Street art in London’s East End

Attitudes to street art seem to be changing. I was taking a photo of some wall art in an alleyway just off Hoxton Street in Hackney when an old woman, carrying her shopping into a nearby housing estate, walked past. “Lovely init,” she said in a Cockney accent, “a nice bit of graffiti for a change.” We stood together, two amateur art critics, admiring a strange supernatural-themed piece of art for a moment. “Not my cup of tea”, I said, “but it brightens things up.”

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

We went our separate ways, and I walked towards Shoreditch High Street and Brick Lane. This area has changed dramatically over the last few years, and now hosts more painfully trendy, upmarket bars, restaurants and private members clubs than you can shake a stick at. Prices have shot up and the demographics of the area have changed accordingly. It’s still a haunt for street artists though, and the area’s walls provide a rich canvass for expression.

It’s an area that has had a long association with street art. When I lived in the area seventeen years ago it was home to numerous Banksy artworks, including a dribbled white line of paint along Curtain Road that led into an alleyway where a cocaine snorting policeman was painted on a wall. More famous were Banksy’s acid house policemen on the railway bridge over Old Street.

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Like all of life’s transient pleasures, both vanished, removed by Hackney Council. You don’t see so many Banksy pieces any more, his fame has driven up their value and many have been torn from walls and sold. You do see a diverse range of other street artists though, and they have lent the area a new dynamism. So much so, that you’re fairly likely to bump into walking tours taking people around the area’s street art highlights.

Street art in Hackney was always complemented by commercial art. Hoxton Square was home to Jay Joplin’s White Cube gallery, which did much to encourage an infamous crop of Young British Artists like Tracey Emin, Gilbert & George, Anthony Gormley and Damien Hirst. The area is still home to plenty of independent art galleries, but rising property prices have pushed many young artists out of the area.

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Hoxton Street, Shoreditch, London

Hoxton Street, Shoreditch, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

On Great Eastern Street, hoardings around building works had been turned into a temporary canvas. I took a few photos and noticed a security guard walking towards me. I thought I might be in trouble (some ridiculous companies report photographers to the police, or demand photos be deleted because of terrorism fears). It transpired that he just wanted a chat. He said the graffiti changed most nights, and thought the painting of a rabbit-person was the only interesting piece.

Later, in the streets surrounding Brick Lane, I came across a feast of ever-changing art. I bumped into a fellow street art aficionado, who turned out to be a lecturer at a Tel Aviv university. We compared notes from around the world, and agreed this area of London was pretty special. I made my way back along Brick Lane and, my day of street art spotting over, went to get a real ale in one of the area’s nicest pubs, The Carpenter’s Arms.

Caught in the act, Street art, East End, London

Caught in the act, Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Street art, East End, London

Back in the hood, a walk through London’s East End

It’s been nearly three years since I was last in London, a city I lived in for more than a decade. In a place that never stands still three years is a long time, and I was eagerly anticipating exploring some of my old haunts to see what had changed. Shoreditch, where I’d lived for all those years, was my destination, and I felt a thrill of excitement as I walked past a growing community of house boats along the canal between Islington and Hackney.

Hoxton Street, Shoreditch, London

Hoxton Street, Shoreditch, London

Goat statue, City of London, London

Goat statue, City of London, London

Hoxton Square, London

Hoxton Square, London

If one thing is certain in an uncertain world, it is that Shoreditch would be both familiar and alien at the same time. In the decade I lived here the area changed dramatically, but managed to retain its distinctive character. It’s location close to the financial heart of the City, and its growing reputation as London’s ‘silicon valley’, has seen a rapid new wave of gentrification – most obvious in the proliferation of trendy coffee shops, and a preponderance of men with well groomed beards and moustaches.

Despite that, and much to my relief, it still seems to have its rough edges. Not every traditional East End pub has been turned into a moustache-friendly bistro (although there aren’t many ‘boozers’ left); there are plenty of painfully trendy cycling shops that double as boutique coffee houses, but there are still shops selling bizarre collections of secondhand electronics; and thanks to a large amount of social housing, not everyone in the local community has been forced out by rising house prices.

Firmly rooted in the historic East End of London, Shoreditch is famously mentioned in the nursery rhyme, Oranges and Lemons. In the 16th and 17th centuries, its location outside the City of London allowed industries that weren’t permitted inside the city to flourish in the area. Dozens of trades existed here, specialising in interior design- and clothing-related trades: tanners, cloth makers, rope makers, saddle makers, varnish manufacturers, furniture makers and haberdashers.

The area was also famous for ‘nightlife’ – it still is. The first Elizabethan theatres were built here. Shakespeare performed as an actor in a theatre on Curtain Road, and many of his plays were produced in the area. Where there were theatres, there were also ne’er-do-wells. Shoreditch gained a reputation for its dissolute and bawdy ways – not to mention high crime rate. Playwright, Ben Jonson, killed a man outside a notorious Shoreditch pub in 1598.

Recycling truck, Hoxton, London

Recycling truck, Hoxton, London

Street art, Shoreditch, London

Street art, Shoreditch, London

Hoxton Street, Shoreditch, London

Hoxton Street, Shoreditch, London

Street Art, Shoreditch, London

Street Art, Shoreditch, London

Number art, City of London, London

Number art, City of London, London

This heady mix of cultures attracted subversives. In the 18th and 19th centuries it was home to non-conformist religious groups, and was a hotbed of dissent. The arrival of the Industrial Revolution simply cemented its reputation for poverty and radicalism. Tightly packed with people living in slum conditions, it’s not hard to imagine the area seething with social and political injustice – and it’s no surprise that Charles Dickens frequently visited the area for inspiration for his novels.

