore at Bankside on the South Bank below the towering edifice of Tate Modern Art Gallery housed in the former Bankside Power Station designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. However my search area today is on the north bank of the Thames towards to the small inlet of Queenhithe.


Edward Weller’s 1868 map of this section of the river clearly shows the small Queenhithe inlet (I have just received a great book… “Mudlark River” by Simon Wilcox who journeys the length of the Thames from its source to the sea, armed with this Victorian map)


How it looks today…


and in the 1920’s…


and through the eye of an artist, Olive Brackenbury

Queenhithe was originally given  by King Alfred the Great in 883 AD to his brother-in-law Ethelred. Its name came from the profits from the docks being dedicated to the wife of Henry I, Queen Matilda. It probably began life as a Roman dock, and was known in Saxon times as Aedereshyd, and is the oldest and possibly the only extant Saxon harbour in the world.

As one of the main harbours in the City it was used extensively until the 20th century by the corn and later the fur and tea trades. Due to its historic significance this area is today listed as a Scheduled Ancient Monument, and as such no digging on the foreshore is allowed even if you have a permit!

Unfortunately there were not too many unusual finds today… I always hope to find a pilgrim brooch brought back from a successful pilgrimage trip and often broken and thrown into the Thames to ensure good luck, or traders tokens or coins but no luck as yet!

Today there were numerous broken clay pipe stems and bowls as usual…

DSCF5314and some medieval roof tiles, identified by their circular or square shaped holes…I still hope to find a piece with a blackened peg hole which would indicate a tile from the Great Fire of London.

DSCF5331Medieval roof tiles 

Lots of bricks with their makers marks…


Knights of Woodbridge in Suffolk


and one nearer to home from Canning Town

As usual too lots of sherds of pottery from all periods in history…


Rough green medieval pot sherds


A miscellany of blue and white hand painted and transferware crockery

DSCF5325Assorted sherds dating from the Tudor and Stuart periods, including a possible piece of a German stoneware vessel called a Bellarmine jar or Bartmann jug (top left)

Some of the pieces are quite revealing when examined closely…


A fragment of a Wedgewood dish


A miniature pastoral scene complete with sheep?


A piece of Staffordshire combed slipware looks good enough to eat! 


and is this the thumb print of a medieval potter?

I have had a couple of pot sherds identified by the Museum of London’s expert staff who are a useful source of information and who are keen to learn of unusual items found on the foreshore.


The base of a Roman colour coated ware jar I found at Shad Thames on a previous trip


The handle from a medieval greyware jug or pitcher I found on Bankside

My walk ended under the piers of Southwark Bridge and as the tide was beginning to turn I retraced my steps towards the safety of the Millennium Bridge.


The gnarled old wooden jetties protrude well above the water line at low tide


and an hour later are only just visible above the rising waters!


and the Queenhithe inlet is now cut off!

So what to do with all the finds I have amassed?


A few years ago I came across this wonderful mosaic collage on the South Bank


and appropriately made from foreshore finds!



So inspired was I by this work and having always been fond of mosaics, I recently enrolled on a one day workshop to learn about the techniques and perhaps utilise some of my foreshore finds.

Under the expert eye of professional mosaic artist Victoria Harrison, I produced my first mosaic, a stylised Roman hare, not using my Thames finds but Italian glass and ceramic tiles.


It turned out quite well for a first attempt!

I will continue to gather more finds and have a go at producing my own Thames inspired collage.

This fascinating river and its history continues to intrigue and captivate me and I foresee many more mudlarking forays in the future and hope that Father Thames will be kind enough to reveal some more secrets from London’s rich past.

