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Salisbury Cathedral is considered to be one of the leading examples of early ecclesiastical English architecture. The main body was completed in only 38 years, from 1220 to 1258. The cathedral has the tallest church spire in the United Kingdom (123m/404 ft), the largest cloister and the largest cathedral close (adjacent church buildings) in Britain. Built under a Catholic Britain, the Cathedral was originally called the Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Now Anglican, the cathedral contains such curiosities as the world’s oldest working clock (AD 1386) and the finest existing copy of the original four copies of the Magna Carta.

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The new cathedral was paid for by donations, principally by all the canons and vicars of South East England, who were asked to contribute a fixed annual sum until its completion. The owner of Teffont Evias quarry contributed most of the stone free of charge. To help build a cathedral was to do a good work and pave the way to heaven.

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Legend has it that the Bishop of Old Sarum shot an arrow in the direction he would build the cathedral; the arrow hit a deer and the deer finally died in the place where Salisbury Cathedral is now. Due to the high water table in the new location, the cathedral was built on only four feet of foundations. By 1258 the nave, transepts and choir were complete. The west front was finished in 1265. The cloisters and chapter house were completed around 1280. Because the cathedral was built in only 38 years, it has a single consistent architectural style, Early English Gothic.

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The only major sections of the cathedral built later were the cloisters, chapter house, tower and spire, which at 404 feet (123 m) dominated the skyline from 1320. Although impressive, the spire proved to be troublesome. Together with the tower, it added 6,397 tons (6,500 tonnes) to the weight of the building. Without the addition of buttresses, bracing arches and anchor irons over the succeeding centuries, it would have suffered the fate of spires on later great ecclesiastical buildings (such as Malmesbury Abbey) and fallen down.

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To this day the large supporting pillars at the corners of the spire are seen to bend inwards under the stress. The addition of reinforcing tie beams above the crossing, designed by Christopher Wren in 1668, arrested further deformation. Salisbury Cathedral has been well represented in art and literature, from the paintings of John Constable to the works of William Golding, Edward Rutherford and Ken Follett.

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Our visit was facilitated by London Walks, one of the outfits that helps organise London’s multitudes of tourists into something resembling purposeful pods, fast moving groups on a cultural prowl. Our guide, Hilary, met us at Waterloo Station, purchased the tickets and herded us on the train. It takes an hour and twenty minutes to reach Salisbury, but it is a relaxing way to travel. After lunch, a bus (or coach) picked us up for the ride to Salisbury Plain and the ruins of Stonehenge.

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One of the most famous sites in the world, Stonehenge is the remains of a ring of standing stones set within earthworks. It was in use from about 3100BC to 1600BC. It is in the middle of the most dense complex of Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments in England, including several hundred burial mounds.

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Its exact purpose is not known, but it seems evident that the site is tied to the mounds, and that the stones are aligned with the summer and winter solstice. As Hilary informed us, this was a time when humans were changing from hunter/gatherers to farmers, so the arrival of winter and the renewal of spring would have been profoundly important. You can find out more about Stonehenge than you may ever want to know on Wikipedia.

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Recent analysis of the remains of a Neolithic settlement near the monument indicates that thousands of people traveled from as far as Scotland to the site, bringing their livestock and families for huge feasts and celebrations during the winter and summer solstices. The researchers believe that the builders converged seasonally to build Stonehenge, but not for very long – likely over a period of a decade or so.

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Suffice it say, there is nothing to indicate that the site has ever had anything to do with human sacrifice or Druids. What astonishes us is the sheer physical work involved in the project. The weight of the stones and the distance some of them were transported staggers the imagination. Approaching the site itself is a bit disappointing. It seems smaller than suggested by the pictures, but then it is roped off now, keeping the crowds at some distance. One has nothing but sky and gently rolling farmland for scale. I have to confess that I have added a little colour to the sky in some of the pics. It was chalk white while we were there.

