Tag Archives: thames

Where It All Began

Hello! I’m back! I hope you all had a lovely Christmas and New Year, and are ready for the next year of London exploration. To kick the year off, we’re going right back to the city’s founding.

The old city (link: http://is.gd/xBboQP)

Londinium, the Roman forerunner to London, was built around 43 AD, meaning that the city is just shy of two thousand years old. But even before this, during the Iron Age, there were settlements up and down the river. Because the English Channel wasn’t fully formed until about 5000 BC, finally cutting Britain off from the mainland, people have travelled freely until that point, and now the British were all but trapped. Despite suggestions to the contrary, it was not Julius Caesar who invaded Britain and founded London. In fact, he didn’t even want the country, being too occupied with taking over France. However, he did visit a couple of times, back in 55 and 54 BC, and it would take almost a hundred years more before the country was finally invaded under instruction of Claudius, with Aulus Plautius leading the army, and Claudius himself later turning up with elephants to help the fight.

The Romans then set about building roads, as they always did, and had to decide where to build their main city. Three major rivers were considered – the Thames, the Severn and the Trent – but the Thames was eventually chosen due to its tidal nature, and because it was the closest to Europe of the three. History would be very different indeed had they picked another river. At the time, the Thames was much shallower and wider, surrounded by marshland framed by two hills, named Ludgate and Cornhill. It was so wide that the crossing that is now London Bridge was once over half a mile across; five times the current width. It’s also interesting to note that because landscapes change so dramatically once humans get involved, that while the river was also a different shape, the Roman streets and buildings would have been around twenty feet below today’s street level.

In around 50 AD, the first settlements had been established for trading purposes, but it would all come to an end just ten years later when the Iceni tribe, led by the fearsome Boudica revolted against the Roman invaders. Angry at the way she had been treated when her husband had died – the Romans had backed out on a deal regarding land, and abused her daughters – she took matters into her own hands and razed the city to the ground. The fire was so disastrous that the entire settlement was burnt and it left a thick layer of burnt clay that was found in later excavations.

So, back to square one. With Boudica soon killed, Julius Alpinus Classicianus stepped in as governor, deciding not to take revenge on the people, but to work up a system of integration. By 70 AD, the first forum had been established, and was soon followed by bath houses and a palace of the governor, which sat below what is now Cannon Street Station. With a fort built in 120 AD, work soon began on a wall to surround the town, a wall that roughly adheres to the boundary of the City of London. The walls were nine feet thick and added to over the centuries, the East wall having been developed in the fourth century in something of a hurry, as it contained tombstones and other items in the construction mix.

The Romans eventually departed from Londinium in 410 AD, deserting the city and leaving it to the elements. Maybe in another timeline that was the end of the city, but thankfully, in this one, it was only the beginning…

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The Ladies’ Bridge

Waterloo Bridge

Waterloo Bridge

The Thames has over two hundred bridges crossing it, which is remarkable given that for much of its history, there was just the one – London Bridge. One of the most interesting of these bridges is perhaps Waterloo Bridge. It may not be the most glamorous looking, but in this week’s quick installment of “Love Letters To London”, I shall explain why I’m particularly fond of it.

The original Waterloo Bridge (known as the Strand Bridge before completion) was built on this stretch of the river, now situated between Blackfriars Bridge and Hungerford Bridge, in 1817, opened as a toll bridge. Its history remains chequered, as during the 1840s, it had become a popular destination for suicide attempts, a reputation that seems to have tragically lingered. In 1878, the toll booth was removed, and people could pass freely across, but in the 1920s, the bridge closed – the structure was becoming increasingly dangerous.

Demolished, plans were afoot to rebuild it, with new technologies to make it safer and longer-lasting. It was also clad in Portland stone, which has the remarkable ability to clean itself when it rains. Despite the start of World War II, the bridge was partly opened in 1942, and completely in 1945, although it holds the dubious distinction of being the only bridge in London damaged by bombs during the Blitz.

It also holds another remarkable distinction – one far less dubious – in that it was built primarily by women. With men all at war, the work force was mostly female and so it has gained the sometimes title of The Ladies’ Bridge in honour of the women who worked on it. My girlfriend likes to acknowledge also the fact that it remains the only London bridge to have been completed on time and under budget.

History, however, seems to have largely obscured this fact. Despite an announcement being made at its completion that thanked all the men who worked hard on its construction, it seems that generally women’s displacement from history in this area was because the records were lost, and not through malice or sexism, but one does wonder.

