Thursday, March 31, 2005
And then there were five
Tomorrow is the last day of Routemaster operation on route 19 between Battersea and Finsbury Park. I took a ride on the 19 last week, just because I can't next week. They've already started the changeover, so I had to wait beside Battersea Bridge for 15 minutes while a couple of dull modern double deckers emerged from the old shed that doubles as a bus garage. But then I nabbed the top deck front seat view on the next vintage vehicle for a snail's pace crawl across Central London, and suddenly the wait was worthwhile. We got stuck in a jam in Knightsbridge for 20 minutes, but (unlike next week) the Japanese tourists sitting to my right were still able to hop off the open platform and escape. We paraded up Shaftesbury Avenue which, until tomorrow night at least, is the only road in Central London where every bus is still a Routemaster. We transported some Chelsea nobs to the art galleries up Piccadilly and we delivered a smiling kid with an Incredibles balloon (and her dad) to the estates of Highbury. At least four different middle-aged blokes took our photograph as we passed. During the journey the conductor's memory failed him and he asked to check my ticket twice, although admittedly the two occasions were over an hour apart. I sincerely hope he has a job lined up for next week, but somehow I doubt it.
For the second half of the journey I got to share my top deck view with a bus fanatic and a genuine minor celebrity. The minor celeb was BBC London 94.9FM weekend breakfast DJ Simon Lederman. You've probably never heard of him, and neither had I, but his name was written on an envelope and Google is a wonderful thing. Simon had an on-board rendezvous with the bus fanatic to collect some prize tickets to give away on air for a special Open Day being arranged by Cobham Bus Museum this weekend. He also got to check the Radio London advert in the Open Day programme and got shown all the spelling mistakes in the accompanying advertising leaflet. I'm afraid that Simon's on-bus conversation was rather more interesting than the first 10 minutes of his show last Saturday, but that's local talk radio for you.
If you want to see some fine old buses in action, you could chug down to Surrey on Sunday. Or you could just stay in town and ride a Routemaster for £1.20, while you still can. There are several guest vehicles serving the 19 tomorrow, if you're interested. But there'll be just five routes left to choose from after tomorrow, and none at all before the year is out. Ride now while stocks last.
14 Putney - Tottenham Court Road (last day of operation: 22 July 2005)
22 Putney - Piccadilly Circus (last day of operation: 22 July 2005)
159 Marble Arch - Streatham (last day of operation: 30 September 2005)
38 Victoria - Clapton (no final date set, but likely to be replaced by bendy buses in October)
13 Golders Green - Aldwych (no final date set, but will go before Christmas)
Tuesday, March 29, 2005
Ronnie Kray's funeral: Wednesday March 29th 1995
Ten years ago today the East End came to a halt for the funeral of Ronnie Kray. The gangland boss suffered a heart attack in Broadmoor at the age of 61 and died in Wexham Park Hospital a couple of days later. Poor bloke - not even a convicted psychopath deserves to die in Slough. Ronnie's body was taken, after a post mortem, to the funeral parlour of W English and Son in the Bethnal Green Road, from where his final journey began on the afternoon of 29th March 1995. Thousands gathered in the surrounding streets to see the funeral procession, either to pay their last respects or for a final sneaky look at an East End legend. Reggie's coffin was placed in a glass-sided hearse, pulled by six plumed horses and overflowing with floral tributes. The cortege halted briefly just round the corner in Vallance Road outside the site of the twins' former home, although the original two-up two-down at number 178 no longer stood as it had been rebuilt as community housing. And from here it was just a few short yards up the road beside the railway viaduct to the church where the funeral service was to be held.
St Matthew's Church stands alone in the middle of a postwar housing estate, a beacon of brown on a patch of green surrounded by grey. There's been a church here for 250 years, although the increasingly multicultural nature of the surrounding area suggests that it may not last as a functional place of worship for very much longer. I paid a visit last week, wandering through the churchyard past dogwaste bins and teenagers gulping underage alcohol. Peering through the church's glass front door I saw a bright modern interior with a few wooden chairs gathered in the middle of a empty polished floor. It was hard to imagine, but ten years ago the church was completely packed out.
Ronnie's funeral was a massive East End affair. They played "My Way" during the service, as well as the rather schmaltzier "I Will Always Love You". The churchyard was full of shaven headed thugs, suited and booted for one day only. Four gangsters from rival 'firms', including Ronnie's brother Charlie, came together to act as pallbearers. Barbara Windsor and Morrissey sent wreaths, while another floral tribute was thought to be from the New York Mafia. But it was surviving twin Reggie who stole the limelight by attending handcuffed to a prison warder, having been let out of Maidstone for the day. He looked old and he looked distraught, but he was still happy enough to give interviews for local TV news. Perhaps he realised he'd be back here soon enough, this time inside the box (and he was, five years later, for a repeat performance).
