Tag Archives: london bridge

That’ll show the Cnut.

ImageBy God, it’s been a long time since last I posted here. The reasons are complicated – suffice it to say that I think we’ve heard the last of Baron von Hamstern. So, back to posting stuff about London!

There are various nursery rhymes on the subject of London and its characters. One of the most boring is surely ‘London Bridge is Falling Down.’ The lyrics you’re probably familiar with are,

London Bridge is falling down,

Falling down

Falling down

Falling down

London Bridge is falling down,

My Fair Lady

I mean, there are other verses, but that’s what everyone remembers. In all honesty, you’re not missing much if you don’t know the rest. But did you know that it’s based on a true story?

Oh yes. First, a little background. Now, as you’re no doubt aware, the unbelievably boring bridge that we now call London Bridge is far from the first by that name.ImageThe present bridge replaces one that was built in 1831 (which is now based in Lake Havasu, Arizona, as per this photo). The 1831 bridge replaced a medieval bridge which lasted for hundreds of years in varying states of disrepair. Indeed, the fact that it was falling to bits in the 17th century helped save Southwark from the Great Fire – collapsed buildings on the bridge formed a firebreak.


Old London Bridge. If you look closely, you can see the heads on spikes, which were a popular tourist attraction. You had to make your own entertainment in those days.

So, case closed, right? The medieval bridge, or Old London Bridge as it’s popularly known, was basically all about the falling down. That rhyme could have come from almost any time in its history.

Could have, but didn’t. No, it seems the rhyme dates from even further back from that.

We need to go right back to the 11th century for the origin. At this time, London was under the rule of the Danish King Cnut, a man who was permanently one misprint from disaster. Cnut had conquered England and exiled King Aethelred the Unready, who didn’t see that one coming for obvious reasons.

While Aethelred was in Normandy, plotting his bloody vengeance, he formed an alliance with King Olaf Haraldsson of Norway. Olaf sailed his troops up the Thames to meet Cnut’s forces in London. The forces were arranged on either side of the river, with a substantial proportion of them based on the wooden bridge that was then known as London Bridge.

Fortunately, Olaf, unlike Aethelred, was ready for this, and had a cunning plan. He simply hitched his ships to the bridge supports and ordered his men to haul away. The bridge collapsed, killing the troops on the bridge and dividing Cnut’s forces. London was retaken, and the event was commemorated in an epic which begins,

London Bridge is fallen down.

Gold is won, and bright renown.

Shields resounding,

War-horns sounding,

Hild is shouting in the din!

Arrows singing,

Mail-coats ringing,

Odin makes our Olaf win!

This is commonly given as the origin of the nursery rhyme. Admittedly Cnut took London back a couple of years later, but nobody’s writing any nursery rhymes about him. Probably because of the aforementioned misprint issue.



Filed under Buildings and architecture, Disasters, History, Landmarks, Literature, London, london bridge, Thames, Uncategorized

Ice, Ice Baby

Winter, it would seem, is well and truly here. I am basing this purely on the heinous amount of snow outside. Of course, this isn’t entirely unexpected – it’s been brass-monkeys cold for a while now. I’m not a religious guy, but on Saturday, with my hands purple and aching with cold, I had cause to thank God for Primark and their inexpensive gloves. Later that day I took the terrible photo above, showing that City Road Basin in Islington was partially frozen.

Back in “The Day,” (i.e. up until about the mid-20th century) frozen canals and rivers were a serious issue. Canals in particular, which don’t flow like a river, were vulnerable to icing up. This had obvious economic consequences for trade, particularly before the advent of decent roads and railways. The low-tech but cunning solution was to apply brute force and a certain amount of wiggling. This was achieved using the canal icebreaker, or “rocker,” as they were known in the business.

The rocker was like a shortened narrowboat, but instead of a cargo area, it simply had a long bar. The bow sloped upwards. A team of men would stand either side, holding on to the bar. When the rocker came to ice, the bow would ride up on top of the ice and the men would rock back and forth to break it (hence the vessel’s nickname). This was usually sufficient for all but the most Arctic conditions in London.

[PARENTHESIS: Did you know that the word “Arctic” comes from the Latin word for polar bear, “arcta.” Arctic literally means “place where there are polar bears.” Antarctic means “place where there are no polar bears.” Now you know.]