London 10.05 087

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Summoned By Bells

It all began one morning in Whitechapel Road when I made an impromptu visit to the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. DSCF4733 The elegant Georgian wooden frontage, now Grade II listed, faces the busy road. Dating back to 1570 the foundry was established during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, and is listed today in the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest continuous manufacturing company in Great Britain. DSCF4735 Bells cast here can be found around the world among them the St Mary’s Cathedral bells in Sydney and those of the National Cathedral in Washington DC. Two of its most famous bells are the Liberty Bell and Big Ben. DSCN2190 Originally cast in 1856 in Stockton on Tees, Big Ben was recast in 1858 at the Whitechapel foundry as the first bell had cracked. This was the largest bell ever cast in Whitechapel weighing 13 and half tons. Unfortunately this second bell also cracked and was repaired by turning the bell so the hammer struck a different spot, replacing the hammer with a lighter one and by cutting a small square into the bell to stop the crack from spreading further. This is the bell we hear today and this repair accounts for its distinctive sound. Big Ben’s chime is still broadcast live today on BBC Radio 4. DSCF4726 A profile template of Big Ben’s bell surrounds the entrance door to the shop today which is filled with historical memorabilia and photographs. DSCF4722 A small copy of the Liberty Bell on display in the foundry shop The foundry has had a long line of bell founders from Robert Mot in 1570’s, through William and Thomas Mears and Alfred Lawson to Arthur Hughes in 1904. In fact the Hughes family still run it today and recent research has found that the company may go back even further to 1420. Today its main business is the founding and manufacture of church bells, their fittings and accessories, although it also provides single tolling bells, carillon bells, door bells and hand bells. To this day bells tolling across the world continue to be cast in Whitechapel. More recently the foundry designed the Olympic Bell seen at the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Games. It is the largest harmonically tuned bell in the world and bears an inscription from Shakespeare’s play The Tempest “Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises”. The 23 tons of molten metal required to make it exceeded todays capacity of the Whitechapel furnaces, so its manufacture was undertaken by a Dutch company whose more usual trade is the production of ship’s propellers. DSCF4729 View into the courtyard behind the shop DSCF4736 DSCF4739 Views inside the workshop with craftsman at work DSCF4737 Bells old and new lined up in the workshop Walking out of the foundry and back onto the busy Whitechapel Road, or the A11, a former a Roman road from the City of London to Colchester, I decided to investigate the nearby market. Whitechapel is synonymous with tales of Jack the Ripper stalking his victims in dark squalid alleyways in the late 1800’s but the scene couldn’t have been more different today. The colourful weekend street market stretching between Vallance Road and Cambridge Heath Road, was in full swing with stalls laden with all types of exotic fruit and Asian vegetables, bright yards of clothing fabrics and more mobile phone stalls than I had ever seen! Opposite the market stalls stands the impressive new Royal London Hospital designed by HOK American architects and opened in 2012. A hospital was first opened on this site in 1752 and it received its Royal title in 1990. It was to this hospital that Joseph Merrick, the so-called Elephant Man, was admitted, dying there in 1890. Whitechapel Bell Foundry manufactured a bell which still hangs in the hospital today which was known as the “Operation Bell” which was allegedly rung to summon attendants to keep patients still during surgery! I didn’t venture in to investigate further! Perhaps it was the bells or the array of fruit in the market, that brought to mind the playground nursery rhyme “Oranges and Lemons”. So after a bit of smart phone Google research, I decided to try to track down some the city churches that feature in the poem. Whilst there is a longer version of the rhyme, the following verse is the one that is most commonly known: Oranges and lemons, Say the bells of St. Clement’s. You owe me five farthings, Say the bells of St. Martin’s. When will you pay me? Say the bells of Old Bailey  When