Writing Portfolio


London's unusual church names

Ever wondered about where some of London’s more unusual church names come from? You know, the ones that refer to wardrobes, garlic or being without. I’ve been looking into this very thing for Londonist as part of their ongoing ‘etymology’ series, and this particular episode involved visits to several of the most beautiful buildings on London to find out more. 

It is in such oases of peace and quiet in a busy city that London’s history comes to life; many have associations with famous historical people and many of them are the works of Sir Christopher Wren who rebuilt so many churches (in addition to St Paul’s Cathedral) after the Great Fire. 

Some even commemorate famous former parishoners, such as St Clement Danes which has a statue of Samuel Johnson at the back, facing towards Fleet Street! 

These days, some of them even have cafés, and not just in the crypts either – the one at St Mary Aldermary, for example, is in the church itself which must make said Wren church a strong contender for ‘best café interior in London’.

Here’s the link:


The Capital Ring: Osterley Lock to Greenford

Back to the Capital Ring, mindful of the fact that it is almost two years since I started out by following the green signs from East Finchley. I’d made it half-way, more or less, over the course of 2015 and by comparison 2016 was slim, seeing me cover just under 24 miles from Crystal Palace to Osterley Lock (although there were various other walks for Londonist). The next section, Osterley Lock to Greenford, promised to be a fairly easy one – 5½ miles, mostly flat and following either the Grand Union Canal or the River Brent for the most part.

My Capital Ring odyssey had thus far been a solo experience but this was now no longer the case; Dad has been doing the walk as well but for some reason we had not managed to co-ordinate our efforts thus far (although I started doing it before him, he’s actually done more of it than me because he started in Hendon). Since we’d both managed to get as far as Osterley Lock, though, we thought it would be silly not to do the rest together.

We got to Boston Manor station at just after 10am on a clear but frosty January morning – turns out we were on the same train but in different carriages, having got on the Piccadilly Line at different stations. Once at the canal and rejoining both the Capital Ring and the Grand Union Canal Walk (a long-distance footpath which follows the towpath of said canal to the Midlands), we noted that the canal was frozen over at that point; by way of prodding it with a walking-stick we found that it was very thin ice, mind you. The towpath was quite muddy, and both of us thought it was a good job we’d come wearing hiking-boots.

A waymarker proclaimed that it was 91 miles via the canal network to Braunston, which we thought was a bit odd as that’s in Devon and surely Devon is further away than that? Turns out that the sign was referring to Braunston in Northants which used to be a central hub of England’s canal system; we were thinking of Braunton where we once went on holiday!

Between Brentford and Hanwell, the River Brent and the Grand Union Canal are one and the same with the river diverting off to a weir whenever a lock appears. At Hanwell, the two split as the canal starts on a six-lock flight, taking it up over 50 feet in a third of a mile. 

Much though I’d’ve liked to see a canal go up a hill (sort of), the Capital Ring breaks off after the first lock, following the river instead with Ealing Hospital to the left; had we wanted to stay on the canal towpath, it would’ve been another 16 miles to Rickmansworth, and 136½ miles to Birmingham.

We followed the river and the path, across the Uxbridge Road and onto a playing-field where we beheld an impressive sight – the Wharncliffe Viaduct, built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel in 1838 to carry the Great Western Railway on its journey to Bristol (according to a sign, Queen Victoria is said to have asked for her train to be stopped on the viaduct so she could admire the view on both sides).

Our path took us underneath said viaduct and into the grounds of Brent Lodge Park, the grounds of an old manor house in the shadow of St Mary’s, Hanwell – a nineteenth-century ‘Gothic Revivial’ church, the spire of which is something of a local landmark.

Our path hugged the Brent, taking us to the edge of the fields at the point where there was still frost in the shade. 

Over the river and past a cricket pitch and a golf course we walked, to a reclaimed landfill site bearing the somewhat optimistic name of Bittern’s Field. Our chances of seeing one of those elusive birds were slim-to-none (I’ve only ever seen one once, and that was at Minsmere although I’m told they’ve been seen at the London Wetlands Centre at Barnes); on our walk we did get to see moorhens, coots, mallards, a lone mute swan, blue and great tits, a couple of robins, black-headed gulls (lots of those), blackbirds, pigeons of the wood and feral varieties, a solitary grey heron and some ring-necked parakeets flying overhead.

We parted company with the Brent by Greenford Bridge, crossing it for a last time before entering Perivale Park from which the arch of Wembley Stadium can be seen. 

We took a tea-break there, marvelling at how quicker a walk can go when you have someone to talk to on said walk, even when the talk veers between such subjects as Watford Football Club, various trivia we’ve found out about London, pubs, what we’ve done with the meat we bought at Smithfield and whether or not John Keble can be classed as a saint (to which the answer is no, although that doesn’t stop people from thinking he is because there’s a church named after him).