After the service the funeral procession headed east towards Chingford Cemetery where Ronnie was to be buried beside his beloved mother. 26 black Daimlers followed the hearse at an equine walking pace, causing gridlock through the streets of the East End. And they took a most indirect route to the cemetery, heading out across the Bow flyover (and past my house). But then legend has it that the Kray twins buried the body of Frank "Mad Axeman" Mitchell in the concrete supports of the Bow Flyover while it was under construction in 1967, so maybe Ronnie was having the last laugh after all.
Saturday, March 26, 2005
Spearhead From Space
The first Doctor Who story I ever remember watching was Jon Pertwee's first - this delightful tale where plastic objects suddenly spring to life. Just my luck to start watching in time for one of the scariest scenes ever, the one where plastic dummies burst out of shop windows and shoot innocent passing members of the public. One minute people were going about their everyday shopping, the next they were gunned down by lumbering mannequins with firearms concealed within their drop-down wrists. How was a five year old supposed to face shopping in the local high street after that?
Still, at least my local high street wasn't Ealing Broadway where these particular scenes were filmed. I paid my very first visit to Ealing last Saturday afternoon in an attempt to lay my childhood demons to rest. The shop I came to see was John Sanders, a traditional department store from the era before bland corporate retailing. No stranger to disaster, the building had survived a direct hit from a V1 bomb during World War Two 25 years before its glass was again shattered during the Auton Invasion of 1970. But John Sanders couldn't hold out as an independent retailer forever and so its mythical shop window now belongs to Marks and Spencer instead. And there are still dummies in it.
Looks evil, doesn't she? She's one of the three mannequins still keeping watch over the unsuspecting people of Ealing Broadway, staring through faceless eyes out across the pelican crossing towards Christ The Saviour church. Three more dummies lurk just inside the M&S entrance, bedecked in red 'sale' t-shirts, awaiting the signal that will snap them back to life. Because, haven't you heard, the Autons are invading again, tonight at 7pm. This time it's Oxford Street that's going to be attacked, but don't worry because a new Doctor will be on hand to save the day (and to lure one of the shop assistants off to a new life). I'm delighted not just that the show is returning but that script writer Russell T Davies has chosen to relaunch the new series using my very first Doctor Who nightmares. And I really hope that, next Saturday, there'll be small five year old boys walking down Ealing Broadway keeping an especially tight hold on their parent's hand, just in case that nearby shop window shatters and the invasion begins for real.
Spearhead From Space
Friday, March 25, 2005
The very last Doctor Who episode was set in London, just like the very first. It wasn't meant to be the very last episode, it just turned out that way when the Doctor finally met his match in the form of evil programme controller Michael Grade. Had the production team known that this was the end of the line, I suspect they'd have wrapped up the show somewhere slightly more glamorous than the streets of Perivale. But I guess it was kind of appropriate to end somewhere suburban, somewhere ordinary, somewhere London.
Perivale is very London. John Betjeman described the place as a "parish of enormous hayfields", but you'd be hard pushed to agree with him today. Now it's a patch of 1930s semis built alongside the A40, just west of the Hanger Lane gyratory system. Perivale's most famous landmark is probably the Art Deco Hoover Building, a Grade 1 listed white structure now sympathetically converted to a Tesco hypermarket. It's even lit up emerald green at night, just to show how much loved it is. But that's about as thrilling as Perivale gets. There is the Grand Union Canal, and the Central line and a huge Royal Mail sorting office, and even a very big hill (of which more later). But Perivale is mostly houses.
This is the house on the corner of Bleasdale Avenue and Colwyn Avenue, outside which the Tardis materialised at the start of the final Doctor Who story. We're on the Medway estate, a well-kept network of mock tudor semis and desirable council housing complete with spring blossom and multi-car ownership. In the TV series these leafy avenues were supposed to be where Ace grew up, popping down to the shops on Medway Parade and hanging out in the recreation ground opposite the station. Here the feline Cheetah People struck, carting off the local adolescents to hunt as prey on their distant homeworld. I watched as a silent milkfloat hummed by, and shuddered slightly as a small cat stopped to look at me from the pavement. All wonderfully ordinary, just like the streets where I grew up, and so typical of Doctor Who to place the terrifying slap bang in the middle of the mundane.
