Monday, 14 October 2013

In search of the Grail, just off Lower Regent Street



The pursuit of the Grail: the journey to which every pilgrimage aspires. As we know from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the personal quest is a dangerous illusion. If you lack self-knowledge and are unable to see beneath the surface sheen, the results will be fatal. Julian Glover chose poorly.

So, are you sure you’re ready for the final challenge? Are you prepared to go to the last place on earth you would choose? The route is simple. No more than a minute’s walk from Piccadilly Circus, among the Angus Steak Houses, the Garfunkels and the all-you-eat pizza buffets of Haymarket, is the king among restaurants you never want to visit: Planet Hollywood.

Steel yourself to approach its side windows on Norris Street, where props from lost 90s movies are displayed in cheap cases. The third window west… look closer… a battered chalice… surely it can’t be… not here… the true Carpenter’s Cup! Last seen disappearing down a crevasse in 1989, somewhere deep inside the Great Temple of Petra, the grail is hidden in plain sight in the dingy heart of tourist London. The search is at an end, the dark is vanquished, the balance between good and evil righted, and everlasting life is yours for the taking. All you have to do is go inside, reach out and take it. 

This piece is included in Issue E of Curiocity Magazine.

Friday, 30 August 2013

Effra flood at Herne Hill

Image copyright jiggott
This is no longer exactly news, but for anyone who missed it the centre of Herne Hill disappeared under waist-high water on 7th August when something bad happened involving the water main and/or the drains. All the shops and the pub at the Half Moon junction were flooded, and the water tore up the road surfaces, brought down street lamps and left a thick layer of sediment behind.

The flood was of course a disaster for the businesses involved, a real shame because many of them are fine local establishments. It is also a historical curiosity. Nowhere in all the coverage have I seen any mention of the real force behind the catastrophe, the River Effra.


Herne Hill is on the course of the Effra, which buried along its entire course from Crystal Palace to the Thames at Vauxhall. The river flows below Burbage Road to Half Moon Lane, where it turns west and crosses the junction with Norwood Road and heads along Dulwich Road towards Brixton. The flood occurred at the low point around the junction which, until the 18th century, was called Island Green and was surrounded by river water. This is a particularly crowded junction, where five major roads meet along with the railway line, not to mention a lost river. This part of Herne Hill, despite the name, is a low point in a ridge running across south London, and therefore the easiest crossing place for everything and everyone passing through the area. 


It is not the first time Herne Hill has found that although London's rivers may be buried, they are very much still there. The basements of houses along Half Moon and Dulwich Roads flooded often until the Effra Storm Relief Sewer was built in 1984. The water came back around ten years ago, a flood blamed on blocked drains. This time it is not clear what caused the flood: reports talked about a burst water main, but apparently taps in nearby houses still worked. It is likely that the drains around here overflow easily because of the volume of river water flowing through Herne Hill. Maybe this time Thames Water will sort it out. The mouth of the Effra at Vauxhall is the location for the oldest recorded signs of human habitation found in London. A mere 7000 years later, the Effra came back for a morning.

Monday, 1 July 2013

London's head and London's heart

Issue D of Curiocity magazine, now in the shops, is called Dissecting London.  It includes a piece by me, taken from a longer version.  Here, for your reading pleasure, is the full version:


Anatomising London

London is built in our image. It mirrors not only the fluid bodies of the living, but also the legions of dead who, contrary to general belief outnumber the rest of us several times over. For every one of us bringing London to life, many others are forgotten and buried, organic fertiliser for the city’s growth spurts, their material existence thickening the London layers.

No wonder then that we try to interpret and represent London as a physical form. Not only is it made of bodies – 80,000 unmarked under pocket-sized Paddington Street Gardens to take a single, staggering example - but becomes in itself a body. Cable, wires, fibre and pipes are lymphatics, circulating essential lubricants. The Tube is a mesh of capillary vessels, a needle’s depth below the skin. The lost rivers are veins and arteries: the Fleet, fat, blue, swollen and bulging under Holborn Viaduct; the Tyburn, an artery buried deep in the subcutaneous fat layer, thin and throbbing. 

If the high brows at Hampstead and Parliament Hill, and the twin horns of Norwood and Shooter’s Hill are London’s temples, the opposition of north and south is inevitable. London is a two-headed city, each holding the other in balance. Another head belongs to Bran the Raven King, the city’s talisman, buried under the White Mount at the Tower of London

So London is also a Siamese city, a doubled anatomy, fused across the Thames basin. The giant twin sons of Albion, Gog and Magog, keep watch on church and law from the tower of St. Dunstan-in-the-West, and preside over the Corporation of London in the Guildhall. The Corporation is the body of bodies: all joined together as one to exercise its peculiar dominion over London’s heart. 

