“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.

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.

Thursday, 3 November 2016

Sayings what you will about Bath

During a recent walk around Bath in Somerset I was made aware of a number of sayings in everyday use that have possible origins that are linked to sights within the city. Here are the sayings in question and how they may be related to points of interest in the city of Bath.


"Paying on the nail"

The photos below show the inside of the Guildhall Market on the High Street in Bath. The market is said to have been in operation for around 800 years, and over that period the products for sale will have changed from fresh produce and livestock, to today’s tacky gifts and DIY supplies.  The market has been operating from its current venue from at least the 16th century, and one of the monuments to the age of the market is its stone pillar, which is known as a “Nail”. According to popular belief the Nail is the place where all transactions at the market used to take place, with debts being settled by people putting their money on a Nail. This practice apparently lead to the phrase “paying on the nail”, which nowadays means to pay a debt promptly. Nails made of bronze can also be found in nearby Bristol. The Bristol Nails are set in the pavement outside of the Corn Exchange and are again said to be where merchants in Bristol paid their debts.

The association of the these pillars with the origin of the phrase “paying on the nail” is however challenged by some. Some sources suggest that the origin of the phrase predates the use of these pillars as point of payment and that the phrase possibly derives from ancient Greece. It seems that there is written evidence (circa 1300) for an Anglo-Norman version of the phrase and also a Roman version of the phrase (circa 1 AD). It is thought that these may have in turn been based on an older Greek phrase. The Greek phrase is said to relate to a person running their finger nail over a newly carved sculpture or a carpenter’s joint to feel for imperfections and test the quality of the work, before making payment. So perhaps the Nails were named as a result of a phrase that was already in common use at the time of their construction, as opposed to be them being the origin of the phrase “paying on the nail”?

The Bath Guildhall Market "Nail".




"If you can’t stand the heat,  get out of the kitchen"

The photos below show the Roman Baths in the city of Bath. The hot springs in Bath consist of approximately 1.2 million litres of spring water that rises each day at a balmy temperature of  46 °C. The site of the spring has been considered special since ancient times, with evidence of a Celtic shrine to the goddess Sulis having been built at the site. This Celtic religious site was seemingly co-opted by the invading Romans who built their own temple around 60-70 AD. During the Roman occupation of Britain the site gradually developed, and the baths remained in use until the Romans withdrew from Britain in the 5th century AD. After the Roman withdrawal the site fell into disrepair and was eventually lost due to flooding and silting, until however, it was rediscovered in the modern era and restored to its former glory. 

So what do the Roman Baths have to do with phrase “if you can’t stand the heat,  get out of the kitchen”?  Well it seems that during the medieval era, that at the centre of the baths where the heated water emerged from the ground, there used to be a structure known as the “kitchen”. The kitchen was a focus for the baths and people would relax on and around it. However as this was the hottest point of the baths, sometimes the heat would be too much for some and as such people would apparently have to leave the vicinity of the kitchen to cool down. Whether or not this structure in the medieval baths really led to the phrase “if you can’t stand the heat,  get out of the kitchen” remains to be seen. A brief searching of the Internet for the origin of the phrase does not return any results linking it to the Roman Baths (well none that I have been able to find that is).

The origin of this phrase (if the collective wisdom of the Internet is to be believed) suggests that it was a phrase coined by Senator (Latterly President) Harry S. Truman. In an Idaho newspaper in July 1942 an article apparently included the line “Favorite rejoinder of Senator Harry S. Truman, when a member of his war contracts investigating committee objects to his strenuous pace: ‘If you don’t like the heat, get out of the kitchen.'”. It is this article that is widely cited as the proof that Truman coined the phrase. However the residents of Bath may be minded to disagree with this!

The Roman Baths, known as "The Kings Bath" in the medieval era.



The middle image in the above shows "the kitchen" at the centre of "The Kings Bath".

"Daylight Robbery"

The last phrase I will mention is “Daylight Robbery”. Possible evidence for the origin of this phrase can be seen in the architecture of the city of Bath.

In 1696, King William III of England introduced a tax which charged people based on the number of windows in their property. The idea of income tax was distasteful to the population on the basis that it was an unwelcome intrusion into a person’s private affairs, so instead a person’s perceived income was taxed by taxing the size of their property, based on the number of windows. The tax had two tiers, a flat rate was charged for all houses with up to 10 windows and then an extra variable element was added on properties with extra windows above the initial ten.

In order to dodge the tax, some house owners took to the practice of bricking up any excess windows. These bricked-up windows would have prevented some areas of the properties from receiving the daylight that they once had. As such, some people saw this tax as them being robbed of their daylight and fresh air! Hence it is said that the phrase “Daylight Robbery” came into being.

The Window Tax was repealed around 1851, and as can be seen in the below pictures, some of the older houses in Bath still show signs of having bricked up windows. Some older houses even have fake windows installed to mask these bricked up windows and restore the property’s natural symmetry.

As with all of these phrases, the origin of the phrase is disputed, with some sources highlighting that the phrase was not first seen in print until the late 1940’s, and if this is true can it really have an origin dating back to 1696?

