Category Archives: Quirky stuff

The “Sheep Drive” over London Bridge

Sheep Drive 2015

Today is the day of  the annual “Sheep Drive”  over London Bridge, with Freemen of the City of London ceremonially exercising their historical right, dating back to the Middle Ages,  to drive sheep over the bridge without payment of a toll.  Nowadays, the ceremony, which is organised by the Worshipful Company of Woolmen, also serves to raise money for charitable causes.

The “London Stone”

The London Stone at 111 Cannon Street

The “London Stone” goes on temporary exhibit at the Museum of London today, while the site on which it formerly stood, at 111 Cannon Street, undergoes redevelopment.

The London Stone at St Swithin's

Previously, from the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it had  been  incorporated into the south wall of the church of St Swithin London Stone, and was preserved when the church was demolished after having been damaged in the Second World War, according to a stipulation in the conditions for the redevelopment of that site.

Previous to that, throughout the Medieval and post-Medieval periods, it had stood in the middle of the street, as indicated on the map of 1520, and was apparently used as a place from which to make important public pronouncements, being evidently richly endowed with  symbolic significance.   During the failed rebellion of 1450 that ended with the “Harvest of the Heads” of the leaders, one of the same, Jack Cade, alias Mortimer,  struck the stone with his sword, and declared himself to be “Lord of this City”.  In 1189, the first Mayor of London was one Henry Fitz-Ailwyn de Londonestone, who evidently  lived nearby.

Indeed, the  recorded history of the stone extends back even beyond the Medieval period and into the Saxon: it is referred to in a document of Athelstan, the first  Saxon King of All England (924-39).

And it is possible, although not proven, that before that, it  was associated in some way with the Roman “Governor’s Palace” complex that once stood nearby, and now forms part of a Scheduled Ancient Monument substantially under Cannon Street Station (it has  been postulated, plausibly, that it served as a milliarium, or centre-stone, from which Roman roads radiated and distances were measured).

According to one of many romantic myths surrounding the stone, it was the very one which Brutus used to mark the city of Troia Nova, and “So long as the Stone of Brutus is safe, so long will London flourish”.

As Leo Hollis put it, in his book “The Stones of London”: “We will never know [its true origin], and perhaps that is as it should be”.

Stones of Old London Bridge

On a recent visit to the picturesque village of Beaumont-cum-Moze on the Essex coast, Lost City came across some building stones used in the construction of a quay  and adjoining building that, according to a book on local history (“Secret Creek” by Graham Ross), came from old London Bridge …

Old London Bridge was originally built by  Peter, chaplain of St Mary Colechurch, in circa 1176-1209 (*), and demolished,  to make way for a new bridge built by John Rennie, in 1831 (**).  A quantity of material from the bridge was salvaged after its demolition, some of which was supplied to Guy’s Hospital, located a short distance away.  An alcove from the bridge still stands in the grounds of the hospital (and another in  Victoria Park in the East End).

Beaumont Quay was built on an Essex estate then owned by Guy’s Hospital in 1832, purportedly using stones from old London Bridge that it had acquired the previous year.  It was built at the landward end of a canal known as the Beaumont Cut, which once connected Beaumont Village to Hamford Water and the North Sea, but which has been disused since the 1930s.

(*) There are fine scale-models of old London Bridge as it would have looked in its Medieval  to Post-Medieval heyday both in the church of St Magnus the Martyr and in the Museum of London Docklands. There were scores of buildings on it then, including a great many shops; a chapel, dedicated to St Thomas Becket (it was on the pilgrimage route to Canterbury, where Archbishop Becket was the victim of the infamous “Murder in the Cathedral” in 1170); and, from the late sixteenth-century until the mid-eighteenth, a palatial residence known as Nonsuch House.  The bridge had a total of nineteen arches or “starlings”, through which many of the more devil-may-care watermen  would attempt to “shoot”, some unfortunately losing their lives in the process (it was said that “London Bridge was made for wise men to go over, and fools to go under”).  And, at the southern end, there were   the heads of executed criminals, impaled on spikes.  Only the northern end of the bridge was affected by the Great Fire of 1666, the southward progress of which across the river was halted at a gap in the buildings that formed a natural firebreak  – ironically,  the result of another fire in 1633.

(**) Rennie’s bridge was in turn taken down – and rebuilt in Lake Havasu City in Arizona – between 1967-71, and replaced by the present bridge in 1972.

Facial hair through the ages (Tudor and Stuart styles)

November 1st –  To mark the beginning of ‘Movember’, here’s a look at some of the facial hair styles adopted by the Tudors and Stuarts, ranging from “boyish” to “strictly no-nonsense”, by way of the peculiarly popular “rakish”.