I grow rich, Say the bells of Shoreditch  When will that be? Say the bells of Stepney. I do not know, Says the great bell of Bow Here comes a candle to light you to bed, Here comes a chopper to chop off your head Chop Chop Chop the last mans dead! 1pic4oranges The game that I recall from my school days is beautifully illustrated by Walter Crane pictured above. For those unfamiliar with it, here are the “rules” of play as I remember it. Two children decide in secret which of them shall be an ‘orange’ and which a ‘lemon’, hold hands and form an arch with their arms. Everyone sings the “Oranges and Lemons” song with other children in the game taking turns to run under the arch until one of them is caught when the arch falls at the end of the song. At the moment of the word “chop” the child who is “caught” chooses to stand behind one of the oranges or lemons forming the arch. The game and singing then starts over again until every child is “caught”.  At the end of the game there is usually a tug of war contest to test whether the ‘oranges’ or ‘lemons’ are stronger. The rhyme also known as “The Bells of London” has passed down through playgrounds over the centuries and like other childhood rhymes such as “Pop Goes the Weasel” and “Ring a Ring of Roses” to name but two, appears quite childlike and innocent on the surface. However taking a closer look at the words and some quite sinister undertones with hidden meanings and allusions to people, historical events and places can be revealed. DSCF4732 The exact origin of this traditional English nursery rhyme and singing game is unknown but it is listed in the Roud Folk Song Index (produced by Steve Roud a former Librarian from Croydon) as Number 13190. The oldest documented version of it appears in 1744 but did not include the couplet ‘Oranges and Lemons’  which first appeared in 1858. There was a square dance without words called ‘Oranges and Lemons’ dating back to 1665. Jane Austen’s niece  Fanny refers to the rhyme in a letter to a friend in 1812… On Twelfth Night we had a delightful evening…we played at Oranges and Lemons… The rhyme is quoted in several chapters of George Orwell’s dystopian novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four” to serve as a reminder of the desirable and unattainable past that had been destroyed by Big Brother. The tune is reminiscent of change ringing and the intonation of each line allegedly corresponds with the distinct sound of each church’s bells. The commonly known verse includes bells that are within or close to the City of London so off I set to try to find them. umbra-tile-orangesandlemons I include above a lovely modern faux Delft tile designed and reproduced with the kind permission of the artist Paul Bommer. More of his work including prints of the rhyme can be found via this link So, to my first stop… “Oranges and Lemons say the bells of St Clements” clement_eastcheap5 Little has changed today! DSCF4857 A charter of 1067 first mentions the church which was destroyed in the Great Fire in 1666, and subsequently rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren in the 1680’s. It is the City’s smallest Wren church.  At the time of rebuilding, the parish was combined with that of St Martin Orgar which lay on the south side of Eastcheap, which had also been damaged in the Fire. DSCF4854 But which church is the one in the rhyme as there is another St Clements? St Clements Danes, lies just beyond Temple Bar on The Strand has generally been discounted as the church of the rhyme, even though its bells peal the tune. St Clement Eastcheap claims that it is the one in the rhyme as it was close to the wharf on the Thames where citrus fruit was unloaded and then transported to the nearby Leadenhall Market. St_Clement_Eastcheap_(map,_1736)Yet researching a map of 1776 there were many churches that were closer to the Thames than St. Clement’s (Clement who by the way is patron saint of sailors), so perhaps it is just artistic licence to make it rhyme! DSCF4856 A short stroll away I find the next church…you owe me five farthings say the Bells of St Martins” St Martin Orgar in Martin Lane had also been left in ruins by the Great Fire, however the tower survived. Its odd name arises from a Deacon called Ordgarus who owned the church, which he presented in the 12th century to the Dean and Chapter of St Paul’s. Following the unification of the parish with St Clement’s, the St Martin’s site was used by French Huguenots who restored the tower and worshipped there until 1820. Martin Lane was an area known notorious for its moneylenders, hence “you owe me five farthings” (an old English coin worth a quarter of an old penny until it ceased to be legal tender in 1960). farthing A Farthing from 1956 showing a Wren (how appropriate) on the tail side! The tower was rebuilt in 1851 as a rectory for St Clements, and the old bell was rehung as a clock bell in a projecting clock. Today all that exists is the tower which is currently occupied by a firm of solicitors, and the churchyard has become a raised private garden to the south of the campanile. DSCF4852 DSCF4851 And so onwards in my quest to find the third church… On my way, I passed by the interesting church ruins and gardens of the former Christchurch Greyfriars church, so I just had to divert and take a closer look. DSCF4838 This is yet another Wren church but unfortunately it was bombed during the Blitz in WWII. The gardens today have been laid out to represent the original Wren floor plan  with box hedging to show where the pews stood and climbing roses and clematis growing up frames to represent the pillars. It was a little oasis of calm today and empty being a weekend (the best time to explore the city I find), though I am sure it is much loved as a lunch spot by busy city workers. DSCF4837Christchurch Greyfriars Parish was merged with St Sepulchre in 1949 and this was my next church in the rhyme… DSCF4841“when will you pay me say the bells of Old Bailey” old bailey (1) This church refers to St Sepulchre-without-Newgate which is the largest church in the City of London. Founded in 1137, it was originally dedicated to St Edmund and being positioned just outside the City’s northwest gate in the London Wall it became a meeting place for the crusader knights bound for the Holy Land. It was this association with the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem that led to its rededication in the 15th century. imagesCTSX7FDI Again, it was another church to fall victim to the Great Fire which resulted in melting all of its bells. It again fell to Sir Christopher Wren (who else?) to rebuild it in 1670. Today its bell tower holds 12 bells some of which were cast at the Whitechapel foundry who also reframed and retuned them all in 1984. DSCF8111 The church stood opposite London’s Court House nicknamed the Old Bailey as it stood on Bailey Street which followed the line of the fortified bailey of  London’s Roman Wall. Also opposite stood Newgate Prison which housed not only criminals but also debtors hence the line of the rhyme, “when will you pay me”. Another victim of the Great Fire, the prison was rebuilt and ultimately demolished in 1904. On part of the site stands the Central Criminal Court which is still known today as the Old Bailey. old bailey (7) View of Old Bailey…it wouldn’t be this quiet during the week! As neither the court nor the prison had a bell, St Sepulchre’s church bells were tolled on days of an execution at the prison. Prior to an execution day, the condemned prisoners were visited by the bellman of St. Sepulchre, lit by candles at midnight via an underground passage between the church and the prison – hence the line in the rhyme “here comes the candle to light you to bed”. This handbell known as the “executioners bell” is today installed in a glass case inside the church. NewgateExecutionBell An interesting fact I found when researching the history of this area was that the church would also toll the bell when condemned prisoners went past on the way to the gallows at Tyburn where Marble Arch stands today. Prisoners would be taken there by a horse drawn carriage and were allowed one drink at a hostelry on the route. They were only allowed one drink and if offered more their guards would say “they are going on the wagon”  a phrase still used today for beginning a period of abstinence from drink! Leaving the City precincts I headed towards Hackney in search of my next church… …”When I grow rich, say the bells of Shoreditch” Shoreditch (14) St Leonard’s stands on Shoreditch High Street close to the busy junction of the A10 and is now in the Borough of Hackney. A church has existed on this site since the middle of the 12th century and a previous church had to be demolished as part of the bell tower collapsed in high winds showering the worshipping congregation below with masonry! DSCF0368 This was finally demolished in 1736 and replaced by the church we see today which opened in 1740. Designed by George Dance the Elder who was a favourite pupil of Christopher Wren, its innovative design with slender columns and colonnades and bright windows caused a scandal. Its critics found it