Waterloo Bridge 2The most thrilling aspect of the 370 metre bridge to me though lies beneath it, rather than on it. Under its final arch on the Southbank sits a book market, one of the most delightful in the country, if not the world. Because they’re sheltered by the bridge, come rain or shine the outdoor book market is open for business, selling second hand and antique books of every genre imaginable. I’ve picked up so many bargains over the years, as well as discovering some genuine treasures.

So that’s Waterloo Bridge, a quick run down of one of the Thames’s many crossings. I daresay more will be forthcoming – we’ve got a lot of time and plenty to get through.

 

The Meaning of London

This way, please.

No one knows what the word “London” means. That might seem surprising, but given that the city is about two thousand years old, some of the paperwork is bound to have gone missing in that time.

When the city was founded by the Romans in 43 AD (there was evidence of tribes in the location before this time), it appears to have been given the name Londinium. The prefixes of Londin- and Lundin- were used occasionally around the Roman Empire, but their meaning remains a little confused still. However, some people suggest that it actually is based on a Saxon name, christened for a King Lud who once ruled the city. But was Lud even real? That’s hard to say, because he crops up earliest in books of Welsh myths and legends, and there seems to be some confusion as to the validity of his existence.

There are many suggestions, however, that the name is actually Celtic, not Roman. The pre-Celtic Old European language has a word (p)lowondia, which means “a river too wide to ford”. This could describe the Thames, as even now it’s much narrower than it was, and for a long time it was hard to get across. There’s another ancient language known as Ligurian, spoken by people in what are now southern France and northern Italy, and their word lond means “mud” or “marsh”. Again, this is possible – being on the banks of a large river, prehistoric London would almost certainly have been marsh country.

The Welsh phrase Llyn din means “lake fort”, so is that the origin? The Brythonic language has lhwn, which means “grove”; does London come from Lhwn Town? Then there’s the suggestion it’s a reference to the temple of the Roman goddess of the moon, Diana. A temple to her supposedly once stood where St Paul’s now stands, so is the origin Lunadun, “city of the moon”?

In pre-Roman times, defended earthworks built to protect the locals were called duns, thus suggesting another option for the latter half of the name, at least. And just to confuse matters even more, the Vietnamese words lœun and dœun both mean “low, inferior, muddy”, again tying in to other similar theories.

Even some of Britain’s Israelites have wandered into the debate, claiming that the first Londoners were descendents of the Tribe of Dan; lan-dan literally meaning “abode of Dan”. At this point, it’s pretty safe to say that we will never have a complete consensus on what the word means.

London’s familiar curve

So if we can’t get to the bottom of what London means, I wonder if there are any simple explanations for some of the more, shall we say, esoteric place names in the city itself.

The Thames, for a start, is notable for being pronounced completely unlike it looks like it should be, although this is nothing unusual in the English language. The word, however, comes from the Celtic word for it, and means something like “dark”. In Latin its name was spelt Tamesis, and in the Magna Carta, it’s spelt Tamisiam. The th- at the beginning of the name was pretentiously added during the Renaissance because it sounded more Greek. The name was in use by the time the Romans turned up anyway, as a Roman local was called Tamesubugus, named after the river.

OK, so what about tube names? While many – Baker Street, Hyde Park Corner, Holloway Road, Monument – describe exactly where they come out at, some of the names seem a little stranger.

Mudchute is one I’ve always found funny – indeed my friend Claire, mentioned in previous posts, lived here for a while – as it seems to be an unfortunate name for quite a nice area of Docklands. Unromantically, Mudchute was originally a dumping ground for any unwanted products (usually mud) taken from the Millwall Docks to prevent it from silting up. Using a pneumatic chute, the mud was transferred from one side of the road to the other. The Millwall Docks closed in the 1970s, and since then the area has developed and part of it has been turned into a city farm.

Elephant & Castle is probably the oddest name on the tube network, but the mystery behind it isn’t actually that exciting. One imagines, perhaps, some sort of battle when elephants stormed a south London castle, but this never happened. The most common theory bashed about by those without a clue of the truth is that it’s a corruption of “La Infanta de Castilla”, a reference to a number of Spanish princesses. Unfortunately, the name predates the use of the word infanta, and the truth is that it’s simply the name of a nearby coaching inn.