Top row, left to right: Christopher Marlowe; “The Laughing Cavalier”; Francis Drake.

Middle  row, left to right: William Shakespeare; James I; James I’s “favourite” George Villiers, the First Duke of Buckingham.

Bottom row: Henry VIII; William Cecil, Lord Burghley; Thomas Cranmer.

Facial hair through the ages


1 - Old tower of St Margaret of Antioch from the frontLee in the Borough of Lewisham in south-east London  takes its name from the Old English “lea(h)”, meaning “(place at) wood or woodland clearing”.  It was first recorded in the Domesday Book in 1086, although it  remained sparsely populated until the Victorian era.

The old church of St Margaret of Antioch was founded here at least as long ago as the twelfth century, and possibly even in the eleventh.  The tower, built in 1275, survives still, in the old churchyard on the opposite side of the road from the new church, in turn built in 1839-41.

Remarkably, no fewer than three Astronomers Royal are buried in the old churchyard, namely Edmond Halley (1656-1742) (of “Halley’s Comet” renown), Nathaniel Bliss (1700-64) and John Pond (1767-1836).   (The Royal Observatory, originally founded in 1675, lies a mile or so to the north of the church, in Greenwich).

Old tower of St Margaret of Antioch from the front

Old tower of St Margaret of Antioch from the front

Old tower of St Margaret of Antioch from the rear

Old tower of St Margaret of Antioch from the rear

Halley and Pond tomb

Halley and Pond tomb

Halley portrait (c. 1687)

Halley portrait (c. 1687)

Boone's Chapel, Lee High Road (1682)

Boone’s Chapel, Lee High Road (1682)

And now for something completely different….with surprising relevance

Today I received the advance copies of my latest book, published by Cambridge University Press, and entitled Foraminifera and their Applications. (When not treading the streets of London earlier this year, I was busily scribbling away with my other academic and scientific hat on). Although seemingly a completely different field of study, Foraminifera have helped to reveal aspects of London’s past.

Foraminifera and their applications

The front cover of my new book

What are Foraminifera?

This is a question I am often asked.  I tend to try to keep my answer simple, so as to be as comprehensible as possible to the layman.  I say that they are microscopic single-celled organisms similar to Amoebae, but differing in possessing shells.

Why should I care?

This is another question I am often asked in one form or another (such as “So what?”), usually immediately after I have given my answer to the previous one.  I say: on account of the numerical importance of living ones in modern aquatic environments and of fossil ones in the ancient rock record; and of their practical importance to Science and to Humankind, in developing an understanding of modern environments and the ancient rock record.

Applications of Foraminifera

Foraminifera have wide ranges of academic and economic applications, for example in environmental science and archaeology, and in petroleum, mining and engineering geology.  In environmental science and archaeology, their principal application is in the interpretation of environmental conditions, including  salinity (e.g., fresh-water, brackish or marine), hydrography  (e.g., supra-tidal, inter-tidal or sub-tidal), sedimentology (e.g., estuarine, deltaic or reefal), and  depth (e.g., marginal, shallow or deep marine).

The Environmental Archaeology of the Medieval Deposits of the River Fleet in the City of London

The Medieval deposits of the River Fleet in the City of London were subject to an environmental archaeological study in the 1970s.  Over 140 species of aquatic organisms were found to be present in the deposits, including Foraminifera such as Nonion germanicus  (pictured above, on the front cover of my book).  Most proved to be fresh-water to slightly brackish.  Associated rare, non-aquatic parasitic nematodes were interpreted as having been introduced into the deposits in dung dumped into the river by humans, alongside food waste and  what might be thought of as industrial waste, including  hide (waste from butchery or tannery) and horn cores (waste from glass manufacture).  The dumping of organic pollutants into the river evidently resulted initially in fertilisation, and in the proliferation of some opportunistic species such as Horned and Opposite-Leaved Pondweed.  However, it also resulted subsequently in poisoning and in the effective elimination of all species, as also indicated in the archive records for 1343.  In consequence, it was ordered in 1357 that “no man shall take … any manner of rubbish … or dung … to throw … into the rivers of the Thames and Fleet … .  And if any one should be found doing the contrary thereof, let him have the prison for his body, and other heavy punishment as well, at the discretion of the Mayor and the Aldermen”.

