Writing Portfolio


The most sought-after item in Canada

"Is that..."

I didn't need to say anything else. I knew what it was that I was asking about, as did the half-a-dozen or so other customers who'd also noticed it, plus the store attendant who'd noticed that we'd noticed it.

'It' had not been what any of us had expected to see in a liquor store in small-town Manitoba three days before Christmas. 'It' is currently the most desired alcoholic beverage in all of Canada - and, for all I know, in the world right now. 'It' has caused queues to form outside liquor stores before they open and has sold out within an hour of going on sale in any such store, whatever the province (the staff in this particular one hadn't even expected to have any delivered this side of the New Year). 'It' has caused employees of such establishments to remind friends and neighbours that they are not allowed to hold or reserve items.

'It', the most sought-after product in Canada at the moment, is a bottle of Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye, a whisky that was propelled into the limelight recently after being proclaimed as the World Whisky of the Year by no less an authority than Jim Murray, author of the highly influential Whisky Bible which is published annually. He apparently tasted more than a thousand whiskies before reaching his decision, and proclaimed this one to be a "masterpiece". Many Canadians would agree, if they could get hold of a bottle. Across the country, people are divided between those who have managed to get hold of some and try it, and the have-nots. The latter are in the majority.

For several seconds after I saw the almost-empty case of it in the Beausejour branch of the MLCC Liquor Mart, where I'd gone to get a miniature of something with which to ignite the Christmas pudding, a few thoughts rushed through my head. Would my British credit card work in small-town Manitoba? Of course it would, don't be silly. Were I to buy a bottle, would I be able to open it and sample the contents, then take the rest back home to London? No, that's not how it works.

Sadly, such thoughts were merely academic as the man in front of me grabbed the last three and, with a look on his face usually reserved for those who've backed the right horse or won the lottery, proceeded to the till. The rest of us were left staring at the empty case. Someone said something about how he'd heard that a store in another town nearby had had a delivery; someone else observed that by the time they got there it would be sold out.

"That didn't take long," said the attendant as he cleared away the case. I asked him how much they were charging for a bottle of this most elusive of spirits, and he showed me the price-card: $32.95, not including sales tax. On the current exchange rates, that's easily south of twenty quid.

"You know, you could double that," I replied. Hell, they could just add a number '1' to the beginning of the price and people would still buy it. "That guy," he said, referring to the afore-mentioned Mr Murray, "doesn't go for the really expensive stuff. He picks a whisky that ordinary people can buy." He clearly knew his whiskies - he told me his personal favourite was Lagavulin, as he showed me to the corner of the store that displayed some of Scotland's finest exports. But I wasn't after Scotch in Manitoba. If I was going to buy or try any sort of whisky, it would be the local stuff.

Crown Royal is indeed a product of Manitoba. Whisky - in Canada, it's spelt without the 'e' - has been distilled in Gimli, on the shores of Lake Winnipeg, since 1939 (the brand was named in honour of that year's Royal visit, the first by a reigning sovereign). In Canada, whisky tends to mean a blend of barley, corn and rye, unlike in Scotland where they can only use malted barley. What makes the Northern Harvest Rye so special is that it's 90% rye.

For a Canadian whisky to be given such an accolade as World Whisky of the Year is unheard-of. Perhaps this is yet more evidence of how Canadians are gradually taking over the world!

As of yesterday morning, the Winnipeg Free Press was reporting that Northern Harvest Rye had sold out across the province, with no more expected in liquor stores until January; "Manitobans looking to get someone a bottle of the world's best whisky for Christmas are out of luck." If you can't get hold of a bottle in the province where it's made, what hope is there for the rest of the country?

Those who've tried it say that it's very good. I would like to be able to agree with them, but I just can't get hold of any.


Watching and reading at Christmas

‘Tis the season – for watching Christmas movies. Some are good, some are pretty ropey and a few manage to divide opinion, in some cases on the topic of whether or not they can even be classified as Christmas movies. My own view on this is that if there’s a way in which a given film can be linked to Christmas, however tenuously, then why not? I take a similar view with literature – if a novel or short story has a Christmas link, then it can be a Christmas story.

Maybe I’m getting set in my ways in my late thirties, but over the past few years things have evolved to the point where there are four films, a TV show and three (short) works of literature that have to be seen or read at Christmas time.

Let’s do the films first. We start with two old-school black-and-white classics from the 1940s: Miracle on 34th Street (1947) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). I tend to prefer the original version of the former which has a lot of charm with the New York department-store Santa called Kris Kringle who seems to be the ‘real’ thing – a role for which Edmund Gwynn won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, while Maureen O’Hara (who died earlier this year, aged 95) is on top form playing a career-oriented, divorced single mother which must’ve been very ahead of its time in the 1940s. The court scene at the end, with the judge worried about re-election and the posties using it as an excuse to get rid of all the letters to Father Christmas that they’ve accumulated, is hilarious every time. On doing some background reading for this film, I was surprised to learn that it was originally released in the summer, with the Christmas element being downplayed in the advertising (20th Century Fox’s logic being that they’d make more money with a summer release).

Less overtly Christmassy is that Frank Capra classic It’s a Wonderful Life, set in charming small-town America with Jimmy Stewart’s selfless everyman standing up to the bad guy who comes in the form of the Scrooge-esque Mr Potter. George Bailey may get the girl but the rest of his life gets put on hold in a never-ending struggle on behalf of the less fortunate, and it takes a heavenly intervention when he’s at his lowest to show him how much of a positive impact he’s made on many lives. Yes, there’s a lot of ‘life’ before you get to the ‘wonderful’ bit (it’s actually fairly depressing in parts until the last ten minutes), but it really is a lovely film that shows just how much of a difference one person can make.

Moving swiftly to the late twentieth century and changing the tempo somewhat (although the notion of how much of a difference one person can make remains), it’s time for an action movie and, working on the principle that any movie with a link to Christmas can be a Christmas movie, there is indeed such a thing as a Christmas action movie: Die Hard (1988). Like many a Christmas movie protagonist, New York cop John McClane just wants to spend the festive season with his family (which is why he flies out to LA on Christmas Eve), but first of all there’s the small matter of meeting up with his estranged wife at the Nakatomi Corporation’s office party. If you’ve ever been to a work Christmas do that doesn’t quite go according to plan, be thankful that you’ve not had it interrupted by a bunch of heavily armed terrorists and then sit back and enjoy the mayhem as McClane takes them on without wearing any shoes. This film was so big it spawned four sequels, many imitations and redefined Bruce Willis’s career (before this, he was apparently considered more of a comedy actor) as well as marking out Alan Rickman as an actor who plays the baddies very well.

Finally, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without at least one movie adaptation of A Christmas Carol, and there are many options here with stand-out performances as Ebenezer Scrooge over the years coming from the likes of Alastair Sim and Patrick Stewart. My favourite, though, is the Muppets’ musical version from 1992 which is incredibly faithful to the original source material to the extent of providing much of the narrative word-for-word thanks to having Gonzo as Charles Dickens – a truly inspired piece of casting. Elsewhere, Kermit is Bob Cratchett to Michael Caine’s Scrooge – a rare example of a human character in a Muppet-based film not being overshadowed by the Muppets themselves. I guess I had to have Michael Caine make an appearance somewhere.

While we’re on the subject of A Christmas Carol, the TV show that is required viewing by yours truly is of course Blackadder’s Christmas Carol (1988) which inverts Dickens’s plot; in this, Ebenezer Blackadder is a nice and generous man who gets taken advantage of by everyone except Baldrick. A night-time visit from the Spirit of Christmas inadvertently prompts him to change his ways. This one’s got quite a good cast; as well as Blackadder regulars – Rowan Atkinson et al – do look out for Robbie Coltraine and Jim Broadbent in supporting roles, as the Spirit and Prince Albert respectively.

