Brutalism: the ‘marmite’ architectural style. Whether it elicits delight or disgust, it’s certainly never boring – its vast concrete slabs forcibly looming into your consciousness like towering monoliths.
I’ve traditionally never counted myself a fan, but exploring the Lost Valley is softening my heart to this most controversial of architectural movements: not least because of the Barbican Centre.
This Taj Mahal of Brutalism embraces the style so completely and with such unmitigated joy that fans and non-believers alike must surely shake their heads in dumbstruck admiration.
In this vast concrete city there is no better, more bonkers demonstration of Brutalism’s delirious brand of utilitarian utopia than the Conservatory: a literal urban jungle.
Opened in 1982: This hidden ecosystem contains over 2000 kinds of plants, an amazing ‘cacti wing’, an aviary of quails and even water-features full of giant carp. The contrast between this and the uncompromising concrete vista is astonishing and charming: bringing to mind sci-fi utopias of the 70’s & 80’s.
The conservatory is used mainly for corporate events these days but is also open to the public free of charge on Sundays: 11:00am – 5:30. Venture on forth for your very own urban safari!
This magnificent beast makes a fittingly regal guardian of Westminster Bridge. He was one of two Lions that once flanked he entrance to the old Lion Brewery along the river.
The brewery was destroyed in the Blitz, but this lion is a true survivor because he is constructed from a mysterious substance, fittingly known as Coadestone: the secret formula now lost…
This miracle material was the creation of Mrs Eleanor Coade. Her invention was highly prized because it could be easily mixed like plaster, delicately moulded & sculpted like clay: then set granite-hard in a kiln. This was especially appealing to the Georgians in the building industry who loved their elegant ‘Gothick’ flourishes. Our lion is testament to the durability of the substance as after almost two centuries of Blitz, relocation & exposure, he still looks as meticulously detailed as when he first emerged from the oven.
There are many other wonderful Coadestone statues around The Lost Valley that I look forward to encountering in future stories. As for Eleanor Coade… When she died in 1821, she took the secret of Coadestone with her to the grave.
Though ‘artificial stone’ such as this is well-doccumented (a form of terracotta combining ground pre-fired clay, sand, glass & stone). Miss Eleanor Code’s own particularly beautiful, near-indestructible formula has never been rediscovered… It seems like the mystery of Coadestone will never be cracked… The South Bank Lion’s not telling!
The Globe Theatre makes a stunning focal point for Shakespeare’s work and
performance in London: But it’s not the only Shakespearean location in the capital…..
In my leisure hours, I’ve developed a passion for exploring the myriad layers of history that make up the city and there’s a fascinating legacy within the buildings, streets, churches and archaeological sites that tells of The Bard’s life. In this article I head off the beaten track in search of some decidedly different Shakespearean sites….
Down park street – the twisting Dickensian Labyrinth of cobbled streets and Victorian warehouses, not 300 yards from the current Globe Theatre – there stands a crumbling section of Georgian brewery wall. Embossed into the side is a pitted bronze plaque commemorating the building of the original Globe right on that spot…. Sure enough, it’s the very same sign that Sam Wanamaker stumbled upon in 1949 when looking for the Globe itself; of course he was expecting a complete theatre or at least some spectacular, proud monument to the same! Instead, this sign was all there was to reference the fact that one of the most influential writers in history had his own playhouse right on that location…. the rest of the tale is a fascinating history all it’s own: the impassioned fight over half a century to rebuild the Globe is as intriguing as a work by the Bard himself! But that is another story for another time…
Just behind the wall, we encounter a far newer development: Globe Court. A small square where 5% of the Globe foundation was excavated in 1989. Red flagstones mark the locations where actual fragments were recovered and you can mentally map them onto your own imaginings of the actual theatre by way of some handy diagrams on the display panels provided.