The final scenes of the final show were shot atop Perivale's highest point, the summit of Horsenden Hill. It's a beautiful wooded peak of green contours, rising unspoilt above the surrounding housing estates. I climbed the wooded path from the hump-back bridge by the canal, arriving halfway up in a grassy clearing populated by shifty-looking semi-clad blokes. At the summit four boys were kicking a football around while their mothers sat patiently waiting for them to run out of steam. I stood for a while to take in the fantastic views over West London, including the new Wembley arch rising to the east. I liked the place rather more than I thought I was going to, but I'm still glad that by 7pm tomorrow evening this attractive hilltop will no longer be the site of the final Doctor Who episode.
"There are worlds out there where the sky is burning, and the sea's asleep, and the rivers dream. People made of smoke and cities made of song. Somewhere there's danger, somewhere there's injustice, somewhere else the tea's getting cold. Come on Ace, we've got work to do."
ace Perivale website (including in-depth Doctor Who location guide)
Thursday, March 24, 2005
An Unearthly Child
The very first Doctor Who episode was set in London, supposedly somewhere around Shoreditch, which just goes to show how before-its-time the show was even then. The show opened with an atmospheric shot of a dimly-lit junkyard. What was that mysterious looking police box doing there in Totters Lane, and why was it humming? The scene then switched to a nearby secondary school where we were introduced to the Doctor's granddaughter, Susan, and to her teachers Ian and Barbara. Two key Doctor Who locations... or they would have been if only the first episode hadn't been filmed entirely in the studio. There is no such London street as Totters Lane, let alone a Foreman's junkyard at number 76, neither is there a Coal Hill School anywhere in the Ofsted database. But I still managed to find them both, within a mile of each other in west London, thanks to two stories that revisited these locations more than 20 years later.
76 Totters Lane
The Doctor returned to Foreman's junkyard in 1985, as part of the two-part story Attack of the Cybermen (UK Gold, Saturday, 3:10pm). Colin Baker and assistant Peri parked the Tardis here before setting off to tackle a gang of diamond thieves in the London sewers, like you do. The junkyard scene was only brief, but it provided a geographical location for the original 1963 series, and nowhere near Shoreditch. This is Becklow Road in Acton, London W12, at the crossroads with Cobbold Road and Gayford Road. It's a quiet residential backwater surrounded by old Victorian terraces. All old, that is, except for the one glaringly new block of flats you can see in my photo. Closer inspection confirms that these redbrick apartments have been built (at some time during the last 20 years) on the precise site where the filming of 76 Totters Lane took place. Residents do normal things here now, oblivious of the site's former history, things like watching television, doing the hoovering and not running away from Cybermen. The old junkyard has vanished forever... unless you've got a time machine, of course.
Coal Hill School
This old school building, by contrast, looks just the same as it did when Sylvester McCoy screeched to a halt outside in the search for renegade Daleks. It's a big old Victorian school building, just off the main shopping street in Hammersmith, with separate entrances for "Boys", "Girls" and "Infants". In 1988 this was the home of St John's School, dressed up for the series as Coal Hill School (1963). The headteacher was the actor who played Mr Bronson, the playground had alien scorchmarks on the tarmac and, most importantly of all, this was the place where Daleks first demonstated they could travel up stairs. But in 2005 there's no school here any more. The northern half of the building is now the Macbeth Centre, the local Adult Education base where you can do courses in feng shui, pilates, welding and web design (but not time travel). And the southern half of the building is now a key stage 4 pupil referral unit for excluded pupils. Exactly the sort of place where troublesome Ace might have ended up... as indeed she did, smashing the chemistry lab to smithereens with her baseball bat before the whole room exploded. Evidence suggests that today's troubled teenagers are rather more well behaved.
An Unearthly Child
Attack of the Cybermen
Remembrance of the Daleks
Wednesday, March 23, 2005
I don't know whether you've noticed, but Doctor Who is back on our TV screens this Saturday after a 16-year hiatus. The return of this sci-fi classic will either fill you with nostalgic childlike joy, or leave you reaching for the remote in total indifference. For the next few days, I'm hoping it's the former.
With the entire infinite universe at his disposal, the Doctor instead chose to spend an inordinate amount of his time on just one small blue-green planet - our own Earth. Careful scrutiny of videotape records narrows down his particular interest to protecting the UK from imminent alien invasion and, more specifically, in safeguarding residents living within five miles of BBC Television Centre. A surprisingly high proportion of the Doctor's adventures took place in the capital and, as if to make the point, the first episode of the new series is set here too (somewhere on the number 16 bus route). OK, so the latest stuff was actually filmed in Cardiff with the help of a few hijacked Routemasters, but many of the old stories really were shot in London, just for added realism. I spent last Saturday visiting a handful of these choice locations, just to see what's left after Who's gone. First location report tomorrow.