On the reading front, I have three perennial favourites which I (try to) read each year. Obviously, there’s A Christmas Carol which blends comedy and horror to perform two roles – celebrating Christmas while highlighting the condition of the poor. 172 years after it was written, the name of the main character is still used to refer to anyone who feels a bit cynical or jaded about Christmas. Dickens, who defined how we think of Christmas to the point where most cinematic depiction of London at this time of year tend to involve snow (despite actual white Christmases in London being few and far between) is one of those authors who seems to have a timeless feel, with quite a few of his books feeling surprisingly undated when compared to some of his contemporaries; Christmas just isn’t Christmas without a reading of the first and best of his Christmas stories.

The other two are – not surprising given my literary tastes – detective stories. Both happen to feature a seasonal plot based on finding out who nicked a precious stone which has been found hidden in a festive food item. In ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’, Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson go on the hunt for whoever stole the eponymous diamond which has been hidden in a Christmas goose which somehow finds its way into Holmes’s possession; after some hat-based deduction, their quest takes them from Baker Street to Covent Garden Market (which I always thought used to be a fruit and veg market, but according to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle it had traders selling poultry as well). I rather like this one because of the seemingly improbable hat deduction sequence and the confrontation at Covent Garden in which Holmes tricks the trader into revealing where he got the goose from. This story first appeared in 1892 and can be found in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

Several decades later, Hercule Poirot – the little Belgian chap with the little grey cells – finds himself staying at an English country house during the festive season in ‘The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding’. He’s there to recover another stolen precious stone – a ruby this time – which turns up in some seasonal food (no prizes for guessing what). Needless to say, Poirot is dealing with a criminal who, rather like Hans Gruber, hasn’t bargained for having a detective on the scene. This is one of Agatha Christie’s later works (it first appeared in 1960 in the short story compilation of the same name) and while the identity of the thief is a bit obvious there’s entertainment to be had with talk of pudding-making (with reference being made to the ‘stir up’ collect which was and presumably still is said at church services on the Sunday before Advent, serving as a signal that that was the day on which the pudding should be made) and a fun sub-plot about a fake murder alongside Christie’s extolling of a traditional Christmas at the sort of venue where a lot of her murders took place.

Ah, Christmas stories. Now, where’s that Blackadder DVD?


Right place, right time

It was over in seconds. As I was leaving the park the other day, I saw a Blackbird fly overhead with another, larger bird chasing after it. They went into a tree, then emerged and flew over the path into a bush – from which only the Blackbird emerged. Its pursuer was brown with yellow legs; the first two words that flashed through my mind were: ‘female Sparrowhawk’.

I have, to the best of my knowledge, only ever seen a Sparrowhawk once before, and that was eighteen years ago in Derby when I was walking through a park on my way to a lecture. The one back then was after a Blue Tit if memory serves, and the show (such as it was) was over in seconds; had I been walking in that particular park a minute earlier or a minute later, I’d’ve missed it.

So much of birdwatching is about being in the right place at the right time. Earlier this week I was down at the London Wetland Centre in Barnes, hoping that I might be able to spot some winter-visiting ducks. My eyes lit up when I noticed that one of the wardens had written ‘Goldeneye’ on the sightings-board for the day. I ended up in the Peacock tower (the three-storey hide with a 360° view of much of the reserve) with a couple of the site volunteers trying to get a sighting of said duck, but to no avail (the closest we got was one that we couldn’t initially identify that turned out to be a female Pochard, and another that was presumed to be some sort of domestic duck that had escaped into the wild), although we were able to see a lone Shelduck, a couple of Pintails and the odd Gadwall and Shoveler among the many Mallards, Teals, Wigeons and Tufted Ducks. Rumour had it that a Jack Snipe had been seen in the reeds, but I didn’t see that (although I did spot a regular Snipe); I was certainly in the right place, but at the wrong time.

Closer to home I’ve clocked up Jays, Nuthatches, Goldfinches and a surprising number of Goldcrests; as that last one is Britain’s smallest bird I’m always happy to be able to spot and identify one as I feel it makes up for not quite being able to identify the various small brown birds that are too quick to be identified. The Sparrowhawk sighting was quite by chance, and not at one of my usual local birdwatching venues. After wandering round Coldfall Wood I decided, on a whim, to cycle up to Alexandra Palace and have a look around the park there; the boating lake is frequented by many ducks and I reckoned there would be no harm in taking a look. In the event, of course, it wasn’t a duck that turned out to be the sighting of the day. Even if the location wasn’t somewhere I’d intended to be when I set out earlier that morning, I’d still managed, quite by chance, to end up in the right place at the right time.


Feeding the birds (but not the squirrels)

One of the many joys of having a garden is that I can feed the birds – with this in mind, we have a feeding-station that provides various snacks for them in the front garden. It is cleverly positioned so that I can see it from the armchair in the lounge – I am quite literally an ‘armchair birdwatcher’! Peanuts, coconut halves filled with a fat-based concoction and a ‘Wild Birds’ seed mix (“gives your flighty little friends a tempting nutritious feast that’ll keep them coming back for more!”) are available for passing birds.

We’ve had all sorts of garden visitors. Admittedly back in January the Ring-necked Parakeets scared everyone else off during the hour I’d allowed for the Big Garden Birdwatch, but we’ve also had Goldfinches, Blue Tits, Great Tits, Long-tailed Tits, Coal Tits, Robins, Woodpigeons (quite a few of those), House Sparrows, Blackbirds, Carrion Crows, Jays and on one memorable occasion a Great Spotted Woodpecker.

 We still have the stick-on feeder that we had in the flat – it’s now on the window of the spare room and it still manages to attract approximately no birds. Can’t imagine why.

Back at the front, there has been a problem of late: Squirrels. These animals, the bane of many a garden birdwatcher, have been trying to get at the food I’ve been putting out for the birds, and I’ve been fighting a running battle to try and stop them. The feeding-station does have attachments that can hold a water-bowls or a tray of kitchen scraps, but the squirrels were using these as a ladder to get at the feeders. So they went. 

Of late, a few more running repairs have been required. One of the feeders had the plastic parts chewed through in an attempt by the squirrels to get at the contents. 

That has now been replaced by the feeder with metal parts. There have also been issues with the feeding-station being a bit lop-sided (it’s rather top-heavy) so the pole has been hammered in a bit more. And what with it being winter and all, I’ve brought back the kitchen scrap tray attachment so bacon rind and cheese can be available. Hopefully it’s high enough so the squirrels can’t get at it…


A seasonal incident at Charing Cross

As I walked into Charing Cross station this evening, I heard a familiar refrain. Familiar for this time of year, that is – the sound of carol singers, the first time I’ve heard them this year, as it happens. At first I assumed that one of the shops was playing some festive tunes on its PA system, but in actual fact it was a group of a couple of dozen people who were serenading commuters and raising money for Guy’s and St Thomas’s Hospitals.

The music took me back, for I was once a chorister and so I do know my way around most Christmas carols. I stood and listened for a while (the singers were accompanied by an accordion-player, I noted) before scanning the crowd for one of the collectors. Having clocked a man in a Santa hat and a high-visibility tabard, I walked up to him and dropped some pocket change into his collection-bucket; my reward was a polite thank-you and a “Merry Christmas”.