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Our guide was amused to learn that I had visited a full-scale concrete reproduction of Stonehenge in a small town overlooking the Columbia River in Washington State, a couple hours east of Portland, Oregon. The replica was commissioned by an American entrepreneur named Sam Hill. It was his tribute to the soldiers of his adopted county who lost their lives in World War I. Sam was a Quaker pacifist who had been misinformed on a European tour that Stonehenge was a sacrificial site. You can check out my take on a previous post of mine called The Portland Connection.

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The land beneath the site of Stonehenge has changed hands a number of times over the centuries. In 1915, an auction by Knight Frank & Rutley estate agents in Salisbury included “Lot 15. Stonehenge with about 30 acres, 2 rods, 37 perches of adjoining downland.” A local man by the name of Cecil Chubb bought the site for £6,600 and gave it to the nation three years later.

A new visitor centre is in progress, which should keep cars and coaches at some distance. Tourists may have to walk a bit farther than they do now. All to the good. Sacred stones should be approached slowly, always on foot.


The Heath and Hampstead Society puts out a series of five walking booklets covering a fifteen mile area from Alexandra Palace to Camden Town. They are not free, unfortunately, but they do contain a lot of fascinating information and pictures about various buildings, people, natural attractions and the social history that one encounters enroute.

Last Saturday we followed the rather circuitous route suggested by one booklet to go from Hampstead to Belsize Park. It is only one stop on the Northern line, probably a mile or less, but the tour took us two and a half miles. I read some bits out loud so my wife wouldn’t have to look over my shoulder, which seemed to attract some odd looks from passersby. North American visitors are not supposed to be as eccentric as native Englishmen.

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While we were stopped in front of Erno Goldfinger’s landmark modern house, two mounted police came riding up and asked what we were looking at, why we were stopped. I explained the home’s significance according to my pamphlet, and related the story of how Ian Flemming was so offended by the demolition of 18th century cottages and the building of this residence that he named his first villain after the architect.

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The house has since been acquired by the National Trust as its first “modernist” property. The mounted police people were amused by the story and we had a nice chat. Their horses were patient and beautiful. Belsize Park is a very different area from Hampstead. Many of the houses were built by developers. Now, the horse stables attached to some of those houses are worth a small fortune.

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On Sunday we set off in the opposite direction, heading north toward Hampstead Garden Suburb and Golders Green. Thanks to a lady by the name of Dame Henrietta Barnett, much of the walk goes through the Hampstead Heath extension. It is very muddy this time of year, but the ducks are milling around on the ponds and there are lots of things to see along the way. The route finding is a bit tricky, since Hampstead Heath and the Extension are criss-crossed with trails going in every direction.

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The first section of the route is the highest section of the Heath. There are thick beds of sand, much of which was excavated in the 19th Century for use in mortar for laying brick. During war-time it was used for filling sand bags. A settlement called North End grew up along one side of this part of the Heath; the gem nearby is a house called Wyldes, a home dating from the 17th Century. For many years it was the home of a landscape painter named John Linnell, a contemporary and rival of John Constable and a patron of William Blake. Dickens took refuge here from time to time.

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Among the money men responsible for development of London’s Underground was an American railroad man by the name of Charles Yerkes. His plans to extend the Nothern line from Hampstead to Golders Green included a station near the Wylde house. He did not count on the opposition of Dame Henrietta Barnett, a philanthropist and local resident.

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Henrietta was one of the country’s leading protagonists in campaigns to improve the “industrial classes.” With her vicar husband she came to believe in “environmental determinism” – that the poor are brutalised by their squalid environment and so began a lifetime of philanthropic social work in the East End where they built Toynbee Hall and promoted respectable work in household service as an alternative to prostitution.

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She abhorred the kind of suburban development which was springing up around new tube stations, so she set her mind on raising enough money to prevent this one. She raised enough money to buy Wyldes Farm and 80 acres from Eton College. This became known as the Heath Extension, which made the new station no longer viable even though platforms had already been built.