Carrying on, our walk, which had seemed to be almost rural in parts, took a turn for the urban as we crossed over the A40 and skirted around Northolt Rugby Club, walking through a built-up area to get to Greenford station and the end of another Capital Ring stage; Dad has two left before he completes the circular walk around London, while I have two-and-a-half to go. A quick perusal of the Colin Saunders book tells us that the next part, Greenford to South Kenton, is “a very interesting section with some climbing and fine views” – two hills in fact, Horsenden and Harrow. I guess we’ll need our boots for that too.

As we approached the station, it was lunchtime – and just before we got to the station we spotted a pub. That was lunch sorted out, then.


Sherlocked: going through the motions, or being too clever by half

(Note: contains spoilers. You probably wouldn’t want to read this if you have yet to see the first episode of the fourth series of Sherlock. You have been warned.)

Sherlock returned to our screens last Sunday, some seven years after Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman first appeared as the modern-day Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson, and three years after the third series (although there was that rather disappointing one-off one last year which purported to be a reimagining of the original, late-Victorian setting of the Sherlock Holmes adventures but which turned out to be an extended dream-sequence). I watched it, because it’s Sherlock, and even though I will be watching the rest of the series I must say that it hasn’t been the most auspicious of starts.

Yes, there was an updating of one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories. ‘The Adventure of the Six Napoleons’ – the one in which a criminal is going around smashing up plaster busts of Napoleon Bonaparte because he hid a stolen jewel in one of them, but he doesn’t know which one – became ‘The Six Thatchers’, the twist being that although Sherlock thought that the missing item was a jewel (with the same name as the one in the original story) it was in fact a memory-stick which led onto a bringing-up of Mary’s back-story which in turn set up the episode’s denouement.

 And yes, there were references to various other Holmes stories, such as The Sign of Four (Agra/A.G.R.A., the use of Toby the dog), ‘The Adventure of the Yellow Face’ (when Holmes got it wrong and asked Watson to mention the word ‘Norbury’ to him “if it should ever strike you that I am getting a little overconfident in my powers”, although in the original he was referring to the place in South London and not a disgruntled ex-MI6 secretary), ‘The Adventure of the Red-Headed League’ (the client who doesn’t think so much of Sherlock’s deduction after it’s been explained to him) and of course the never-written one about Sumatra (“a story for which the world is not yet prepares”), among others. The writers even managed to cram in a reference to John’s blog, just like Conan Doyle himself managed to have Holmes occasionally refer to Dr Watson’s write-ups of his cases (the conceit here being that although they put a lot of business his way, he didn’t care much for them).  

However, I cannot help but think that Sherlock has lost its way, and that the many references were there because they had to be, just like the bits where Sherlock acts like an arse because not only is he cleverer than everyone else, he knows he is. But these things which identify an episode of Sherlock as being an episode of Sherlock were mere window-dressing, for ‘The Six Thatchers’ seemed for the most part to be less Sherlock Holmes than some sort of James Bond or Jason Bourne pastiche. The solving of a mystery took second place to a tale of secret agents for hire, a fight in a swimming-pool, shady governmental goings-on, betrayal, a few overseas locations, much running around (including in the vicinity of the MI6 building, no less) and characters pointing guns at each other. By the time it got to Mary the former assassin being shot in the aquarium (I did warn you that this post contained spoilers) I was frankly past caring, aside from wondering how this compares with Tracy getting shot just after becoming Mrs Bond at the end of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and considering that this might not be the last we’ve seen of Amanda Abbington, given how reluctant writers Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss are when it comes to moving on from main characters after they’ve been killed off (witness the fact that Jim ‘Miss Me?’ Moriarty is still a major talking-point).

By the show’s own high standards, this wasn’t a good return. It’s not been well received and I cannot help but think that Gatiss put more thought into the poem he wrote as a repost to the critics; the writers have always been clever in the way they’ve adapted the old stories but it’s got to the point where they’re either going through the motions or being too clever by half. But hey, I’ll still be watching the rest of the series, which I hope will return to the old format of concentrating on solving crimes (I for one cannot wait to see what Toby Jones can do as a villain after his superlative performance in The Witness for the Prosecution, of which more perhaps in a future post), although there are hints at some more Holmes family business – as if Mycroft wasn’t being over-used already – with references to ‘Sherrinford’, the non-Canonical third brother. They do like to keep us guessing, don’t they?


Fish for Christmas - the follow-up

As a quick follow-up to a couple of posts made earlier this month, here’s how those fishy Christmas projects turned out:

I had made pickled herring before, using the same recipe – a family one written down by Allison’s grandmother – so I had few fears about that; both variants turned out well and were hits with our guests. As is the case with so many things, the home-made version (the garlic one for preference, personally) was better than its shop-bought equivalent.

The one I was worried about was the gravadlax. The fact that the cure was separated from the fish itself by a thick layer of dill concerned me; would two days be enough to cure the fish? And then there was the rye bread to go with it; that didn’t rise and so was very dense (should’ve realised that that would be the case where the proportion of rye flour to white was 50-50). It turns out I shouldn’t have worried – a thin slice of dense (and buttered) rye bread worked better as a base than a cracker would have done. And the gravadlax itself was fantastic! Much better than smoked salmon; I’ll be making that one again. Shouldn’t have doubted the recipe, of course. The success of this means that there will in all probability be more appearances by recipes from Tim Hayward’s Food DIY book on this blog in 2017.