This was followed in quick succession by a tap on the shoulder. I turned round to behold a young man who like me was passing through the station. “Is this yours?” he asked. He had in his hand a black glove which looked remarkably like one of mine.

It was, of course – I’d de-gloved on one hand to dig out my change for the collection. Must’ve dropped it in the process. Good thing that guy spotted it – and an even better thing that he picked it up and told me! With thoughts in my head along the lines of “goodwill to men”, it was now my turn to give a polite thank-you and the compliments of the season.


Bird notes and observations from Sunday

To the Welsh Harp on an overcast and windy Sunday morning in late November, the intention being to do some birdwatching. Officially called the Brent Reservoir, it’s located in the corner to the west of the Edgware Road and to the north of the North Circ and straddles the boundary between the London Boroughs of Barnet and Brent. It’s a protected area (a Site of Special Scientific Interest, one of 37 such places in Greater London, to be precise). I was rather hoping to be able to spot a few ducks, and colder weather can offer the opportunity to spot a few rarer species that have been known to visit inland lakes or reservoirs in winter; Goldeneye or Smew, perhaps? Unlikely, but if you don’t go and look, you’ll never know.

One duck that I wasn’t going to see (although according to my records I’ve seen one there before, four years ago) was a Ruddy Duck. Brightly coloured, with copper wings and blue beaks, Ruddies are native to the Americas, and in Britain they established themselves in the wild after escaping from captivity in the mid-twentieth century. Unfortunately they also spread to Europe, and became a problem in Spain when they inter-bred with the endangered (and closely related) White-headed Duck; this in turn has led to a cull of Ruddies in Britain and Europe which has severely reduced the population (when reporting on this last year, the Telegraph even noted that the Welsh Harp “was a popular ruddy spot but is now, officially, cleansed of them”). This has been supported by the RSPB (to quote its website: “either we act to stop ruddy ducks spreading from the UK, or we stand by and watch as the white-headed duck is pushed ever closer to extinction … failure to tackle the spread of ruddy ducks in Europe could condemn the white-headed duck to extinction”); it’s one of those cases where two options are available, and neither of them are particularly pleasant.

Waterfowl-wise, we quickly spotted the likes of Coot, Mute Swan, geese of the Canada and Egyptian varieties, Tufted Duck, Moorhen and Mallard. Closer inspection with the binoculars soon confirmed that we had Shoveler and Gadwall as well (I have often wondered about Gadwalls, the males of which are not exactly distinctive as far as ducks go and which I don’t recall seeing much when I was younger; had they really been there all along, and I’d mistaken them for particularly grey female Mallards?).

We moved along to a hide (an open-to-the-elements one which, although the metal bench was rather cold, was clean and provided shelter from a small outpouring of rain). From here, we noted Cormorant, Grey Heron and various gulls, and were momentarily baffled by a pair of ducks on the far shoreline which had their heads tucked down, meaning we couldn’t decide whether they were Teal or Wigeon. We waited patiently until one of them decided to go for a swim, following which its red-and-green head left us in no doubt that we were watching a Teal (several more of which were subsequently spotted). Elsewhere, a pair of stationary small-ish brown-coloured ducks turned out, once they moved, to be female Tufted Ducks.

Great Crested Grebes in their winter plumage were noted, although there was one that was a little greyer in the neck and darker in the head that we momentarily thought might be something else (later checks in my copy of the RSPB Complete Birds of Britain and Europe, a volume far too large and heavy for use as a field guide, raised the tantalising possibility that we’d seen a Red-necked Grebe in winter plumage, although a quick peek in the London Bird Report 2013 poured cold water on this, with just two reported sightings having been made in the London area in that year; much though I’d like to have seen a rare water-based bird, I’m not going to kid myself that our sighting was anything other than a Great Crested Grebe). Another, smaller grebe was easily identified as a Little Grebe.

Beyond the water, we took in three kinds of tit, three members of the crow family, some Robins, a Chaffinch and plenty of pigeons. I had wondered if we’d see Bramblings (a winter visiting finch) but that wasn’t to be; some other time, perhaps. Ring-necked Parakeets were heard but not seen. There were as usual several small brown birds that proved to be unidentifiable due to their being too fast for us and/or too well concealed in the reeds. Best of all was a female Kestrel hovering overhead; in all, we notched up 29 confirmed species on a windy but satisfying day watching the birds.


Northern Heights, or why the northern bits of the Northern Line look the way they do

There are a few things that might cause people to wonder about the northern bits of the Northern Line. Why, for example, does East Finchley have two platforms that are never used? 

Are those openings at the end of the platforms at Edgware meant to be tunnels?

What’s with the old station above Highgate?

And why does the single-track branch to Mill Hill East even exist?

The answer is that they were all part of an ambitious pre-war plan for the Tube that was never fully realised. The New Works Programme, announced in 1935 by the London Passenger Transport Board (the forerunner of TfL), aimed to rebuild several stations across the network, introduce new rolling stock and incorporate some suburban steam train services into the London Underground – all at the same time. The part which related to the northern ends of what was then called the Edgware, Highgate & Morden Line was known as the Northern Heights Plan.

In 1935, what would soon be named the Northern Line ran to Edgware on the north-western branch and a station called Highgate (not the present-day one) on its north-eastern branch. These two termini were (almost) linked by a railway line that connected Edgware with Finsbury Park; this was one of the lines that would become part of the Tube.

Opened in 1867, the Edgware, Highgate & London Railway ran from Edgware to Finsbury Park via Mill Hill, Finchley, Highgate and Crouch End. It was a branch line of the Great Northern Railway (GNR), and it meant that Central London could be accessed by rail from those places which had hitherto been villages. Further branches to High Barnet and Alexandra Palace followed.

The line had problems, mainly the gradient which made it difficult for steam trains (despite various tunnels, cuttings and viaducts), while passenger numbers dropped when trams were introduced in some areas serviced by the line. It also didn’t quite fulfil its potential in terms of the suburban development that was expected to accompany new railways. The late Victorian period did see many new homes built along some parts of the line; for example, the parish of Finchley’s population rose from 4,937 in 1861 to 11,191 in 1881. However, the railway failed to trigger the development that might have been expected at its furthest point. Edgware remained rural, and was arguably changed more by the introduction of a tram service from Cricklewood in 1904.

What really turned Edgware from a small town in rural Middlesex to the North London suburb it is today was the extension of the Tube from Golders Green in the 1920s. A brand-new station opened in 1924, a new parade of shops was built along Church Lane (renamed Station Road) and streets of semi-detached housing quickly sprung up in what had been open fields. Census details reveal that the population of Edgware shot up from 1,516 in 1921 to 5,352 in 1931.

The expanding suburb, though, was built with the future in mind. The GNR’s original plans had allowed for a future extension towards Watford, and the building of the new shops across the road from the station allowed for a tunnel to run underneath them, while the streets beyond were laid out in order to accommodate a yet-to-be-built train line. It would be a decade before this could be put into effect.

Under the Northern Heights Plan, the line from Edgware to Finsbury Park, which after 1923 was run by the London & North Eastern Railway (LNER), would become part of the Northern Line. The Tube tunnel from Camden Town out to Highgate – which, in order to avoid confusion, was eventually renamed Archway – would be extended to the Highgate station on the railway line, reaching the surface just before East Finchley. Highgate station itself would be rebuilt as a multi-level station, with the surface-level platforms continuing to serve the line to Finsbury Park while the new underground platforms would link to Central London via Camden Town.

North of Highgate, trains from both the surface and underground platforms would run up to Finchley, from where they could go to either High Barnet or Edgware along the railway tracks which would be electrified so that Tube trains could run on them.

