We’ve just returned from a trip to London. It’s been ten years since our last visit and knowing how easy it is to become diverted the day was carefully planned, however, had we thought to take passports we probably wouldn’t have even got to London. Arriving at the new international station at Ebbsfleet, near Gravesend in Kent, is more like coming to an airport terminal than a railway stop. And it’s a mere 19 minutes to St. Pancras on this high speed connection but had we been travelling in the opposite direction we could have been in the Gare du Nord, Paris in just two hours. Tempting!
When I grew up in Kent most school trips were spent in Calais. We’d cross the Channel by ferry and those not recovering from sea sickness could spend a couple of hours exploring ‘foreign’ culture before it was time to gather for the return sailing. What delights that cultural journey would have presented if a day trip led us to Paris?
I began my first proper job when I was fifteen years old. My father’s uppermost ambition for his eldest child being that she became a Personal Secretary I didn’t question his decision when he signed me up as a ‘temp’ with a secretarial agency for the duration of the summer holidays and I trundled up to London every morning on the 0630 train. So began years of wasting four hours a day ‘commuting’. If I pushed through the crowds I might squeeze into a seat where I could read a book but nine times out of ten the whole journey was spent in standing packed like a sardine with other regular commuters. To discover that same journey now takes 19 minutes is mind blowing.
London has changed but not beyond recognition. One of the reasons for this trip was to research the Tudor city. Obviously the river and the medieval Tower of London haven’t changed so we began by walking along the riverbank and crossing London Bridge where we managed to discover the pub where Shakespeare is believed to have performed his first plays, except nowadays The George Inn belongs to The National Trust. Its terraced courtyard lies just across the road from Southwark Cathedral where the bard’s brother Edmund Shakespeare was buried in 1607 after he died from the plague. We discovered that same year a John Harvard was christened at the church. John’s mother owned another famous bawd house called The Queen’s Head but John obviously felt no ties with the place because when his mum died because he sold it, for £600, and took his fortune to Boston. I did mention I was easily diverted.
In Tudor times there was only one bridge crossing the Thames and it stood in virtually the same position as the London Bridge of today? But one of the many reasons the Shakespeare boys favoured Bankside was its utter lawlessness. This wasn’t just a den of iniquity seething with bear pits and bull rings it was an area that positively flaunted its position outside City law. Before the Reformation even the Bishop of Winchester had a ‘licence to provide’ 400 whores in his parish between Southwark and Lambeth. He also controlled ‘The Clink’ the sordid gaol that incarcerated anyone who displeased his grace. Notorious to this day the lower rooms flooded at high tide so few long term prisoners survived. It comes as no surprise that the reconstructed Globe Theatre is in the same street as The Clink.
When I worked in London there was never time to enjoy the city and although I appreciated its history I didn’t seek out the past. It’s exciting to discover that despite all the changes over five hundred years most of the old streets remain because South Bank wasn’t destroyed by the Great Fire of 1666. Recently the foundations for the Shard revealed a wealth of archaeology now on display in the Museum of London, our next port of call. A purpose built museum near the Barbican it offers an excellent introduction to the city’s history but I felt my research was more grounded in the actual buildings and streets of London than in carefully sanctioned displays of artefacts. But the coffee and cakes were excellent.
Our final stop was meant to be the Temple Church. Built in 1185 it’s the Mother Church of English Common Law. It proved difficult to find in the warren of Inner and Middle Inns of Court and unfortunately we finally arrived at the same time as her majesty the Queen. The security forces made it clear we would not be allowed to enter the building but luckily we had a day in hand and with the high speed connection making the journey easy we decided we must return the following day.