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The village that came into being to the north of Heath Extension became known as Hampstead Garden Suburb. It was a planned community, its architect chosen by Dame Barnett. An imposing church, St Jude-on-the-hill, anchors the southern end of the community to the surrounding landscape. The suburb was strongly influenced by the ideas of Edwin Lutyens, Britain’s leading designer of country houses.

Among its design aims were the following: it should cater for all classes of people and all income groups; there should be a low housing density; roads should be wide and tree-lined; houses should be separated by hedges, not walls; woods and public gardens should be free to all; and it should be quiet, with no church bells.

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Our timing at the end of our walk was perfect. Even without the bells, it was obvious the church service had just ended. We were just in time to elicit an invitation to tour the interior from one of the parishioners. It was a generous invitation, and we were glad to take advantage of it. Our good shepherdess even suggested a place for lunch, a former “convenience station” called Toulous. It was another longish walk, but the risotto was delicious. We caught a bus to Golders Green, then hopped on the tube one stop to Hampstead. It is a good long way between stops, thanks to Henrietta.

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Hampstead, our local underground station, is on the Edgware branch of the Northern line of the London Underground. Its one claim to fame is the fact that it has the deepest platform in all of London. The station was opened on 22 June 1907 by the Charing Cross, Euston & Hampstead Railway. Heath Street was the original name proposed for the station, and the original tiled station signs on the platform walls still read “Heath Street”. The platforms are 58.5 metres or 192 feet below ground level. It has the deepest lift shaft on the Underground at 181 feet, with two high speed lifts that always seem to work.

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During the Blitz, tube stations like Hampstead were relatively safe places to sleep, and what began as an illegal solution to a growing problem eventually earned grudging acceptance from the authorities. Here’s Julia Smith’s childhood recollection of sleeping at Swiss Cottage station during the war. “The station was rather a magic place. It had a beautiful arcade which housed a good buffet, a chemist shop and, unusually, an umbrella repair shop…. Initially people used to lie on a blanket on the platforms, and passengers alighting from trains stepped over recumbent figures, but some time into the war, bunks were provided…. When the American forces first saw people in the Tube, they thought we were all homeless. In time, they realised that it was the only answer to getting a good night’s sleep….

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Diana Thomson, another Hampstead resident, was an ambulance driver stationed at Parliament Hill during the War. She recalls being called to Hampstead station to rescue a large and heavy woman who had had a heart attack in the middle of the night. There are 320 steps from the platform to the street. “The lifts were cut off during the air raids, so she had to be got up. It was very crowded with people sheltering there. Luckily, we had help from a couple of strong men.” It would be hard enough hauling one’s own body up 320 steps, without the burden of a heavy person who had suffered a heart attack.

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For ordinary visitors to London, taking the tube soon becomes a regular part of life. We turn into moles, hopping on trains from one hole to another. I suspect that most people take this enormous engineering miracle for granted. When that happens, a visit to London’s Transport Museum in Covent Garden is in order. It will renew your respect for all the expense and effort as well as the trial and error that went into creating this amazing network underfoot.

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My flu has finally flown, so I decided to check out a brand new exhibition of Underground Posters and see the museum at the same time. I got there early, before the hordes of school groups and parents with toddlers took over the huge building. A ticket is good for an entire year, so I may make my way back to the museum during the quiet time from 10 to 12 noon. There is a lot to take in.

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The Underground system is known colloquially as the Tube. The name originally applied only to the deep-level lines with trains of a smaller and more circular cross-section, distinguishing them from the earlier, sub-surface “cut-and-cover” lines that used steam locomotives. It is difficult to imagine how uncomfortable and unhealthy those early underground rides must have been, when people smoked in the passenger cars, behind the belching locomotives.