The other part of the Northern Heights Plan was that from Edgware, the line would extend into Hertfordshire to a planned new terminus at Bushey Heath (to be located at the A41/A411 roundabout), with additional stations at Brockley Hill and Elstree South. The intention was that, as had happened with Edgware a decade earlier, new suburbs would be built alongside the new line. The Northern Heights Plan wasn’t just adapting an existing line; it was about building a new one – and continuing London’s urban sprawl – as well.

It also required some stations to be rebuilt. Highgate was to go from a surface station to a multi-level one, and the architect Charles Holden, already noted for his futuristic Piccadilly Line stations, drew up plans which, if realised, would apparently have seen the station topped by a statue of Dick Whittington – a nod to the (probably apocryphal) story about the medieval Lord Mayor of London being summoned back to the City when he heard the church bells as he climbed Highgate Hill.

Holden also planned to incorporate local history further along the line, with statues planned for the stations at East Finchley (an archer, representing the area’s past as a hunting ground) and Elstree South (a Roman centurion, referencing Watling Street). Even the station designs were ambitious!

The redevelopment of Highgate as a multi-level station meant that the next station on the line, East Finchley, also had to be rebuilt to allow for trains to run south on two different lines. Holden therefore planned it as a four-platform station, with the two outer platforms serving the tunnel route to Highgate and the inner platforms the surface route. He went for an Art Deco design, while the sculptor Eric Aumonier was commissioned to construct the archer statue. Unveiled in July 1940, the Archer is almost twice natural size and has become synonymous with East Finchley.

As the date of the statue’s unveiling implies, work on the Northern Heights Plan had not (immediately) been curtailed by the Second World War, although blackout regulations did restrict work at night. Electrification of the High Barnet branch continued, and it reopened as a London Underground service in April 1940. The underground platforms at Highgate opened in January 1941 (they were immediately put to use as air-raid shelters), and for many years the newly-elongated tunnel was (via the Bank branch) the longest railway tunnel in the world.

The line between Finchley and Edgware, which had closed to LNER passenger trains in 1939 as a precursor to electrification, was only electrified part-way and that was just on a single line. The reason for this was that Mill Hill East station was needed to allow easy access to the nearby Army barracks which was the depot of the Middlesex Regiment, and as such a required destination for new recruits.

The work on building the extension north of Edgware had been a lower priority than electrifying the LNER lines that already existed, but some work had begun prior to the outbreak of war. The carriage depot at Aldenham had already been built, as had the arches that would support the viaduct at Brockley Hill station, and the tunnel at Elstree South had been dug. There had also been some work done at Edgware, such as the entrances to what would have been the tunnels under Station Road. That, alas, was as far as it got.

After the electrification of the line to Mill Hill East, work halted for the duration of the war. When it ended, the Northern Heights Plan had to be reviewed because new legislation needed to be taken into account. Specifically, the imposition of the Green Belt around London prevented further suburban development, which in turn destroyed the main reason for the extension out to Bushey Heath. It was abandoned, although it was depicted as ‘under construction’ on some 1940s Tube maps and not formally cancelled until 1950. Those parts of Edgware that were spared housing in the 1920s because they’d been ear-marked for a future Tube line have since been built over.

Electrifying the stretch between Mill Hill East and Edgware was still viable. However, the funding was not available as the extension of the Central Line (another component of the New Works Programme) and reconstruction of war damage were both much higher priorities. Somewhat controversially, Edgware and Mill Hill were deemed by the powers-that-be to have ample access to Central London already, and the direct link between the two branches of the Northern Line was scrapped; in its place, residents got a bus route between Edgware and Mill Hill East. The line continued to be used for freight until 1964, following which the tracks were removed. Part of it was subsequently buried under a new road called the M1, although other bits – namely the Copthall Railway Walk and the Mill Hill Old Railway – are now nature reserves.

The surface part of Holden’s Highgate rebuild was never realised. The old surface station continued to be used for passenger services run by the newly-nationalised British Railways between Alexandra Palace and Finsbury Park, although this was affected by coal shortages and passenger numbers declined. The service ceased in 1954, although the tracks weren’t removed until after freight services stopped in 1970. Today, the surface platform and some of the old buildings remain in place above the Tube station at Highgate, visible through the trees. The station building at Ally Pally is now a community centre. Further down the line, the platforms of Crouch End station, lost to the Tube, are still in place. The line now forms the Parkland Walk nature reserve.

With no surface-level passenger traffic heading south, East Finchley’s inner platforms were and still are only used for trains running between there and High Barnet, or for trains going to the Highgate depot. Services to Mill Hill East continue to run on the single line, albeit just as a shuttle service from Finchley Central outside peak times.

The entrances to the Elstree South tunnels were filled in (there is no evidence of these on the surface today), while the Aldenham depot became an aircraft factory during the war and a bus garage after it; it was demolished in the 1990s. The viaduct arches at Brockley Hill survived into the 1960s although only the bases remain today, visible from the A41 at the point where the (sub)urban sprawl of Greater London peters out into open countryside.

The Northern Heights Plan was definitely ambitious, and the part of it that did become reality – the High Barnet branch – remains a part of the Tube network today. The 1930s were a time when the people running the Tube were thinking big, and it took a world war to stop expansion in its tracks. With hindsight some of the post-war cancellations were arguably short-sighted, and as a result the small details that remain and occasionally intrigue – East Finchley’s extra platforms, the Mill Hill East spur, the Edgware tunnel entrances, the station above Highgate, what’s left of the arches at Brockley Hill and the nature reserves – all stand in their own way as monuments to what might have been. At least as far as the latter are concerned, the commuter’s loss really is nature’s gain.

T.F.T. Baker, J.S. Cockburn & R.B. Pugh (eds.), A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 4 (Victoria County History, 1971)
Tony Beard, By Tube Beyond Edgware (Capital Transport, 2002)
David Bownes, Oliver Green & Sam Mullins, Underground: How the Tube Shaped London (Allen Lane, 2012)
John Glover, London’s Underground (Ian Allan, 2003)
Charles E. Lee, Sixty Years of the Northern (London Transport, 1967)
Colin & David McCarthy, Railways of Britain: London North of the Thames (Ian Allen, 2009)
G.F.A. Wilmot, The Railway in Finchley: A Study in Suburban Development (Finchley Public Libraries Committee, 1962)


The 'Flask to Flask' walk across Hampstead Heath

Fancy a walk this weekend? Hampstead Heath is one of North London’s finest open spaces and a delightful walking venue at any time of the year. Throw in a couple of really good pubs as well and it gets even better!

This is the main premise of what I call the ‘Flask to Flask’ walk from the Flask pub in Highgate to the Flask pub in Hampstead, which also takes in the eighteenth-century stately home of Kenwood House. The write-up can be found on Londonist:

Happy walking!


Shadow of the sword

I somehow got to hear of Tom Holland by reputation a while ago, and started following him on Twitter and reading some articles online. I liked what I read (he produced a really good piece on why we shouldn’t deny that ISIS has religious roots for the New Statesman back in March), so it was with interest that I picked up a copy of his book, In the Shadow of the Sword, without having read any of his previous books which include studies on Ancient Greece and the Roman Republic.

In this book, Holland takes the reader to the Middle East of what historians call ‘late antiquity’ – a time when the Roman Empire continued to exist, albeit centred around Constantinople (Rome itself having fallen to the barbarians); its struggle with the Persians is superseded by the rise of the Arabs and, with them, a new religion. The main focus of this book is the origins of Islam, and it has as a result attracted some controversy by way of pointing out (for example) that no biography of the prophet Mohammed existed until a couple of centuries after his death. 