Now, earlier this year I wrote about the frost fairs that were held on the Thames when it froze over in winter. The idea of the river freezing over sounds like the sort of thing that went out with breeches and snufftaking. In fact, the end of the frozen Thames can be put down to several factors. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, the river flows that much faster these days. The construction of the Embankments north and south of the river has constrained it, which, if you recall your school physics lessons, speeds the flow up. The old London Bridge, which had lots of arches and waterwheels to slow things down, has been demolished and replaced twice – the new one allowing freer flow and also, interestingly, possessing heating elements for the road over it.

Industry since the dawn of the steam age has discharged a lot of hot water – and other products – into the Thames, raising the overall temperature. I would imagine residential and commercial premises, with their heating and lighting, are contributing factors as well – but I’m no scientist.

And down in South London, the draining of the Lambeth marshes (commemorated with the street called Lower Marsh in Waterloo) has meant that ice no longer forms along the banks there, preventing the freeze from getting a foothold, or whatever it is that freezes do.

That being said, I was surprised to learn how recent the last big freeze was. In fact, it was 1963. This was the coldest winter since 1740. Roads and railways were, as you might imagine, choked up. Rivers fared little better, and even the sea was frozen at Margate and Chatham (the Navy employed an icebreaker at the latter). The Thames, as you can see above in this view at Windsor, was no exception. At Oxford, one chap managed to drive a car across the river. The docks in London iced up like many others, driving prices of imported goods up. Kingston saw ice skating on the river, and bicycle races were held at Hampton. Below right may be seen boas iced up near Hampton Wick.

Will climate change result in us seeing another freeze like 1963, or are such sights finally confined to the history books? Well I don’t know.

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The Mask of the Red Death

(Warning – this entry probably NSFW, we’ll see how it goes)

Having engaged in the usual Halloween activities of placing razor blades in apples, poisoning Haribo and breaking several dangerous psychopaths out of prison to roam the streets, I’m fully prepared for the trick-or-treaters the evening may bring. In the meantime, I probably ought to recap the events of Friday and the Last Tuesday Society’s Danse Macabre event.

The day did not go well. Two of our party cancelled, a cashpoint ate my card and it was raining when I set out for the evening. When I got to Borough, the intent was to meet with the Directrix and others at her new studio – unfortunately, I managed to balls up the communications there. On the way in, I bumped into someone who directed me in a play a few years back, which continued the tradition of weird coincidences around Last Tuesday Society events.

Nevertheless, I managed to meet up with Tiny Emma and some others who were new to all this. We went and queued up, where we were delighted to meet some of the security staff. I don’t know where the staff came from, but they seemed to be quite determined that however much fun we were having standing in the cold, we should be having less of it. The Society handed out bananas, which improved matters somewhat (and you know what? Banana skins really are slippery!).

Eventually we got in, and I tried to seek out the Directrix’ party in an effort to unite our two groups. Unfortunately, I was hampered by the fact that the event was extremely crowded, and my mask made it kinda difficult to see.

Overall, the costume – pictured left – was a bit of a hit. I lost count of the number of people who wanted to take a photo of or with me. I also managed to startle quite a few people, and had a couple of women who wanted to kiss the skull. Not bad for a customised £3.50 mask from Sainsbury’s.

As for the event itself, it seemed a little less OTT than previous balls. I think there were fewer freaks than usual – I certainly didn’t see as many, but as previously mentioned, I had trouble seeing anything at all. A lot of people seemed utterly bewildered by the whole thing (“There are naked people! In the buffet!“).

I wonder if this was perhaps because, with it not being strictly a masked ball this time, people were less willing to drop their inhibitions. There were a lot fewer people at the hot tub this time by the time we got there, for instance.

The bar service, credit where credit’s due, was a lot better this time around. Separate bars had been set up for those who just wanted water or beer, which helped, and the staff seemed a lot more competent. So kudos there.

These two delightful young ladies were very complimentary about the mask.

