Archive for December, 2011

I from such worlds removed to this sad world
Of London we inhabit now together,
O Sparrow, often in my loneliness,
No other friend remaining, turn to thee…

At dawn thy voice is loud a merry voice
When other sounds are few and faint. Before
The muffled thunders of the Underground
Begin to shake the houses, and the noise
Of eastward traffic fills the thoroughfares,
Thy voice then welcomes day…

And thou, O Sparrow, from the windy ledge
Where thou dost nestle creaking chimney-pots
For softly-sighing branches ; sooty slates
For leafy canopy ; rank steam of slums…

Thou brave and faithful Sparrow, living link
That binds us to the immemorial past,
O blithe heart in a house so melancholy,
And keeper for a thousand gloomy years
Of many a gay tradition, heritor
Of Nature’s ancient cheerfulness, for thee
‘Tis ever Merry England ! Never yet,
In thy companionship of centuries
With man in lurid London, didst regret
Thy valiant choice, yea, even from the time
When all its low-roofed rooms were sweet with scent
From summer fields, where shouting children pluck
The floating lily from the reedy Fleet,
Scaring away the timid water-hen…

These are excerpts from a very lengthy poem The London Sparrow by the ornithologist W.H.Hudson (1841 – 1922), written around 1920. A time when poems didn’t have to rhyme but were probably still expected to scan. If you wish to read the whole thing, go here and do a search using “sparrow” or “hudson”.

Hudson could not have predicted that barely 100 years later, the ubiquitous little bird so associated with our city would have almost disappeared entirely. The most severe decline in sparrow numbers has happened very recently, since the 1990s. Proper scientific studies of the sparrow population started not long after Hudson’s death, in the 1920s. Most of them have been concentrated in Kensington Gardens, with counts as follows:

1925: 2603
1948: 885
1975: 544
1995: 81
2000: 8

By 2002 a 60% population decline over the previous 25 years saw the house sparrow placed on the Red List of Species of Conservation Concern.  The fall in numbers of the early 20th Century has been attributed to the loss of horse-drawn traffic and its food source of grain, oats and manure. Subsequent losses are more puzzling but the main factors offered are: increase in domestic cats; loss of suitable domestic garden habitats; and since the wholesale introduction of lead-free petrol, the consequent adverse effect on aphids and garden invertebrates as a food source for birds.

As a townie I have little expertise in such matters, so don’t know what to advise on helping to rejuvenate one of London’s beloved historical characters. Our back garden is frequently roamed by local cats. In relation to food sources, I haven’t seen grey squirrels mentioned in the studies: they’re everywhere.

Oh well, if any sparrows are reading this, I’m rooting for you!

There’s a BBC Radio 4 programme on the topic from 2009 available on iPlayer, here. Note other links too.

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westminster guided walk christmas

Last night we went on our final guided walk of the year, this time with Joanna Moncrieff of Westminster Walking, one of the growing number of qualified guides who are London Historians. This bodes well for 2012, because we’ll be working with them to create a programme of tailored walks for members, a very exciting prospect. Anyway, back to the business at hand. One of Jo’s specialities is the history of London’s emporia, pubs and eateries and these were the focus of this particular walk, many shops and streets being beautifully lit for Christmas. As we progressed, we were given many tips on some of the best value for money places to dine and imbibe, even in Westminster’s swankiest thoroughfares. Cream tea for £8.50? You’ll have to go on one of her excellent walks to find out!

Naturally, we ended up in a pub near Marble Arch till late, all Jo’s punters made friends with one another. Just some pictures. I hope you like them.

guided christmas walk westminster

guided christmas walk westminster

guided christmas walk westminster

guided christmas walk westminster

westminster guided walk christmas 2011

westminster guided walk christmas 2011

guided christmas walk westminster

guided christmas walk westminster

guided christmas walk westminster

guided christmas walk westminster

guided christmas walk westminster

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museum of somersetTook the opportunity on the Christmas visit to in-laws types various to check out Taunton. Time was limited, so we spent most of it in the newly Heritage Lottery-funded refurbishment of the Museum of Somerset. It was all rather whistle stop, I’m afraid, but well worth it. The early sections are pre-history, the stuff I normally shun here in the capital. Excellent fossils, some superb skeletons of plesiosaurs. Lots of bronze and iron age artifacts from the pre-Roman period. Weapons once owned by local tribesmen and used to knock lumps out of one another before the imposition of pax Romana.

somerset county museum

Extremely fine Roman mosaic floor depicting the legend of Aeneas and Dido.