difficult to accept it as a church especially when contrasted with Nicholas Hawksmoor’s more chunky and ornate style in this late Baroque period. The bell tower today houses ten bells all made at the Whitechapel foundry. umbra-tile-whenIgrowrich Another faux Delft tile designed and reproduced with the kind permission of the artist Paul Bommer. The housing area around Shoreditch and Hackney Road was known as Old Nichol in Victorian days. A notorious rookery, it was home to over 5,500 people living in a dense network of 30 squalid, crowded streets and courts was brought to public attention by Arthur Morrison’s book published in 1896, “A Child of the Jago”. Poverty_map_old_nichol_1889 “Poverty Map Old Nichol 1889” by Charles Booth Booth’s survey shows the extent of the poverty by highlighting the dark blue areas which he denotes as  “very poor, casual, chronic want”, and black areas are the “lowest class…occasional labourers, street sellers, loafers, criminals and semi-criminals”…meanwhile by contrast the red areas show “middle class, well-to-do”…  hence the line in the rhyme…”when I grow rich…” Today it is a different story. Shoreditch and nearby Hoxton are now popular and very fashionable areas of London and its “gentrification” over the past 20 years has led to accompanying rises in land and property prices. And so I continue my journey eastwards by tube to Stepney Green to see “…When will that be, say the bells of Stepney” stepney (10) St Dunstan’s and All Saints Church is my next port of call, appropriate given it is known as “the Church of the High Seas” which today still flies the Red Ensign (or the “Red Duster” as it is affectionately known), because of its historic links with ship builders and merchants on the nearby Thames. The church tower was a clearly visible landmark for ships’ captains on the river who required to record any birth, death or marriage that took place at sea anywhere in the world on a British owned ship. These records were automatically registered at St Dunstans so as to enable people to claim rights to relief or sanctuary. DSCF3000 A Grade I listed building it is one of the most ancient churches in London dating back to before AD 952 when the Bishop of London and also Stepney’s mayor, replaced the existing wooden church with a stone built one dedicated to All Saints. On the canonisation of Dunstan in 1092, the church was rededicated to incorporate him and this is still the name it retains. Built of Kentish ragstone and so unlike all the white stone edifices of my journey so far, this present church is the third structure on the site and was subject to heavy bomb damage during in the Blitz in the East End. stepney (2) It has an unusual stained glass window which depicts the bombed surroundings of Stepney during WWII. Below the window is an Anglo Saxon carved stone panel depicting the crucifixion. Its bells too were cast at the Whitechapel foundry but unfortunately today I arrived too late to hear them as the service had just ended. The link to the rhyme allegedly comes from the wives of seafarers who would look down the river to see when their menfolk would return. stepney mapAs I walked around the extensive churchyard, admiring the crocuses fully open in the spring sunshine, St Dunstans was a little oasis in the busy city and with the sounds and smells from the City Farm opposite, only adding to its bucolic feel! Stepney is today part of the borough of Tower Hamlets, a reminder that this area was indeed a rural hamlet of the Tower of London. In the 17th century the churchyard was enlarged to cope with the massive number of deaths during the Great Plague. During one eighteen month period 6,583 died, with 154 victims being buried there in one day in September 1665. stepney (7) Spring crocuses I spent some time following the call of a ring necked parakeet which seemed to be playing hide and seek in the tops of the London Plane trees, but I spotted him in the end! DSCF3013And so turning back towards the City again for the final church… stepney (12)View past the urban farm towards the City from the church gates “…I do not Know, says the great bell of Bow” Most people know that the prerequisite of a “True Cockney” is that they must be born within the sound of Bow bells. Until recently I had always assumed this to be the church in Bow in the east of the capital. It is in fact St Mary le Bow which stands on Cheapside within the precincts of the City of London. A noise pollution survey carried out in 2012 showed that ambient noise and traffic levels today means that the bells cannot be heard over as