As previously mentioned, we weren’t too impressed by the security people, who seemed rather overzealous. One of our party bitterly noted that the plastic club (about the size of a truncheon) that formed part of his costume had been confiscated because it was considered to be an offensive weapon. Upon his pointing out that several people had canes and the like, which are far more offensive as weapons go, he was told “We’ll get around to them.” In fact, he seemed rather annoyed that I still had my cane. I’ll be honest, I got the impression that he didn’t like me much. He was Tiny Emma’s ex, and such people tend not to like me. I don’t know why, it’s not like I’m some Adonis who’s going to whisk their former girlfriend away. Seriously, I don’t even have a face.

Still, there was much to enjoy – the pop-up cinema was showing the classic of silent horror cinema, Nosferatu, and Tiny Emma was mildly horrified by a man who offered to put hoops through her spine and suspend her from the ceiling. I told her she should have gone for it, but she remained sceptical. So much for open-mindedness.

Oddly enough, I managed to remain pretty sober throughout. I don’t know if this is a by-product of the diet and exercise, but the alcohol just didn’t seem to have any effect. Given the amount of effort it took to drink anything with that mask, I thought this was jolly unfair.

Despite the general lack of freaks, this event lasted rather longer than the others. Usually things start to properly wind down around 2.00, or so it seemed to me. This time, things were still going pretty much full swing when the party came to a close at about half four.

Goodness me, I don’t have much space between these two pictures… Ah, that’s better.

With the party over, I made my way back through the mean streets of Southwark and Elephant and Castle to Kennington, where I got the night bus home. One of our party asked if it was entirely wise for me to be wandering through the rougher parts of South East London at this time of night. I pointed out that dressed like this, it was unlikely that I would even be approached, let alone mugged. And it was so.


I arrived back home just in time for my alarm to go off, indicating that I had now been awake for 24 hours. Not bad, really. Between that and the clocks going back, my body clock is royally screwed. Oh well.

Roll on New Year’s Eve Eve, I say.


Filed under Arts, Booze, Clubbing, Current events, Fashion and trends, Food, London, london bridge, Music, Photos, Randomness, Sports and Recreation, Waterloo and Southwark, Weird shops

Thomas the Tank Engine – London boy?

One of the staples of fantasy fiction is the creation of a fictional world. While fantasy is by its very nature not set in the real world, it needs a framework within which it can operate – history, geography, science and culture. Some works simply throw a generic fantasy setting together (the Inheritance trilogy). Some are set in a world almost identical to our own (Twilight). Some evolve over a long period of time and many books (Discworld). And some works simply seem like an excuse for the author to write about the world he has created (Tolkien’s Middle Earth books). To what extent this world intrudes on the story depends on the author.  Some authors will bludgeon the reader with endless discussions of the setting – to put things in perspective, Tolkien spends about fifty pages just talking about the history of hobbits at the start of Lord of the Rings. By contrast, other fantasy worlds might give you only a little of the setting – a few hints on the history and language here and there, nothing you couldn’t ignore. One of the most complete and yet least intrusive worlds in fantasy that I’ve ever come across is also one of the least known. I draw your attention to this chap:

Yes, I do mean that. Thomas the Tank Engine – or rather, the series of books in which he originates – has one of the most complete worlds in fantasy fiction, and you’d barely even know it.

The books, collectively known as the Railway Series, first appeared in 1945. The first title was The Three Railway Engines, and didn’t even feature Thomas. The engines just lived on some railway somewhere. As author Rev. W. Awdry wrote more books set on this railway, he found himself in need of continuity. Initially this took the form of simple maps and notes – to get from here to here, this engine must pass through here and so forth. Gradually they became more elaborate, and Awdry created the Island of Sodor as a setting. This was inspired by the fact that the diocese in which the Isle of Man is located is known as “Sodor and Man.” While there is an Isle of Man, there is no corresponding Isle of Sodor. So Awdry put Sodor between England and Man. With the significant help of his brother George, who was the librarian at the Liberal Club, Sodor started to take shape – history, geography, economy, geology, demographics, religion and dialect were all created. Real historic figures and events were woven into Sodor’s history. Minor background figures and places were fleshed out.