Before it had been a pub, it had been a blacksmiths who used ivory and had his crest emblazoned with an elephant. Shakespeare even mentions the Elephant Lodgings in Twelfth Night. Similarly, Angel tube station gets its name from a local pub too, and there’s still an Angel there, although it’s now owned by Wetherspoon.

The Seven Sisters of London

Seven Sisters is named for seven elms that surround a walnut tree. The originals have been moved and replanted numerous times, and now the seven trees are hornbeams. On the theme of trees, Burnt Oak takes its name from the time it referred merely to a field that contained, yes, a burnt oak tree. Sometimes these things are taken far too literally.

Cockfosters, that name that makes everyone going northbound on the Piccadilly line chuckle inwardly even a little, actually refers to the home of the chief forester, the “cock” being the head of something in old English. Finally you have two odder names on the DLR, Cyprus and East India. No, these are not signs that the tube network is now stretching over Europe to India, but both refer to the times of colonisation and empire. Cyprus is the name of a local estate, but it does indeed come from our historical links to the country, and East India is at the docks where the ships arrived from the Indian subcontinent.

Much of London is absurdly strange, and so the names are of course going to be a little odd. It seems fitting that a city with such a conflicting and conflicted history has a name that escapes explanation, but it’s refreshing to know that even the slightly odder, giggle-worthy names of the city have completely regular explanations, giving further insight into the many faces the city has worn and continues to wear.

The First Step

“London is a riddle.” – G. K. Chesterton

It all started when my train was cancelled. I found the one that was a dead cert for getting into London and hopped on it, arriving in the city four and a half hours before I was due to meet my friend. As the train got closer and closer to its destination, I found myself staring out of the window. I’d been reading the rest of the way but then there I was, my eyes flickering around the scene like it was the first time I’d seen it.

A plane banks and takes off into the horizon. People are hanging sheets out on their tiny balconies. Graffiti peppers the walls, and Tower Bridge peeks above blocks of flats. Then the Gherkin swims into view and the train stops at London Bridge. I get off and by the time I’m out of the station, stood beneath the Shard, I have decided on a plan of action – I am going to walk though London and fall in love with the city all over again.

Deciding to head west, I trip down steps and through Borough Market, where my nostrils are attacked immediately by traders setting up their stalls, some serving up cooked breakfasts and baps, others offering all manner of cheeses and spices. It is still early, the market not yet in full swing, so I slip on through and am suddenly face to face with the Golden Hinde, the galleon owned by Sir Francis Drake and an easy reminder of the city’s long history. Anywhere else it might look out of place, but in London, it looks right at home.

Shoplifters will be prosecuted.

Shoplifters will be prosecuted.

I slip down Clink Street, past the prison museum and notice, for the first time in my life, a skeleton hanging in a cage above the entrance. Was that always there? Is it real? I trot along Bankside; St Paul’s visible ahead, the Shard already seeming far behind. Cranes speckle the skyline, adding a never-ending string of finishing touches to the city. I’m suddenly outside the Globe Theatre, a replica built to honour William Shakespeare and his work. I admire the strangeness of Millennium Bridge, a bridge unlike any others that crosses the Thames as of yet, and avoid looking at the Tate Modern. I quite like it from the outside, but what happens inside is of no concern to me – I don’t understand it.

A lone human statue, spray-painted silver and hovering in a seated position comes into view and I march past, no longer as impressed as I once was when I first saw one of these. Under Blackfriars Bridge, and then past London Television Centre, where a soundstage of leather sofas is being set up on the side of the river for This Morning, a crowd of people gathered to see who’s going to be sat on them.

A man walks past me chatting into his phone speaking a language that sounds more like Simlish than anything else, a sudden reminder that London is a city made up of people from all over the world with every kind of background. To aid this point I note Cleopatra’s Needle on the other side of the Thames, another artefact brought here from a different time and place. London is a city where all of time and space is trying to happen at once, held together – just about – by copious amounts of duct tape and hope. No wonder the Doctor spends so much time here.

The bookshop under Waterloo Bridge is only just setting up – I’m too early – so I make do with a trip into Foyle’s instead. I buy a book, because I can’t not, and resume my walk. On the northern bank of the Thames is a building that looks like a Bavarian castle; a thought passes through my mind that I’ve no idea what it is. Back on the Southbank, I approach the London Eye, a singer belting out a rock song of his own devising on one side; a performer dressed as Charlie Chaplin taking photos with a tourist on the other. Tourists are suddenly now everywhere and I can no longer walk in a straight line – I dodge, duck and weave and emerge on Westminster Bridge.