Alas, the weathering effects of the outside elements mean that even the small remnants of the Globe have been reburied until technology and funds enable them to be more visibly preserved in state. And of course there will always be unanswered questions (current Southwark seismologic conditions prevailing) as one-third of the original Globe footprint is buried under Southwark Bridge and the original Georgian brewery (now flats and offices). This edifice – indicative of the layer cake that is London’s history – is itself a protected site, being the first building in the UK to have concrete foundations.
Just across the road from this treasure trove is a truly momentous site, also excavated in 1989: The site of the very first theatre where a young, headstrong Will Shakespeare performed his very first plays (along with esteemed members of his fellow Elizabethan ‘brat-pack Christopher Marlowe and Phillip Henslowe). Titus Andronicus is believed to have debuted here, along with Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus.The entire foundation of this incredible discovery is preserved in the basement of an office block, supported by the world’s largest girder to prevent destructive vertical pillars being driven through the archaeology. Perhaps most satisfyingly this site is flourishing as a performance space once more; even presenting plays for the first time in the original location since 1605….
In Elizabethan times, the crowds lining up to see the Bard’s works soon became too massive for the relatively intimate Rose playhouse. Shakespeare therefore moved his enterprise to larger premises just North of the city wall: London’s first purpose built theatre known imaginatively as… the Theatre! Legend states that when the landlord realised just how lucrative a tenant Shakespeare was, he raised the rent dramatically. In a fit of pique Shakespeare had the Theatre dismantled and taken across the frozen Thames on December the 23rd 1598 to be re-erected as….. The original Globe!
However the foundations of the Theatre remained buried in what is now modern-day Shoreditch until unearthed in 2008. Also, in 2012, Museum of London Archaeology discovered remains of the Curtain Playhouse. Nearby the Fortune still lies entombed under London’s premier media-chic district.
Straying further from the pilgrimage routes, you may find yourself in the atmospheric Medieval heart of London: Clerkenwell, the great ‘City of Clocks’ itself where you will come across an 850 year-old church, The execution site of William ‘Braveheart’ Wallace and Vladimir Lenin’s old house! Most eye-popping of all is a magnificent medieval gatehouse called St John’s Gate. This was once the entrance to a grand priory for the Knights Hospitalier – the Order of St John, formed in 1113 to protect pilgrims to Jerusalem. By the time of Shakespeare the knights had moved all operations to Malta and the remaining gatehouse (the only surviving remnant that hadn’t been blown up with gunpowder by Edward VI for newer building projects!) was gifted to Sir Edmund Tilney -the ‘Master of Revels’. This lofty position involved editing and censoring all public entertainments for potential treasonous or blasphemous content. Shakespeare and the Chamberlain’s Men would have rehearsed new works at St John’s Gate under Edmund Tilney’s long-suffering gaze….
Incidentally, Queen Victoria gifted the gatehouse back to the order of St John who still base their offices here today as the only heraldic order of chivalry still in operation: the St John’s Ambulance!
Other Shakes-centric locations in the district include the site of the Red Bull, converted into a theatre from an Inn. Finally, the whole area of Clerkenwell gets it’s name from the ‘clerks well’ itself – still visible through a window on Clerkenwell Green – a natural spring where Medieval parishes would gather to perform mystery plays (dramatised biblical stories); an early forerunner to the professional theatre of Shakespeare’s time!
To leave Clerkenwell now, we follow the old line of the lost river Fleet, completely covered over in the 19th century to form a storm-drain. Eventually we arrive at Fleet Street which becomes the equally famous thoroughfare known simply as Strand. Off this iconic street are the original headquarters on another order of chivalry – the legendary Knights Templar. By the time of Shakespeare, the Knights had been long since disbanded; the crowned heads of Europe were highly uncomfortable with a massive private army answerable only to the Pope and their labyrinth of chambers, chapels and grand halls were now home to a community of Lawyers, The Inns of Middle and Inner Temple. This spectacular enclave has been used as a film set for countless period pieces, and boasts the celebrated knight’s chapel Temple Church, most famously featured in ‘ The DaVinci Code’. An equally spectacular building is the Tudor-built ‘Middle Temple Hall’ with it’s carved screen, hammer-beam ceiling and intricate pained walls. It was (and still is) the main banquet hall for the Lawyers inhabiting Middle Temple and was a venue for Shakespeare and the Chamberlain’s Men themselves, most notably the debut of Twelfth Night. Along with Hampton Court Palace in Surrey, this hall remains one of the very few original Shakespearean performance spaces still standing! Albeit one requiring major reconstruction after being bombed in World War II.