Not that you’d know any of this from the actual stories themselves. The research simply serves the function of making the stories consistent and realistic (well, as realistic as children’s stories about talking trains can be). Not wanting to waste the heinous amount of research that went into making sure that Edward the Blue Engine doesn’t pull a train of clay in the wrong direction, the Awdry brothers published a volume called The Island of Sodor: Its People, History and Railways. This is not the sort of thing you would read to a three-year-old child. It barely even references the in-universe fact that the trains are alive. Not to mention the slightly traumatising information that the Fat Controller from the early stories is dead and it’s now his identical grandson running things.

I’ve got an awfully long way without talking about London even once. So allow me to explain. You see, an important part of making the series realistic was ensuring that the trains running on Sodor were also realistic (usual but-they-have-faces disclaimer). Therefore, Awdry had to invent plausible histories for each character – Henry the Green Engine was built as a result of industrial espionage in the early 1920s, for example, and Percy the Small Engine is a heavily-modified product of the Avonside locomotive works.

Unmodified Avonside, seen at Didcot.

In most cases, this involved a heavy amount of retroactive continuity – as I say, Awdry had had only the vaguest idea of setting when he started the books, and so those early characters had long and sometimes implausible histories invented to fit them and to explain why they didn’t look like any real-life locomotive.

In the case of Thomas himself, the good Reverend had a head start. You see, the original illustrator of The Three Railway Engines was a gentleman named William Middleton, who was frankly terrible. Awdry demanded a better illustrator for the second book, and received former Admiralty artist Reginald Payne, whose career had made him very familiar with painting machinery.

The second book was Thomas the Tank Engine, and you can see Payne’s cover above. Having had the situation and requirements explained to him, I like to imagine that Payne nodded thoughtfully and clicked a pipe between his teeth, and set to work. He went rather beyond Rev. W. Awdry’s specifications that the pictures should be realistic, and actually based Thomas on a real life locomotive.

The real life locomotive in question was the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway’s E2. This was a small, obscure class of engine, mostly used for shunting. In particular, they saw a lot of use in and around London – Victoria, London Bridge, Herne Hill, Crystal Palace and Hither Green all had them at one time or another. In the first story in which he appears, Thomas works at an unnamed big station getting coaches ready for trains – just the sort of work the E2s were used for at Victoria and London Bridge. It’s entirely possible that Payne saw these engines at work personally. Depending on which version of events you go with, either Awdry suggested the engine to Payne, or Payne chose the engine himself.

So, uniquely among those early characters, Thomas the Tank Engine had a real-life basis, and may well have worked in London. Unfortunately, Awdry never quite figured out how a London or South Coast-based tank engine should end up off the coast of Cumbria…


Filed under 20th Century, Arts, Film and TV, History, Literature, London, london bridge, London's Termini, Notable Londoners, Transport

London Bridge is falling out

Gather round, children, and I shall tell you such a tale – a tale of rivalry, reconciliation and railways. You may recall in my last entry I talked about Deptford and briefly mentioned passing through London Bridge station. Well, I thought it would be nice today to continue our little history of the termini with that lad.

Anybody who has to use this station on a regular basis will know what a godawful pain it is to get around. There’s one set of platforms over there and there’s another over here and that one’s a through platform and that one’s not and this entrance is at right angles to that one and the sweet shop is overpriced. Alan A. Jackson describes it as “indisputably the most hideous of London’s termini.” I still say Euston beats it, but we can take a vote later if you like.

The reason for the messed up layout of London Bridge is that, unlike most of the other termini, it’s actually several stations crudely stuck together. The first station was owned by the London and Greenwich Railway, which you may recall from the previous entry opened in 1836. The idea was to build on a viaduct whose arches could be rented out as shops and houses, thus bringing in highly desirable revenue. There are some of the arches above.

The station as opened was nothing special – just the end of a viaduct, really, where Platforms 9 and 10 are today. It was known in those days as Tooley Street. There was no shelter and barely any platforms. Later on they used a sail as a shelter, which meant that the first train shed was basically a tent. History does not relate whether the sail was swiped from a ship by someone leaning out of the train, but I like to pretend it was. A grand Euston-style entrance arch was planned but never built.

The station staff were not great either – the low platforms meant that train carriages had to have folding steps to let people down, and the staff were in the habit of not letting the steps down fully, allowing themselves a glimpse of any well-turned ankles belonging to ladies stepping down. There was also a reported tendency for staff helping women on to the train to press the ladies’ fingers and “stare them full in the face” (so says the Kentish Mercury). I suppose this was the 1830s equivalent of the subway frotteur.

