Writing Portfolio


The model bridge

To the City, specifically to the Church of St Magnus-the-Martyr on Lower Thames Street (not far from the Monument). Reckoned to be one of the finest of London’s Wren churches, it has appeared in a few literary works – Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land – and was so close to London Bridge – the old, Medieval one – that the churchyard formed part of the approach road.

It was the Old London Bridge that drew me to St Magnus-the-Martyr, which is Church of England even though the interior looks decidedly Catholic (which is in a sense appropriate, as it is the only C of E church where the vicar goes by the title of Cardinal Rector). Inside the church is a scale model of said bridge as it would have looked circa. 1400, complete with shops, houses and even a church along its length.

Located a few yards downstream from its modern version, Old London Bridge (not to be confused with its nineteenth-century replacement which was sold to an American entrepreneur in the late Sixties and rebuilt in Arizona) tends to linger in London’s folk-memory. For centuries it was the only bridge across the Thames. People actually lived on it (I can repeat that all I want, but I still can’t get my head around the idea of living in a house on a bridge). It was from there that pilgrims began their journeys to Canterbury (the church – actually a chapel – was dedicated to Thomas Becket). And, of course, it was on the bridge’s southern gatehouse that the severed heads of traitors were impaled on pikes.

The detail on the model is superb, with the tiny figures giving the viewer a good idea of how congested the bridge was. The street itself, crammed in between those houses, was just 12 feet wide and it was said that during busy times, crossing it took an hour. There was an alternative, but anyone tempted to use a waterman to cross the river in the vicinity of the bridge had to bear in mind that this was fraught with danger as the bridge’s narrow arches and wide pier bases – faithfully represented on the model – could produce fearsome rapids depending on the state of the tide, and it was said that only fools would try to pass under it.

This is well worth a visit – a chance to get a glimpse, however fleeting, at what one of London’s most famous landmarks would have looked like in its heyday. There’s even a deliberate anachronism, for the man who made the bridge back in 1987 (a Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Plumbers) used to be a copper and so couldn’t resist adding the figure of a modern policeman to his Medieval model. I say ‘apparently’ because, alas, I couldn’t spot it.


The London Stone

Opposite the entrance to Cannon Street Station in the City – itself built on the site of a medieval church that was destroyed in the Great Fire – there stood until earlier this year one of London’s oldest landmarks, a largely forgotten chunk of masonry (limestone, to be exact) that is said to be of great significance although its surroundings were somewhat modest. Set into the wall behind an iron grille in front of a branch of W.H. Smith’s on busy Cannon Street was the London Stone.

Some say that it is of Roman origin, and that it may have been an object of religious veneration in pre-Christian times. Could it have something to do King Arthur? Or was it a milestone? There’s even a legend in a similar vein to that concerning the ravens at the Tower, although this one ties in with either of the City’s mythical founders (take your pick between Brutus of Troy and King Lud) to the effect that London will fall if it (the stone) is destroyed. The fifteenth-century rebel leader Jack Cade is said to have struck it with his sword, an apparently ancient way of declaring himself to be in charge, although there’s not much evidence for this other than the relevant scene in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 2.

All we know for sure is that there are references to the London Stone dating back to the late eleventh century, and it was sufficiently well-known in medieval times for its name to have been given to the surrounding area (the first Lord Mayor was called Henry Fitz-Ailwin de Londonestone). After the Great Fire of 1666, Sir Christopher Wren (who reckoned that it was of Roman origin) built it into the south wall of one of his churches, St Swithin London Stone. This was badly damaged in the Blitz and the remains were demolished in 1962, following which the London Stone was put into its current setting in front of a shop which was built on the site of the church. Occasional development of this site resulted in rumours that the Stone would be removed; perhaps wary of the old legend, the developers left it in its place.

Last year, I went to have a look while going for a stroll in the City, and was assured to note that I wasn’t the only one who was taking a close look as a couple of tourists were interested too; conversely, people from all over the world have come to see it (and have been invariably taken aback by its less-than-auspicious setting), while others just walked past it every day without giving it a glance (for them, it was probably just something on the way to work; historically significant things in London can be like that for Londoners, sometimes). Sadly there was a fair amount of rubbish in the grille but at least the Stone was visible, and the back of it could be seen from the inside of the newsagent’s. A very modest setting for an ancient monument that had survived plagues, rebellions, fires, bombing raids and even the attentions of post-war property developers and (according to a BBC report from 2006) twenty-first century cowboy builders.

