“Random encounters with the unusual” is a repository for the oddities that me and Mrs J have encountered on our travels, which we find interesting or amusing in some way. Have a look, maybe you will find something interesting or amusing herein.

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Secrets of Mithras in London

The above picture shows the remains of London’s Mithraeum, or Temple of Mithras. Although the temple dates from the 3rd century, and was rediscovered by archaeologists in 1954, the careful restoration that can be seen today is only a year or so old. It can be viewed, after obtaining a free but timed-entry ticket, in the basement of the new Bloomberg headquarters near the Bank of England. You might assume its subterranean location is due to the change in ground level since Roman times, but actually the Mithraeum was always underground.

Basically Mithraism was an “underground” religion. It emerged around the same time as Christianity, but it was much more secretive. At first glance the layout of the Mithraeum looks like a small Christian church, but being built underground it didn’t have any windows, and would have had a much spookier feel to it. The current reconstruction captures the atmosphere very well (there is also chanting in Latin, and other audiovisual effects).

Here is another picture, showing the viewing platform from which the first photograph was taken:

And here is a reverse-angle view, showing the carefully reconstructed stonework:

Unlike Bible-based Christianity, Mithraism seems to have revolved around visual symbols – which recur with remarkable consistency in archaeological remains from all over the Roman Empire. Unfortunately, in the absence of written records, no one knows what all this symbolism was supposed mean!

The most important symbol seems to have been the Tauroctony, which appears at the far end of the Mithraeum, where the altar would be in a Christian church. The Tauroctony shows Mithras slaying a bull – Taurus in the astrological zodiac – while enigmatically gazing at something in the opposite direction. The Tauroctony in the London Mithraeum is a modern replica – the original is now in the Museum of London. Here is a picture of it, photographed from one of the touchscreen displays in the Mithraeum:

The British Museum also has a very nice statue of Mithras slaying the bull. This one didn’t come from some hick provincial town like Londinium, but from the Emperor Hadrian’s villa near Rome:

Just as Mithraism was a secretive cult in Roman times, London’s Mithraeum seems to be something of a secret today. It’s one of the most impressive archaeological sites in the city – both visually and in terms of its intriguing back-story – yet it’s barely known to most tourists. That’s not just because it’s “new” – a poorer quality restoration was on show at street level prior to its current incarnation.

As an example of the Mithraeum’s obscurity, take the 2014 video game Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments. This includes an episode called “The Blood Bath”, which pits Holmes against Victorian-era followers of Mithras – without once mentioning London’s real-world Mithraeum. Of course, it hadn’t been discovered in Victorian times, but the game developers could have twisted the facts to fit it in. Instead, they twisted them in quite a different way, creating a fictional Mithraeum 20 miles away in St Albans, and focusing the London scenes around the so-called “Roman Bath” in Strand Lane (which, as described in a previous post on this blog, probably isn’t Roman at all).

The Strand Lane complex depicted in Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments is much larger and more extravagant than its real-world counterpart, and hidden beneath it there’s an underground burial chamber – complete with Mithraic Tauroctony, as the following screenshot shows:

Pictures by Andrew May, September 2013 (British Museum) and February 2018 (Mithraeum)

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

The London House Where Frankenstein’s Mother Died

Chester Square in Belgravia, just to the south-west of Buckingham Palace, is one of London’s most expensive addresses. Chester Square was built in the early 19th century by the Grosevenor Family and is the sister square (albeit the much less grand sister) to both nearby Belgrave Square and Eaton Square. Chester Square is home to a number of huge multi-floored town houses, all of which are seemingly uniform in decoration, with white frontages adorned with black front doors. Ever since its construction Chester Square has been the home to the rich and famous, with past residents including Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, the poet Matthew Arnold, Mick Jagger, Tony Curtis, Margaret Thatcher, Lord and Lady Lloyd-Webber, Nigella Lawson, and more recently Roman Abramovich.

Another notable previous resident of the square is Mary Shelley. Shelley was the famed author Frankenstein, a story that she conceived during her stay with her husband Percy Shelley and his fellow poet Lord Byron at his villa near Lake Geneva during the Year Without a Summer (1816). Apparently she based the novel on a vivid dream, as she explained later:

I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion... He sleeps; but he is awakened; he opens his eyes; behold the horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening his curtains, and looking on him with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes. I opened mine in terror. The idea so possessed my mind, that a thrill of fear ran through me.

Shelley’s residency at Chester Square was during the last few years of her life and ended when she succumbed to a brain tumour at the age of 53. Following her death a silk parcel was found in Mary's possessions that was said to contain some of her husband’s ashes along with the remains of his heart - which legend suggests refused to burn when he was cremated in 1822. Mary’s body along with her husband’s incombustible heart left the city of London are now buried in St Peter's Churchyard in Bournemouth.