All the slums and industry might have gone today, but at its core Shoreditch remains true to its tradition as a centre of dissent harbouring sub-cultures. The area is still a melting pot of communities and cultures. There are still seedy drinking dens with live performances ranging from up-and-coming bands to burlesque; tattoo parlours flourish; galleries showcase exciting new collections. It must be one of the most diverse areas in London.

A Girl's Best Friend ... Brick Lane, London

A Girl’s Best Friend … Brick Lane, London

Bagel shop, Brick Lane, London

Bagel shop, Brick Lane, London

Brick Lane, London

Brick Lane, London

Brick Lane, London

Brick Lane, London

Brick Lane, London

Brick Lane, London

Shoreditch is just a short walk from Brick Lane, traditionally an East End immigrant Jewish community but now home of a sizeable Bangladeshi community – and also London’s finest curry houses. The area was made famous by Monica Ali’s novel (later film), Brick Lane. I wandered down here because it’s a fascinating area, has some great independent shops, pubs with real ale and good food, and is home to one of the finest bagel shops in London.

My delicious salt beef bagel, eaten with pickles standing at a counter overlooking the street, tasted like a little piece of home. Awakening from my nostalgic daydream, I set off to hunt out some street art. This one of London’s best and most creative areas for street art … but more of that later.

Rotherhithe, strange tales of whales and Pilgrim Fathers

Puritans. Very determined people the Puritans. Best remembered for their zealous dedication to strict and rigid Protestantism, and utter opposition to the ‘heresy’ of the Catholic Church; history has passed down to us an image of forbidding black clothing, ridiculous hats and dour humourlessness. The average Puritan wasn’t exactly renowned for his or her joie de vivre. These are the people behind the Salem Witch Trials, and we all know how that went.

So it was with some mirth that, as I wandered the history soaked streets of Rotherhithe, I came across a pub called The Mayflower, named for the ‘Pilgrim ship’ which left England in 1620 for North America. Were they transported back to modern-day London, I’m sure the assorted gang of Puritans who left England’s shores on the Mayflower, would be furious to discover themselves commemorated by something as immoral as a pub.

Statue of a Pilgrim Father, Rotherhithe, London, England

Statue of a Pilgrim Father, Rotherhithe, London, England

The Mayflower Pub, Rotherhithe, London, England

The Mayflower Pub, Rotherhithe, London, England

The Mayflower Pub, Rotherhithe, London, England

The Mayflower Pub, Rotherhithe, London, England

A little investigation over a pint of Pale Ale led to the discovery that the Mayflower started its journey from this very spot. The arrival of the Mayflower in New England is a significant moment in Western history; imbuing this area with an historical importance that would be hard to guess at walking down the street. The Puritans left England fleeing what they saw as religious persecution; the authorities saw them as troublemakers, probably traitors, and were presumably glad to see the Mayflower disappear down the Thames.

Boats on the Thames, Rotherhithe, London, England

Boats on the Thames, Rotherhithe, London, England

Boats on the Thames, Rotherhithe, London, England

Boats on the Thames, Rotherhithe, London, England

Sixty-five people boarded the Mayflower in Rotherhithe in July 1620. Amongst them some of the people now known as the Pilgrim Fathers, the founders of New England. The ship was tiny, cramped and suffered three months of delays before sailing into terrible weather crossing the Atlantic. The bravery and determination of the men, women and children on board cannot be underestimated. I tipped my glass to their bravery, and left the pub to stroll on the foreshore of the River Thames where the Mayflower was anchored.

The foreshore by the Mayflower Pub, Rotherhithe, London, England

The foreshore by the Mayflower Pub, Rotherhithe, London, England

The foreshore by the Mayflower Pub, Rotherhithe, London, England

The foreshore by the Mayflower Pub, Rotherhithe, London, England

Leaving the Mayflower behind, I set out to investigate a couple of nearby churches. Close to the pub is St. Mary’s Church, which claims strong associations with the Pilgrim Fathers. The current church dates from 1715, but there has been a church on this site from the 13th Century. There is a drawing of the former church dating from 1623, and it is likely that the Pilgrim Fathers worshipped there before sailing. The church was locked, but luckily one of the most interesting things about the church can be found in the graveyard.

St. Mary's Church, Rotherhithe, London, England

St. Mary’s Church, Rotherhithe, London, England

St. Mary's Church, Rotherhithe, London, England

St. Mary’s Church, Rotherhithe, London, England

Here lie the remains of Prince Lee Boo from the Pacific island of Palau. How a member of royalty from a Pacific island came to be buried in Rotherhithe is the story of the expansion of global trade in the 18th Century. In 1783, the English ship, Antelope, was shipwrecked near Palau and the surviving members of crew formed an alliance with the local king, Abba Thulle. The crew built a new boat and Abba Thulle decided to send this son, Prince Lee Boo, with them when they left for England.

Why did Lee Boo end up in Rotherhithe? The ship’s captain, Captain Wilson, came from Rotherhithe and Lee Boo lived with him when he arrived in England. He attended school and services at St. Mary’s. Sadly he died, as so many people did, from smallpox.

Grave of Prince Lee Boo, St. Mary's Church, Rotherhithe, London, England

Grave of Prince Lee Boo, St. Mary’s Church, Rotherhithe, London, England

Grave of Prince Lee Boo, St. Mary's Church, Rotherhithe, London, England

Grave of Prince Lee Boo, St. Mary’s Church, Rotherhithe, London, England

As I walked through St. Mary’s graveyard I passed St. Mary’s Free School. Founded in 1613 by two local sea captains, it was intended to educate the children of seafarers. It has two lovely statues on the outside, making it an interesting local landmark.

St. Mary Free School, Rotherhithe, London, England

St. Mary Free School, Rotherhithe, London, England

From here, glinting gold in the distance, I could see a church spire. This was the Norwegian Church in London, suitably located at 1 Olav’s Square. Although the current St. Olva’s Church dates from 1927, there has been a Norwegian Church in London since the 17th Century. Thanks to trade with Nordic countries there are several Nordic churches in London, and Rotherhithe, with its history of seafaring, is where most are located. The shining spire? A golden Viking Longboat.

