The Icing on the Cake

Fellow blogger and poet Becky Kilsby recently posted a new work which immediately resonated with me.

I am often that person grabbing a quick breakfast courtesy of Pret (or less frequently Nero), catching up on the news with my iPhone, and people watching as my fellows dash to offices in the city.  Of course the city in question often varies in my case; Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham…  and London, the city that inspired Becky.

My recent work there has been in the City.  Note the capital letter that denotes a specific part of the capital!  The City of London is the historic heart, where commerce held sway (until the big boys decamped to Canary Wharf) and the River Fleet became a street where newsprint flowed instead of water (until Rupert Murdoch decamped to Wapping).

On my last visit, skinny capp and pain au raisin duly despatched, I had time after setting up the room where I was working to take a different view of the City, a roofscape of Ludgate Circus._PW_9370_1_2-Edit

There are more exciting views of the city, the London Eye being too distant to make much of an impression, and I might have chosen to spurn the photographic opportunity were it not for the needle of white that dominated the view; one of the churches rebuilt following The Great Fire of London.  This one is dedicated to St Bridget of Ireland.

Ever since reading Peter Ackroyd’s metaphysical novel Hawksmoor I’ve been intrigued my the work of the architect whose work inspired the tale.  Nicholas Hawksmoor was one of a number of British Baroque architects whose style was inspired by Palladio such as Wren and Vanbrugh.  Hawksmoor’s London churches are marked out by their adoption of unusual symbolism and decoration that wouldn’t normally be found on an English Church where stolid towers and simple spires seem to be the norm.  In fact so unusual are Hawksmoor’s churches that they have inspired writers as diverse as Ackroyd and Alan Moore to ascribe some more sinister meaning to them.

Consequently I assumed the multi-tiered structure here to be one of Hawksmoor’s, but I was wrong.  This is the second tallest church in London, and there’s the clue to its creator.  Only the nearby St Paul’s Cathedral is taller, and both were designed by Hawksmoor’s mentor Sir Christopher Wren.  And yet I can’t help but wonder whether this peculiar spire was suggested by his student, so unique is its appearance.

The church is widely known as the Journalists’ Church given its location, though ironically it recently hosted the wedding of Rupert Murdoch to Jerry Hall; the very man who signed Fleet Street’s death warrant.

But back to that spire.  Does it remind you of anything?

Whether apocryphal or not, it is believed that shortly after the spire was completed, a local baker’s apprentice called Thomas Rich took it as inspiration for a cake he made to impress his employer and prospective father-in-law.  Thus was the traditional wedding cake design created.

I hope it’s true for nothing could be more fitting for a church of this name; St Bride’s.

St Brides, City of London
St Brides, City of London

How I warmed to 0°

Watch this space?  Watches and Space perhaps.

As I left the O2 I was headed for a part of London that was completely new to me, and yet a place with enormous significance for the history of the UK.  Greenwich.


What’s so special about Greenwich then?  Like Durham it contains a World Heritage Site, a status which recognises the number of architectural masterpieces to be found hereabouts, many of which are also of great historical significance.  You could spend days here exploring the treasures that these buildings contain, but with only an afternoon to spare I restricted myself to the exteriors and even then sacrificed both the Vanbrugh Castle and Hawksmoor‘s St Alphege‘s.

Positioned at the bottom of the u-shaped meander  in the Thames and with a hill that gives commanding views up and down the river it is strategically well placed, and the town’s Viking name underlines this.  The Danes were camped here for three years in the 11th Century, murdering the Archbishop who gives his name to the Hawksmoor church when ransom couldn’t be achieved.  Those great sailors created a precedent for maritime feats to come.

Those who saw the recent film Thor: The Dark World will have witnessed the thankfully fictional destruction of the Old Royal Naval College at the hands of Malekith’s Dark Elves, and it is no surprise that the sumptuous vistas it provides are regularly sought out by film and TV productions.  Built on the site of a former Tudor palace, designed by Sir Christopher Wren and completed by Hawksmoor its beauty should come as no surprise.