wide an area as they used to be, when they could be heard across much of north and east London and as far south as Southwark. Today they are audible only within the City and as far as Shoreditch. In addition there is only one hospital in the vicinity now and that has no maternity ward on site these days, but if you really want to raise a true cockney child you can always download an MP3 version of the bells! Bow (11) Bow bells are famous throughout the world and for centuries they have been woven into the City’s folklore. It was these bells which were said to have made Dick Whittington cancel his plans to leave London and turn back to become Lord Mayor. During the Second World War the BBC’s World Service broadcast a recording of the bells as a symbol of hope to the people in occupied Europe and this same recording made in 1926 is still used today as an interval signal. The first known reference is in 1469, when the Common Council ordered the bells to be rung at 9pm each evening to signal a curfew and the end of an apprentice’s working day. The ringing of the curfew bell ceased in 1876. The bell tower has contained many bells over the centuries and, guess what, the original bells were again victims of the Great Fire. In 1856 the bells were silenced following protests of an eccentric neighbour Mrs Elisabeth Bird who feared the bells might end her life! After two years of silence the bells were rung again and she lived to hear them for a few more years. In 1926 the bells were declared unfit to ring and this gave rise to some national concerns. In 1933 they were restored and recast, the work being undertaken as a gift from H Gordon Selfridge of department store fame, although it has never been proved that he did actually pay for the work! Unfortunately these restored bells were destroyed in a German air raid in May 1941 as this photo from Getty images show. 138592248 The twelve bells that hang in the bell tower today were cast at Whitechapel foundry in 1956 using some salvaged metal from the destroyed bells, they are now lighter and hang 30 metres above the ground. The “Great bell of Bow” of the rhyme is the tenor bell which weighs some 2135 kgs! Much of the costs involved in the recasting and rehanging came from a gift of the Bernard Sunley Charity and Holy Trinity Wall Street New York. Each of the bells has an inscription on it from the psalms and the first letter of each psalm bell spells out D WHITTINGTON. DSCF4834 St Mary le Bow was founded around 1080 as the London headquarters of the archbishops of Canterbury and the medieval church survived three devastating collapses before being completely destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666. Rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren, yes it’s that man again, it was destroyed once more in 1941 but was again rebuilt and re-consecrated in 1964. Bow (8) Today the stained glass and the pale blue ceiling give the interior a light and airy atmosphere a haven of calm in a busy city. The crypt is also in use today as a popular café called Café Below Bow Bells. Bow (24) And so here in the City I end my search for “the bells” – or do I? There is a longer and somewhat lesser known version of this venerable rhyme which lists even more churches and their bells! Gay go up, and gay go down, To ring the bells of London Town Bull’s eyes and targets, Say the bells of St. Marg’ret’s Brickbats and tiles, Say the bells of St. Giles’ Oranges and lemons, Say the bells of St. Clement’s Pancakes and fritters/(Old shoes and slippers), Say the bells of St. Peter’s Two sticks and an apple, Say the bells at Whitechapel Old Father Baldpate, Say the slow bells at Aldgate Maids in white aprons, Say the bells at St Catherine’s Pokers and tongs, Say the bells of St. John’s Kettles and pans, Say the bells of St. Anne’s Halfpence and farthings, Say the bells of St. Martin’s When will you pay me? Say the bells at Old Bailey When I grow rich, Say the bells at Shoreditch Pray, when will that be? Say the bells of Stepney I do not know, Says the great bell at Bow Here comes a candle to light you to bed, Here comes a chopper to chop off your head So another quest in prospect…for another day… This journey across the city and the centuries has given me a whole new insight into places which in the past I had simply walked past without a second thought. I have also discovered places that I hadn’t planned to visit and have yet again learnt so much about this remarkable city from its buildings and people. DSCF5306 A small bell bought at foundry to serve as a reminder of my journey!