Blocked off windows - an attempt to dodge the window tax?



Can you tell which windows on this building are real and which are fake?

So that is end of my tour around Bath. It is hard to be sure of the exact origin of these phrases, but clearly there is no need to let that get in the way of a good story! And who knows, perhaps even one of them may be true!

Pictures: Somerset (August 2016).

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Sunday, 9 October 2016

Burying Scrooge

The church in the below photos is St Chad's Church in Shrewsbury, Shropshire. St Chad’s dates from 1792, and the church’s distinctive round profile (you can just see this in the second picture below), makes it somewhat of an eye-catcher. As interesting as the church is however, it is an oddity in the church’s small graveyard that really caught my attention.

Wandering St Chad’s graveyard the observant may notice a rather plain grave stone bearing the name Ebenezer Scrooge (the fictional character from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol). Scrooge’s gravestone was apparently created for the 1984 film version of this story (starring George C Scott as Scrooge), which was filmed in Shrewsbury. It seems that a weathered gravestone in the graveyard was re-purposed for the film with Ebenezer Scrooge’s name being engraved into the stone. In the last picture below it is just possible to discern at the bottom of the stone, the faint markings from the original inscription, presumably commemorating the previous owner of the gravestone. Once filming had ceased the stone was left in place and now probably confuses the occasional visitor to the graveyard who now wonders if Ebenezer Scrooge was perhaps a real person?

George C Scott who portrayed Scrooge in the 1984 film was rather famous during his career. Scott’s most notable performance was probably playing the title character from the 1970 film Patton, for which he was awarded, but did not accept, an Academy Award for Best Actor. Scott died in 1999 and given his fame one might expect that Scott would have a lavish grave, however it seems to be that he actually resides in an unmarked grave in the Westwood Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles. I cannot find any clear explanation why Scott’s grave is unmarked, but it does seem rather ironic that he rests without a memorial stone, whilst one of the fictional characters that he portrayed has a memorial!

It does make me wonder if any other fictional character has a burial plot in a graveyard? If you know of one, let me know in the comments section.

St Chad's in Shrewbury, Shropshire.

Scrooge's grave is the horizontal stone at the bottom right of the photo. 


Here lies Ebenezer Scrooge.

Pictures: Shropshire (October 2016).

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Friday, 23 September 2016

Discovering Oxygen at Wiltshire's Atlantis

Anyone who has studied chemistry will be familiar with the name Joseph Priestley (1733 - 1804). Priestley was the clergyman chemist who is credited with the discovery of oxygen in August 1774.

Oxygen, which Priestley called "dephlogisticated air", was only one of the "airs" that he discovered during his experiments. Priestley also isolated: nitric oxide (NO); hydrogen chloride (HCl); ammonia (NH3); nitrous oxide (N2O); carbon monoxide (CO); and sulphur dioxide (SO2). Priestley also conducted electrical experiments, and his dabblings with charged spheres lead him to propose that the electrical force followed an inverse-square law. This relationship was formalised and published in 1784 by French physicist Charles Augustin de Coulomb, and became known as Coulomb's law.

Priestley's greatest gift to the world was probably his method for making soda water. Thinking that soda water might cure scurvy, he provided the method to Captain James Cook for his second voyage. If only he had provided them with some lemons and limes to go in it, his idea may have worked!

When Priestly discovered oxygen he was resident at Bowood House near Calne in Wiltshire, as a guest of Lord Shelburne who had provided him with lodgings and a laboratory.

Bowood House today is a shadow of its former self. At its peak the house consisted of the "Big House" and the "Little House" which were connected by a huge drawing room. In the modern era Bowood become too expensive to maintain, so in 1956  the "Big House" and the drawing room were demolished. During this rationalisation of the house a dining room designed by Robert Adam was auctioned off to Lloyd's of London.  Lloyd's had the drawing room rebuilt in their London offices, and  today this part of Bowood House can be found on the 11th floor of their Lime Street offices. All that remains of Bowood house today is just the "Little House", but this name does a disservice to what is still a rather substantial country residence.

The grounds of Bowood House were designed by Lancelot "Capability" Brown, and the centerpiece of his design was a sizeable lake. However, one thing stood in the way of Capability Brown's lake, and that was the village of Manning's Hill!

To enable the lake to be constructed the residents of Mannings Hill had to be relocated, and in 1766 they were persuaded to move to nearby villages such as Sandy Lane. Once the former village was empty Capability Brown had it flooded to form the sinuous lake that is seen today. A lake that is almost 1 km long covering an impressive area of 45 acres.

It seems that parts of the village remain submerged in the lake to this very day and in 2007 divers found the remains of two cottages and stone walls in the lake's murky depths.

So not only does Wiltshire boast its own ghost town, it also boasts its own version of Atlantis!

Bowood House.




The laboratory where Joseph Priestley discovered oxygen.



Bowood's Lake, but what lies beneath its surface?




A Doric temple folly on the lakeside. 

Pictures: Wiltshire (August 2016).

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