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untitled-21And yet there is more on offer here; standing nearby is the Cutty Sark, one of the fastest sailing ships ever built, now “moored” in a specially constructed dry dock whose glazed skirt mimics the water line, yet allows light through to illuminate her sleek hull for the visitors below.

We’re not done yet though for part of the Maritime Museum is housed in a building known as The Queen’s House.  Perfectly aligned with symmetry of the Naval College before it, this was the first piece of classically inspired architecture to be constructed in the UK.  Inigo Jones took his inspiration from Italy and produced this Palladian delight with great colonnades reaching out to the wings on either side.  Appropriately enough, given the Viking history, it was built for Anne of Denmark (wife of James I).

Modestly overseeing all of this grandeur is the Royal Observatory.  Britain’s former dominance was achieved through naval superiority, and the small cluster of buildings that sits atop the hill here were critical to that, with scientific research in field crucial to effective navigation.  Astronomy is perhaps obvious, sailors having steered by the stars for centuries, but for reasons too complex to explain here, accurate timekeeping also has an essential part to play.  (Perched upon the roof is a time ball that is raised daily to drop at exactly 1.00pm GMT – Greenwich Mean Time, its prominence being visible to shipping on the Thames who needed to accurately set their timepieces.  Nowadays the ritual is for the tourists!) Here then you will also find the UK’s largest refracting telescope, John Harrison’s original chronometer, and of course the Greenwich Meridian which marks 0 degrees longitude amongst many other astronomical and horological marvels.  (Thanks to Stephan for posing on the strip that marks the meridian)

Next I will explain the ∞% element!

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Temporal Paradox

The first, and probably still my favourite, novel I read by Peter Ackroyd, was Hawksmoor. Written almost 30 years ago, I’ve still never read anything like it; part detective story, part historical pastiche the novel blends and subverts real events and people from history. In the novel the eponymous Detective Nicholas Hawksmoor investigates a series of murders which parallel murders committed by the architect Nicholas Dyer, an associate of Sir Christopher Wren.

Most of the churches built by Dyer in the novel (and which are “consecrated” by the murders) do exist and were the work of an associate of Wren’s called… Nicholas Hawksmoor. You get the picture. Ackroyd has willfully and effectively blurred the boundaries of time with events repeating themselves across the centuries so that the 18th and 2oth century events become indistinct from one another.


My work this week has taken me to Milton Keynes, a “new town” notable for bearing the names of two leading (and opposing) economists, a “stolen” football team, and its concrete cows. I’m probably not being fair, but none of my previous visits to the place have provided me with greater inspiration. That might change if ever I have time for a detour to Bletchley Park.

I’m not staying in MK though. My bed for the nights that I’m here is to be found in the town of Stony Stratford, a town whose origins are rather more historic. Stratford referring to a river crossing on a street, in this case the Roman Road of Watling Street. Markets have been held here since Norman times, and significant events have occurred here right up until the filming of Withnail and I.

On my arrival the first thing that caught my eye were the large brackets supporting shop and inn signs that extend well out into the high street.

I’ve never seen their like before, although the locals that I questioned about them found them unremarkable.

The main street is the High Street, both nominally and literally, for when sitting in the bar of my hotel, which is at the level of the original Watling Street, the modern-day road and pavement are significantly higher.


Stony Stratford is rich in historical buildings, boasting two medieval church towers, a number of coaching inns (The Old George where I’m staying is over 500 years old) and Shell House, a building of unique design within the town’s peculiar style. The architect is unknown but both Wren and Hawksmoor were working in the area at the time that much of the property was developed. There is plenty to suggest that Hawksmoor is responsible, but no evidence that has survived the passage of the years.

Perhaps Hawksmoor did study the occult as Dyer does in Ackroyd’s book. Perhaps he found a way to bend time and cast his net into the future (or should that be fuschia?)


Or maybe its just a cock and bull story. 😉APW_2051APW_2049-2