In the meantime, courtesy of this splendid (but now defunct) website, here's a rundown of Doctor Who's London film locations.
William Hartnell (1963-66)
The Dalek Invasion of Earth (filmed August 1964): Classic shots of Daleks in Trafalgar Square, rolling along the Embankment and perching on top of the Albert Memorial (how did they get up the steps?)
The Massacre (filmed January 1966): New companion Dodo runs inside what she thinks is a police box, near the windmill on Wimbledon Common.
The War Machines (filmed May 1966): The Doctor discovers that the new Post Office Tower is in fact the base of an evil computer bent on taking over the world.
Patrick Troughton (1966-69)
The Invasion (filmed September 1968): Cybermen crawl out of the sewers and invade the capital (including that iconic shot of silver-suited robots walking down the steps in front of St Paul's Cathedral.
Jon Pertwee (1970-74)
Spearhead From Space (filmed September 1969): Shop window dummies spring to life in Ealing High Street.
The Terror of the Autons (filmed September 1970): The Master's first appearance, in a circus tent on land now covered by the Lea Bridge Ice Centre, Leyton.
The Mind of Evil (filmed November 1970): Exterior shots of UNIT headquarters are shot in Cornwall Gardens, South Kensington.
Day of the Daleks (filmed September 1971): Ogrons emerge from a time tunnel underneath Bull's Bridge, Hayes, Middlesex.
Invasion of the Dinosaurs (filmed 1973): The Doctor parks his Whomobile outside a deserted Moorgate station, only to be hemmed in by a stegosaurus.
Tom Baker (1974-81)
Terror of the Zygons (filmed March 1975): The Loch Ness Monster emerges from the River Thames beside Lambeth Bridge, beneath Millbank Tower.
The Talons of Weng-Chiang (filmed December 1976): Seminal Victorian East London fogbound mystery adventure, featuring Clink Street, St Katherine's Dock and Wapping Old Stairs.
Logopolis (filmed December 1980): The Tardis materialises on Cadogan Pier beneath Albert Bridge, where The Watcher is standing guard.
Peter Davison (1981-84)
Mawdryn Undead (filmed August 1982): The Brigadier has become a maths teacher at a minor public school, located in Trent Park, Enfield (just north of Cockfosters station).
Resurrection of the Daleks (filmed September 1983): The deserted warehouses to the east of Tower Bridge turn out to be full of Daleks (and not yet trendy restaurants).
Colin Baker (1984-86)
Attack of the Cybermen (filmed May 1984): Those evil silver creatures swarm all over some obscure backstreets across Acton, including a certain junkyard that turns out to be where the series began.
Sylvester McCoy (1987-89)
Remembrance of the Daleks (filmed April 1988): The Doctor goes back to school (off Hammersmith High Street) and uncovers the Hand of Omega in a grave in a cemetery in Kilburn (the same one where my great-grandfather is buried).
Survival (filmed June 1989): The final story of the final series sees Cheetah People invading a sleepy Perivale estate.
Monday, March 21, 2005
(© dg 2005)
the diamond geezer tourist map of London Regents Park
The perfect spot for a picnic, or to see lots of endangered zoo animals holed up in grim concrete bunkers
Will eventually be a magnificent gateway to the continent, but in the meantime it's just a seedy dump full of hookers
Trendy shopping area full of overpriced antiques, multi-ethnic restaurants and severe traffic congestion
Even trendier area full of arty types, media dahlings and people in danger of disappearing up their own arsehole
Godforsaken hotel zone full of cafes and bureaux de change, named after an immigrant bear from Peru
Great Britain's most over-hyped high street - it doesn't even have a Woolworths, for example
Tottenham Court Road
Spiritual home of all things electrical, at a knockdown price if you learn to haggle properly
Lots of old relics stolen from ancient civilisations during the less enlightened days of the British Empire
The bit of London that makes all the money - all posh shirts and shiny glass towers (closed weekends)
Huge green space where Princess Diana's memorial water feature stands decaying beside the Serpentine
Big Georgian mansion behind whose closed doors the Royal Family slag each other off and sleep with corgis
Busy road junction filled by tourists taking photographs of one another beneath a boarded-up statue
Large paved space, home to several minority interest cultural festivals (and no longer full of pigeons)
Once William the Conqueror's most feared castle, but now the site of London's most feared admission charges
Posh area full of toffs where entrance to the excellent local museums is the only thing that doesn't cost the earth
Soulless urban hub thronging with hotels, coffee shops, faceless offices and a variety of bland chain stores
Seat of government since medieval times (at least until the Home Secretary decides the place is a security risk and shuts it down)
A giant ferris wheel where you can enjoy spectacular views while locked in a glass pod with several French schoolkids
Victorian icon featured on souvenir teatowels, novelty keyrings and every single movie ever made about the capital
Saturday, March 12, 2005
Weekend tube closures
Tried using the tube at the weekend recently? It's not easy. London Underground keep shutting down large chunks of the underground network every weekend 'due to planned engineering works', and every weekend it's a different selection of track. What may look like a simple journey across town can become a nightmare diversionary trek via rail replacement bus services once various line segments have been erased from service. Particularly badly hit at the moment are the Metropolitan and Jubilee lines in the Wembley Park area, and the District and Circle lines across the centre of town. I know that all these engineering works have to take place sometime, and that the network may even be better once they're all completed, but I'm sure we never used to have quite so many simultaneously.
