“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 November 2018

Scars of WW2 in South Kensington

If you’ve ever visited London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (commonly known as the V&A) in South Kensington, you probably went in via the main entrance on Cromwell Road. The museum also has a side façade running along Exhibition Road, but if you walked that way you were probably heading for the Science Museum, in which case you were on the other side of the road. If so you missed an astonishing sight, because that whole side of the V&A is disfigured by bomb damage that dates from World War Two – almost 80 years ago.

The museum was fortunate in that it never received a direct hit, but it bears countless small scars caused by shrapnel and debris from explosions nearby. The inscription pictured above reads:
The damage to these walls is the result of enemy bombing during the Blitz of the Second World War 1939 – 1945 and is left as a memorial to the enduring values of this great museum in a time of conflict.
The “enemy” in question was, of course, Germany – which is ironic, because the Albert in “Victoria and Albert” was a German himself. Officially known as Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, Queen Victoria’s husband was born in a castle about a hundred kilometres north of Nuremberg.

Here is a wider angle shot of the area around the inscription:

The next five photographs form a sequence walking back towards Cromwell Road:

Even this telephone box appears to have suffered shrapnel damage:
For many more unusual sights in London, don’t forget to check out Random Encounters on the London Tourist Trail.

Pictures by Andrew May, October 2018.

Friday 12 October 2018

Introducing "Random Encounters on the London Tourist Trail"

Three years ago this month Andrew May and myself penned a Fortean Traveller article for Fortean Times titled Oddities of the Jurassic Coast. The article explored some of the lesser known unusual sights that could be found along the southern Wessex coastline, and it was a shameless plug for our new book at that time Weird Wessex: A Tourist Guide to 100 Strange and Unusual Sights.

The Fortean Traveller article.

Following on from the success of Weird Wessex we have now turned out sights to the nation's capital and are pleased to announce the release of Random Encounters on the London Tourist Trail. Random Encounters takes the tourist off the beaten path from London's iconic landmarks to explore some of the assortment of quirky and unusual sights that are lurking just a short walk away from the regular tourist trail. So if you think you know London, think again! As the book's back-cover blurb explains:

There’s an Egyptian Goddess in Mayfair and Karl Marx in Soho, a tiny police station in Trafalgar Square and an 18-inch-wide alley in Covent Garden (careful you don’t get stuck!). Alongside the iconic landmarks that the regular guidebooks tell you about, central London has an impressive assortment of quirky and unusual sights, from art installations in the form of human body parts to hundred-year-old advertising signs and a forgotten tube station. This book gives you a guided tour of all these sights and more – without straying far from the places you were going to see anyway, like Big Ben and Buckingham Palace, the Tower of London and St Paul’s Cathedral, the museums of South Kensington and the entertainment hotspots of the West End.

Random Encounters on the London Tourist Trail.

So if you are looking for a tourist guide to London's unusual sights that is packed with full-colour photographs, look no further than Random Encounters on the London Tourist TrailRandom Encounters is available from Amazon UK or any other Amazon store and is also available on Kindle version.

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Tuesday 15 May 2018

James Bond's London Home

A few roads over from Chester Square in London where the author of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley, lived from 1846 to 1851 is the home of another famous literary icon. The home in question can be found at 22 Ebury Street, and a blue plaque on the building reveals who the previous resident was. The blue plaque reads: “IAN FLEMING 1908-1964 Creator of James Bond lived here”.

Fleming's blue plaque.
Born into a wealthy family, Ian Lancaster Fleming had a privileged upbringing with an education that included studies at Eton, Sandhurst and the universities of Munich and Geneva. After completing his studies Fleming’s career initially saw him working as a journalist and then as a Royal Navy Officer for British Naval Intelligence. It was Fleming’s experiences in Naval Intelligence during World War II that give him the inspiration and source material for his famous literary creation, the fictional British Spy, James Bond.

Some of Fleming's wartime experiences found their way into his James Bond books. Like the fictional Bond, Fleming held the naval rank of Commander, and at one point he worked as the personal assistant to the director of Naval Intelligence, John Godfrey - believed to be the model for the character M, the head of MI6.

Fleming wrote his first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, in 1952 and it was an immediate success, kick starting a worldwide phenomenon that would lead to sales of over 100 million copies of James Bond novels. During his writing career Fleming managed to author a total of 14 James Bond novels. The other 25 official James Bond novels to date being penned by other authors after Fleming’s death.

Due to his wealth and success Fleming could afford to live a lavish Bond-esque lifestyle. In the novels (for example Moonraker, 1955), James Bond is described as living in "a small but comfortable flat off the Kings Road" - a desirable address in Chelsea, but not in the same league as Fleming's own residence in Belgravia! However, the film Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) shows a fleeting glimpse of a document giving his address as "61 Horsen Ferry Road, London S1" - a fictionalised version of Horseferry Road in SW1, just a short walk from Ebury Street.

22 Ebury Street
Fleming had other homes besides the one in London - including an estate in Jamaica, which he called Goldeneye. That was another reminder of his naval career - Goldeneye had been the codename of a British intelligence operation during the Spanish Civil War. Much later, in 1995, one of the post-Fleming Bond movies was given that title as a homage to him.

Fleming's years of good living (he was a heavy drinker and smoker) eventually caught up with him and he suffered his first heart attack in 1961. It was whilst recovering from a subsequent heart attack that Fleming dreamt up the children's story Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang. Apparently the idea for the novel stemmed from bedtime stories that he told his young son whilst he was convalescing. It seems that heart attacks would be the bane of Fleming’s later years, and it was a further heart attack in 1964 that claimed his life.

At the time of his death Fleming was living at Warneford Place, a mansion that James Bond would have been proud of in Sevenhampton near Swindon. Fleming was buried in the village’s churchyard (St James’) on the 15 August 1964, his resting place marked by a somewhat modest obelisk. His grave is not the only indication of his time in Sevenhampton, eagle-eyed visitors may notice the name of the nearby Ellipsis Farm, a name that may be familiar to some from Casino Royale.

Fleming's grave in Sevenhampton near Swindon.

A James Bond inspired Farm Name in Sevenhampton.

Pictures, London (February 2018) & Sevenhampton (July 2015).

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).