These remarkable sights really deserve a full-length article devoted to each of them! Indeed there are many more Shakespearean locations within London that I can hardly fit in… There’s Shakespeare’s parish church where his brother is buried – the gorgeous Southwark Cathedral: there’s Deptford where his great friend and mentor Christopher Marlowe was stabbed to death in a brawl (or was it a conspiracy? Or a hoax?!): there’s the magnificent George coaching Inn where the Bard almost certainly imbibed healths ‘five fathoms deep’: not to mention the jaw-dropping Tower of London itself, almost 1,000 years old and home to the fearsome torture chambers where Shakespeare’s more outspoken contemporaries, including the ill-fated Thomas Kyd, found themselves interred.
Bizarre histories, strange characters and a heady mix of cultures crossing all classes and professions. To those who wonder how a humble glover’s son from Stratford managed to conjure up such intricate worlds need only look into the city that fed his enquiring mind.
This 180-tonne monolith is by far and away the oldest structure in London: Nearly 3500 years old. How did it end up here on the banks of the Thames? The journey’s of Cleopatra’s Needle is an epic and bloody one…. proceed with caution gentle readers as we reveal the Pharaoh’s curse!
In ancient Egypt 1480 BC, this monolith was carved by order of the Pharaoh Thotmes III. It was one of two matching obelisks, created to guard the entrance to The Temple of the Sun in Heliopolis: A city mentioned in the bible as the City of On, at the outskirts of Cairo. This monolith has been inscribed with Hieroglyphics of prayers to Ra the sun God. In 12BC this monolith was moved to Alexandria on the Egyptian coast by the Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar as a memorial to Cleopatra, who had died 18 years earlier. Cleopatra’s needle stood at Alexandria for hundreds of years where it finally toppled over into the sand. And that’s where it stayed for over a thousand years….
Until “The Battle of the Nile” in 1798 when Lord Nelson’s Fleet of warships ambushed and defeated Napoleon’s fleet anchored off the coast of Alexandria. The grateful Viceroy of Egypt offered Cleopatra’s Needle as a gift to the victorious British, but the army lacked the necessary equipment to transport it back to England. It remained lying in the sand for another 70 years until a solution was found: They would turn it into a boat! They encased the entire monolith in a cylinder-shaped Iron Hull, gave it rudders and a deck, named it “The Cleopatra” and towed it back home by a steam ship. All went well until a massive storm broke is if from nowhere and the Cleopatra began to sink in the tempest tossed waters and her crew had to abandon ship. Six of the tugboat’s crew lost their lives rescuing the Cleopatra’s crew, but to no avail: eventually the Cleopatra had to be cut loose and abandoned in the storm….
The Cleopatra was found drifting about in the ocean by another British Steamer and it was towed to a Spanish port. Finally in 1878 a tugboat was built especially to head to Spain and pick it up, where it was towed up the Thames and erected in it’s current location by the Savoy, along with rather lovely bronze sphinxes: The statues are actually facing the wrong way and should be guarding the needle rather than looking at it. The base of the needle is also made of bronze – they put a time-capsule in there containing a bus timetable, a disposable razor and pictures of the 10 best looking women in London.
Many people believed that the monument was cursed after all this bad luck: And it seemed to be true when Cleopatra’s Needle became the first monument in London to be hit by an air-raid in WW1 (clearly visible in the form of shrapnel holes and gouges on the right-hand sphinx). Occultists believe this curse may have been placed on the monolith by the Pharaoh Rameses II who modified the original hieroglyphics on the needle in 1300 BC, to change it from prayers to Ra the sun-god, to prayers about himself! So perhaps the spirit of the Egyptian Pharaoh may be watching us still… and the Sphinxes are in fact facing the needle in order to protect LONDON!