Posted in Oranges and Lemons Churches, Sir Christopher Wren, Whitechapel Bell Foundry | Tagged , | 9 Comments

Going on a Bear Hunt!


I have long been a fan of Paddington Bear and last December I could not resist going to see the new film “Paddington” from the producers of Harry Potter, and what a delight it was – both funny and sad and a bit scary at times! The film based on the stories of Michael Bond’s little refugee bear was enchanting and made me dig out my old somewhat faded copies of the book I still have from my childhood.


You can tell their age by the cover price of three shillings and sixpence!

To coincide with the film, a London Paddington Trail was launched with over 50 Paddington Bear sculptures decorated by artists, celebrities and local groups.  Sponsored by businesses and organisations they are being auctioned off in the New Year with proceeds going to  the NSPCC.

So, on a very cold morning I made my way to London to go on a bear hunt!


First stop had to be Paddington Station, after all this was where the story began!


I have often seen the bronze statue which used to be sited on the main station concourse but which had in recent years moved indoors near to the sushi bar. It  was always crowded with tourists having their photo taken with the little bear sitting by his suitcase. Today I found it had been moved yet again, this time near to Platform One…where Paddington first meets the Brown family.


Platform Eight also housed the first of my trail bears of the day aptly decorated by Michael Bond himself and a true replica of the Paddington from my childhood imagination!


Even a bench in the station had entered into the spirit of things!


Off to Paddington Basin in search of more sculptures…


“Futuristic Robot Bear” in Merchant Square designed by Jonathan Ross

Over Thomas Heatherwick’s “Rolling Bridge”


which was fortunately “unrolled” today to follow the trail…


Blue plush “Bearing Up” by Taylor Wimpey on St Marys Footbridge


and “Brick Bear” by Robin Partington and Partners, which attracted great interest from an overseas tourist who was most interested in Paddington!

A very dignified “Mayor of Paddington” by Costain stood on Canalside Plaza


I passed by the London Book Barge “Word on Water”  the city’s only floating bookshop.


Run by an Oxford English graduate, who has been trading in the Basin for four years, the bookshop sources its stock from unwanted piles of books donated to charity shops which were destined to be pulped.


This quirky enterprise housed on a Dutch barge is much loved by the local community, writers and tourists alike but is currently under threat of losing its mooring pitch as developers press to open even more canalside coffee shops and eateries.

Another sculpture called “Texting Paddington” stood in Sheldon Square, designed by the Westminster Academy with Paddington sporting a very dapper patriotic duffle coat decorated with snippets of text from the books.



On towards Little Venice, an area that I have always meant to visit but have somehow never got around to.


A pool was created here in the 1810s at the meeting point of the Regent’s Canal and the Paddington arm of the Grand Union canal, and was originally known as Paddington Broadwater. The small island is known as “Browning’s Island”, after the poet Robert Browning, who lived nearby which is today lined with willows and forms a roundabout for canal boats.

In her 1934 detective novel Death of a Ghost, Margery Allingham gave the name “Little Venice” to a house overlooking the canal. This name caught on with estate agents after the Second World War and is still in use today. Famous residents have included Katherine Mansfield, playwright Christopher Fry, novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard and the singer Bjork, and of course Michael Bond the creator of Paddington!

Crossing the canal to an area which was formerly the site of derelict artists studios that were demolished and replaced with a small park. It was named Rembrandt Gardens in 1975 to commemorate the 700th anniversary of the founding of the city of Amsterdam, the “Venice of the North” and it was here where I had a close encounter with the Lulu Guinness designed Paddington!

DSCF5195“Love Paddington” complete with her “lips” trademark!


I met up with a mother and daughter visiting from Merseyside who informed me that they were staying in London to find as many sculptures as they could in their week. True Paddington fans! We remarked on the lack of children that we had met whilst following the sculpture trail…perhaps the film will help bring the adventures of the little bear to new fans and enchant a new generation?

With all the sculptures in the area ticked off my list and with the shortening day length I headed off to Oxford Street to brave the crowds Christmas shopping, to see the festive lights and of course to find some more bears!

First stop Selfridges, where in the Toy Department on Christmas Eve over 50 years ago Michael Bond, a BBC cameraman, saw and bought his wife a small bear which they named Paddington after the station they lived close by…the rest as they say “is history!”