To help the struggling London traveller, the tube website now kindly lists all the planned network closures for the next six months (all 135 of them). It's a rather scary list, so I've decided to summarise it in this easy-to-swallow table of weekend tube shutdowns. Every coloured blob indicates a weekend shutdown along part (or all) of a particular line. Now you can plan to be elsewhere as required (or maybe stick to the East London and Piccadilly lines, just to be on the safe side).
(© dg 2005)
March April May June July 5 12 19 26 2 9 16 23 30 7 14 21 28 4 11 18 25 2 9 16 23 30 Bakerloo Central Circle District East London Ham & City Jubilee Metropolitan Northern Piccadilly Victoria W & City
Tuesday, March 01, 2005
Going back to my roots
The last time I ever saw my grandmother, I asked her to tell me the story of how she and my grandfather first met. I'm not quite sure why I asked - maybe I sensed that it might be my last chance - but I'm glad I heard the story before the memory vanished forever. She told me that back in the early 1930s both she and my future grandfather happened to be living a few miles apart in north-west London, but that's not where they met. No, my grandmother first clapped eyes on my grandfather during a trip to the seaside - in Clacton of all places. He was throwing stones at a tin can and she fancied him... and they got married a few years later.
So, I'd not be here today were it not for a tin can in Clacton. Or, for that matter, a whole number of other emotional attractions and geographical coincidences dating back to the dawn of time. I'm only here because all my ancestors happened to meet, and have sex with, the right person, and because none of them got killed off by illness or accident before child-bearing age. To be honest, the chances of me being here today are infinitesimally small. But the fact that you're reading this page today means that the countless chain of probabilities worked out in the end, and you have my ancestors to thank for that.
Like many other Britons I've gone digging back into my past to find out who my ancestors are. With the aid of existing family records I've been able to uncover genealogical information about as many as 50 of my direct ancestors, dating back as far as the early 18th century. I've also discovered in which parts of the country my roots lie. My father's side of the family, for example, seem to have lived in and around north-west London for most of their lives, while my mother's side have been gradually migrating down the M11 from the Cambridge area towards the M25 since the early 1700s.
So, in the run-up to my 40th birthday next week, I've decided to go back and visit some of the more interesting places where some of my more interesting ancestors once lived.
Going back to my roots: Newport, Essex
great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather Edward, born 1720
I can trace my roots back no further than this small village in north west Essex, which I guess makes me an Essex boy at heart. If you've ever driven up the M11 from London to Cambridge you'll have passed within a whisker of here, halfway up that 15 mile stretch where there aren't any junctions. Newport is one of those almost-pretty East Anglian villages with quaint pastel-painted cottages lining the high street. To its credit, much of the 21st century has been held at bay and a surprising amount of the 18th (or even 17th) century remains. My grandfather's grandfather's grandfather's grandfather might even recognise some of that today. He was born and died in the village, and he's buried somewhere in the churchyard (although I couldn't identify which crumbling gravestone might be his when I stopped by for a visit). Edward married wife Martha in 1741 and she gave birth to three sons, one of them suspiciously close to the wedding day. I was dead chuffed to discover that the cottage to the right of this photo still bears the family name. There's no guarantee that any of my ancestors ever lived in this old farmhouse, admittedly, but at least I can now imagine them all growing up here, with the waters of the River Cam trickling slowly by at the bottom of the garden. An excellent place to have one's roots.