St. Olav's Church, Rotherhithe, London, England

St. Olav’s Church, Rotherhithe, London, England

This area has very strong Nordic connections, and still has many residents of Nordic origins. This made it the obvious place for the Norwegian Government-in-Exile to establish itself during World War II.

Swing bridge at Surrey Dock, Rotherhithe, London, England

Swing bridge at Surrey Dock, Rotherhithe, London, England

The Ship and Whale pub, Rotherhithe, London, England

The Ship and Whale pub, Rotherhithe, London, England

Cementing the Nordic connections, a short walk from St. Olav’s is the enormous Greenland Dock, which was the centre of Britain’s trade with Nordic countries. Timber was a major import, but Greenland Dock is famous for its role in whaling. This is where Whalers, ships that hunted whales in the North Sea and Atlantic, came to off-load blubber, whale oil and whale bone. All of which were important commodities in the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries. Unsurprisingly, there are several whale-themed pubs in the area.

Deptford, the destruction of history and detritus of global trade

The London Borough of Deptford isn’t on anyone’s tourist top ten of London. It’s hard to imagine that, of the millions of tourists who visit London every year, more than a handful have heard of it. The majority of London’s seven million residents, at least those who don’t live in Deptford, would struggle to pinpoint it on a map. Feeling underwhelmed as I walked the streets, it was easy to understand why it’s one of London’s less loved boroughs.

Deptford struggles with high levels of poverty and crime, including a significant level of gang-related crime, and has definitely seen better days. Given this, it is almost impossible to understand why a couple years ago the New York Times enthusiastically encourage Americans to visit the area. The NYT described Deptford as “a boisterous concoction of blue-collar aesthetics and intermittent hipsterism“.

Canary Wharf from Deptford, London, England

Canary Wharf from Deptford, London, England

Canary Wharf from Deptford, London, England

Canary Wharf from Deptford, London, England

I’m not really sure what this means, but it sounds like the sort of soundbite typically reserved for areas like New York’s East Village. It certainly doesn’t describe the Deptford I encountered.

Deptford is now going through a painful process of gentrification, it also has a lot of historical associations. Chosen by King Henry VIII in 1513 as the site of the Royal Naval Dockyard, it is known as the birthplace of the Royal Navy. Queen Elizabeth I knighted Sir Francis Drake here in 1581, following his circumnavigation of the globe in the Golden Hind. This event is commemorated by a gateway above the Drake Steps, reputed to be where he famously laid his cloak at the feet of the Queen.

Drake Stairs, Deptford Strand, London, England

Drake Stairs, Deptford Strand, London, England

Canary Wharf from Deptford Strand, London, England

Canary Wharf from Deptford Strand, London, England

Tug on the Thames, Deptford, London, England

Tug on the Thames, Deptford, London, England

The Russian Tsar, Peter the Great, stayed in this area when he came to inspect the dockyards in 1698. The dockyards reached their zenith in the 18th and early 19th Centuries as British military and economic power spread around the globe. After the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, Deptford’s docks declined in importance. As the docks declined, so to did Deptford; little of this grand history remains today, many of the centuries old buildings destroyed in acts of historical vandalism.

A planned new development of apartments would destroy what remains of the Royal Navy Dockyards. Consigning this history, and tourism potential, to the scrapheap seems poor reward for an area which played an important role in London’s history. There is an alternative vision, supported by local groups: preserve the dock as a heritage site and build a working replica of a 17th Century ship. The decision has been taken out of local hands, now resting with London’s clown-like Mayor, Boris Johnson. Preserving 500 years of history or a 40-story block of flats. Which way will Boris jump?

Old swing bridge, Greenland Dock, Deptford, London, England

Old swing bridge, Greenland Dock, Deptford, London, England

Former hydraulics, Greenland Dock, Deptford, London, England

Former hydraulics, Greenland Dock, Deptford, London, England

Ship rope moorings, Deptford Strand, London, England

Ship rope moorings, Deptford Strand, London, England

Walking from the much better known Greenwich, and leaving the magnificent Cutty Sark behind, I walked back towards the City of London. It is a lovely walk, offering spectacular views of Canary Wharf and the river. The entire route is littered with the detritus of Britain’s global maritime trade, creating some interesting ‘modern art’ forms along the river.

These leftovers are evocative reminders of Britain’s industrial heyday, but you really have to work hard to imagine the area as it would have been – teeming with life and full of ships carrying cargo from around the world. Inland, there are a series of wharfs and docks where ships would load and unload their bounty from around the world.

Canary Wharf from Deptford, London, England

Canary Wharf from Deptford, London, England

Anchor, Deptford, London, England

Anchor, Deptford, London, England

Abandoned crane, Deptford, London, England

Abandoned crane, Deptford, London, England

Today, those docks which remain are little more than water features surrounded by apartments, but they provide an insight into the history of this area. On the border between Deptford and Rotherhithe lies the huge Greenland Dock. This was once known as Surrey Dock, but was renamed Greenland Dock when it became the centre of trade for whaling ships. After the decline of the whaling trade, the area was known for timber imported from Russia, Finland and Sweden.

Ship rope moorings, Deptford Strand, London, England

Ship rope moorings, Deptford Strand, London, England

Abandoned crane, Deptford, London, England

Abandoned crane, Deptford, London, England

Old wharves and River Thames, London, England

Old wharves and River Thames, London, England

My route eventually reached Rotherhithe, close to Tower Bridge. Rotherhithe is a fascinating and historic district where I found myself wandering aimlessly and bumping into some extraordinary history…but that’s for next time.