This book is well-written, well-researched and (I’d say) needs to be read given what is currently happening in the areas described therein; for a look at where Islam – and indeed, where Christianity – comes from (and there is quite a bit about the origins of these faiths that’s open to debate), this is an excellent guide; while much attention was drawn on the book’s publication to the way Holland questions the traditional accounts of Islam’s origins, it’s worth pointing out that he takes the same approach with Christianity and indeed Judaism. This is a forensic and fearless examination of the evidence available from the time – or, of course, the lack thereof. I will definitely be looking to read more books by this author.


Help for returning veterans

The parades, poppies and silences of Remembrance Sunday are a sombre means of reflecting upon the sacrifice of those who died in war, but what of those who survived and came home? “Remember the dead, but don’t forget the living” is a familiar refrain. Returning veterans have historically encountered problems adjusting to civilian life even if they have not been physically scarred by their experiences. Recent wars in places like Afghanistan and Iraq have created a new generation of veterans trying to cope, and as a consequence new ways of trying to help them have been and are being developed.

There are a variety of schemes and projects that have been established to help these brave men and women, and a particularly innovative example of such a project originated on the west coast of Canada. Last Friday I went to see an art installation at Canada House which is the work of the Man/Art/Action Project which is linked to the Veterans Transition Network (VTN). This has helped veterans to recover from what are referred to as the ‘invisible wounds’ of war (such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and survivor guilt) by having them work on art projects with artists, actors, counsellors – such as Dr Marv Westwood, Professor in Counselling Psychology at the University of British Columbia, who has been internationally recognised for his work with VTN – and even Native wood-carvers. The installation is in fact in three parts – two works of art and a theatre piece.

Lest We Forget Canada is a mural that was created to raise awareness of the impact that Canadian involvement in Afghanistan had on the 40,000 soldiers who served there and their families. It consists of 162 panels, each of which commemorates one of the Canadian soldiers who died there. Made from the pages of old military training pamphlets, it’s the brainchild of the Vancouver-based multimedia artist Foster Eastman and it was made by veterans. The idea for this came from the notion that men have a tendency to share more information when working with their hands, and many veterans involved found the project therapeutic as they began to talk about their experiences – with counsellors as well as with each other – while taking part. For many, talking about their experiences can be an important first step.

The mural has toured Canada and the backs of each panel have been signed by the people who made it and the families of the soldiers commemorated on it. The idea of families signing it was not an intention until the mural was shown to (then) Prime Minister Harper and a group of bereaved families, and some of the children found the panels with their fathers’ names on them and went round the back to write messages. When HRH Prince Harry – himself an Afghanistan veteran who has done much work with veterans of recent wars through events such as the Invictus Games – went to see the mural at Canada House, he made a point of finding the eight panels bearing the names of Canadian soldiers who had died while serving with his regiment and signing them as ‘Harry, Capt. Wales’.

Alongside the mural is the Veterans Tribute Pole which was Fraser’s next project. It is made of two coffins, symbolising “the men who came home in a box, literally and mentally”, Fraser explained when I went to visit. Like the mural, it was made by veterans but with this they went through the traditional Native process of carving totem poles, beginning with a healing song. The varnish was stripped from the coffins, which were covered with satellite images of Kandahar and Kabul along with the names of Canadian Army ranks which were carved into the wood. It too has toured Canada.

The third part of the exhibit was Contact! Unloaded, a theatre piece performed by four veterans alongside two actors. It was a moving and at times emotionally-charged piece in which the veterans spoke of and acted out their experiences around an attempt to recite the St Crispin’s Day Speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V – proud rhetoric of honour and brotherhood interspersed with first-hand accounts of the grim realities of modern war. For those involved, the project has – like the mural and the pole – proved therapeutic, especially when performed in front of their families. In the question-and-answer session that followed, it was noted that veterans who have seen the piece have often come forward afterwards and asked how they can become involved with VTN. Fraser commented that he has even been approached by veterans of the Second World War; “they told us we were sixty years too late,” he explained.

What people like Fraser and Marv are doing is truly impressive, and I was glad that I had the chance to go and see it. Friday, alas, marked the final performance of Contact! Unload at Canada House, although both the Lest We Forget Canada mural and the Veterans Tribute Pole will be on display at Canada House until 25th November (all visitors are required to register in advance).


Paris: A personal reaction

Cities across the world held impromptu vigils to show solidarity with Paris last night, and London was no exception. While landmarks such as Tower Bridge and the Eye were being lit up in the red, white and blue of the French tricolour, thousands of people descended on Trafalgar Square to light candles at makeshift shrines, wave home-made banners (“nous sommes Paris”, “London stands with Paris”) and break out into a chorus of ‘La Marseillaise’ every five minutes or so.

It struck me, briefly, that the notion of singing the French national anthem in a public place named after a British victory over France might be a bit surreal. But that thought was brief, for there were much bigger forces at work, big enough to make quibbling over a name seem a little silly, if not downright petty. There are times when national differences fall aside before common values, and in the twenty-first century the wake of a terrorist attack – or rather, series of attacks – is such a time. Liberté and egalité are not so much French values these days as fairly universal values in the Western world, and the worldwide vigils were a chance for people everywhere to show a sense of fraternité with the people of Paris. Fittingly, the National Gallery and the fountains were lit up in the French colours too, and I even spotted a couple of bottles of vin rouge being passed around; very French.

I have a habit of following rolling news and social media somewhat obsessively when major events unfold, and that’s what I’ve been mainly doing since Friday night. Usually it’s with a sense of mild fascination or curiosity, wondering what’s going to happen next, but on Friday night it was with a mounting sense of horror as the news of multiple attacks filtered through and the number of dead rose into three figures. It’s quite possible that a contributing factor here was that Paris is a city that Allison and I love to visit – we were last there in June. We walk a lot when we go to Paris – it feels a lot more compact than London – and to judge by the map we’ve been within a couple of blocks of some of the places where the attacks took place; we like to stay in the 11th and have been to a few of the cafés and bars in the Canal Saint Martin area. This felt a little too close to home for comfort. Going along to a vigil in Trafalgar Square may seem like a small gesture but it felt like the right thing to do.

I’ve done plenty of reading up as well as watching the news, and here are the best pieces that I have found (with hyperlinks). The sense of immediacy and perspective on show here are much better than anything I could come up with.

In Paris, a Night Disrupted by Terror (Pamela Druckerman, New York Times) Personal account of the night by an American journalist who lives and works in Paris – a “perfectly normal dinner party” is interrupted by news of the attacks. Guests get text-messages asking if they’re OK. The writer’s husband is actually at the Stade de France (he ended up getting interviewed on Dutch radio) while another couple try to contact their teenage children. Things really hit home when she sees a map of Paris on TV showing where the attacks happened – “My home is on the other side of those two sites … it’s not just Paris that’s in the news – it’s my Paris”.

Murdered for Being Parisian (Judah Grunstein, The Atlantic) Highly erudite account from a Parisian – I had to look up what ‘desuetude’ means – which quickly focusses on the “democratization of the carnage”. “Last time,” the writer says (referring to the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January), “the victims were targeted for who they were or what they’d done. This time the bullets were not aimed, but fired at random … This time it is the nation and its people themselves in the crosshairs”. These are times, he notes, when even going out onto the streets buy a cake becomes in its own way an act of defiance. The writer goes on to consider the question of ‘self’ and ‘other’ which ties in the recent refugee crisis by referencing Parisians opening their doors to help those unable to get home (the #portsouvertes phenomenon that for a few hours gripped Twitter) – “When thousands of Parisians become refugees in Paris … there’s no longer really a “here” or a “there”, no longer a host and a refugee”.

