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.
Artefacts from Ancient Egypt are scattered in museums across the world, with many of them being excavated and removed from Egypt by European- and American-led expeditions during the 19th Century and finding their way into the hands of private collectors or foreign museums. However, some of the best-known treasures of ancient Egypt – the contents of the tomb of the boy-king Tutankhamun, discovered in the Valley of the Kings in 1922 – have remained in Cairo, leaving Egypt only very occasionally for wildly popular world tours. A new exhibition featuring artefacts from Tutankhamun’s tomb is due to open in London in November 2019, after a record-breaking run in Paris. Dubbed a ‘farewell tour’, these artefacts will be moving to a new, permanent home at the new Grand Egyptian Museum in Giza when they return to Egypt. The museum that has housed Tutankhamun’s treasures since their discovery in 1922 is a Cairo landmark, a visit to which was described by a recent article as ‘like walking through history itself, even before taking into account that it also houses one of the world’s most significant collections of ancient artifacts.’ (source)
In November 2017 one of London’s most famous Roman sites reopened to the public after spending several years hidden away in storage. The Mithraeum, a subterranean temple dedicated to the god Mithras, has had an eventful afterlife since its celebrated rediscovery in 1954. Moved from its original site to make way for a new office development, it was reconstructed at a new location nearby before the great wheel of redevelopment turned again and offered the chance for the Mithraeum to be reinstated at its original location on the banks of the now-underground river Walbrook. The Mithraeum offers modern Londoners a glimpse into one of the Roman period’s more unusual elements: the secretive cult of Mithras, and the work to restore its ruins to the banks of the Walbrook also gave archaeologists an incredible opportunity to discover more about Roman-era Londinium.
If you walk along Redcross Way, a quiet street a stone’s throw away from the hustle and bustle of London Bridge Station and Borough High Street, a strange sight can be found. Hundreds of colourful ribbons, flowers, toys and other trinkets are tied to the railings that surround a small garden, some bright and fresh, others faded with time and exposure to the elements. This is Cross Bones, an old burial ground where thousands of Londoners, mostly the poorest members of society, were laid to rest. In recent years this place has been transformed from a bare piece of land to a colourful community garden dedicated to the memory of London’s outcast dead.
There are so many fascinating old churches in London – however, St Leonard’s in Shoreditch is the first church where I’ve been greeted by a cat. Schrödinger, who was featured in an article on Spitalfields Life earlier this year, is a former stray who now lives at the church. The handsome black and white fellow seemed to spot me as soon as I arrived with my camera, and trotted into the church to wait for me to open the door to let him in.
30 St Mary Axe – better known by its nickname “The Gherkin” – is one of the most distinctive skyscrapers in London. It stands on the site of the old Baltic Exchange, which was badly damaged by a Provisional IRA bomb in 1992 and subsequently demolished. It was during excavations taking place prior to the construction of the Gherkin that, in 1995, the skeleton of a Roman Londoner who had lain undisturbed for 1,600 years was discovered.
When stepping into the grand entrance hall of Battersea Arts Centre, it’s not obvious that only a few months ago a terrible disaster struck the building. On a Saturday afternoon in October, the place is bustling. Families have gathered in one of the rooms for a child’s birthday party; half a dozen buggies are parked on one side of the marble staircase. Other people sip coffee and tuck into snacks at the centre’s cafe bar. It all seems like a normal day – business as usual – except for the group of people donning high-visibility jackets and hard hats. They have come to the centre to see for themselves the devastation left by a fire in the centre’s Grand Hall in March 2015, and to hear about the plans to rebuild the venue that has been at the heart of social and cultural life in Battersea for over a century.
When I mentioned to friends that I’d visited Ashby’s Mill, their universal response was “I had no idea there was a windmill in Brixton!” And it’s true enough that the south London district of Brixton isn’t somewhere that one immediately associates with windmills and rural life – it’s a built-up area that’s more likely to attract comments about crime or gentrification. But in a little park by an ordinary housing estate is an extraordinary survivor from the days when Brixton was just an open space a few miles from London. Today, the Brixton Windmill has been carefully restored and provides a wonderful opportunity for local people to get in touch with their area’s history.