The Isle of Dogs and a walk under the River Thames

I’m not sure what seems more improbable, an island of dogs or being able to walk under the Thames. Then again, East London is full of surprises. Starting next to the historic and enormous (and closed) Hawksmoor designed St. Anne’s Church, my route passed through Limehouse’s narrow streets to the corporate glass and steel towers of Canary Wharf; arriving at the Cutty Sark in Greenwich via the Thames Path and the marvellous Greenwich Foot Tunnel.

St. Anne's Church, Limehouse, London, England

St. Anne’s Church, Limehouse, London, England

St. Anne's Church, Limehouse, London, England

St. Anne’s Church, Limehouse, London, England

No one really knows the origin of the name ‘Isle of Dogs’ – the great bulge in the River Thames. Theories, however, abound: royal hunting dogs were kept here; a corruption of the name ‘Isle of Ducks’; dead dogs washed up here; a nickname because people who lived here led a ‘dog’s life’. None of which make it sound particularly appealing. While the meaning is lost, the name was in common use by the 16th Century and has stuck.

Its almost unimaginable today, but this was a rural area until the 19th Century. Known as Stepney Marsh, it was a wetland criss-crossed by waterways, accessible only by bridge or boat. The marsh was drained in the 17th Century, becoming an important agricultural area providing food for London. This all changed in the 19th Century. It was transformed from cattle pasture into London’s most industrialised area, teeming with people and activity.

Dunstan's Wharf, Limehouse, London, England

Dunstan’s Wharf, Limehouse, London, England

Sailmakers House, Limehouse, London, England

Sailmakers House, Limehouse, London, England

Doorway, Limehouse, London, England

Doorway, Limehouse, London, England

Mid-19th Century, this area was the powerhouse of trade and communication with the British Empire. A relationship born witness to by the series of docks and wharfs dotted all over this area, all of which serviced the massive maritime ambitions of the British nation. Trade and Empire can still be recognised in names: West India Dock, Ontario Way, Cuba, Tobago and Malabar Streets. Today those connections are maintained by the international workforce involved in international finance at Canary Wharf.

Canary Wharf, Isle of Dogs, London, England

Canary Wharf, Isle of Dogs, London, England

Canary Wharf, Isle of Dogs, London, England

Canary Wharf, Isle of Dogs, London, England

View of the River Thames from the Isle of Dogs, London, England

View of the River Thames from the Isle of Dogs, London, England

The streets here were lined with wharves and hundreds of warehouses, built to house goods arriving or departing to every corner of the globe; it was the engine of Britain’s economy. That status made the Isle of Dogs a target in World War II. Starting on 7th September 1940, and continuing for seventy six consecutive nights, this area was bombed with heavy explosives and incendiaries. The Blitz had come to London.

Heinkel bomber over Isle of Dogs © Wikipedia Commons

Heinkel bomber over Isle of Dogs © Wikipedia Commons

The Blitz intended to destroy Britain’s the economy and the nation’s ability to fight. The warehouses and wharves burned for days on end, as did their contents. One bombing raid set fire to 380,000 tonnes of timber at Surrey Docks. By the time The Blitz ended a third of the Isle of Dogs’ warehouses, and tens of thousands of homes, had been destroyed. Bombs from World War II continue to be unearthed even today.

Ironically, the end of the war was even more destructive for local communities. The end of Empire and shifting global trade made the docks obsolete. Britain was bankrupt and rebuilding was little more than a pipe dream. This area remained – and still is in parts – a severely deprived area. Even the Docklands development of the 1980s, which bequeathed us Canary Wharf, did little to solve entrenched poverty.

Dry dock for SS Great Eastern, Isle of Dogs, London, England

Dry dock for SS Great Eastern, Isle of Dogs, London, England

Along the Thames Path occasional signs impart bits of forgotten history. One stated I was stood on the site where the Great Eastern was built. The SS Great Eastern was the brainchild of legendary engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. When it launched in 1858 SS Great Eastern was by far the largest ship ever built, capable of sailing to Australia without refuelling. Sadly, the SS Great Eastern was a commercial failure, ending its days in ignominy as a floating advertisement for a department store.

Leaving Canary Wharf behind, I arrived at the most exciting section of my walk. A small glass-topped dome marks the entrance to one of London’s hidden wonders: the Greenwich Foot Tunnel. Descending the iron stairs, you walk the 370 metres through a tiled tunnel less than 3 metres in diameter underneath the River Thames. A few fun-filled minutes later you emerge next to the Cutty Sark in Greenwich. The northern end of the tunnel has a section of steel reinforcing it where it was damaged by bombs in 1940.

Greenwich Foot Tunnel, London, England

Greenwich Foot Tunnel, London, England

Greenwich Foot Tunnel, London, England

Greenwich Foot Tunnel, London, England

Greenwich Foot Tunnel, London, England

Greenwich Foot Tunnel, London, England

It’s thrilling to walk through the tunnel. It has been used for all sorts of filming, events and ridiculous activities – bizarrely, it forms part National Cycle Route 1 (from Inverness in Scotland to Dover on the English Channel). More ridiculous, a marathon was run in the tunnel to mark it’s centenary. It takes 58 laps to run a full marathon in the tunnel, and there’s not much scenery en route. One hundred runners took part, and British marathon legend, Hugh Jones, won the race in a very credible 2 hours 45 minutes.

Rather him than me.

The Cutty Sark, Greenwich, London, England

The Cutty Sark, Greenwich, London, England

The Cutty Sark, Greenwich, London, England

The Cutty Sark, Greenwich, London, England

Taking a whirl on The Mighty Wurlitzer at the Musical Museum

I wasn’t sure what to expect from my visit to London’s Musical Museum, home to one of the world’s largest collections of mechanical musical instruments, but the phrase ‘giddy excitement’ seems appropriate. Like being let loose in a sweet shop as a child. This beautiful collection of self-playing instruments – collected from all over the world – is a real pleasure. Made all the better when listeing to these exquisite contraptions play live music. There are also recordings to listen to.

