The other day I prepped a walk for some old friends around some of the waterways and green spaces of London. Yesterday was that day and it was sunny and lovely and everyone turned up.
The thing about this city, any city probably, especially one with such a long, not always splendid history is that there are always those oddities to find if you know where to look, be in elephants or the only Nazi memorialised in London.
For those interested in the facts, this was the route, once again from St Pancras to Westminster.
To avoid repeating myself I’ll pick out a few of these highlights in case any of you find yourself in London and want to go on a weirdy hunt…
Last time out we visited St Pancras Old Church and spent a moment at Mary Wolstencroft’s grave. However that’s not the only reason to take some time in the beautifully wooded surroundings minutes from the bustle of Kings Cross and St Pancras stations. There’s an ash tree, that’s been growing for 150 odd years now that is surrounded by grave stones. These stones marked the final resting places of a range of London’s denizens, whose only mistake was to be buried in the path of the new railway being built. The Act of Parliament that authorised this line also permitted the exhumation and reinterring of those bodies. What the legislation didn’t cover was the fate of the headstones. The young engineer charged with the task of clearing that part of the graveyard wasn’t happy to be told to dump the stones so he directed his men to move them to a spot away from the line of the works and prop them against a small tree.
The stones stayed but the engineer disillusioned by the ruthlessness threw in his chisel and headed for home. He took up a pen, became monstrously famous and channelled all that misery and despair into some of the greatest miserablist fiction, such as Thge Mayor of Casterbridge and Jude the Not Very Well Known. Thank you Thos. Hardy.
Along the side of the Regents canal are many old buildings. One became the home of Britain’s first Breakfast television channel, TV am. The channel didn’t survive and the building is now home to Viacom’s MTV. But one feature survived – the iconic Go To Work On An Egg egg cups that topped out the gables.
Past Camden Lock village, a centre for aquatic sports was built on one of the many bridges that span the canal in the shape of a pirate castle. Perhaps that image – of a breed of person that cocked a snook at authority – is the reason why our most famous stencillist, Banksy chose this spot to place one of his pieces. These are so famous that owners and authorities are desperate to preserve them, despite the whole purpose of street art being to emphasise its ephemeral nature, so they are covered in protective Perspex. I suppose that’s society’s way of subverting Banksy.
While looking for art there are always pieces appearing across the city. In Regents Park a fox conversed with a friend while in Green Park, in the view of Buckingham Palace a herd of Asian Elephants never quite stampeded.
This last installation was a memorial to Mark Shand brother of the Duchess of Cornwall and famous conservationist. The lead elephant is named Tara after the destitute street creature Shand rescued and took on his travels before setting up a charity dedicated to preserving the species.
A couple of hundred yards away we find two contrasting memorials. Halfway along the Mall there’s an imposing if discreet bronze to George VI, the Queen’s dad. He died in 1952 and it was fifty more years before his wife, the Queen mum joined him in 2002. Normally these things leave me rather indifferent but I was taken with this thoughtful pairing.
Contrast this grandiosity with the next curio. As you approach the grand buildings of Admiralty Arch and Horse Guards parade there is a set of steps up to your left. Appropriate really as atop the column is the Duke of York, not the current bearer of that title who should be on a pike not a column, but the one famous for taking his men up and down another hill in another place. If you can drag your eyes away there’s a little corner shaded by an oak at the foot of which is a small marker.
Giro loyal companion of Herr Hoescht, the German Ambassador to London in the 1930s during the Hitler government. The German shepherd may not have been a willing Nazi so his headstone remains. I think that’s fair.
Another head stone can be found embedded in the wall of one of London’s oldest buildings across Whitehall from Horse Guards. Banqueting House was built in the early 1600s commissioned by James I. It is a bit bland on the outside, partly because of an 1820s restoration that clad the outside in Portland Stone. John Soane – remember him from the church – did the work. He designed the Bank of England and Dulwich Picture Gallery near where I live. He liked Portland stone.
It spoke of royal power and hubris. What better place therefore to be used as the final departure lounge for James’ son Charles I when he was beheaded in 1649, leaving via the first floor window and onto a specially constructed scaffold.
These days both the monarchy and window have been restored and a bust – head only naturally – of Charlie One is embedded in the wall below the window. Sort of both appropriate and a bit tacky if you ask me.
To the left of Banqueting House is Horse Guards Avenue. The next lumpen building is home to the Ministry of Defence, naturally guarded and impenetrable. Atop the entrance are two lumpen stone sculptures which give this 1950s building a vaguely KGB feel. Apparently they represent earth and fire – two more were planned but were never made. The staff, when they moved in, were not impressed, nicknaming them Mr and Mrs Parkinson after Cyril Parkinson, head of the Board of Trade and creator of Parkinson’s Law, mantra for the jobsworth that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”.
We finished in Parliament Square, home to many statues. Churchill appeals, hunched and harrumphing, while Gandhi looks on, somewhat disquieted and Millicent Fawcett recently invited and the only woman, so far takes her time to settle.
As with Millicent, there are still protesters, mixing EU Remainers with travel industry representatives making loads of noise. It wouldn’t be the same without these passionate, often largely pointless protestations (Millicent’s was anything but pointless). I’m glad I live somewhere where this can happen and no one, apart from those taking part, much minds.
And then it was off to the bus stop and home in time for tea….