‘Crimes’ Jihadists Will Sentence You To Death For (Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic) Ties in the Paris attacks with the bombing of the Russian plane in Egypt two weeks ago, and other Islamist attacks over the years, by giving a “partial, and only partial” list of aspects of modern life that Islamist militants find intolerable to the point of killing people for partaking in them. My one quibble is the writer’s use of the term “medieval values” when talking of the extremists; sadly, religious extremism is in its own way a very modern phenomenon (for more on this, try to get hold of a copy of John Gray’s Al Qaeda and What it Means to be Modern – a short but nevertheless excellent and thought-provoking read).

After Paris, Europe may never feel as free again (Nick Cohen, Observer) Nick Cohen is a writer who I find always has something useful to say, and who usually seems to be a few steps ahead of everyone else (for example, people have only recently started to notice his excellent book What’s Left?, which was published eight years ago). He argues that, thus far, the threat posed by Islamism hasn’t really changed Europe. “From Nigeria to Afghanistan, a clerical fascist doctrine that mandates mass murder and self-murder has pushed whole regions into civil war. Yet divinely sanctioned violence has failed to engulf our continent … In spite of all provocations, we are what we once were”. Cohen, though, feels that the Paris attacks will change this; he cites the closing of international borders, which had already started in some parts of Europe as a consequence of the refugee crisis, as evidence of this.

France will not let these horrific attacks break the Parisian spirit (Mathieu Vaillancourt, Independent) As with the Grunstein article above, this one looks at how ordinary people became the targets although the focus here is on hope that Parisian life will continue unbowed. “Like Londoners or New Yorkers, Parisians are strong and stubborn people. They will proudly continue their daily lives … This is how terrorism and fanaticism will lose the propaganda battle that is being waged by extremists.” Paris, of course, has a long history of violent upheaval and there are monuments to aspects of this all over the city; in a sense this is another bloody chapter in its notably bloody history. I was especially taken by the last paragraph with its call for people to continue to visit Paris. I’ve read similar articles recently in the wake of the Sharm el-Sheikh bombing and the same thing was said after the massacre in Tunisia in June. Mass travel abroad is a relatively recent phenomenon in the wider history of mankind and it is in its own way a major means of reducing barriers (and increasing understanding) between different peoples and cultures – which is probably why the Islamist militants hate it.

The strange relationship between Islam, violence and French football (Freddy Gray, The Spectator) It somehow seems odd bringing football into this, but then one of the venues attacked was the Stade de France during an international football match. As such, it’s worth noting that football is – or at least was once considered to be – one of few areas where Muslims could be seen as successfully integrating into French culture, which might explain why Islamist extremists would choose to attack it (and it could have been a lot worse, for according to some reports one of the bombers had a ticket but had been turned away; worth bearing in mind that President Hollande was at the game). Sticking with the Stade de France for a minute, I found one of the most moving scenes on Friday night was the footage of fans singing ‘La Marseillaise’ as the (eventually) left the stadium – maybe it’s because I associate the song with that scene in Casablanca, but it’s always struck me as a particularly stirring song of defiance in the face of adversity. It later transpired that one of the French players lost a cousin in one of the other attacks, and when the German team were told that they couldn’t leave the stadium due to safety concerns the French team insisted on staying with them; as was the case with the Parisians who opened their doors to strangers, a crisis can bring out the best in people. Incidentally, the friendly between England and France on Tuesday is going to go ahead despite obvious security concerns; life, as has been mentioned above, must go on. There have already been calls for the English fans in attendance to show some fraternité and sing along to ‘La Marseillaise’ before the kick-off. I hope they do – it’s already been sung by thousands under Nelson’s Column, so why not at Wembley? These are, after all, times when national differences fall aside before common values.


The Lord Mayor's Show, and one of the most controversial Lord Mayors

Tomorrow is the Lord Mayor’s Show – and 2015 marks the 800th anniversary of this annual London pageant (which, by the way, has nothing to do with the Mayor of London – that’s only been a thing since 2000; this is to do with the Lord Mayor of the City of London, an office which dates back to the twelfth century). I’ve been delving into the history of this – it includes disputes between Livery Companies, broken legs, plague outbreaks and James Bond – and the resulting article can be seen on Londonist:

One thing that I didn’t have space for was the tale of one of London’s most controversial Lord Mayors. John Wilkes (1727-97) was an eighteenth century radical politician who makes today’s lot seem rather tame – for a start, he was a member of the notorious Hell Fire Club. As well as being an MP, he published a weekly anti-government newsletter which was closed down for libel after insulting George III. This episode saw Wilkes expelled from Parliament but he became a popular hero after the actions taken by the government in arresting people involved in publishing the paper were judged to be unconstitutional (popular in England at any rate; Wilkes was loathed north of the border on account of his violently anti-Scottish rhetoric). After fleeing the country, he was (in his absence) found guilty of obscenity after publishing a pornographic poem. When he returned, he was locked up for two years and then tried to get re-elected to Parliament; despite getting voted in three times they refused to allow him to take his seat.

He subsequently became a City alderman and was elected Lord Mayor in 1774; the Lord Mayor’s Show of that year was accompanied by riots and there were apparently many empty seats at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet because lots of respectable politicians and noblemen who didn’t want to be associated with him boycotted the event. He’s also credited with one of the finest political put-downs – when Lord Sandwich, an opponent, said to him that he would most likely die either on the gallows or from a sexually-transmitted disease, he replied: “That depends, my lord, on whether I embrace your lordship’s principles or your mistress”. Coming in a close second is his response to a constituent who said that he would rather vote for the devil, to which Wilkes replied: “Naturally. And if your friend decides against standing, can I count on your vote?”

There’s a statue of him on Fetter Lane in the City. It is said to be the only cross-eyed statue in London – an accurate depiction if the contemporary prints of Wilkes are anything to go by.


The Fifteen

As well as the bicentenary of Waterloo and the sexcentenary of Agincourt, 2015 also marks the tricentenary of the Jacobite Uprising – not the famous 1745 one, but the 1715 one. It’s not hard to see why the ‘Fifteen’ (as it is sometimes referred to, with the other one known as the ‘Forty-Five’) is rather low down on the list of military things to be commemorated this year; victories overseas tend to get better coverage in the history books than failed rebellions at home.

There has, though, been a two-part documentary on BBC4 called The Stuarts in Exile, presented by an historian called Clare Jackson, which I watched with interest; this is partly because I like historical documentaries but also because I happen to think that James Edward Stuart (1688-1766), alias the Old Pretender, is one of those curiously fascinating people who history has largely overlooked. He was the son of James II by that King’s second wife, and the circumstances surrounding his birth (he was the ‘bedpan’ baby) helped spark the Glorious Revolution. As a result, he grew up in exile, and after James II’s death in 1701 he was acknowledged as King by Louis XIV of France even though his Catholicism meant he was barred under the terms of the Act of Settlement. He made several attempts to regain his kingdoms and eventually became the longest-serving pretender to the throne – his 65-year ‘reign’ has not (yet) been surpassed by any actual British monarch.

His supporters were known as Jacobites (this derives from Jacobus, the Latin for James), and support for the exiled dynasty could be expressed in covert ways such as doing the Loyal Toast while holding one’s drink over a bowl of water (to symbolise the King over the water) and the wearing of a symbol – the white rose. That last bit is why SNP MPs like to wear white roses on their lapels – while the Jacobites weren’t fighting for an independent Scotland (they wanted to rule England and Ireland as well as Scotland), the gesture is at least suitably subversive for a party that wants to break up the British state.