The Mighty Wurlitzer, Musical Museum, London, England

The Mighty Wurlitzer, Musical Museum, London, England

Rolls of music paper, Musical Museum, London, England

Rolls of music paper, Musical Museum, London, England

Film posters, Musical Museum, London, England

Film posters, Musical Museum, London, England

The museum is small but has a fabulous array of exotic self-playing instruments. There are pianola, pianos, violins, Hammond organs, Reed organs, theremins, gramophones, jukeboxes and much more. The names of the instruments are evocative of another age. Pianos on display include the Steck Duo Art, Steinwat Welte-Mignon and Chickering Ampico Model B; not to mention the Welte ‘Vorsetzer’, a remarkable ‘instrument’ which looks like a piece of furniture but plays an ordinary piano when rolled into place over the keyboard.

Welte Vorsetzer, Musical Museum, London, England

Welte Vorsetzer, Musical Museum, London, England

Metal perforated music disc, Musical Museum, London, England

Metal perforated music disc, Musical Museum, London, England

Within the three display rooms there is everything from tiny clockwork boxes to the museum’s pride and joy, a fully functioning Mighty Wurlitzer sat in a concert hall. I was lucky enough to hear it played live. If that wasn’t exciting enough, the Mighty Wurlitzer is an over-the-top art deco delight, complete with illuminated side panels which change colour from deep red to ice blue. This wonderful ‘instrument’ is connected by two thousand electrical wires to a room housing organ pipes and wind chests.

There are ordinary organs, most regularly encountered in churches; and then there are Mighty Wurlitzers, the pipe organ designed to imitate an entire orchestra. Fitted out with multiple keyboards, peddles and stop keys, it has percussion and special effects. On a Mighty Wurlitzer a person can play a piece of orchestral music – imitating trumpets, symbols, clarinets and violins – or mimic a train leaving a station, a galloping horse or the crashing of ocean waves.

The Mighty Wurlitzer, Musical Museum, London, England

The Mighty Wurlitzer, Musical Museum, London, England

The Mighty Wurlitzer, Musical Museum, London, England

The Mighty Wurlitzer, Musical Museum, London, England

The Mighty Wurlitzer descends, Musical Museum, London, England

The Mighty Wurlitzer descends, Musical Museum, London, England

Hearing a Mighty Wurlitzer in action is to be transported back to an age of concert halls and silent films. The Mighty Wurlitzer peaked in popularity in the 1920s and 30s, and was designed to accompany silent films, providing both an orchestral and sound effect soundtrack. The Musical Museum occasionally shows silent films with the Mighty Wurlitzer accompanying the on-screen action, which must be a wonderful experience – especially as it sits on a lift which raises it onto the stage and takes it down again.

Most of the larger instruments are operated by rolls of musical paper. The music is stored as perforations in the paper, these are read by the mechanism inside the machine which plays the correct notes. The first music roll was used commercially in 1883 in the USA. A pianist would play on a special piano that would mark a roll of paper as they played – a recording – this was then mass produced on machines in factories. The museum has two of these machines to show how the rolls were produced.

Music roll maker, Musical Museum, London, England

Music roll maker, Musical Museum, London, England

Violins played mechanically, Musical Museum, London, England

Violins played mechanically, Musical Museum, London, England

Rolls of music paper, Musical Museum, London, England

Rolls of music paper, Musical Museum, London, England

Many of the instruments were used in private homes – this was the way the wealthy middle class listened to music – others were in commercial settings. Dance halls, cafes and restaurants had them, as a result they have coin slots where people would pay for a tune. Our guide fumbled around getting an old 1p coin out of a mug, then sliding it into the coin slot he brought to life a machine that played two violins and a piano. We could see the entire workings as it played a popular 1900s tune: paper rolls going round and small wheels lowered onto the violin strings. Absolutely wonderful.

Instruments, Musical Museum, London, England

Instruments, Musical Museum, London, England

Paper roll and piano, Musical Museum, London, England

Paper roll and piano, Musical Museum, London, England

Instruments, Musical Museum, London, England

Instruments, Musical Museum, London, England

It is a privilege to see, and hear, so many working examples of such wonderful mechanical instruments. Unfortunately, the Musical Museum receives little funding and is only open three days each week. It is staffed by volunteers, many of whom are expert craftspeople who undertake repairs and maintenance on the instruments. It’s a small museum – which takes an hour or so to visit – and the £10 entry might seem a bit steep, but listening to the Mighty Wurlitzer in full voice makes £10 seem cheap.

Tales from the riverbank, memories of the English Civil War

These memories, I might add, are not my own, although the long winter days can make you feel several hundred years old. The English Civil War erupted in the late summer of 1642, following two years of protracted negotiations and disagreements between King Charles I and Parliament. London didn’t see much fighting during the conflict, and remained firmly in the hands of Parliamentary forces throughout the war.

London didn’t see much fighting that is, except for two critically important battles fought in West London at the very beginning of the war. Had these battles proved decisive for the King, London would have been captured and, without the huge support of London’s population, Parliament might not have triumphed over Charles I. The simple truth was, without London’s wealth and manufacturing, the Royalists couldn’t hope to win the war…not that anyone realised it at the time.

The River Thames near Richmond Locks, London, England

The River Thames near Richmond Locks, London, England

Boat on the River Thames, London, England

Boat on the River Thames, London, England

It is difficult to imagine today as you walk down the tranquil River Thames from Kew to Richmond, but there was vicious fighting here in November 1642. Parliamentary gunboats sailed along the river and bombarded Royalist forces massing at the stronghold of Syon House, which was damaged by artillery fire. A short distance from where I was walking on the Thames, the main battle was fought at Brentford (literally a crossing over the River Brent), an important entry point into London.