For history buffs, the real interest is in three areas, all extensively covered with plenty of excellent objects. 1) the Civil War, where the Siege of Taunton played a key role as Parliamentarians held out against a sustained Royalist attack 2) The Monmouth Rebellion where the locals were generally supportive of the would-be usurper; Judge Jeffries held two days of merciless assizes in Taunton. The display includes a portrait of Monmouth by Lely, much ordnance recovered from the battlefield and a pharmacy bill for the infamous lawman. 3) The military room which celebrates various Somerset regiments through the ages: Burma, Afghanistan, Boer War, both world wars and much more. There are at least two Victoria Crosses on display among the substantial medal collections of Somerset’s finest.

museum of somerset

museum of somerset

For me there was a very special thing. As we were about to leave, I noticed a little alcove which I had missed. Looking in, I immediately recognised this:

st saviour's war memorial p lindsay clark

It is the sculptor’s maquette of the St Saviour’s War Memorial in Southwark, one of my favourites in London. I wrote about it during Remembrance week this year as a guest blog post for Exploring London. The memorial was made in 1922 by the sculptor P Lindsay Clark, himself a veteran of World War I. The label tells us that it was donated to the museum by General Sir John Swayne, formerly of the Somerset Light Infantry.  How it came to be in his possession is not explained.

st saviour's war memorial

St Saviour's War Memorial, Southwark

One last thing on the museum. If you are into hoards (who isn’t?), this is the place for you. There are four superb examples on display, each comprising many hundreds of old coin: one from the English Civil War and three Roman. The most recent was Roman, discovered last year in a large earthenware pot by a local metal detectorist. Unlike the other three, this is displayed with the coins as yet unprocessed, that is to say virtually as they were found, still covered in muck.

museum of somerset taunton

The Museum of Somerset is excellent, well worth the visit, and free. Give yourself at least two hours. I believe they still have teething problems to sort out with the display lighting (too subdued and and some nasty shadows interfering here and there), but I understand that these should be addressed.

Yesterday we visited friends in Ilminster about a half hour drive from Taunton. “So does Ilminster have a minster?” I casually asked my hosts in the back seat as we drove up the windy approach. “Oh yes.” As we breasted the hill into the little town we were confronted with this:

ilminster somerset

St Mary's, Ilminster, dating from around 1450.

st mary's ilminster

Gorgeous or what?

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The brainchild of Pete Berthoud of Discovering London, qualified Westminster Guide. The idea: to enjoy London when it’s at its most empty, bereft of public transport. The rest of the nation tucked up in their beds, dreaming about what Santa has bestowed. Setting off from Brentford at 05:30 precisely, it took 26 minutes to reach Waterloo Place. We renedezvous’d with our intrepid companions at Admiralty Arch and then, led by Pete, enjoyed a two hour mooch around the silent streets of one of the world’s busiest cities, finishing up back at Trafalgar Square for celebratory hot chocolate, bacon butties, single malt, fine cognac, cigars and Quality Street.

A minicab here, some dozing tramps there. Peering through the window of the occasional building we saw the odd night security guard faithfully at his post. They were our only company. Lovely. I’d do it again.

Update: Matt Brown, who was on our tour, has written eloquently about his take on proceedings, here. Blogger Ian Visits appears to have had the same bright idea as us and written it up here.

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william makepeace thackerayWhile I plan to quaff at the bar of Dickens-mania with the best of you, I shall probably not become too deeply involved as such. My Dickens knowledge is pitiful, I shall probably simply use the anniversary as an opportunity for self-improvement Dickenswise.

While the 2012 Dickens anniversary is enjoying the full blast of publicity, many may not  have noticed that 2011 was the 200th birthday of William Makepeace Thackeray, who was born in India, on 18 July. He died this very day – Christmas Eve – unexpectedly from a stroke at his Brompton home in 1863. He was buried at Kensal Green, then quite a new cemetery. And he was hence as close as possible a contemporary of Dickens.