A friend of mine has recently got a job in the Houses of Parliament, so I text and ask if he can escape to see me, but he’s in a meeting and there won’t be a reunion today. I cross the bridge anyway, MI6 in the distance, one of the most obvious secret buildings in the world. I loop around Parliament Square, observing the statues of Churchill, Lloyd George, Peel, Disraeli and others, discovering for the first time that Abraham Lincoln has a statue here too. Why? I sit for a little and then continue on, pounding the streets between the Supreme Court and Westminster Abbey, sure that I’ve never been up this road before.

The Duck Tour bus comes down the road, heading for the river. An Indian family get out of a car, having apparently found the last parking space in the city. Anyone who drives in London is far braver than me. I’m now at St James’s Park tube station, a station that I have no memory of, apparently one of the few in Zone One that I’ve never used. Not much further on is the ever-spinning sign of New Scotland Yard, a place I’ve never seen in person, only on television.

I pass into Pimlico now, through a street market selling cheap trainers and expensive sandwiches, and then past the offices of Channel 4, a massive number four outside, towering over taxis dropping people off. I keep walking, now not sure where I’m going at all, but pressing on regardless. I somehow loop and I’m heading back towards the river, but I don’t mind, I let my feet take me where they need to. Before I know it I’m back at the Thames, on the north bank this time, MI6 and St George’s Wharf now dominating the skyline.

I keep on west, the smell of salt water reminding me that we’re not actually that far from the sea, comparatively, and at this point the river is still tidal. I walk past some houses, right on the riverside, presumably worth millions. One has an unusual sundial on the wall, and a chess set with intricately carved figures set up in the window. I contemplate taking a picture, but the Private Property sign makes me think twice.

I move to a street further from the river and suddenly every road and building has the word Grosvenor in it – I’m into a seriously posh bit of London. I wonder now whether I most want to end up at Agatha Christie’s Chelsea home, or beneath the watchful gaze of the Natural History Museum’s diplodocus in Kensington. As I think, I spot a set of stands that should contain hire bikes, but there is only one left. On the road, a man opens a van and begins to unload the bikes, setting them up. It’s only then that I look up and see the towering face of Battersea Power Station on the other side of the river. It hits me now just how far I’ve walked and I look at my watch. I’ve been walking for nearly three hours. I’m meant to meet my friend shortly, and we’re meeting in Canary Wharf. I can’t walk back that far. I check a map and move to Victoria, the closest tube station.

My aching feet in blue suede shoes.

My aching feet in blue suede shoes.

I walk past houses I’ll never be able to afford, find a statue of Thomas Cubitt that seems to have been swallowed up by the city and most people probably have no clue is there, and wonder absently what’s going on behind the curtains. I cross Lupus Street, wondering if it was named for the disease and, if it was, why, and then am engulfed by the pervasive smell of a Subway, just before passing the Queen Mother Sports Centre, a name which conjures up a hilarious image of the dear old Queen Mum in all her finery on a treadmill.

At Victoria I grab a sandwich and mill among the people, then descend beneath the city to find a tube station. If it was hot above ground, it’s nothing compared to the fetid, stale air of the underground system today. As I reach the bottom of the escalator, there’s a crash and I look up to see a woman’s shopping trolley has upturned itself on the ascending escalator and is spilling shopping down the steps. Enough people run to assist her which means I don’t have to feel guilty about not helping. I think briefly of the stereotype that Londoners are unfriendly and ignorant. I don’t think it’s true, never really have.

The tube journey is uneventful otherwise. I change once at Green Park and power on to Canary Wharf, where I mooch around the shops in the underground mall for a little bit, joining the businessmen and women on their lunch breaks in what seems to be their own private part of the city. Eventually I find a seat in a bar with the wonderful name of Smollensky’s and await my friend’s arrival. My feet hurt, but I am happy.

My mission was to fall in love with the city again, and I absolutely did that. I saw things I’d never seen before, encountered old things for the thousandth time, and generally let my mind wander as far as my feet. So I’ve started this blog to talk about all things London, to explore its streets, buildings, history, people, culture, parks and everything else besides. It’s a city I think I know well, but here’s where I put that knowledge to the test.

Join me, won’t you?