Of all the Jacobite attempts to regain the throne, the Fifteen was probably the closest they got. The Forty-Five is better remembered, probably due to the romantic appeal of Bonnie Prince Charlie, but by 1745 the Hannoverian dynasty and the resulting Whig ascendancy were secure and the country was doing well (England and Lowland Scotland were, at any rate). In 1715, however, the Hannoverians had only just come to the throne and the political system was in turmoil, with the Tories – the faction which back in the day had supported James II – having been unceremoniously removed from office and therefore looking to the exiled Stuarts as a means of returning to power.

However, James had over-estimated his support and the whole thing went off half-cocked when the Earl of Mar raised James’s standard and started to assemble a rebel army in Scotland before being instructed to do so. Things initially went well in Scotland – less so in England where it was easier for the government to have suspected Jacobites arrested – but in November government forces inflicted key defeats on the rebels in the more-or-less simultaneous battles of Sheriffmuir and Preston, and this was before James actually landed in Scotland. International circumstances didn’t help either. James had been expelled from France the previous year under the terms of the Treaty of Utrecht, and combined with the death of Louis XIV this meant that French support was not forthcoming.

(James made two other attempts, in 1708 and 1719, but on neither occasion did he actually manage to land in any of his father’s former kingdoms.)

During the first episode of The Stuarts in Exile, I found the continued emphasis on the Duke of Marlborough surprising – yes, he does pop up at various points in the story and his defection from James II to William of Orange was a turning-point of the Glorious Revolution, but he was not alone in switching sides. Stranger still, given this emphasis, was what was left out in terms of the connections between him and the various members of the Stuart dynasty. What of his wife’s close friendship with Queen Anne? His sister was the mother of James II’s illegitimate son, the Duke of Berwick – who became a successful military commander under Louis XIV and who later fell out with his half-brother after declining to get involved in the Fifteen. Wasn’t that worth mentioning? While we’re on the subject of family connections, why was there no mention of the fact that William of Orange was James II’s nephew as well as his son-in-law? Or that James II and Louis XIV were cousins? Back then, these connections mattered.

There was also surprisingly little about James’s attitude towards Protestantism. Jacobitism was by no means limited to Catholics, and while in exile in Rome James had special permission to hold Protestant services at his court – which was popular with British visitors to Rome regardless of their religious or political affiliation. James must have been aware that had he converted to Protestantism his chances of regaining the throne would have increased immeasurably (and there was definitely a family history of converting to suit circumstances), but he chose not to. I’d’ve liked to have heard a bit more about this. In the second episode we got a reference to James stating that he would be tolerant towards Protestants in the event of his coming to the throne, but that was it.

For much of the second episode, James’s son Charles – Bonnie Prince Charlie – took centre-stage as Dr Jackson took us through the little-known stories of English Jacobitism and Scottish support for the Hannoverian government before a somewhat brief look at the Forty-Five and an account of Charles’s later years which brought up the interesting story of his secret visit to London in 1750 and his apparent conversion to Protestantism.

Despite what I’ve said, I enjoyed watching this documentary and I did like Dr Jackson’s style (although in terms of TV historians she’s not quite on a par with the likes of Mary Beard and Lucy Worsley). Funny, though, that a study of a somewhat marginalised branch of British royalty that tends to get dismissed from the main story managed to miss some important parts from its narrative.


When Samuel Pepys went treasure-hunting

On 30th October 1662, a party of men arrived at the Tower of London. Their leader was a short man who was obliged to surrender his sword to the guards; unwilling to proceed unarmed without a cloak, for a gentleman of the time was not considered to be properly dressed without one or the other, he retreated to a nearby pub while his servant ran home to fetch said garment. Luckily for the servant, the man lived on Seething Lane, just to the west of Tower Hill. Once properly attired, he proceeded into the Tower where he met with Sir Henry Bennet, the Secretary of State. Bennet was there to give the man the King’s warrant to search the Tower.

The man was Samuel Pepys, Clerk of the Acts at the Navy Office, and he already knew what he had been sent to look for. Earlier that morning he had met with his patron, the Earl of Sandwich, who had told him that an acquaintance of theirs called Thomas Wade had reported that a cache of gold, silver and jewels with an estimated value of £7000 was buried somewhere in the Tower’s grounds. Sandwich had arranged for Bennet to obtain the necessary warrant to enable Pepys to carry out a search. The fact that he was delegated with this task can be seen as a sign of Sandwich’s increased confidence in his abilities.

Whatever information Wade might have had about the money’s exact location was, alas, unreliable. “We went into several little cellars,” Pepys would later record in his diary, “and then went out a-doors to view, and to the Coleharbour; but none did answer so well to the marks which was given him to find it by as one arched vault. Where after a great deal of counsel whether to set upon it now or delay for better and more full advice, we set to it; and to digging we went to almost 8 a-clock at night – but could find nothing.”

He was back at the Tower two days later, along with Robert Lee (Bennet’s agent), Wade and some workmen, “to make one triall more”. Digging, he recorded, “was now most confidently directed; and so seriously, and upon pretended good grounds … but we missed of all, and so we went away the second time like fools.” Later that day, Pepys met with Wade and a Captain Evett who claimed to have been told of the location of the treasure by a confidante of the man who had hidden it. Pepys appears to have been convinced by Evett’s account, even though he was dealing with what was at best third-hand information.

Unfortunately, the one man who might have been able to state with confidence where the treasure could be found – the man who had apparently hidden it – was dead. That man was John Barkstead, who had been the Lieutenant of the Tower under Oliver Cromwell. As a younger man, Pepys himself had supported the Parliamentarian cause and his entry into what we would now call the civil service in the 1650s had been due to the patronage of a distant cousin, Edward Montagu, who had fought for Parliament in the Civil War and had risen to become one of Cromwell’s generals-at-sea. In the political uncertainty following Cromwell’s death, Montagu had switched his loyalties and played a crucial role in restoring the monarchy, for which Charles II had rewarded him by making him the Earl of Sandwich.

Barkstead had also fought for Parliament but he had then been a commissioner at Charles I’s trial and had therefore been one of the signatories of the latter’s death warrant. He owed his position at the Tower to Cromwell, who approved of his efficiency and even knighted him in 1656. After Cromwell’s death, though, he had been dismissed amid accusations of his having fleeced the prisoners in his care, and he had fled the country at the time of the Restoration – only to be captured and sent back to England along with two of his fellow-Regicides, Miles Corbet and John Okey. Charles II may have been lenient towards some repentant ex-Parliamentarians, but for surviving Regicides there was little mercy. All three were hung, drawn and quartered at Tyburn on 19th April 1662.

Barkstead, who Pepys also refers to as Baxter, is not known to have mentioned any hidden valuables at his former place of work following his arrest, but rumours about this started after his execution – many doubtless remembered the accusations that he had used his position to line his own pockets – and it is perhaps surprising that it had taken six months for these rumours to reach someone (Sandwich) with the power to order a proper search. Even with the treasure not yet recovered, it had already been decided that the estimated £7000 would be split three ways: £2000 for Wade for reporting it to the proper authorities, £2000 for Sandwich and £3000 for the King. Pepys reckoned that he might get between £10 and £20 from his patron for his efforts.