The Christmas Eve meat auction at Smithfield

To Smithfield on the morning of Christmas Eve, to pick up a bargain or three at the annual meat auction. This event, which takes place annually at London’s famous meat market, is one of the London Christmas traditions that I wrote about for Londonist recently, but not something Allison and I had ever gone and seen for ourselves. Clearly, this was something that needed to be rectified. After getting off the train at Farringdon, we saw a few people with shopping carts making their way towards the north-western corner of the market building (close to the junction of Charterhouse Street and Farringdon Street; they, and we, congregated by Harts of Smithfield, the butcher’s that does the auction and which has a sign (there all year, apparently) proclaiming their shop-front to be the location of “the one and only” Christmas Eve auction, starting at 10:30am. The crowd was spilling out onto the road, which was closed off by the City of London Police shortly before the fun started. Punters, be they people who come here every year or first-timers, were excited at what lay ahead.

As the appointed hour approached, the crowd had swelled to several hundred and three catwalks extending out into the crowd were constructed of wooden pallets; it was from these that the meat would be sold. Not long after 10:30, the main butcher – the man who conducts this sale every year – made his way onto the central catwalk and announced how the auction would work. This was all about making sure that “everyone gets something” and unlike at a regular auction there wouldn’t be any bidding – here, there was a fixed price for each cut of meat and anyone wishing to have one of these would have to hold up the appropriate amount of cash (change, we were told, would not be given).

First up were some legs of pork – English legs of pork, complete with trotters on the end – going for £20 each. A forest of £20 notes appeared above the crowd as punters vied to get the attention of the butchers who were holding up the legs along all three catwalks. A brisk trade was done, with a few dozen legs being sold. “What are we going to do with this?”, I heard someone whisper to a man who I presumed to be her husband, who’d just bought one. “You’ll need to buy a bigger oven,” quipped a man standing next to them. More hands holding banknotes went up for the next bargain, topsides of beef; “fifty quid anywhere else, twenty here,” proclaimed the master of ceremonies. English loins of pork were next, each one at least three feet long (how many chops could you get from that?) and costing £10 each. “We could probably make room in the freezer for that,” said someone who did not sound at all convinced that they could. Be that as it may, for bargain pieces of meat, Smithfield on Christmas Eve is clearly the place to go. Many seemed very happy with what they got!

A few photographers were in attendance, looking for money-shots such as a little girl sitting on her father’s shoulders, holding up a £10 note (the nearest butcher spotted her too, and made sure she got something). It was even claimed that a TV crew (from Brazil, of all places) was in attendance. Large pieces of belly pork (£10 each) were followed by the turkeys, which went for £20 – or at least they did once one of the assistant butchers, an evidently put-upon chap called Charlie, was able to get them out of the boxes (although not before his colleagues had got the audience to chant the man’s name several times). Shoulders of pork, sold in bags of two for £20 followed, then big sides of green gammon for £20 (‘green’ in a butchering context meaning a piece of bacon or gammon that’s been neither cooked nor smoked) and boxes of ducks, four for £20. The punters were still very keen to buy, and much money changed hands in a sort-of feeding frenzy. “This is fabulous,” said the chief butcher. “Great to see so many people spending money. It’s ’cos of Brexit, of course.”

Ribs of beef were brought out to cheers from the crowd, for this was probably what many had been waiting for (all that was needed was for someone to strike up a chorus of ‘The Roast Beef of Old England’); they were quickly snapped up by eager buyers, along with more shoulders of pork and whole suckling-pigs which buyers carried away on their shoulders which must have made for some curious glances on the Tube ride home. As reinforcements arrived – dozens of boxes containing more beef ribs, brought along on a fork-lift and then hurriedly unpacked by the assistant butchers – the coin-toss ritual began. This is a simple game which is very much a part of the ritual at the meat auction – call the coin-toss wrong, and the punter has to pay the asking-price. Call it right, and the meat is his (or hers) for free. Given that the asking-price is in any case a bargain, it’s a win-win situation.

By this point, the auction was coming to an end. People – some of whom had come with backpacks or shopping-carts (or had parked nearby, for it was a Saturday and parking is free in the vicinity at weekends) were started to leave, fully-laden with enough meat to feed their families for some time.

As the sale died down and the clearing-up operation began, some punters remained – those who’d picked up on an aside earlier, to the point that if anyone wanted their meat cut up on the spot it could be done at the end (having been to Smithfield of an early morning before, we were well aware that a Smithfield butcher will only cut up a piece of meat for you after he’s sold it to you – this is, after all, a wholesale market). We came away with a beef rib, a pork shoulder and a topside of beef – all of which had, of course, to be carried home on the train.

A London Christmas tradition experienced, and great fun it was too!