Syon House from the River Thames, London, England

Syon House from the River Thames, London, England

Syon House from the River Thames, London, England

Syon House from the River Thames, London, England

The River Thames near Brentford, London, England

The River Thames near Brentford, London, England

I was heading to Richmond Locks, where I planned to cross the Thames and loop back to Kew on the north bank of the river. A route which would take me through the grounds of Syon House and past the site of the Battle of Brentford. First though, I hoped to be able to get a sight of the Kew Observatory. Also known as the King’s Observatory, it was completed in 1769 at the request of King George III so he could witness the transit of Venus across the sun. At the time, this area was still considered countryside, and light pollution wasn’t the problem it is today.

Sadly this monument to the human fascination with the heavens isn’t open to the public. Worse, its in the middle of a private golf course, at the entrance to which are lots of forbidding signs about how plebs (sorry, non-members) aren’t permitted to enter. This means you have to trespass and risk being hit by flying golf balls, or turn back. Wishing the Parliamentary army was still around to sort out the golf club, I headed back to the river and continued along my way. I did find this photo though, from the London Bytes blog…

Kew Observatory, London, England

Kew Observatory, London, England

The River Thames near Richmond Lock, London, England

The River Thames near Richmond Lock, London, England

Crossing the river I was soon on the north bank heading east and passing through the grounds of Syon House. Closed for the winter, I had to make do with the view from outside the fence, and, as time was getting on, I pressed on to Isleworth. On the first half of my walk the lovely riverside location of the 14th Century All Saints Church in Isleworth had been illuminated by the sun. I now walked down Church Street, past some lovely Georgian houses and The London Apprentice pub, to the church itself.

All Saints Church in Isleworth, London, England

All Saints Church in Isleworth, London, England

All Saints Church in Isleworth, London, England

All Saints Church in Isleworth, London, England

The row of houses opposite The London Apprentice were once home to Arthur Penty (1875–1937), an architect and writer on guild socialism and distributism. Much more exciting though, it was also the home of the actor, William Hartnell, best known as the first Doctor Who from 1963–1966. He lived opposite The London Apprentice from the 1920s.

Arthur Penty's house in Isleworth, London, England

Arthur Penty’s house in Isleworth, London, England

All Saints Church in Isleworth, London, England

All Saints Church in Isleworth, London, England

All Saints is a bit of a disappointment. The church was gutted by fire in May 1943 and only the tower remains from the original. You may be thinking “May 1943? Did the Luftwaffe bomb the church?”, but the fire was the result of arson by two local schoolboys. Their crime spree saw another nearby church burnt down before they were caught. The replacement building is the product of 1960s Utopian architectural thinking, and is incredibly ugly. The sun was going down, so I pressed on through Syon Park, finally arriving at the site of the Battle of Brentford (1642).

Brentford was fortified with two regiments of Parliamentary soldiers, and was attacked by Royalist cavalry and Dragoons. As you walk down a busy road, passing through some fairly deprived areas, towards the site of the battle, its hard to conjure an image of charging cavalry, musket shot and thundering canon. Thundering trucks, yes, but this nondescript place offers up few hints of its history.

Site of the Battle of Brentford, London, England

Site of the Battle of Brentford, London, England

Site of the Battle of Brentford, London, England

Site of the Battle of Brentford, London, England

Although the Battle of Brentford was won by the Royalists, led by Prince Rupert, it wasn’t decisive, and the following day the two main armies clashed at Turnham Green. Again the battle was inconclusive, but Charles I decided to retreat to Oxford and spent the winter there. This was a disastrous decision for his hopes of winning the war. He would never come close to capturing London again, and his failure at Brentford and Turnham Green over the weekend of 12 and 13 November, 1642, would result in the loss of his kingdom and his head.

Tales from the riverbank, a walk around Kew

I love walking the River Thames, especially in west London where the city starts to fade away and things become a bit greener. At Putney the concrete paving of the Thames Path National Trail turns into a muddy track, and the grinding urban landscape gives way to become almost rustic. There are more trees than buildings, dog walkers in Wellington boots outnumber people tapping away on their mobile devices. In a crowded city the river offers a sense of space, the vast sky becomes visible.

The River Thames and Strand-on-the-Green from Kew Bridge, London, England

The River Thames and Strand-on-the-Green from Kew Bridge, London, England

Rowers on the River Thames from Chiswick Bridge, London, England

Rowers on the River Thames from Chiswick Bridge, London, England

You never quite leave the city behind, wandering off the river path will bring you abruptly back into an urban environment, but between Kew and Richmond there is a wealth of green space linked by the river. Kew is known as the home of the Royal Botanical Gardens, the magnificent UNESCO World Heritage Site dedicated to all things plant, but Kew itself is a lovely place.

Walking up river on a cold, sunny winter’s day is wonderful; sunny days have been in short supply and because it was mid-week the Thames Path was largely empty. The cyclists and joggers who take to the path in their hundreds at weekends, were safely tucked away in office buildings, leaving it in the care of a few dog walkers and my good self. Passing under Chiswick Bridge along the tree-lined path the occasional rowing boat passes, and the only reminder that you’re in a city of eight million is the buzzing airplanes overhead.

Thames Path sign, London, England

Thames Path sign, London, England

Thames Path near Kew, London, England

Thames Path near Kew, London, England

River Thames near Kew, London, England

River Thames near Kew, London, England

Ducking under a railway bridge, trains thundering overhead, you soon spot Oliver’s Island. This small wooded island in the middle of the Thames is rumoured to have been a secret base from which Oliver Cromwell led operations during the English Civil War. There’s no truth to the story, but the name has stuck. Once past the island you find yourself at Kew Bridge, with the option of going into Kew or crossing the river to Strand-on-the-Green along the north bank.