Going back to my (murderous) roots: Widdington, Essex
great-great-great-great-great uncle John, born 1802
Just off the main London to Cambridge road, a few miles north of Stansted Airport, lies the dead-end village of Widdington. It's a picturesque village surrounded by fields and woodland, complete with 13th century church, 16th century pub and 19th century murder (of which more later). In the churchyard I found a couple of relatives' gravestones (which was a bit of a thrill). Around the triangular village green I found an old bakery and an old post office (except they were now called "The Old Bakery" and "The Old Post Office" and people lived in them). And hidden on a hilltop I found one of the finest surviving medieval barns in south east England (except it was closed). You'd like the place.
My quadruple-great grandfather Thomas was born in Widdington in 1770, as was his father before him. Thomas was "an industrious labourer" and of "good character", and worked in the employ of the local landowner. He was father to a daughter and five sons, one of whom passed his genes on to me. But one of the other sons, John, never got round to starting his own family because at the age of 21 he was convicted of murder. And he committed his heinous crime right here, down this very country lane."There is just at the particular part of the road alluded to, a distance of nearly a mile either way, in which not a cottage or vestige of security presents itself. It was in such a dreary spot that the murderer attacked the unfortunate victim of his malice - a bare mile from Widdington only, in a narrow road, where the sides are thrown up so as to exclude any distant view by open day, and prevent the voice from being heard by night; at this point, and in the darkest part of Monday evening last, when fatigued in his endeavours to ascend a very steep hill, Mr. Mumford appears to have been attacked, and with such remorseless fury, that the spot exhibits but little signs that any resistance could be made. The blood itself cries aloud for retribution; it's purple stream is even now clearly visible and will long remain." (Chelmsford Chronicle, Friday December 12 1823)Almost two centuries later that bloodstain is long gone, but the country lane is still as dark, secluded and remote as ever it was, even in daylight. I went for a cautious walk up the hillside in the footsteps of my homicidal ancestor, following the route he'd taken on his final journey as a free man. John had been binge drinking too much in the nearby village of Quendon, and took it upon himself to follow the local landowner's son home. But only halfway home..."The head was beat in at the hind part, the jaw was crushed to pieces, and the bludgeon with which it was effected being jagged, the face and even under the chin was so torn that it was first thought that a sharper instrument had been used, the blood having run down the road in a stream. The deceased could not possibly be recognised by the nearest relative, but from other proofs than those of his former features."Confused by drunken bloodlust, John hoped to cover his tracks by pretending he'd discovered this mutilated body on the road. He proceeded up the hill, carrying the bloodied corpse over his back, and delivered the body to the Fleur-de-Lys pub (pictured left). John wasn't the brightest of men (the local newspaper described him as "an illiterate yokel") so he made two crucial mistakes. Firstly he announced to the pub precisely who the dead man was, despite the fact that nobody else could possibly recognise the disfigured face. Secondly, and rather more stupidly, John was discovered with Mumford's bloodied knife still in his back pocket. He was arrested on the spot, although it took seven villagers to restrain him. He was then carted off to Chelmsford where he was locked up and tried for murder, before being taken to the gallows three days later."The prisoner was a stout athletic man, of great muscular power; he had that pale, unsound appearance which we frequently observe in those whose earnings are spent in superfluous drink, and which idle habits induce them to prefer. He still wore the bloodstained smock in which he had been arrested. Amongst the crowd present were half a dozen young men weeping most bitterly and uttering compulsive sobs; all were relations. The executioner shook the condemned man's hands, removed the steps and the platform dropped back on its hinges. The crowd looked on in silence, with awe but not with sympathy. Many noted the prisoner's dreadfully expressive face, drawn up by the agony of despair."I wonder whether the present inhabitants of Widdington know the story of their village's darkest day. Thankfully when they saw me wandering around outside the pub they didn't form a lynch mob and hold me to account for this ancient crime. Nevertheless I didn't hang around for too long, just in case. And I kept looking behind me as I walked down that infamous lane out of the village, because blood sticks.
Going back to my roots: Harefield, Middlesex
great-great-great grandfather William, born 1808
While my mother's side of the family were busy murdering people, my father's forebears were busy being industrious, right here. This is Copper Mill Lock on the Grand Union canal, just down the hill from world-famous Harefield Hospital. We're on the very edge of north-west London (Hertfordshire starts about five metres to the right of this photo) beside the banks of the river Colne, surrounded by rolling hills and gravel-bottomed lakes. I'm sure the view would have been gorgeous had it not been for the heavy mist hanging over the river valley on the day I visited. The canal passed this way in 1797, just a decade before my great-great-great grandfather William was born. He and his three brothers all worked in this riverside mill, making copper which was used to line ships for the Napoleonic Wars. William married a local lass and they lived in an artisan's cottage beside the canal, although sadly I could find no trace of the ancestral pile when I went back to take a look. But the mill buildings were still there, now redivided into tasteful modern hi-tech business units. And the canal still looked much as it would have done two centuries ago, just so long as I ignored the gastropub, the modern office development and the group of canoeists zigzagging through the millstream.