On January 13th, 2013, the very first train to travel on the Metropolitan line was commemorated with a new day of steam on the underground. A videographer named Ryan Skinner captured the event and put together a very elegantly edited version here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0yCOKb6KZZA. It is well worth a look.

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The brilliant London Underground map is now synonymous with the Tube and may raise more revenues through sales of towels, shower curtains, etc. than tickets for actual transport. Its design has definitely been influential around the world. Early maps based on actual geographic location became increasingly cumbersome as the network grew. The first diagrammatic map, the one we know and love now, was designed in 1931 by Harry Beck, a London Underground employee.

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Beck realised that because the railway ran mostly underground, the physical locations of the stations were irrelevant to the traveller — only the topology of the railway mattered. Beck streamlined the system, using straight lines, geometric angles, and clear differentiation of ordinary stations from interchanges. This approach is similar to that of electrical circuit diagrams; although these were not the inspiration for Beck’s maps. Beck was paid just ten pounds for his genius, which now seems a little stingy considering its popularity and influence on other underground mapmakers.

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The Underground now serves 270 stations and has 402 kilometres (250 mi) of track, 45 per cent of which is underground. It is the fourth largest metro system in the world in terms of route miles, after the Seoul Metropolitan Subway, the Shanghai Metro and the Beijing Subway. It has one of the largest numbers of stations. In the year 2011/12, 1.2 billion passengers made use of the Tube, making it the third busiest metro system in Europe, after Moscow and Paris.

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Although the Tube is generally considered safe, a terrible fire broke out on 18 November 1987 at King’s Cross St. Pancras a major interchange on the London Underground. It is believed to have been started by a match, dropped by someone who lit up a cigarette upon reaching the top of the escalator. Although smoking was forbidden underground, it was still not uncommon in the ticket buying halls. The escalators in use had wooden treads.

At 19:45, fifteen minutes after the fire started, a flashover occurred and a jet of flames came from the escalator shaft filling the ticket hall with intense heat and thick black smoke, killing or seriously injuring most of the people in the ticket hall. This trapped several hundred people below ground, who escaped on Victoria line trains. Thirty-one people died and over a hundred were injured.

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The investigators found a build-up of grease under the tracks of the escalator, which was believed to be difficult to ignite and slow to burn once it started, but the grease was heavily impregnated with fibrous materials. As a test, a lit match dropped from the side of the escalator did ignite the contaminated grease and a small fire began spreading before it was extinguished. All wooden escalator treads have no been replaced and fire extinguishers installed.

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Overcrowding on the Underground has been of concern for years and is very much the norm for most commuters during the morning and evening rush hours. In 2009, temperatures in the deep tunnels reached as high as 32 °C. It has been pointed out that, if animals were being transported, temperatures on the Tube would break European Commission animal welfare laws. Air quality is poor. According to a 2003 study, it is 73 times worse than at street level.

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Two weeks ago, Prince Charles and Camila joined London’s commuters on the tube to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the underground. The prince had to be shown where to swipe his Oyster card as he and wife Camilla travelled one stop on the Metropolitan line. It was 17 years since Charles had last been on the tube and the first time the couple, who as Londoners over 60 would be entitled to free travel, had made a journey together.

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But they didn’t have to battle with the capital’s typically packed trains as they were given their own carriage for the £2.10 journey from Farringdon to Kings Cross – the route of the underground’s first line in 1863. After eventually swiping his Oyster, topped up with £10, Charles seemed to enjoy the journey, saying “Just one stop?” when the train ground to a halt.

He may have enjoyed his little outing, but I doubt if he’s giving up his chauffeur driven Bentley any time soon.


If you are going to be laid low with the flu, the only redeeming feature may be that you can’t do much else. The body aches, the lungs wheeze, the vile liquid comes out of the sinus cavity. There are headaches, hot flashes and chills. The only thing I can bring myself to do is settle down with a book and a box of Kleenex.