London Bridge was a pretty fine site for a station. I’ve mentioned in other entries the incredible difficulty and expense in building a major railway station within the City, and at that time it appeared that London Bridge was about as close as anyone could get. The London and Greenwich Railway had figured this, and had bought enough land on the site for other companies to build there. And so they did. Within a decade, the London and Brighton, the London and Croydon and the South Eastern Railways all had their London base there. A more pleasant but heinously undersized new station building was put up.

The history from here on gets very complicated and rather boring if you’re not a railway person, so I’ll spare you the full details. Long story short, L&GR got greedy, L&CR moved out to Bricklayers Arms, L&GR merged with L&BR and there was a lot of rebuilding at the station. The end result was one station owned by the South Eastern Railway and one owned by the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway, stuck together.

It’s a sign both of the somewhat unfriendly attitude between the companies at this stage that the two stations were wholly incompatible. That’s why nowadays you have a handful of platforms that, for no apparent reason, are much higher than the rest. That’s why the train shed doesn’t go all the way across. That’s why there’s a wall in the middle of the station. The companies didn’t even want to look at each other.

If you’ve ever wandered around outside the station, you may have noticed that there’s a St Thomas’ Street, but St Thomas’ Hospital is nowhere near. That’s the railway’s doing. In 1859, the South Eastern decided they wanted a terminus of their very own at Charing Cross, and so arranged to build a through line. At the time, St Thomas’ Hospital was just east of the station. There was no way to extend the railway without clipping St Thomas’ grounds. Not much, less than a quarter of an acre, and the railway was happy to pay a very fair £20,000. St Thomas’, however, demanded the price of the entire hospital and grounds – £750,000, 90% of the SER’s budget. The SER reluctantly handed it over, at which point St Thomas’ yelled “Suckers!” and used the money to build a new hospital in Lambeth.

In 1923, both the London, Brighton and South Coast and the South Eastern and Chatham Railway (which the SER had become – I told you it was complicated) were taken over by the Southern Railway, who promptly banged the two companies’ heads together and knocked a hole through the wall between the stations.

The station took a hell of a hammering during the Blitz, with most of the buildings being damaged or destroyed by bombing. I think my favourite story from this period, though, was of the bomb that landed on the signal box on December 9th 1940, when a parachute mine got caught in a signal girder and came to a stop leaning against the box wall. It was eventually defused, but in the meantime the signalmen inside kept right on working. That, my friends, takes some balls.

Wartime damage was left largely unrepaired right into the early 1970s, when British Rail finally got embarassed enough to do something about it. The rebuilt station, opened in 1978, was generally agreed to be a great improvement on the old one. So remember that, commuters. When you’re running across the concourse because you’ve discovered your train leaves from a completely different set of platforms, things used to be worse.


Filed under 19th century, 20th Century, Buildings and architecture, East End and Docklands, Geography, History, London, london bridge, London Underground, London's Termini, Medicine, Photos, Politics, Suburbia, The City, Transport, Waterloo and Southwark


With nothing planned this Friday night (you know how it is – soiree here, West End premiere there – the only way not to offend someone is to turn them all down), I’ve been a-surfing YouTube. While there, I came across this video.


If you haven’t yet clicked on the link, it’s the video for the song ‘Ghost Town’ by the Specials. While I love the song, the video is I think relevant to this blog, largely because it’s a fascinating glimpse of the East End pre-redevelopment (although they also visit the City). I recognise quite a lot of the then-abandoned bits of 80s London – they’ve been refurbished and cleaned up, but they’re still there. All in all it’s a nice addition to the ‘London In Ruins’ subgenre.

You can fit a lot of 80s band members into a 50s car. See also 'Driving In My Car' by Madness.

Also, how sad is this? I recognise one of the tunnels they drive down. It’s under the London Bridge viaduct. I need to get out less.

Further viewing

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MUKvOpCz4zM&feature=channel – The Special AKA (literally The Specials by another name) singing ‘Bright Lights,’ a not entirely complimentary song about the city.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JppOXQt_fOA&feature=channel – ‘Lonely Crowd,’ in which the vocalist goes to a club in St John’s Wood and has a dreadful time.