The Tower at the time was in a parlous state – the structure had been neglected for some time, and Cromwell had considered demolishing it. Some parts of it had been partially dismantled prior to the Restoration, and one of these was the Coldharbour Tower – what Pepys referred to as the “Coleharbour”, which stood next to the White Tower. In many respects, Pepys and his workmen were digging for what is known to history as Barkstead’s treasure among ruins.

One 3rd November Pepys met with Wade and Evett again, and found that their “prime Intelligence”, the person in whom Barkstead had apparently confided the treasure’s location, was a woman. They resolved that the next time they tried, she would “be there in a disguise, and confirm us in the place”. She was duly there when Pepys returned to the Tower four days later. By this time the treasure’s estimated value had risen to £50,000 (so Pepys records), and after the unnamed informant pointed out the cellar in which it was apparently hidden (“in butter-ferkins”), the digging-party once again set to work. Once again they found nothing, and by now Pepys was starting to have his doubts. “I do believe there must be money hid somewhere by him,” he mused, “or else he did delude this woman in hopes to oblige her to further serving him – which I am apt to believe.” His dashed hopes cannot have been helped by his domestic arrangements that day; he was “very much displeased” because his wife had gone to stay with relatives while his house was being cleaned. The next day, he compensated for this by working late.

Pepys met with Wade and Evett again the following week (“I have great confidence that there is no cheat in these people, but that they go on good grounds, though they have been mistaken”) but he does not record any more attempts at searching for the treasure until 19th December, when the workmen were set to dig “in the corner against the Mayne-guard [Main Gate], a most unlikely place”. It being a cold day, Pepys spent much of it inside, reading and conversing with Lee by the fire in the Governor’s residence while the labourers toiled outside. Once again, nothing was found, “and having wrought below the bottom of the foundation of the wall, I bid them give over; and so all our hopes ended.”

Thus ends Samuel Pepys’s search for buried treasure at the Tower of London, a tale that might seem to be little more than an historical curiosity, to the extent that it is usually edited out of the abridged versions of his famous diary. The story of Barkstead’s treasure, though, has had a surprisingly long life, with the last attempt to find it taking place in 1958. Whether it ever existed at all is doubtful.

But the fact remains that there was buried treasure beneath Restoration London, not at the Tower but on Cheapside. In 1912, a stash of jewels dating back to the mid-seventeenth century was found there, buried beneath the cellar of a building that was destroyed in the Great Fire. It is not known who put it there, but the most likely theory is that it was buried during the Civil War. The Cheapside Hoard was exhibited at the Museum of London from October 2013 to April 2014.

The unknown person who buried the Cheapside Hoard certainly wasn’t the only person to have buried valuables in seventeenth-century London. As the Great Fire took hold in early September 1666, Pepys himself famously buried his wine and a Parmesan cheese, and witnessed two others doing likewise (his house survived the blaze, but whether he was able to recover these delicacies afterwards remains unknown).

The Tower had its buried secrets too, of a much more macabre nature than some supposed ill-gotten gains. In 1674, Charles II finally got around to ordering that some of the more decayed parts be cleared, including a turret by the south wall of the White Tower– not far from the ruined Coldharbour Tower where Pepys had been searching. In the foundations of this, workmen uncovered the skeletons of two children; no-one at the time doubted that these were the remains of the boy-king Edward V and his brother – the Princes in the Tower who had disappeared in 1483. Pepys had by this time ceased to keep a diary, so we do not know if he, on hearing of this, thought about his unsuccessful treasure hunt. Four years later, Charles II ordered that the remains be buried at Westminster Abbey, where – following an examination in the 1930s that verified beyond reasonable doubt their identity – they lie to this day.

Arthur Bryant, Samuel Pepys: The Man in the Making (Granada, 1984)
Christopher Durston, ‘Barkstead, John’, p. 908, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (vol. 3) (OUP, 2004)
Nigel Jones, Tower: An Epic History of the Tower of London (Windmill, 2012)
Robert Latham & William Matthews (eds.), The Diary of Samuel Pepys: Volume III 1662 (Harper Collins, 2000)

Steve Roud, London Lore: The Legends and Traditions of the World’s Most Vibrant City (Random House, 2008)


The Capital Ring: Beckenham to Crystal Palace

Back at Beckenham Hill, and ready for the next part of my Capital Ring walk, I quickly made my way to Beckenham Place Park and was soon taking in a wooded path that took me over the railway. It didn’t take long before I heard – and even managed to see – a ring-necked parakeet, which I took to be a good sign that I’d see more birds than on my previous walk.

After the bridge over the railway, the route took in a public golf course – the club-house of which is Beckenham Place, an 18th century manor house with an impressive portico that looks like it’s seen better days.

Not far from there was more by way of sports grounds – cricket this time, an out-ground of Kent CCC no less. From here, I could clearly see the TV transmission tower at Crystal Palace, my destination for the day. 

The route then took me onto a street of big suburban semis and an impressive church spire (St Paul’s, New Beckenham) then through a subway running underneath a railway station (New Beckenham). After this I detoured through a park, passing several secondary school children involved in such pastimes as talking loudly, illicit smoking and throwing each other’s shoes onto the grass; once again, I had inadvertently timed my walk to coincide with a school home time.

Despite having never knowingly visited Beckenham, I could not help but feel that the place was strangely familiar. The semi-detached houses, the way the parks were laid out and even the way a primary school looked all rang bells. Then it struck me; this was a London suburb that was built between the wars. Of course it was all familiar! I grew up in just such a suburb – the present-day Edgware and Mill Hill had for the most part been built at the same time. Funny how being in a completely different part of London should feel like walking a mere couple of blocks from my parents’ house.

It wasn’t long before the houses became a bit older, and walking through another park – this one gloried in the name of the Alexandra Recreation Ground – I came across a bowling green and a drinking-fountain that didn’t work (not the first time I’ve come across one of these that doesn’t dispense water in the past few months).

The ever-present TV tower was still in view as I reached another station (Penge East), this one crossed over by way of a footbridge, and just after that was a boarded-up pub with the unlikely name of Hollywood East. I followed the route onto Penge High Street. 

Funny name, Penge. It sounds like it should be a rude word (it isn’t, of course), but it is in fact of Celtic origin, meaning ‘wood end’. The ongoing theme of crossing over or under railways continued with the road passing under two large bridges, one of them dating from 1839 (this one carries the main line from London Bridge to the Sussex coast) and the other from 1854 (the branch line to Crystal Palace), before I entered Crystal Palace Park.

I could have made straight for the station but I wanted to have a look around. I have been to this park before, while I was doing the Nightrider, but that was while I was in the middle of a cycling event and it was the middle of the night. In broad daylight and with no pressing need to get back on my bike, I took my time.

Established in the mid-1850s when the massive glass exhibition hall that had been the centrepiece of the Great Exhibition of 1851 was moved from Hyde Park, Crystal Palace Park was one of the most popular tourist attractions of the mid-to-late 19th century (which explains the branch line); it declined over time, though, and in 1936 the palace itself burned down. One feature that still exists from that time is the Dinosaur Area, a series of sculptures of assorted extinct species – not all of them are of dinosaurs, although the collection does include the first dinosaur models anywhere in the world (they even pre-dated the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species). I also took in the ducks and geese on the pond, which took my bird-count for the day to over ten species; that parakeet earlier had been a good sign after all.

From the dinosaurs, I passed the athletics stadium and moved up to the terraces on which the palace once stood, now in the shadow of the TV tower that had acted as a beacon for much of my walk. 

These terraces, which are lined with a few sphinxes, afford a panoramic view to the east; I couldn’t be certain, but I was pretty sure that I could see the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge at Dartford.

Only after that did I go to the station.