The Major Oak: capturing the imagination for centuries

Oak trees loom large in English history.  From the sacred oak groves of pre-Roman Britons and the oak wands used by Druids to the oak tree that sheltered the future King Charles II as he escaped from the forces of Oliver Cromwell and the countless oaks used to construct England’s proud navies and merchant ships, this tree – perhaps more than any other – is seen as the national tree of England.  Many individual oaks up and down the country are revered and protected for their age, their size and shape or the stories attached to them.  The oak we’re looking at today is famous not just for its huge size and distinctive shape, but also for its link to that most famous of English legends, Robin Hood.

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The little mortuary at St George in the East and its reincarnation as a museum

St George’s Gardens, the park on the site of the former churchyard of St George in the East in Stepney, is a neat, peaceful place – when I visited, the play area was full of children, and other people were relaxing on benches or looking at the old monuments near the church.  In the midst of all of this is a derelict building that looks terribly sad and out of place.  However, this forlorn little building has a fascinating history that includes that most infamous of East End criminals, Jack the Ripper, and later became a pioneering centre for the education of local children.

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Ashby’s Mill: bringing Brixton’s hidden past to life

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.

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The abandoned Temperance Hospital in Euston

Not far from London’s Euston station is a slightly spooky old derelict building.  The former London Temperance Hospital on Hampstead Road has been closed for many years now, leaving a shell of mismatched buildings falling into disrepair.  The idea of a hospital set up by members of the temperance movement intrigued me, so I decided not only to have a closer look at the old hospital itself but also dig into its history.

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Among the rioters and resurrectionists: the turbulent history of Spa Fields

Situated just to the south of trendy Exmouth Market, Spa Fields in Clerkenwell is today a park that is enjoyed by locals and office workers alike, a rare green space in an area filled with offices, tower blocks and retail units. Only a couple of plaques installed by Islington Council give any indication of the area’s raucous and sometimes dark history.

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The Postman’s Park and the Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice

London’s Square Mile is notoriously short of green space.  A crowded maze of winding streets for many centuries, the City of  London was originally bound by the ancient Roman walls and as the city expanded open spaces became further and further away for those living in the dirty and overcrowded centre of town.  Although the Royal Parks of London have a longer history, it was the Victorians who first advocated a wider movement for open spaces in Britain’s industrialising towns and cities.  Much of the reasoning behind the parks movement came from the belief that the widespread disease in urban areas came from dirty air – or ‘miasma’ – and parks were seen as a way to improve the health of those who could not afford gardens or country retreats of their own.

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