Today Selfridges Wonder Room was home to the “Paddington Curiosity Shop” selling all kinds of ursine merchandise! Meanwhile the window was host to a dazzling array of golden marmalade, Paddington’s favourite sandwich filling, a gold London cab and “Goldiebear” by Kate Moss!


Upstairs in the Toy Department…Camobear!”


Onwards down Oxford Street, now very busy with shoppers it was quite tricky spotting a 5 foot sculpture bear!

In fact I nearly missed this one, hard to believe! “Sparkles” by Frankie Bridge in South Molton Street.


The Christmas lights were quite spectacular as I made my way towards Regent Street.


Passing by the cavorting penguins in the windows of John Lewis.


and on to Hamleys the famous toy shop, where “snow” was festively falling courtesy of Santa’s elves in the doorway, to find “Bearer of Gifts” designed by Hamleys themselves.


Around the corner to Carnaby Street to find the very fashionable Parka Paddington designed by Liam Gallagher…who else!


After a reviving cup of coffee (a pity that Pret a Manger don’t sell marmalade sandwiches!) I made my way on to Piccadilly Circus and past the famous illumintated sign which features in the Paddington film.

There have been advertising signs here since the early 1900’s originally all around the Circus, the first illuminated one being for Perrier in 1908.They are now only in the north western corner on a site is usually referred to as “Monico” after the Café Monico, which used to stand there.


It took an age to take a photo without people with their arms around Paddington here as this is probably the most popular tourist spot in the whole of London!


 “Paddington the Explorer” designed by Ripley’s Believe it or Not!

Only a couple more sculptures to find for the day, so a detour through Leicester Square and past an appropriately named street,


and through Trafalgar Square down Whitehall to Downing Street. Just outside the security barriers that now cut off this street there he was…“Paddington is Great” by Stephen Fry.


It amused me to watch harried looking office workers rushing home suddenly stopping, smiling and turning back to take a photo on their mobile phones.

Well the last of the bear trail for me was just around the corner from Whitehall in Great George Street…“Good News Bear” from The Telegraph.


What a great day’s bear hunting and according to the promoters of the trail as I had found 19 bears I was entitled to call myself a “London Pioneer for following in Paddington’s paw prints!”…


I also discovered new places along the way and also revisited old haunts… Oh and I got a small souvenir of the day from Selfridge’s… of course!



Posted in London, Sculpture Trail | Tagged , , , , | 11 Comments

Winter Waterland!

Yesterday whilst in Worcester I walked down to see the flood levels which had reached record highs on the River Severn. Many roads were closed to traffic in the town centre and every street had fluorescent clad figures helping the emergency services to evacuate locals and assist people to go about their daily lives.

Even so, the City was eerily quiet and unusually the smell of ozone was in the air, odd given that it is many miles from the sea!


Disoriented local!


Flood waters in town have exceeded the level seen in 1795



Watery Riverside Walk


Even a BBC umbrella was abandoned by a TV presenter!

With day after day of more flooding reports and weather alerts on the news, by now most of us have had enough of this prolonged wet and windy winter, but as the days lengthen there are signs that spring is not far away…

The sunshine this morning prompted me to take a short walk around the lanes nearby making a nice change from my usual walks on country paths which are either under water or knee deep in mud!

Morton Meanders (6)

Today the level of the water in the Bow Brook which runs through the village was as I expected very high as it makes its way downstream to add to the problems in Worcester.



But on the banks were some signs that spring is coming…


Male Alder catkins begin to disperse their pollen to the winds


Blue skies for a change!


Clumps of snowdrops alongside the verges


How true…

On reaching the ford as usual in such conditions, the road was flooded, the old pack horse bridge although still visible…sometimes is completely submerged!



Old pack horse bridge at Shell Ford



Old oak tree with buds beginning to show


Hazel catkins

Spring is not too far away now hopefully as evidenced by the primroses but, having just looked at the forecast, more gales and rain are set to batter the country yet again tomorrow…we are not out of the woods just yet!


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