Going back to your roots: Battle, Sussex
some victorious French soldier, 1066
Back in 1066 the entire kingdom of England was under threat from murderous immigrants. If it wasn't Norwegians massing to attack across the North Sea it was Frenchmen intent on invading across the Channel, and poor King Harold spent most of the year trying to keep everyone at bay. He failed. You probably know the story of England's most important battle, especially if your history teachers did a good job. But you may not know that the battle actually took place at Senlac Hill, seven miles up the road from Hastings. Today there's a small medieval town on the site, a town with the appropriate but stunningly unoriginal name of Battle. Go back five generations and some of my ancestors came from here. But go back forty generations and, if you're of English descent, I bet some of your genes were fighting on this very hillside...
I was very impressed to discover that England's most important battlefield remains pretty much unspoilt to this day. Apart from the huge abbey and monastery on the hilltop that is, and these were built centuries ago well before the introduction of rigorous conservation legislation. The site is now owned by English Heritage, and they'll only charge you a fiver to enter through the Abbey gateway and step back into the 11th century. It was eerily quiet on this most famous hillside last Saturday afternoon, with just myself and a small party of Dutch tourists squelching round the battlefield in the unexpected sunshine. Instead of swords we held "audio wands", listening to well-written commentaries which brought the stories of the dead back to life. The guided walk took us from the abbey terrace where King Harold's shield wall stood firm, right down to the lake at the foot of the hill where the Norman knights gathered. Inbetween were the killing fields, now just grass and mud and trees and bracken. I was taken by how ordinary the place looked, but how special it felt.
On that distant Saturday back in 1066, the day-long battle could have gone either way. Harold's men were knackered after an unexpected trek up to Yorkshire and back, but they also had a superior tactical location on the top of the hill. Had they stayed in position, William's soldiers might never have been victorious. But the Normans were devious strategists and pretended to take flight, encouraging the English to break ranks and lose their advantage. In the ensuing skirmish a hail of arrows rained down behind the Saxon shield line and Harold was unexpectedly pierced. That one fatal eye-wound delivered victory to the French and changed the course of English history. The high altar of Battle Abbey was later built on the spot where Harold fell, and a stone tablet still marks the site today.
I left the battlefield with ancient mud caked to the bottom of my shoes. There were still monastery ruins to explore, a museum to wander round and a small gift shop to ignore. As I walked back out into the 21st century I was humbled by the events this site had witnessed. And I was reminded that, although I shall never be able to trace my earliest ancestors, I am in fact a genetic hotchpotch of hundreds of thousands of invaders and settlers, each with their own unique life story to tell. And some of them are even French.
Battle Abbey and Battlefield walk
The Battle of Hastings - history sites
Battle - tourist sites
Going back to my roots: Battle, Sussex
great-great-great grandfather James, born 1820
This is St Mary's Church in Battle, far less famous than Battle Abbey just over the road, but almost as old and rather more important to me. It was here, within 100 yards of the spot where King Harold died, that my great-great-great grandfather James was baptised and married. He was dipped in the Norman font in 1820 and walked up the 12th century nave in 1842 to wed gamekeeper's daughter Sarah. The happy couple were most likely buried here as well, given that people didn't tend to move far in those days, but my search through the lichen-covered gravestones proved unsuccessful.
The small town of Battle still has one foot firmly in the past. As well as the battlefield and Abbey ruins, the traditional high street still remains something of an anachronism. Homely tearooms and a proper butchers are crammed in beside a Victorian sweetshop and 18th century apothecary. Smiling families with 2.4 impeccably behaved children bustle along the narrow pavements buying groceries, kitchenware and designer artefacts. Shoppers here are far more likely to buy a ball of wool than a mobile phone, and the Happy Meal has yet to oust the dainty plate of toasted crumpets dripping with jam. The nostalgic England that Daily Mail readers crave is still alive in Battle, and not in any bad way.
Going back to my roots: Waltham Abbey, Essex
great grandfather James, 1864
By an splendid but unplanned coincidence, my ancestral tour today jumps from the site of King Harold's death to the supposed site of his burial. This is Waltham Abbey, an imposing building with a thousand year history, first established by Harold himself a few years before he became king. After the Battle of Hastings legend tells that Harold's body was laid to rest here, and two stones to the east of the present church still mark the supposed burial site today. And it was just across the river from this famous church that my great-grandfather made his living.
