Friday 26 October 2012

Hidden London in Context

It's amazing what you can find out by casting a question into the Twitterverse. When I asked my Twitter followers earlier this year about unusual or quirky walking tours of London, one name which popped up was Context.

This tour company employs only tour leaders who are academics or specialists in a particular field, who lead small groups of no more than six people and focus on a city's culture and architecture.

As I despise the vast tour groups which form human obstacles in popular destinations, I liked the sound of this. I also fancied the company's aim of helping "the erudite traveller appreciate and defend the city without overrunning it".

The erudite traveller. That's me, innit? So on a cold wet Monday morning in July, I joined Context's three hour Hidden London tour led by guide Lawrence Owens, an archaeologist and anthropologist when he's not leading tours.

"London is a Roman city," he said, before leading me a vantage point above this remnant of the Roman Empire's ancient fortifications:

"Imagine a big gate right here," he continued. "We're right in the slum area where all the military were camped."

As the rain wafted beneath my umbrella as I tried to take notes without getting the notepad wet, I wasn't having much trouble imagining a grumbling Roman sentry standing guard here and muttering about wanting to be back home in Sicily.

From here we walked past St Bartholomew's Hospital and into the Church of St Bartholomew the Great, founded in 1123 by a gent named Rahere. The interior of this very old church is darkly medieval - except, interestingly, for the colourfully decorated tomb of Prior Rahere:

And here's the decorative restored cloister off the main church, now a very atmospheric cafe:

Lawrence mentioned that the church has had a lot of exposure via television and film, appearing within Four Weddings and a Funeral, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Shakespeare in Love, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, and the 2009 Sherlock Holmes film starring Downey and Law. 

Speaking of Holmes, the roof of the nearby St Bart's Hospital was the place where Benedict Cumberbatch's version of the great detective apparently fell to his death in the recent BBC TV series Sherlock (but did he?).

Out on the streets of Smithfield, we stood in a square near the famous meat market which has operated within its grand Victorian buildings since 1868. 

It's here that a different type of slaughter took place in 1305, when William "Braveheart" Wallace was hanged, drawn and quartered for his leadership of a Scottish revolt against King Edward I of England. Presumably this memorial was put up later on in slight embarrassment at such past excesses:

As we walked on, Lawrence segued neatly from the conflicts of the 14th century to more recent times, pointing out a bit of remaining damage from (as I recall) World War II:

We also swung into the Church of St Etheldreda ("One of history's most determined virgins," according to Lawrence). It's remarkable how this 13th century building, one of the oldest in London, is neatly tucked away between more modern structures:

It also has some impressive stained glass windows of modern design, which replaced those blown out by German bomb blasts during the Blitz in WWII:

It wouldn't be a London tour without a pub, so Lawrence led the way to Ye Old Mitre, originally a 16th century pub which was largely rebuilt in the 18th century - not an easy place to find, hidden as it is down a narrow alleyway:

So here we were, in a classic old London pub about noon on a Monday. Not too hard a day at the office:

I had to leave the walk at this point as the flight home to Australia was pending. Before I went, Lawrence told me he usually covers several other points of interest, including the Inns of Court, the London Silver Vaults, the Royal Courts of Justice, Fleet Street and more character-packed old pubs which tourists would never stumble across.

It sounded like a good way to spend a few hours in what Bertie Wooster called "the old metrop".

The Hidden London tour costs £60 per person; info and bookings via Context's website

Disclosure time... I was hosted by Context on this tour.

Friday 19 October 2012

Secrets of the London Underground

On my latest visit to London, I realised I'd picked up a few handy-to-know facts about the Underground over the years.

They're the sort of practical tips you wouldn't find in an online planner or on Harry Beck's iconic Tube map, but they're damned useful just the same.

Let me share them with you here...

1. Airport shuffle

If changing from the District Line to the Piccadilly Line on the way to Heathrow Airport, do it at Hammersmith.

At this station, for some reason, the westbound District Line trains and westbound Piccadilly Line trains share the same island platform; all you have to do on leaving the first train is step lightly across the platform to catch your airport-bound train. No stairs required.

2. Up-down shortcut

If you follow the marked walkway when changing from the Jubilee Line to the Piccadilly Line at Green Park station (perhaps also on the way to Heathrow), you'll experience a very long and frustrating walk. Believe it or not, it's actually easier to ignore the walkway and go up the escalators to the ticket concourse, then down the long escalator to the Piccadilly Line platforms from there.

3. West End stroll

If you've arrived at Leicester Square station via the Northern Line and need to get to Covent Garden, it's quicker to walk between the two places above ground than to bother changing to the Piccadilly Line, as they're so close (only 260 metres separate their platforms down below).

4. Eastern diversion

If staying at Stratford in East London, it seems logical at first glance to catch the Central Line into central London, rather than the more southerly Jubilee Line.

The Central Line is quicker time-wise, but its trains arrive at Stratford from much further out and are invariably crowded. You can almost always get a seat on a Jubilee Line train, as Stratford is its starting point.