That changed earlier this year, when the prospect of  yet further development led to the London Stone's removal from its site. It can now be seen in the Museum of London, presumably getting more attention in a glass case rather than behind a litter-strewn grille, although when the building work is complete on Cannon Street it will return there, to be displayed on a plinth; once again, no doubt, it will attract the attention of some while being ignored by others.


What are those things that are given to Olympic medallists?

While enjoying watching the Olympics, a thought crossed my mind during one of the medal presentations; one of the cycling ones to be precise. The British had won the gold but my attention was drawn to the Canadians receiving the bronze, who appeared to be having a conversation among themselves along the lines of ‘what’s this?’ when they were presented with that colourful paperweight-like object that they got with their medals.

Along with questions like ‘why are all those seats empty?’, ‘why has the diving pool turned green?’ and ‘who comes up with the ideas for some of these events?’ (admittedly a question at every Olympics, that last one), this has puzzled me no end. Frankly, I’m surprised that the BBC hasn’t educated/informed us as to what these objects are, or maybe I missed that amid the celebration of all things Team GB.

In search of enlightenment, I turned to the Internet. It turns out that the little figurines are in fact 3-D representations of the Olympic logo – which for this games shows three human-like figures linked together to look like the Sugarloaf Mountain (or maybe spell out the word ‘Rio’; perhaps both). It’s the first time an Olympic logo has been done in 3-D form, apparently.

There’s also a reason why they are being presented to the medallists, and it ties in very neatly with the idea of this being a sustainable Olympics – as also seen with the smaller-than-usual flame and indeed the medals themselves; the gold ones are made from gold extracted without the use of mercury, while the ribbons are apparently made from recycled plastic bottles. In previous years, those athletes who’ve made it to the podium have received a bunch of flowers as well as their medals; the flowers usually get thrown away but the figurines – which some sources say can be used as holders for the medals – are of a more permanent nature.  

Now that I’ve learned this, I can’t help but wonder how soon it will be before some of the figurines start to appear on eBay.


What the Romans left in Nîmes

A short visit to the southern French city of Nîmes, located in Languedoc just to the west of the Rhône (“lazy, laid-back … a little bit Provençal but with a soul as Languedocien as cassoulet”, according to our guidebook) could not, I felt, pass without visits to the various Roman landmarks that have survived to the present day; the city was founded (under the name of Nemausus) by the Emperor Augustus and there are some very good Roman buildings that the modern-day tourist can visit.

First up was the hilltop Tour Magne, part of the Roman ramparts that surrounded the city; this is reached via an uphill walk through the Jardin de la Fontaine which stands on the site of a spring (the Romans, who loved that sort of thing, built a temple and some baths there). From the outside the tower looks like a ruin, but on the inside there’s a spiral staircase that was built in the nineteenth century to allow visitors to walk up in safety.


Now I have hardly ever encountered a tower I didn’t want to climb and this one was no exception. So I waited my turn in the heat – it being the height of the holiday season, there were plenty of other tourists and as the spiral staircase is rather narrow a ‘one in, one out’ policy was in operation – before ascending for a panoramic view of Nîmes. My ticket, by the way, was a bit of a bargain; for €12, I got a combination one that covered not just the Tour Magne but two other big Roman attractions in Nîmes – the Maison Carée and Les Arènes (had I paid at each of these individually, it would’ve cost €19.50).

Back on ground level and inside the (mostly) pedestrianised old city, I visited the Maison Carée which dates back to around 5 AD and is one of the best-preserved Roman temples in the world. This truly impressive building, fronted by six columns, looks imposing from close up but is surprisingly small on the inside, which nowadays consists of a small cinema which shows a short film every half-hour about Nîmes’s Roman history.