River Thames and railway bridge, Kew, London, England

River Thames and railway bridge, Kew, London, England

Oliver's Island, Kew, London, England

Oliver’s Island, Kew, London, England

River Thames, Kew, London, England

River Thames, Kew, London, England

Nestling in a bend of the river, Kew retains a distinctly village-like feel – albeit a very well heeled village. In part the village feel exists because Kew retains that most traditional of village landmarks, a ‘green’. Kew Green’s grassy public space is a large area surrounded by elegant Georgian houses. It is home to a cricket pitch and in the centre of the space is the splendid looking Church of St. Anne.

St. Anne’s was built in 1714 on land given to the Church by Queen Anne. Its a grand-looking building sitting amidst Kew Green, if you could climb the tower you’d be able to see the Royal Botanical Gardens just beyond the Green. Unsurprisingly, there are a number of people buried here who are associated with the Botanical Gardens, including Sir William Hooker, Director of the Gardens, and his son, botanist and explorer, Sir Joseph Hooker.

St. Anne's Church, Kew, London, England

St. Anne’s Church, Kew, London, England

St. Anne's Church, Kew, London, England

St. Anne’s Church, Kew, London, England

Headstone, St. Anne's Church, Kew, London, England

Headstone, St. Anne’s Church, Kew, London, England

Kew is almost as strongly associated with artists as it is botanists; its no surprise that the cemetery’s most famous resident is the wonderful landscape artist, Thomas Gainsborough, who lived nearby. It is also the burial place of German neoclassical artist and fellow member of the Royal Academy, Johann Zoffany. Zoffany lived at Strand-on-the-Green and enjoyed the patronage of King George III and Queen Charlotte, giving him access to the highest society.

Johann Zoffany's tomb, St. Anne's Church, Kew, London, England

Johann Zoffany’s tomb, St. Anne’s Church, Kew, London, England

River Thames, Kew, London, England

River Thames, Kew, London, England

Zoffany was, alarmingly, unique amongst contemporary artists. William Dalrymple, the historian and writer, has described him as “the first and last Royal Academician to have become a cannibal.” I’m sure that’s not how he’d prefer to be remembered, but sadly its true. Zoffany was returning to Europe from India when he was shipwrecked off the Andaman Islands. The desperate, and desperately hungry, survivors held a lottery in which the loser was turned into dinner.

Strand-on-the-Green, River Thames, Kew, London, England

Strand-on-the-Green, River Thames, Kew, London, England

Strand-on-the-Green, River Thames, Kew, London, England

Strand-on-the-Green, River Thames, Kew, London, England

Strand-on-the-Green, River Thames, Kew, London, England

Strand-on-the-Green, River Thames, Kew, London, England

The river is tidal at Kew – and for a few more miles up river. The tide was high the day I was there, it doesn’t affect walkers too much but is a recurring issue for people living on the banks. The houses which dramatically line the river at Strand-on-the-Green are regularly inundated with water. Walking past them on a footpath still wet from when the river most recently came over the bank, their vulnerability to flooding is clear. Many doorways are set high in the wall for just such an occasion.

Strand-on-the-Green, River Thames, Kew, London, England

Strand-on-the-Green, River Thames, Kew, London, England

Strand-on-the-Green, River Thames, Kew, London, England

Strand-on-the-Green, River Thames, Kew, London, England

While messing around by the river I discovered the Musical Museum, home to a collection of mechanical musical instruments, including a giant Wurlitzer. The museum was closed, but there’s no way I can resist the appeal of a giant Wurlitzer…

Wife swapping and summoning angels, the supernatural John Dee

Blue skies and sunshine have been hard to come by in London recently, and the weather forecast is relentlessly grim. When the sun does shine, there is a limited window of opportunity to enjoy it. During these short winter days a cold but sunny day is special. The light lasts longer into the afternoon; a sign of things to come, that the worst of winter is behind us.

I decided I’d walk along the Thames from Barnes Bridge to Kew Bridge. The tide was high and parts of the path were flooded and impassable. This proved lucky, I came off the river at Mortlake and discovered the lovely Church of St. Mary the Virgin. The stonework of the church tower looked old, the cemetery was atmospheric, but the supernatural connections of a person buried here makes St. Mary’s special.

Chiswick Bridge from the Thames Path, London, England

Chiswick Bridge from the Thames Path, London, England

St. Mary the Virgin Church, Mortlake, London, England

St. Mary the Virgin Church, Mortlake, London, England

Plaque to John Dee, St. Mary the Virgin Church, Mortlake, London, England

Plaque to John Dee, St. Mary the Virgin Church, Mortlake, London, England

Inside the church is a plaque to John Dee. The name was familiar, but I couldn’t remember why. With access to a computer, it dawned on me that a modern opera, Dr. Dee, recently celebrated his life. The work of Blur frontman, Damian Albarn, and future head of the National Theatre, Rufus Norris, it premiered in 2012. This isn’t the first time Dee’s featured on stage, Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest is thought to be based on him. A fitting portrayal since Dee is credited with summoning the storm that smashed the Spanish Armada. He’s also fictionalised in Peter Ackroyd’s novel, The House of Doctor Dee.

A trusted adviser to Queen Elizabeth I and her court, Dee was a mathematician, alchemist, astronomer, mystic, astrologer, geographer and occultist. He was rumoured to be a spy and he famously owned one of the largest libraries in Europe. He was a student of the teachings of Hermes Trismegistus, a pre-Christian writer/prophet, possibly a contemporary of Moses, who influenced many early Christian thinkers. This is the sort of discovery that happens when the Thames floods.