5. Metropolitan propinquity

Don't be deterred by the Tube map's lack of interconnection between Warren Street station on the Northern Line, and Euston Square station on the Metropolitan/Circle/Hammersmith & City Lines. There's no direct interchange, but in reality they're only a short walk apart; you can more or less see one station when standing outside the other.

6. Mind the front

And the best tip for last - always ride at the front of Docklands Light Railway trains. They're unmanned, so you can sit right up against the front window and indulge your suppressed train driver fantasies... or maybe that's just me.

Also see these earlier musings about the Tube and related topics:

Monday 8 October 2012

On the Trail of Red Kelly (Part 2)

In the previous post, I described my 2011 journey to the tiny Irish village of Moyglass, courtesy of Tourism Ireland. Moyglass was once the home of John "Red" Kelly, father of bushranger Ned Kelly, before Red was transported to Australia in 1841.

Arriving at the closed Ned Kelly Village Inn, we were pleasantly surprised to encounter the pub's owner. He ushered us inside to have a look, and this is what we saw...

First up, a fine snug. For those unfamiliar with the term, a snug is a separate space within a pub which allows a certain amount of privacy. This one looked very comfortable - and, as you can see, was plastered with information about Ned Kelly and his dramatic life:

Here's a closer view of one wall, with part of the Kelly Gang's story and a facsimile of the reward notice for their capture:

On another wall was a framed photo of Kelly's armour:

And nearby was this little gem - a Ned Kelly Moyglass clock. Lucky I'm not kleptomaniacally inclined, that's all I can say:

Moving on, Terry guided us to the green paddock where Red Kelly's humble house once stood. Beyond it, he pointed out the gently sloping Slievenamon, "Mountain of the Women". According to Terry, in legend this was where warrior Fionn Mac Cumhaill (known in English as Finn McCool) decided he would marry the fastest woman to run to its peak:

Another legend was remembered by this sign at the edge of the field:

After this Terry took us to other places which were part of John Kelly's life, including the police station where he was charged. Meandering along the narrow lanes, it was interesting to notice how often the more familiar sounding English locations were mispronunciations of the original Irish placenames:

Finally, we arrived at the Ballysheehan house where John Kelly stole the inauspicious pigs which led to his involuntary Australian residence:

Perched above a broad modern motorway, it's amazing this place survives. But that's Ireland for you - littered with fascinating fragments of the past.

(If you're planning to visit Ireland and are interested in following the Kelly trail, Terry Cunningham's tour is available by prior arrangement, fee negotiable; email him at

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Friday 5 October 2012

On the Trail of Red Kelly (Part 1)

When I researched the Ned Kelly Touring Route over four years ago here in Victoria, Australia, I became aware of another significant location related to the story of the infamous bushranger who was hanged in Melbourne in 1880.

The village of Moyglass in County Tipperary, Ireland, was a place that Ned never visited, born as he was in Australia. But in 1840 his father, a poor casual labourer named John "Red" Kelly, lived there.

Yielding to impulse and stealing two pigs from a house in nearby Ballysheehan, Red's fate was sealed - convicted of the theft, he was sentenced to transportation as a convict to Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania).

Freed in 1848, he settled north of Melbourne and fathered seven children - including Ned. The famous saga of the Kelly Gang had begun.

I love piecing together fragments of history in person, so I was delighted to be able to visit Moyglass last year courtesy of Tourism Ireland and my cheerful driver for the day, Frank Moore.

From Dublin we headed to Fethard, an attractive town founded around 1200 in King John's reign, and still in possession of its medieval walls and church:

Here we met up with our guide for the day, local history guru and guide Terry Cunningham:

The old pub we rendezvoused at, McCarthy's, offered a surprisingly broad range of services, as you'll note from the sign...

... and yes, the publican did later assure me they're licensed to act as undertakers should the need arise. I was also interested to notice that, by odd coincidence, the pub was opened the same year that Red nicked those fateful pigs.

Driving through beautiful green countryside of fields bordered by low stone walls, we soon pitched up at Moyglass. Don't get carried away with anticipation of its cosmopolitan bustle, though - it was basically a cemetery and this pub:

But what a pub. The Ned Kelly Village Inn was clearly a shrine to the village's most famous descendant, with Kelly signage all over its exterior.

Here's the pub's rather stylish sign, with Kelly and horse rampant:

And Ned in full armour:

The bushranger's famous last words:

And finally, to dispel any doubts about the Kelly connections with Moyglass, Red's family tree:

Unfortunately the pub was closed at that time of day, so we regretfully had to pass on seeing the interior. Or so we thought. We were just about to get back in the car and move on to our next Kelly location, when the pub's owner showed up to do a bit of maintenance.

"Would you like to look inside?" he asked. Would we? We were in like Flynn, er, Kelly within seconds. And what did we see there? I'll save that for the next instalment... [read it here]

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