The houses of Chester Square. 


A plaque recognising Mary Shelley's residence at number 24 Chester Square. 

Pictures, London (February 2018).

Saturday, 24 February 2018

A tour of Polperro, alias Saxton


On a very hot day last summer I made a trip to Polperro on the south coat of Cornwall. I’d been meaning to go there for a long time – not just because it’s such a picturesque place, but because it’s the main inspiration for the fictional town of Saxton in Jonathan Boakes’s adventure game The Lost Crown.

I’ve written enthusiastically about The Lost Crown before (see this blog post from 2014), so all I’ll say here is that it’s acquired something of a cult following due to its quirky storyline and characters. I suspect that anyone who enjoyed playing the game will have vivid memories of Saxton and its surroundings, so for their benefit the following pictures focus on sights that were used in the game. For everyone else – just enjoy the views!

To start with here’s Harbour Cottage, the run-down hovel rented by the game’s protagonist, Nigel Danvers. In the real world it’s a nice, well-kept little house called Studio Cottage:


And here’s Saxton Museum – just a commercial establishment in the real world (the sign that says “Harbour & Smuggling Museum” is referring to something else):


I was looking forward to visiting “Celtic Corner”, because in the game it’s just the sort of incense-burning, hippie shop I like. In the real world, however, it’s just somebody’s house:


Here’s the entrance to “Saxton Caverns” – actually just a small cave on Polperro beach:


And here’s the Net Hut, which is the scene of some gruesome goings-on in The Lost Crown:



Looking back towards the town from the Net Hut:


And here’s the little lighthouse – which as far as I can tell really is a little lighthouse!


Here’s a final piece of trivia for fans of The Lost Crown. The best character in the game (the only sane one) is called Lucy Reubens, which is quite an unusual surname. So it’s interesting to see that Polperro has a real-world Reubens Walk:

Pictures by Andrew May, June 2017.

Thursday, 15 February 2018

Finding Shackleton’s Crow’s Nest in one of London’s Oldest Churches

The church shown in the below photos is All Hallows-by-the-Tower, which is located on Byward Street near the Tower of London.

Dating from 675 the church is one of the oldest in London and it still retains a number of clues to its long history. One example is a 7th-century Saxon arch within the church that was built using recycled Roman tiles – possibly from a Roman building that used to occupy the site. This Saxon arch is thought to be the oldest piece of church material still standing in London, dating from only a few years after the Saxons arrived in the city. Other examples of the church’s long history can be found in the church’s crypt museum, which is known as the "Undercroft Museum”. The museum is home to a number of Saxon and Roman artefacts, including Saxon crosses found on the church grounds as well as an impressive section of original tessellated Roman flooring which is still in situ in its original location and shows just how low ground level would have been during Roman times.

Another interesting artefact in the Undercroft Museum is a crow’s nest from Sir Earnest Shackleton’s 125-ton Norwegian Steamer “Quest”. Departing England on the 24th September 1921 Quest set sail for Antarctica on what was to be Shackleton’s last expedition. The ship ventured south visiting Rio De Janeiro and then moving onwards to South Georgia where Shackleton died on the 5th January 1922 and is now buried.

The crypt also contains an altar that is believed to have been carried on the Second Crusade to the Holy Land by King Richard II.

Unlike other churches in London, All Hallows was lucky enough to survive the 1666 Great Fire of London unscathed. Its survival was due to nearby buildings being demolished to prevent the fire from reaching the church. All Hallows' survival is just as well, as the famous diarist of the period (Samuel Pepys) is said to have used the spire of the church as a place to watch the progress of the fearsome blaze. Sadly however, All Hallows fell victim to the Luftwaffe, and the church was gutted by bombing during the Blitz and had to be extensively repaired following the war.

Pepys is not the only well-known person to be associated with the church. Due to All Hallows’ close proximity to the Tower of London it became the temporary resting place for a number of victims of the Tower’s scaffold and executioner’s block. Some of the more notable unfortunates to have visited All-Hallows post mortem include Bishop Fisher (1535), Sir Thomas More (1535) and Archbishop Laud (1645).

Other notable people associated with the church include William Penn, who was the founder of the state of Pennsylvania (one of the original 13 colonies of America) who was baptised in the church in 1644. Also, John Quincy Adams the sixth president of the United States was married in the church in 1797. Adams remains the only American President to date to be married on foreign soil!

So next time you visit the Tower of London consider a trip to All Hallows and see where an American President once got married.