Dickens and Thackeray had a rather odd relationship that was heavily tinged with rancour. That these two titans were literary rivals was inevitable. They were careful to praise each other publicly in print. But Dickens, writing about Thackeray after his death, nonetheless still managed to have a pop:

We had our differences of opinion. I thought that he too much feigned a want of earnestness, and that he made a pretence of under-valuing his art, which was not good for the art that he held in trust.

Thackeray for his part, had said about Dickens in a public lecture:

I may quarrel with Mr. Dickens’s art a thousand and a thousand times, I delight and wonder at his genius.

Essentially it seems that these men grudgingly admired each other’s work, but as we can see, differences were clear. Things came to a head in 1858, but there had been an atmosphere in London literary circles for at least a decade, mainly indirectly between Thackeray and Dickens’ chief supporter and friend, John Forster. The two men traded insults in print on and off through the period, Forster’s position being that the author was “as False as hell”. The rancour was presented as differences in literary thought – all very academic – but seemingly was anchored in the different backgrounds and social status of the men concerned – Thackeray being born into solid middle-class stock whereas Forster and Dickens – as is well enough known – knew true poverty and had to make their own way in life.

But things came very sticky in 1858 over two incidents. In the immediate aftermath of Dickens’ separation from his wife Catherine, Thackeray found himself having to refute that Dickens was having an affair with his (Thackeray’s) sister-in-law, but not without letting on that Dickens was in fact seeing an actress, a situation that was both true and would have been considered decidedly infra dig in the day. The second – and probably more serious – incident became known as the Yates affair. A young writer called Edmund Yates attacked Thackeray in print, questioning the author’s integrity. Yates, a friend of Forster and Dickens, was expelled from the Garrick and despite support from his two friends, his appeals were rejected both by the club and in court. Thackeray was a big noise in clubland, including as a long-standing member of the Garrick.

A matter of weeks before his death, Thackeray is said to have bumped into Dickens at the entrance to the Athenaeum Club and shook his hand. We’d like to think that they had made their peace.

Both of these giants have long since taken – and kept – their places in the Pantheon of English literature. But before the New Year fireworks for 2012 light up the London sky for Dickens’ year and all that follows, do remember to raise a glass for William Makepeace Thackeray in celebration of his anniversary year.

Source: Virtually all of this from William Makepeace Thackeray by Peter L. Shillingsburg in the Dictionary of National Biography.

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Here is an unfinished item I’m working on. It’s pretty crude – I’m very rusty on the ol pen and ink. It’s a map of sorts featuring the old medieval London Wall and the eight City gates. All were swept away in the 1760s to make way for road widening: the city was almost literally bursting at the seams.

You’ll find this a piece of cake compared to some London Christmas quizzes on the Internet right now, but before I finish it off and caption the gates properly, can you identify them?

london wall and gates of london

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“Keb, sir?”

It was a hansom! I had seen it before in daylight some days previously. I remembered that a man sitting in front of me on the top of an omnibus had turned to look at it, and had made some remark about it to a friend. A hansom! Once king of the London streets, once the gondola of the Strand, and now… there it stood beside the kerbstones with its queer air of being wrong way up, a sedan chair slung between two huge wheels, the horse glooming in the collar, the driver sitting perilously at the back, with his long whip in a metal slot near his right hand.

“Keb, sir?”

This was the wonderful HV Morton, writing in the 1930s, about possibly the last hansom cab in London.

hansom cab

1899 Hansom Cab. Image: Sherlock Holmes Museum

Hansom cabs were ubiquitous on our streets between the late 1830s through to the early 20th Century when the combustion engine sealed the fate of all horse-drawn transport. The cab was designed and patented in 1834 by Joseph Hansom (1803 – 1882). He sold his patent for £10,000, but was never paid, one of a litany of business failures which dogged the Yorkshire architect throughout his career. Hansom’s idea was to design a safer mode of public vehicle for hire and he came up with what at first must have seemed a bizarre configuration of passengers in the front with the driver sat behind, high above his clients. Cabbie and fare communicated with each other through a hatch in the roof of the cab.

A major tourist attraction in the world’s great cities – Paris, New York, Rome – is to take a carriage ride around town. What a shame we don’t do this in London with hansoms. Instead, all we have are those rather dangerous looking rickshaw-tricycles, more redolent of the Far East. Quite fun, no doubt, but not for me.

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