The last and most impressive of Nîmes’s Roman remains was Les Arènes, the amphitheatre around which everything in the city revolves. It’s not just one of the world’s best-preserved Roman amphitheatres, though – it’s still in use, with a capacity of just over 16,000, as a venue for concerts and bullfights (and it’s not the only one, for the slightly less-well-preserved Roman amphitheatre at Arles is also still in use as a venue for similar events). This is why the lower tiers, and some of the higher ones for that matter, are covered with wooden seating – as used by spectators – and accompanying scaffolding. The amphitheatre hasn’t been in continuous use as an entertainment-venue since Roman times, mind you – over the centuries it has seen use as a fortification and it even had a small neighbourhood within its confines (rather like Diocletian’s Palace in Split, I suppose, but on a smaller scale) although that was cleared away in the eighteenth century.

I was highly impressed by the fact that the amphitheatre at Nîmes is still in use (how many Roman buildings are still used for something fairly close to the purpose for which they were originally built?), and I was also impressed by the fact that my combination ticket meant that I could jump the queue. What really impressed me, though, was that unlike (say) the Colosseum in Rome, visitors can explore most of Les Arènes. When it’s open to the public, you can even wander out onto the arena itself (which is lower than street level) as well as climbing the various stone staircases to the top of the highest tier (where there are signs saying that you’re not allowed to walk along the edge, which isn’t fenced off).

I rather like old ruins where you can explore to your heart’s content, and I spent over an hour wandering all over Les Arènes, walking out of the tunnel into the arena and covering the four different tiers of seating (which each have their own systems of exits – vomitoria, the Romans called them – so that the patricians who got to sit at the front didn’t have to rub shoulders with the plebs in the cheap seats higher up), often turning up or down a stone staircase on nothing more than curiosity about which part of the amphitheatre it would lead to.

There’s nothing like a bit of history while on holiday.


The Docks

What with one thing and another, I’ve found myself exploring some of London’s docks of late. Last year, my ongoing Capital Ring saga took me along the Royal Albert Dock. Earlier this year, more walking – for Londonist, this time – saw me visit Limehouse (it’s at the end of the Regent’s Canal) and what remains of the East India Dock (it’s near the mouth of the River Lea); I liked the nature reserve there so much that I went there for another look, and did a write-up about it for the Wildlife Articles website. I’ve even been to Rotherhithe for a walk around, but that’s a story for another time (believe it or not, it concerns a film adaptation of a Daphne du Maurier novel which also took me to a field outside Rickmansworth).

I’ve also been working on a number of articles relating to the etymology (name origins) of various things in London in recent months – sporting venues, castles and palace – and for my next subject, I thought: why not the docks? The stories behind the names are, as these things tend to be, varied – there are saints, royals and places in London as well as locations around the world. The finished article can be seen here:


The Capital Ring: Balham to Wimbledon

A short one, this, completing Section 5 of the Capital Ring prior to the long stage across Wimbledon Common and Richmond Park which will follow in due course. After getting the Northern Line straight down to Balham, I took a side-street past the Art Deco block of flats that is Du Cane Court to Wandsworth Common, passing through the ticket office of said station before crossing the common itself. This has some boardwalks by the ponds where I lingered to look for birds; alongside the usual Mallards, Coots and Moorhens I spotted a Grey Heron fishing and, in the trees overheard, a male Blackcap.

After Wandsworth Common, I passed along a side-street called Alma Terrace (a fairly common street-name, this, referring to the battle in the Crimean War; what, I wonder, is the battle with the most streets in London named after it? Something Victorian would be my guess) before turning along a road that ran next to the bleak-looking Wandsworth Prison. There followed a very straight road which ran for three-quarters of a mile alongside Wandsworth Cemetery to get me to Earlsfield.

There, I crossed over the River Wandle, one of the fastest-flowing of London’s rivers; this has its own accompanying footpath, the Wandle Trail, which briefly meets with the Capital Ring at Earlsfield station on its way from Croydon to (almost) the point where the Wandle flows into the Thames at Wandsworth (which gets its name from the river); a future walk, perhaps. Continuing along the Captial Ring, I passed through several back-streets and a small park before crossing the main road by Wimbledon Mosque and then turning up Arthur Road to get to Wimbledon Park station on the District Line.