Today, Spitalfields often feels like something of a battleground between the area’s rich and varied heritage and the seemingly unstoppable march of gentrification and redevelopment. Located on the north-eastern edge of the City of London, in recent decades it has been transformed from a mostly working-class district that was home to textile producers and a large fruit and vegetable market to a hub for high-end boutiques and trendy restaurants. It was the construction of a new office block in 1999 that led to the rediscovery of a medieval charnel house – the oldest building in Spitalfields – which had lain undiscovered for around 300 years. Fortunately, the discovery generated enough interest that the office developers chose to incorporate the building’s remains into the new development, and today a glass panel allows the charnel house to be viewed from street level, while a flight of stairs leads down to the ruins themselves, which can be seen behind glass. This little building gives the visitor a rare glimpse into medieval Spitalfields which was home not to market buildings or office blocks but to a hospital and an extensive burial ground.
It’s impossible to miss Duart Castle. It stands proudly on a spur of land reaching out into the Sound of Mull, and it’s a familiar sight to people who travel through those waters. The powerful MacLean clan have controlled Duart Castle for much of its history, using the castle’s prominent location as a symbol of the clan’s power and prestige. In common with other Scottish castles, Duart has a fascinating, turbulent and sometimes bloody history, from medieval clan wars to the Jacobite uprisings of the 18th Century. Today, the Chief of Clan MacLean welcomes visitors from all over the world to his family seat, so that they can learn about the history of the castle and the clan that made it their home.
I remember the first time I saw Christ Church Greyfriars – I was on my way to a job interview near the Old Bailey, and as I was walking up Newgate Street from the tube station by St Paul’s I saw the ruins of a church. Intrigued, I went over to the ruin to read the sign explaining what the site was. I’ve always been fascinated by ruins – not just the reasons why a building became a ruin, but also why the ruin itself was preserved. When one considers how valuable every square foot of space is in the City of London, it’s quite something to come across a ruin that’s stood there for over seventy years.
As I made my way north on the train from Cambridge to Ely, the Fens seemed to stretch out forever. An entirely flat landscape of fields, waterways and even solar panels spread in all directions. The Fens is an alien place to me; I grew up in Lancashire amongst hills, moors and valleys. Until the Fens began to be drained from the 17th Century onwards, the little city of Ely was an island amid a vast watery landscape of rivers, peat beds and marshes.
Atop the highest hill in the Fens – a mere 26 metres above sea level – is a magnificent cathedral that dominates the landscape.