Two hearts match the two heads:
St. Paul’s on Ludgate Hill, with its folk history of cathedrals, Diana, lunar temples and megaliths; and Westminster Abbey, a corresponding temple, belonging to the sun and Apollo. Southwark may quibble, but London is a dual entity. Its perpetual motion is sustained by the perfect dichotomy: two bodies, male and female; one city.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

The Kilburn returns!


You can’t keep a lost river down.  Photos in the papers today showing part of Kilburn High Road under water, would be strangely familiar to 19th century residents.  The floods, caused by a burst water main, look pretty disastrous from the photos.  However, the water has temporarily recreated the riverscape Kilburn High Road replaced.

Kilburn’s lost river is now known as the Westbourne, but it went by many names, which changed as it passed through different neighbourhoods.  Kilburn is in fact named after its local stream, the Kilbourne.  Originating at the edge of Hampstead Heath, it flowed via West End Green to Kilburn Priory.  A street of the same name marks its course, while rushing water can sometimes be detected nearby under Springfield Road.

The Kilbourne crossed the High Road at the junction with Kilburn Park Road, and moves on to Paddington Recreation Gardens. Kilburn High Road itself is a river of sorts, flooded or otherwise.  It is, as Chris Petit points out in his novel Robinson, “a dirty brown torrent”, but rather more so at the moment.”

Friday, 20 July 2012

Porcelain postcards


I have posted before about Loraine Rutt’s lost rivers-inspired sculpture, a beautiful and alluring ceramic relief map of London.  Now I discover she is producing a series of Porcelain Postcards of the area around River Peck.  These are delicate, postcard-sized reliefs, the one on the left showing the Peck and the Og.  They stand in neat wooden holders, and look as though they might be carved from impossibly thin pieces of bone. 

This is appropriately visionary stuff for a river that carries close associations with Blake.  They will shortly have their own company and website, currently in preparation.  

The postcards are a clear, white porcelain in real life, but I can't do justice to them in photo so this is my heat map version.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Raising the Curtain






The unearthing in June of remains from the Curtain theatre, fills an important gap in the story of Shakespeare’s theatre company.  It also fills a gap on the banks of the Walbrook, a small stream with disproportionate significance for London.

The Curtain is where the Lord Chamberlain’s Men relocated after an eventful time at The Theatre up the road. The basic theatre names of the late 16th century, as well as being amusing, clearly indicate their novelty.  The Curtain, the “wooden O” conjured up by Henry V’s Chorus, was a step up from The Theatre, built a few hundred yards among the ruins of the Holywell Priory, but was still dubious entertainment best located outside the City boundaries.

The Plough Yard site where the Curtain’s foundations still retains an edge-city feel, combining dereliction with services the City requires but doesn’t want to host: electricity transformer stations, driving ranges, and lap-dancing.

And the Walbrook?  It flowed, as far as we can judge, along Curtain Road from the Holywell itself.   The Theatre and The Curtain were therefore both riverside venues, although the river was probably not longer visible.  Full of rubbish, and receiving tributes from all the privies along its banks, it would have been an insalubrious neighbour.  The Walbrook, however, was worth more than that.  It flowed - and still flows in its own sewer - from Shoreditch through the City itself, under the Bank of England, to the Thames near Cannon Street.  It formed the valley in which Roman London was founded, and as such is probably London's oldest, least appreciated inhabitant.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Ceramic London

Artist Loraine Rutt has produced this highly impressive ceramic relief map of London's lost river system.  It is both lovely and very useful.  Relief maps of London are a surprisingly rare commodity but Loraine's realisation of the city's landscape shows us the big picture usually obscured by the detail.  It's hard to see the hill and valleys, hidden as they are behind the multiple distractions of buildings and streets.

Stripped back to gleaming white, strokeable porcelain, all becomes clear.  London was built in the wide, shallow Thames terraces, before snaking along the valleys of its tributaries.  Rivers such as the Fleet, Tyburn, Westbourne, Effra carve notches in the hills of the north and the south.  The road and railways followed, and from the valley floors London began its assault on the high ground.

There's something medical, anatomical about this piece. It's a knot of sinuous muscle bunched around atrial chambers.  Peer closely enough, and I suspect the blue veins are gently pumping.