“The Immortal Dinner” was recommended to me by an employee at Wentworth House, now a small museum in Hampstead dedicated to the brief relationship between John Keats and his fashion-obsessed eighteen year-old neighbour, Fanny Brawne. If any of my readers follow the films of Jane Campion, you will have seen its recreation as a set in the movie– “Bright Star.”

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John Keats was one of the small group of individuals invited to the home of a young painter the evening of December 28, 1817. At that time, Keats was only 21, wholly ignorant of the charming Fanny. He was living with his brother in another house in Hampstead. He had not written any of the works for which he was to become famous, but his genius and dedication was evident to his friends and fans. Benjamin Robert Haydon counted himself among this small, select group.

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John Keats

“In December Wordsworth was in town, and as Keats wished to know him, I made up a party to dinner of Charles Lamb, Wordsworth, Keats and Monkhouse, his friend; and a very pleasant party we had.” Benjamin Robert Haydon, “Autobiography”

“The Immortal Dinner,” the book by Penelope Hughes-Hallett, was given the title because it was called that by the host. Haydon comes across as a thoroughly exasperating artist, intense and charming, loyal and supportive, liable to take offence over trivialities and extort funds from his most impecunious friends, money he could never hope to repay. To his patrons he was worse, failing to accommodate their most reasonable requests. He was an impatient, quarrelsome snob, and his friends loved him.

Benjamin Robert Haydon, self portrait

Robert Haydon, self-portrait

He thought of himself as a genius, born to return British painting to the depiction of historical subjects. The dinner would be held in his large, new “painting room,” dominated by the unfinished canvas of Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem. Other guests included the wit and essayist, Charles Lamb, Tom Monkhouse, a popular giver of literary parties, and Joseph Ritchie, a young doctor and would-be explorer who would soon be off to explore the source of the Niger.

Charles Lamb

Charles Lamb

Despite Haydon’s copious notes, a dinner party, no matter how rich with literary and artistic luminaries, is not a natural subject for a book. Haydon did not record much of the evening’s sparkling conversation, only what struck him as amusing after the fact. Hughes-Hallett pulls the book together by inviting us into the world of London 1817, the world of Keats, Wordsworth, Lamb and Haydon. We find out where they lived, what they ate, drank, discussed, what gave them sleepless nights.

William Wordsworth by Robert Haydon

William Wordsworth by Robert Haydon

“On 28th December, the immortal dinner came off in my painting room, with Jerusalem towering up behind us as background. Wordsworth was on fine cue, and we had a glorious set-to — on Homer, Shakespeare, Milton and Virgil. Lamb got exceedingly merry and exquisitely witty…. He made a speech and voted me absent, and made them drink to my health.”

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We witness the hothouse flowering of the Romantic poets, their passions and squabbles and the financial and psychological burdens they carried, as well as the battle over the direction of British art at the time of Constable, Gainsborough, and Turner. It was the era of the Regency. Napoleon was exiled to Elba and the English could visit Paris once more. It was a time of political turmoil, rabble rousers and riots. The arrival of the Elgin Marbles stunned the art world; the robbing of graves for dissection turned doctors into criminals. The author casts an illuminating light on the artists and scientists, art patrons and surgeons, explorers and actresses from the ballrooms to the terrifying corridors of Bedlam.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Samuel Coleridge

Sir George Beaumont, art patron

Sir George Beaumont, art patron

“By this time the other visitors began to drop in, and a Mr. Ritchie, who is going to penetrate into the interior of Africa. I introduced him to Wordsworth as such, and the conversation got into a new train. After some time Lamb, who had seemingly paid no attention to anyone, suddenly opened his eyes and said, alluding to the dangers of penetrating into the interior of Africa, ‘and pray, who is the gentleman we are going to lose?”

The portrayal of the evening’s progress is intense and thrilling nearly two hundred years later. Only Wordsworth would live to a ripe old age. We can thank Hughes-Hallett for bringing them all back to life in this vivid evocation of one memorable evening, 1817.

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