Middlesex

Taking a look inside the mausoleum of an eccentric earl and his tragic mistress

Most of the grand mausolea we see in Victorian cemeteries are private spaces, accessible only to the families of those interred within or blocked off and sealed forever to keep vandals out.  However, today we are visiting a mausoleum with an unusual story attached to it: one where its doors are occasionally opened and where visitors can view the coffins and memorials within.  This might seem like a strange thing to do, even an intrusion, but the man who commissioned the mausoleum regularly visited it himself while he was still alive, and today the mausoleum’s well-preserved interior serves as a testament to the affection in which he held his young mistress.

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The centenarian in Brentford’s workhouse: piecing together the life of Mary Hicks

When I visited the churchyard of All Saints, Isleworth, earlier in the year, I’d gone in search of the plague pit there.  However, whilst exploring the burial ground, I also came across a headstone that commemorated a person who would probably have disappeared into an unmarked paupers’ grave were it not for the great age she lived to.  Mary Hicks, who died in 1870 at the grand old age of 104, spent the last twenty-seven years of her life as an inmate of the Brentford Workhouse.

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Moving a church tower from the Square Mile to Twickenham: the story of All Hallows

It’s a little known fact that more of the City of London’s churches were demolished during peacetime than were destroyed during the Blitz.  As London expanded, the population of the Square Mile declined.  Fifty one of the eighty-seven churches consumed by the Great Fire of 1666 had been rebuilt, but as the City’s population dwindled during the 19th and 20th Centuries, congregations fell and many churches became surplus to requirements.

However, as you make your way along the Chertsey Road in Twickenham, towards the famous rugby stadium, an unexpected sight looms into view: a baroque Christopher Wren church tower.  This is one of the lost City churches, All Hallows Lombard Street, reborn as a suburban parish church.

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A plague pit by the Thames: All Saints, Isleworth

London’s many plague pits have a certain dark allure – they’re mysterious because so many of them lie unmarked, hidden and forgotten under the city’s streets, buildings and parks.  We’ve seen pictures of archaeologists excavating long-lost mass graves uncovered on building sites, with huge jumbles of bones emerging from the soil and centuries-old eye sockets peering out at us.  We’ve heard dark tales of homes built over old plague pits, haunted by restless spirits.  But upstream of the old city, in a quiet suburb by the Thames, a plague pit lies in plain sight – marked by a yew tree and a little memorial.  This is the plague pit at All Saints church, Isleworth, where local plague victims were laid to rest in a mass grave in 1665.

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Strawberry Hill: the eccentric house that inspired the Gothic Revival

Among the smart suburban homes of Twickenham is a very strange house.  Gleaming white walls, battlements, Gothic pinnacles and a round tower stand out against more restrained neighbours. Strawberry Hill House, home of the eccentric man of letters Horace Walpole during the second half of the 18th Century, is arguably the birthplace not only of the Gothic revival, but also of the Gothic novel.   I visited Strawberry Hill on a very gloomy Saturday afternoon, which didn’t really do the house’s bright white walls justice, but the house had only reopened a few weeks earlier after an extensive restoration and despite the grey weather the house was clean and jewel-bright – and quite possibly one of the oddest homes I’ve ever visited.

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The ruin next door: exploring the Brick Church of St John the Evangelist, Stanmore

London is home to a number of ruined churches – in the City of London alone there are several, victims of the bombing raids of the Luftwaffe in the Second World War.  However, not all of the ruined churches of Greater London are victims of the Blitz.  In Stanmore, a comfortable suburb at the top of the Jubilee Line, another ruined church can be found alongside its Victorian successor.  The current parish church of St John the Evangelist was built in the mid-19th Century, but the picturesque ruins of the 17th Century church it replaced still survive in the church’s large burial ground.

The burial ground is a tranquil place, despite being close to a busy main road. Numerous squirrels darted in and out of the gravestones and a pair of magpies strutted around, while pigeons cooed softly, hidden from sight.  It was a humid September day when I visited, with shafts of sunlight shining through the clouds.  For an hour or so I had the place to myself, before the ruin was opened for the afternoon.

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Eel Pie Island: hippie commune, legendary music venue & artists’ enclave

The River Thames has long attracted artists, and today many of them have made their home on Eel Pie Island in Twickenham.  This narrow island, also known as Twickenham Ait, is only accessible by boat or footbridge and is not usually open to the public.  However, twice each year the artists of the island hold an open studios weekend where members of the public can visit the island and purchase the work of the artists who have studios there.

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