The Church of All Hallows 





Shackleton's Crow's Nest



The Saxon Arch. 

The Roman Floor. 


Pictures, London (August 2016).




Wednesday, 31 January 2018

London's church still ruined by the Blitz

In a city where land is a scarce commodity it is somewhat surprising to come across a ruined building that is allowed to remain untouched. The building in question is the Grade 1 listed St Dunstan-in-the-East, which can be found just off of Lower Thames Street, a short distance from the Tower of London. Originally constructed around 1100 the church was in use until 1666 when it was extensively damaged during the Great Fire of London. Following the great fire the church was repaired and a tower and steeple designed by Sir Christopher Wren was added. The church continued to remain in use until London fell victim to its second “great fire”, also known as the Blitz! During the Blitz of 1941 the church was unlucky enough to be hit by German bombs and only Wren's tower and steeple, and some of the church’s outer walls survived the carnage.

Now ruined, St Dunstan-in-the-East would cease to be a church and in 1971 the decision was made to turn the ruins into a public garden. What remains is a somewhat eerie and tranquil public space where plant life slowly overgrows the carcass of the former church, and the hustle and bustle of the surrounding city seems worlds away.

St Dunstan-in-the-East, with Sir Christopher Wren's tower and Steeple visible.  









Pictures, London (August 2016).


Friday, 26 January 2018

Of Alley and London's Water Gate scandal

“Of” is one of the commonest words in the English language, and one that’s noticeably low on information content. So it’s surprising to see that London once had a thoroughfare called “Of Alley” – as the above photograph demonstrates.

Now officially known as “York Place”, Of Alley can be found between the Strand and Victoria Embankment Gardens, running crosswise between Villiers Street and Buckingham Street. At one time this whole area was occupied by a large mansion called York House. However, in 1672 its then-owner sold it for development – with the rather strange condition that all the new streets should be named after him.

There were five new streets altogether, but they just managed it. The vendor was George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, and the result was George Street, Villiers Street, Duke Street, Buckingham Street ... and Of Alley! While all those streets still exist today, only Villiers Street and Buckingham Street have their original names. George Street is now “York Buildings”, Duke Street is “John Adam Street” and – as already mentioned – Of Alley is “York Place”. Nevertheless, all the old names can be seen on the old map on the Locating London’s Past website – as you can see from the following screenshot:
 
There’s an odd thing about that map, isn’t there? Where you would expect to see Victoria Embankment Gardens, the map shows the river! That’s because the map predates the construction of the Embankment in the 1860s, when the land was reclaimed from the river. A feature of York House that made it a particularly desirable property was the fact that it had direct access to the river. Even though the house was long gone by the time of the above map, you can still see its erstwhile river access in the form of the “York Building Stairs” at the end of Buckingham Street.

And it’s still there today, despite being more than a hundred metres from the edge of the river now! It’s called the “York Water Gate”, and it dates from a renovation of the house in the 1620s. When the rest of the house was demolished 50 years later, the gate was left standing. It can still be seen today, high and dry in Victoria Embankment Gardens, as the following picture shows:
 
Photographs by Andrew May, January 2018.

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Bomb Shelters and Ghost Signs in London

One of the fascinating things about London is the way some of its most unusual and little-known sights can be found just a stone’s throw from the big tourist attractions. A prime example of the latter is the statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square (pictured above). Churchill’s fame, of course, rests mainly on his role in World War Two – a particularly unpleasant time for London, which suffered heavy air raids by German bombers. Another, less well-known, reminder of that time can be seen in Lord North Street, just 400 metres south of Parliament Square:
The above photograph shows a faded sign on a brick wall that reads “Public shelters in vaults under pavements in this street”. Although it was painted during the “Blitz” – almost 80 years ago now – it’s still there today! The public shelters, of course, are long gone, although there are a couple of places further along the street where signs can be seen pointing down into the basement areaways. Like this one:
Although the signs are easy enough to read in the above photographs, they’re actually very faded and difficult to spot unless you known exactly where to look. They’re an example of “ghost signs” – old signs that were painted on brick walls and are still faintly visible today, despite having long since ceased to be relevant. Another ghost sign that’s located close to the London tourist trail can be seen in Tisbury Court in Soho.

Soho is a bright, fashionable area that has been smartened up considerably in recent decades. Tisbury Court, however, seems to have been largely overlooked. Despite its posh-sounding name, it’s quite a sleazy little alley – and one end of it still bears a large painted advertisement on the wall:
Here’s a close-up of the upper part of the advertisement. Note that it dates from a time when Tisbury Court was called “Little Crown Court” – apparently some time in the early 20th century.
Pictures by Andrew May, January 2018.