It is said when the wind howls across the crest of Shooters Hill, the folk of Eltham, South London, draw their shutters and bolt their doors. For over the shrieks of the gale can still be heard the howls and lamentations of Lady James as her spirit waits eternally in her dark, crumbling tower of heartbreak….. Severndroog Castle!
This derelict Gothic tower stands abandoned and forlorn in a clearing of Oxleas Wood, overlooking seven counties with a grim, brooding aspect. Severndroog Castle was built in 1784 by the grieving widow Lady James as a memorial to her dead husband: a macabre homage of the island fortress Suvarnadurg that Sir William James attacked and blew-up off the coast of India in 1755.
This late Georgian ‘Gothick’ construct was designed by the East India Company architect Richard Jupp. Now boarded up and in a state of ill-repair, the efforts of The Severndroog Castle Building Preservation Trust will hopefully see the magnificent tower open tho the public. The views of London will be fantastic, the architectural details stunning – and who knows? Perhaps the ghost of Sir William James himself will be tempted back to his own memorial, joining the shade of his wife in blood-curdling undead howls on a wild, windswept night…?
Shooter’s Hill is the highest point in South London, named for the medieval bowmen who practised their archery here – and also for the numerous gibbet cages for the gristly display of executed highwaymen.
On the river Lea in East London stands a human-made island. This is home to a gorgeously atmospheric collection of crooked buildings, huddled together on cobbled lanes like a tiny Georgian Village: this is Three Mills Island. The original Windmill is long demolished, but the ancient cogs and bells of The Clock Mill still turn and the vast House Mill sits in state, its machinery and oak-timbers still intact.
The timber-framed House Mill was built in 1776 by Daniel Bisson, a French Huguenot fleeing persecution in Catholic France. He set the mill up for flour grinding but soon realised he was in the wrong business – Londoners had a far more common staple diet than bread – GIN!
Working alongside Nicholson’s distillery, also on Three Mill Island, Daniel Bisson’s main enemy was a literal GIN CRAZE: mental illness brought on by toxins in unshelled grain. A meticulous process called smutting (yes really!) was employed to strip grain of its shells before distilling.
Insanity was the least of Bisson’s worries however, as the sheer power of the water driven turbines he designed (they had to be specially engineered by shipbuilders!) caused the entire Mill to start shaking itself to pieces and the medieval artificial island to sway precariously on its supports over the river Lea. The Bisson family had to employ rivet boys to run through the mill, standing on each other’s shoulders to constantly hammer in rivets to desperately keep the building intact. Miraculously surviving in this manner for several generations (and thousands of metal rivets) the Mill was saved from itself with the introduction of William Fairbairn’s ‘Silent’ Mill machinery; implementing a far smoother ride. By this time the Mill had abandoned Gin production in favour of grinding gunpowder (please do not get the two confused)!
Coming full circle again in the 20th century, the House Mill once more ground flour until it ceased operation in 1941 due to Blitz bombing devastating the local industries.
Since then Three Mill Island has seen a renaissance: The beautiful clock mill is an office complex and the outbuildings have become London’s largest film and television studios providing facilities and evocative locations for Sherlock Holmes, 28 Days Later, Attack the Block and Lesbian Vampire Killers.
The House Mill itself provides a café, tour and souvenir stand. Most excitingly it has received a 2.65 million grant for its machinery to be restored. Soon the vast waterwheels will be turning once more as this remarkable mill begins production again: the product this time? ENERGY! The electricity generated by The House mill is to be sold to the national grid!
Abbey Wood is 200 acres of ancient forest; the resting place of pagan lords in bronze-age burial mounds…… There are even older, weirder graves too: fossil beds from the Eocene era containing the remains of some of the earliest known primates, horses, sharks, bats and Coryphodon (think a 2-metre tall cross between a tapir and a hippo).
