“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.

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.