Random Camels of Old London Town

To tie in – loosely – with the beginning of Advent, here are images of some of the Random Camels of Old London Town …

Random Camels of Old London Town

Clockwise from top left: Camel Corps memorial, Victoria Embankment Gardens; Camel public house, Sugar Loaf Walk, Globe Town; ‘Camel and Artichoke’ – whaaat? – public house, Lower Marsh, Waterloo; seat with camel motif, Embankment (near Cleopatra’s Needle); “amusing relief of camels and a driver” (Pevsner), Peek House, Eastcheap (once a tea and coffee warehouse, hence the “singular Graeco-Egyptian details”).

Facial Hair through the Ages

November 1st

To mark the beginning of ‘Movember’, here’s a look at some of the facial hair styles adopted by the  Tudors and Stuarts, ranging from “boyish” to “strictly no-nonsense”, by way  of the peculiarly popular “rakish”.

Top row, left to right: Christopher Marlowe; “The Laughing Cavalier”; Francis Drake.

Middle  row, left to right: William Shakespeare; James I; James I’s “favourite” George Villiers, the First Duke of Buckingham.

Bottom row: Henry VIII; William Cecil, Lord Burghley; Thomas Cranmer.

(Click image to see full-sized original)

Facial hair through the ages

Facial hair through the ages

How “Of Alley” Got its Name



The story may be said to have begun at least as long ago as 1237 or thereabouts, when a house was built on the banks of the Thames for the Bishops of Norwich.  The  house was later handed over by Henry VIII to his brother-in-law Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk,  during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536, and then by Queen Mary to the Archbishop of York  in 1556, at which point it  came to be known as “York House”.  York House was then in turn owned or occupied by Sir Nicholas Bacon, the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, from 1558; by his son Francis Bacon, from 1617;  by  George Villiers Senior, the First Duke of Buckingham, from 1621; by Villiers’s widow, from 1628;  by General Sir Thomas, Lord Fairfax, during the Civil War; and eventually by Villiers’s son, George Junior, the Second Duke of Buckingham, after the Restoration  (by which time he had married Fairfax’s daughter Mary).  The house  survived the Great Fire of 1666.  However, it was substantially demolished in the 1670s, whereupon Nicholas Barbon re-developed the site, and in deference to its former owner set out new streets named George, Villiers, Duke and Buckingham –  and an alley named Of!


(Incidentally, of York House, only the Water Gate, believed to have been designed and built by the master-mason Nicholas Stone in 1626, survives to this day, in  Victoria  Embankment Gardens).



A Beautiful Mind

Continuing yesterday’s Second  World War theme, today I took time out to go to the “Codebreaker: Alan Turing’s life and legacy” exhibition at the Science Museum in South Kensington (which runs until October 21st 2013).
Turing was a brilliant but eccentric, and troubled, mathematician, cryptanalyst, logician, philosopher and pioneer computer scientist, now widely regarded by those in the know as one of the more important and influential figures of the twentieth century.  To the general public, he is perhaps best  known not so much for his work on artificial intelligence and information technology as for that on military intelligence and code-breaking during the Second World War, at  Bletchley Park.  He and his  equally oddball fellow academics at Bletchley Park (“Station X”) enjoyed the unlikely but more-or-less unqualified support of Churchill,  who clearly understood more than most the vital significance of the intelligence they generated  (“Ultra”).  (At the same time, though, remarking, rather archly, that although he knew he had asked for no stone to be left unturned in putting together the team, he had not expected to be taken quite so literally).  It has been estimated that the work of the team at “Station X” may have cut short the war by up to two to three years, and saved countless thousands of lives.  Perhaps the team’s most notable successes were the breaking  of the German Navy’s “Enigma” code, using  a prototype computer called a “Bombe”, which was a decisive factor in the victory in the Battle of the Atlantic; and the breaking of the German Army High Command’s “Lorenz” code, using the first fully programmable computer “Colossus” (actually designed by the essentially entirely  unsung Bill  Tutte and Tommy Flowers).
Statue of Turing at Bletchley Park
Sadly, after the war, Turing was persecuted over his homosexuality to such an extent that he eventually took his own life, eating a poisoned apple, in 1954.  This is  ironic in that  Turing’s  research  on “artificial intelligence” almost certainly came  about, by way of his musings on “the nature of spirit”, as a  result of his  reaction to the tragic  death of the fellow schoolboy he  loved.
Note.  On a related note, readers may be interested to know that there are memorial plaques to Turing in Maida Vale, on the house in which he was born in 1912, and in Richmond, on the house in which he lived from 1945-47.  Also that much of the hardware used at Bletchley Park was manufactured at the former Post Office Research Station in Dollis Hill.