Isolated from the world by surrounding marshland, Abbey Wood now overlooks the bleak housing estates of Bexley, South London – their uncompromising brutalism making them the perfect locations for Stanley Kubrick when he filmed ‘A Clockwork Orange’ there in 1971.
But the jewel in the crown of this unearthly isolated hill is Lesnes Abbey: a spectacular Norman ruin from 1178. Founded in shame by Richard de Luci, the Chief Justiciar of England. Such remorse he felt at his support of the famous ‘murder in the cathedral’ of the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket in 1170, that he retired from public life and formed this Augustinian priory. He lived out the last 3 months of his life a broken man, here at ‘The Abbey of St Mary and St Thomas the Martyr at Lesnes’ and was buried in the Chapter House in 1179.
A ‘priory of penance’, the clergy of this Abbey were Augustinian monks who specialised in praying for the soul of the founder, burying the dead and administering redemption through hard work. The chief concern of the priory was to drain and reclaim the marshy, boggy land that effectively cut abbey wood off from civilisation, and created its previous isolated Eocene ecology.
Unfortunately the work was expensive and the priory never grew much beyond 12 members. After eking out a meager existence for nearly 350 years, the Abbey was one of the first to be seized by cardinal Wolsely during the reformation in 1525. Being considered unprofitable it was pulled down and ransacked for building materials.
And here the ruins have remained over the past half-millennium. The land has seen mixed use as a farm, medicinal herb garden and park; being purchased as a public space by the London Borough of Bexley in 1986.
During archaeological digs in 1910, not only was the body of Richard de Luci discovered buried in the Chapter House; but the mummified heart of his great great granddaughter Roesia of Dover was unearthed, buried in a metal box in the Lady Chapel. She grew up in Lesnes Abbey and loved the priory: when she died she bequeathed her heart to the Augustinian Monks as a relic to pray upon, hastening her soul’s journey through purgatory.
SKELETONS! Skeletons in lead coffins; skeletons carefully packed in cardboard boxes; great piles of skeletons in sealed vaults; skeletons EVERYWHERE!
Plus a BEAR DEMON! Whacking great EXPLOSIONS and CAKE GALORE!
It’s the beautiful, mind-boggling, hair-raising St Bride’s Church. Read on…. If you DARE
In 1650, a poor coach driver named Tom Cox was heading home down Water Lane when he saw a tall, darkly dressed gent hailing him from the gutter. Deciding to accept one last fare for the night he picked-up the mysterious stranger who wished to be taken to St Bride’s Churchyard.
After a short, difficult journey where the horses kept on shying and rearing up in panic, he turned back to the passenger to ask if he had an animal with him, or if he might be carrying the scent of something that might upset the horses. There in the churchyard the man began to transform, growing to over twice the height of any person. Foul matted fur burst from his skin and his teeth elongated into jagged fangs. Finally a bear-like demon with eyes of fire bore down on Tom Cox; who spurred by primal fear, lashed out at the creature with his whip. The beast roared diabolically and vanished in a burst of flame.
Whatever the reason for this visitation, there is no question that the site of St Bride’s is brimming with spiritual energy. There has been a holy place on this site for 2000 years and the current church incorporates a Roman footpath, a Saxon undercroft, a medieval chapel, Christopher Wren’s tallest spire (the inspiration for the classic tiered wedding cake!) and – following incendiary bombing in the Blitz – a tasteful 1950′s restoration.
Most compelling of all however are the SKELETONS of St Bride’s! Preserved from parishioners of the church’s various incarnations over the centuries; these bones are painstakingly boxed and catalogued in St Bride’s ossuary. Because the church traditionally buried its dead in lead coffins clearly labelling the name, date and cause of death, this collection is a resource to archaeologists and medical students alike.
Just as striking is the adjoining charnel house where ancient parishioners are interred as piles of skulls and long-bones.
Today it stands proudly off Fleet Street as ‘The Journalist’s Church’. Boasting worshippers as diverse as King Henry VIII, Samuel Pepys, Benjamin Franklin and Rupert Murdoch; St Bride’s continues to make incredible history – and fantastic cakes!