Portrait of John Dee

Portrait of John Dee

John Dee's 'Seal of God' in the British Museum © Vassil

John Dee’s ‘Seal of God’ in the British Museum © Vassil

John Dee had an extraordinary life. During the reign of Mary Tudor, he was imprisoned for for attempting to murder the Queen through black magic. He was lucky to keep his head. Considered an intellectual giant in his time, at the age of twenty he lectured at the University of Paris on algebra. He was deeply religious, but in a superstitious era, when people grasped at anything to make sense of the mysteries of the physical world, his ‘knowledge’ of astrology and the supernatural made him invaluable to Elizabeth I. He chose her coronation date to ensure it was auspicious.

John Dee demonstrating an experiment at Court, © The Wellcome Trust

John Dee demonstrating an experiment at Court, © The Wellcome Trust

His study of astronomy made him an ‘expert’ in navigation, at a time when Europeans were   starting to explore the New World. Dee had made friends with legendary map maker, Gerardus Mercator, while in Belgium. It seems he stole some of Mercator’s maps and on his return to Britain published a book, General and Rare Memorials pertayning to the Perfect Arte of Navigation. This proposed English expansion around the world – a blueprint for empire. Established as the foremost expert on navigation, he trained many of England’s merchant adventurers before they set sail for the New World.

To a modern mind, Dee’s mysticism took him in bizarre directions, including communing with angels, by which he believed it possible to understand the divine fabric of the world. He seems to have believed a confidence trickster, the ‘spirit medium’ Edward Kelley, who claimed to be able to hold ‘spiritual conferences’ with angels in Enochian, the angel language. The angels dictated several books to Kelley and the ‘spiritual conferences’ were taken seriously – both men were invited to the court of the King of Poland.

St. Mary the Virgin Church, Mortlake, London, England

St. Mary the Virgin Church, Mortlake, London, England

Gravestone, St. Mary the Virgin Church, Mortlake, London, England

Gravestone, St. Mary the Virgin Church, Mortlake, London, England

In 1587, Kelley told Dee that an angel had ordered both men to share everything in common, including Dee’s much younger wife. If that doesn’t set alarm bells ringing, I don’t know what does? Dee believed this to be a divine order and complied. History doesn’t record how Mrs. Dee felt about this divinely inspired arrangement. We do know that she died of plague in 1604, there is no evidence to suggest this was divine vengeance.

Today, Dee would be seen as a deluded religious fantasist, but that is the benefit of living in an age of science. In his own time he was considered one of Europe’s foremost scholars, taken seriously by Kings, Queens and religious authorities. He was, after all, a contemporary of Nostradamus. Sadly Dee’s grave has been lost over time, but he was buried at St. Mary the Virgin in 1609. The church itself was constructed in 1543 on the instruction of King Henry VIII and makes for happy wandering.

St. Mary the Virgin Church, Mortlake, London, England

St. Mary the Virgin Church, Mortlake, London, England

St. Mary the Virgin Church, Mortlake, London, England

St. Mary the Virgin Church, Mortlake, London, England

In another coincidence, just over the road from the church I came across a memorial to the the Lower Dutch House, part of the Mortlake Tapestry Works. The Tapestry Works were established in the 1620s on the site where John Dee’s house had stood and, as so often in English history, it attracted highly skilled immigrant Flemish tapestry workers. The tapestries made here were famous and very valuable.

The Lower Dutch House, Mortlake Tapestry Works, London, England

The Lower Dutch House, Mortlake Tapestry Works, London, England

Chiswick Bridge from the Thames Path, London, England

Chiswick Bridge from the Thames Path, London, England

Back on the river, the tide was going out and I could continue on my merry way to Kew Bridge…

2013, a year of extremes in pictures

I’m gazing out of the window, the rain is lashing down in ‘sheets’, driven by high winds that are bending trees at an alarming angle. Although only early in the afternoon, the light has already started to fail, making it seem more night than day. The traditional New Year’s Day walk has been postponed – in truth cancelled – due to a general reluctance to endure the terrible weather in person.

My mind keeps wandering over the year just past: this time last year we were celebrating the arrival of 2013 in Sucre, Bolivia, our home for a year. Although we would spend another few months in Bolivia, we were already planning a journey north that would take us through Peru, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica and Nicaragua, before returning to Bolivia. In between, we’d visit Argentina and Chile, Bolivia’s wealthier neighbours, for a change of scene and cuisine.

The Fiesta de Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

The Fiesta de Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

The Fiesta de Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

The Fiesta de Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

So, with one eye on the coming year, here’s my homage to 2013, a year which took us from the heart of South America to the heart of Central America. A journey from the high Andean mountains of Bolivia to the turquoise waters of Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast, and back again, before returning to Britain.

Adobe church and Vulcan Sajama, Sajama, Bolivia

Adobe church and Vulcan Sajama, Sajama, Bolivia

Siloli Desert, Bolivia

Siloli Desert, Bolivia

Salinas Grandes, Argentina

Salinas Grandes, Argentina

Cemetery in the Atacama Desert, Chile

Cemetery in the Atacama Desert, Chile

Fiesta in Cuzco, Peru

Fiesta in Cuzco, Peru

Magical Machu Picchu, Peru

Magical Machu Picchu, Peru

Oasis of Huacachina, Peru

Oasis of Huacachina, Peru

A woman sits on a Botero sculpture, Medellin, Colombia

A woman sits on a Botero sculpture, Medellin, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

The Panama Canal, Panama

The Panama Canal, Panama

The beautiful San Blas Islands, Panama

The beautiful San Blas Islands, Panama

The Pacific Ocean from La Cruz, Costa Rica

The Pacific Ocean from La Cruz, Costa Rica

The magnificent Granada, Nicaragua

The magnificent Granada, Nicaragua

The idyllic Pearl Keys, Nicaragua

The idyllic Pearl Keys, Nicaragua

Glorious Little Corn Island, Nicaragua

Glorious Little Corn Island, Nicaragua

…finally, returning to reality in London…un feliz y próspero año nuevo por todo.

Tower Bridge, London, England

Tower Bridge, London, England