Thanks to census data, it's possible to track my great grandfather's life in rather more detail than any of my previous relatives. He was born in 1864 in Brewer's End Cottage in Takeley, an idyllic rural spot (in those days at least, because nobody had yet built Stansted Airport less than a mile to the north). By 1881, at the age of 17, young James had left home to move into lodgings in Roydon (just outside Harlow) and was busy working as an agricultural labourer. By the night of the 1891 census he'd moved to nearby Nazeing, married my great grandmother and had a six month old daughter to support. And he also had a fascinating new job.
The Royal Gunpowder Mills have been a centre for the manufacture of explosives since the 17th century, from the gunpowder stockpiled beneath Parliament by Guy Fawkes to the explosives dropped by the Dambusters during the Second World War. My great grandfather was one of thousands of local residents who found employment here, commuting three miles on foot down the Lea Valley every day to reach the factory. James's job is listed as "Danger House Man", which sounds really quite exciting (but may just have been a glorified Health and Safety operative). He worked there right up until his death in 1914, just before the factory's busiest years supplying munitions, death and carnage to the trenches of World War One. The mills finally closed in 1991 and were recently reopened as a museum and heritage attraction. I'd love to show you a photograph of the place, but the museum is currently closed until the start of the summer season in April. I'll definitely be back.
Going back to my roots: 40 South Molton Street, London W1
great grandfather Edward, born 1870
When most people search back through their family tree, I suspect they're secretly hoping to uncover somebody famous. Not me. When I searched back through my family tree I was hoping to find a genuine Londoner. And with my great grandfather I hit the jackpot.
40 South Molton Street is about as central as London gets: just off Oxford Street, round the corner from Bond Street tube station and on the fringes of Mayfair. It's now an exclusive shopping street full of designer labels, but a hundred years ago they made clothes here rather than selling them. My great grandfather Edward was born at 40 South Molton Street - the tall thin brick building in the centre of my photograph - and from here plied his trade as a tailor. I can't say I share his talent - even sewing on a button is too much effort for me - but I'm mighty envious both of his skill and of his geographical location.
On my family's last visit to the capital I took my nephews and niece back to see where their London roots lie. They were less than impressed, I suspect because the building wasn't Hamleys. They'd be even less impressed today because 40 South Molton Street is shrouded in scaffolding. If you're ever down this way, look out for the ugly frontage swathed in steel, plywood and green netting. The ground floor is now occupied by The Red Rock Cafe, a tiny catering establishment that makes its living feeding the passing fashion victims. I thought it might be a lovely idea to pop in one day and take lunch in my great grandfather's old home, but that was before I saw the prices listed on the menu outside. Call me miserly but I reckoned £6.40 was a bit steep for a jacket potato topped with cheese and beans, so I just had to make do with staring in through the window and scaring the patrons with my camera.
Going back to my roots: Selfridges, London W1
great grandfather Edward married great grandmother Frances, 1900
Yes, it's true - my great grandparents were married in Selfridges, right here in this garage. Let me explain...
Edward and Frances were married on Easter Saturday 1900 in St Thomas's Church in Orchard Street, just off Portman Square. South Molton Street is less than a quarter of a mile away, so it made perfect sense for the two of them to get wed in the local parish church. Alas the building no longer stands, and the reason for its demise was the expansion of Oxford Street's most famous department store. Selfridges first opened in 1909, the brainchild of American entrepreneur Gordon Selfridge. His vision was that every visit to the store should be 'an event', and people flocked from far and wide to prove him right. Selfridges was so successful that by 1928 it had doubled in size, which meant knocking down some of the existing buildings behind the store, which meant the loss of St Thomas's. The altar screen and organ were shipped off to St Thomas's Church in Hanwell where they still do sterling work, but the original site now serves a different god.
I went back to stand on the spot where my great grandparents pledged their troth, hoping that it might have been in the middle of what's now the Food Hall. But no. The rear of Selfridges is a grim place, just a service road lined by characterless buildings, and totally unlike the elegance of the imposing frontage. Round the back is where the deliveries are made and, almost precisely where the altar of St Thomas's once stood, there's this garage selling expensive petrol to posh drivers in Daimlers with money to burn. I was mighty disappointed. But if any of you are interested in getting married in Selfridges there's still a chance. The store is holding a 'Vegas' promotion next month and they're looking for a couple willing to get married in a mock Little White Wedding Chapel in store. A century ago, no gimmicks were required.