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2009 in retrospect, with naked people

Typically in the first blog entry of the New Year, you’re either supposed to talk about the year that’s just gone or make your predictions about the year coming up. I intend to do the former, but only going as far back as December 30th. I’ve spent the entire year writing about the things this blog is about, and so a recap is surely unnecessary.

The 30th, however, was a night of note about which I have not written so far. The Directrix organised a trip to the Last Tuesday Society’s event, the New Year’s Eve Eve masked ball, held at The Bridge under the arches of the London Bridge railway viaduct. The dress code, according to the website, was “Divine Decadence.” The same site also advised that while masks were obligatory, clothes were optional. I decided that clothes were certainly the preferable option in my case due to my compassion for greater humanity. In the meantime, I busied myself painting the mask you see on the left there.

On the day of the party, it soon became clear that there was a problem I hadn’t anticipated, namely that of condensation – the mask had almost no ventilation, and within a few minutes I had something akin to a tropical rainforest going on in there. In the queue I found there was actually water leaking out of the eye holes. Classy, not to mention sexy.

Anyway, once we got in I was pleasantly surprised. Generally when “decadence” is promised, the full extent of said decadence consists of a fat guy in a nappy and a 17-year-old drinking too much and being sick on you. This time, however, the party was very much as advertised. Decadence was abundant.

The best thing about the masked ball, as a concept, is that your face is hidden. If I might get a little philosophical here, one of the major things that prevents you from being naughty in your day-to-day life is the fact that you might be recognised. You might also be prevented by reason of being boring, but that’s outside the scope of this article I’m afraid. My point is that the masked ball is an opportunity to really misbehave.

Thanks, strategically-placed peacock feather!

This one was no exception, if the dude wearing nothing but a mask and a leash around his gentleman’s prerogatives was any indication. I mean, seriously, I’m hardly a prude, but there were enough naked people around there to turn a chap vegetarian.

Of course, it wasn’t just a case of making your own entertainment, and there was plenty laid on. Music was being provided by the Texas Chainsaw Orchestra, Seas of Mirth, the Trans-Siberian Marching Band, Jimbino Vegan and his Jazz Cannibals and various other escapees from The Mighty Boosh. If that wasn’t to your taste, there was a Santa Striptease for the ruination of your childhood. There was a giant mechanical penis that one could ride and, if successful, receive a bottle of gin as a prize. I don’t know if this was supposed to be a tribute to William Hogarth or what, but one of our party received a bottle for her mastery of bucking genitalia.

The bar, it has to be said, was a little slow – on one occasion I found myself recalling when the entire area was fields. The buffet, however, was really something else – as you may see a couple of photos above, it was presided over by four naked ladies. Apparently there was supposed to be a man as well, but “he pulled out at the last minute.” Well knowing the double meaning of this phrase, I avoided the semolina pudding. Having said that, I can’t remember what I actually did eat. I consider myself a fairly enlightened guy, but when faced with four unexpected naked ladies, my thought process goes something along the lines of, “By George, how Bacchanalian – but are not all pleasures of the flesh closely linked? Are not the act of eating and the act of love traditionally associated with each other? This display is, in fact, an illustration of that which we instinctively BOOBIES BOOBIES BOOBIES


We left before the hot tub, but in that time I learnt many things. First of all, in a lesbian orgy, it is important to expect the unexpected. Secondly, you can get away with a lot more if nobody can see your face. Thirdly, if you feel something prodding your left buttock on the dance floor, you should not turn around. Fourthly, full-face masks make it a little difficult to drink. Others of the party learned that the more complex your costume is, the harder it is to get to the toilet, and that nipple damage is no laughing matter.

Overall, the event was Most Enjoyable, and I would heartily recommend it to licentious folk across the city.

I should probably warn you that this entry was NSFW.

Further Reading

http://www.thelasttuesdaysociety.org/index.html – The Last Tuesday Society’s website

http://www.thelasttuesdaysociety.org/gallery_2.html – The gallery of the night. Yr. Humble Chronicler’s party was among those photographed, but you do have to scroll through quite a lot of nudity to get to us. As in real life.

http://www.vimeo.com/8472597 – A video of events.

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