Document of Interest: The Kilburn Hoardings Transcript

The following is a transcript of a cassette recording sent to us anonymously. There were a few brief notes attached. The audio consists of a call to a late night show on a popular London radio station.  The radio station concerned has pulled the audio from their archive and asked PoL not to mention them by name. In the interest of protecting the caller’s identity, we present a transcript in place of the audio. Names have been changed.

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Host: We have a Rachel from Kilburn on the line. What’s keeping you awake, Rachel?

Caller: So, this is gonna sound kind of weird.

H: Go on.

C: My housemate is scarily obsessed with a billboard.

H: Okay.

C: [laughs] Yeah.

H: Your housemate –

C: I told you it was weird. Like, not a billboard exactly, but those – those boards outside building sites.

H: Hoardings.

C: Yeah, hoardings. She’s obsessed with a picture on one near our flat.

H: And this is – [laughs] right, okay, we’ll come to your flatmate in a moment. Uh, let’s start with this picture, tell us about that.

C: Yeah. So, we live in Kilburn and between our flat and the tube station they’re building some big new development. Luxury flats, you know?

H: Oh, let me see. Sandy coloured brickwork? Patches of colour that wouldn’t look out of place in a playground? They’re popping up all over like something from the Twilight Zone. Don’t get me started, Rachel. Do go on.

C: Right, so…

H: The picture.

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C: Yes. Well, you must have seen them, too. Those CGI images of what the grounds of the building are going to look like on an average morning or something. Except there’s like too many people and they all look kind of weird.

H: Always doing the nice things in life aren’t they, those CGI people? Chatting, having a picnic. You don’t see anyone arguing or picking up their dog’s number twos do you?

C: [laughs]

H: And it’s always sunny. None of the rain and toxic air particles we all know and love.

C: So, this is the thing. It started with her just finding them funny. I mean she always used to find those pictures funny, but this one, it really –

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H: You’re going to have to tell us what it looks like, eventually, Rachel.

C: [laughs]. Right, sorry. So, there’s this curvy path next to a grassy mound and half way down there’s this – couple. This man and woman. They’re walking past a tree, towards the new building, you just see their backs. The guy’s on the left, wearing a dark suit, salt-and-pepper hair, turning his head to the woman. He’s holding his hand out in a ‘dispensing witty pearls of wisdom’ kind of a way.

H: I can picture him now.

C: Right. And the woman, she’s turning to him and laughing, you can see a little of the side of her face – you can’t see his face at all. She’s wearing like, tapered trousers, a pale shirt. Kitten heels it looks like, blonde hair. Carrying something like a cross between a clutch and a file folder. And, I mean, these people are CGI and kind of blurry but you get the feeling she’s a bit younger than him.

H: Okay.

C: That’s what it was all about for Emma at first.

H: Emma’s your housemate?

C: Yeah. She was like, are they colleagues? A couple? Is he her dad? It was the dynamics of it – and, like, who was being sold what, here? I think it annoyed her, you know? And when things annoy Emma, she turns them into a joke. That’s Emma. She invented all these scenarios for them. It was just fun, a joke. At first.

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H: And now?

C: Now she’s just – like I said, she’s obsessed. She doesn’t talk about anything else. It’s like this woman is her best friend. She talks about the guy, too. But this imaginary woman is like Emma’s best friend in the whole world, right now.

H: Do I detect a hint of jealousy here, Rachel?

C: [laughs] Well, yeah! That’s it. That’s why I phoned in. I’m jealous of a CGI woman. Thing is she kind of looks like Emma, similar hair and – But no, I’ve been laughing about it, but – it’s getting – she’s started having these dreams now –

H: Hold that thought! Rachel, this is – intriguing – we’ll be right back with you. You’re listening to [redacted]

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According to the notes, the conversation resumed roughly 45 minutes later.

Host: You went awol for a while there, Rachel! Glad to have you back. And it turns out your flatmate has been having one of the dreams you started to tell us about?

Caller: Yes, I – I’ve just come from her room. I got her back to sleep in the end. I – I don’t know if that was the right thing to do.

Host: Ok. Look, you sound – if you’d rather talk to our producer off-air –

C: No, no. I’m sorry, I tried to – it – it isn’t funny any more. She was always such a happy – I…

H: Take your time.

C: [takes a breath] So, the noises started right after we stopped talking. I knew she was having the dream. Where she says she walks with them at night. The couple. And, ok, to me, from my room, it sounds like she’s having a nightmare – all this screaming and groaning. But when I wake her and try to comfort her – she’s just angry with me. Furious at me for waking her up. She – she says she’s happy there. “At peace”. Says all this mad stuff. “The trees are like music”. “It’s the only good place” and – she say’s this a lot –   “She’s not laughing. You thought she was laughing, but she’s not.” And – god – the worst is – like, I really hate it when she says this –  she says she wants to know what her eyes are like. The woman’s. The CGI woman’s eyes. Tonight she was just furious at me because I stopped her from seeing what this fucking woman’s eyes are like. And – oh, shit –

H: Rachel?

[Silence]

H: Rachel? She’s – can you hear her again?

C: Yes. Fuck, why did I let her go to sleep again? You really can’t hear that?

H: I mean – Look, Rachel –

C: Ok, I’m walking to outside her door. You need to hear this shit.

[Wailing sounds become audible]

H: Oh, so now we can hear that. Ok. Wow.

C: Yep. London, Emma. Emma, London… Jesus it’s worse than ever.

H: Look, this is – that really doesn’t sound right – if you need to go to her –

[A pause. Wailing still audible, it increases in intensity as the conversation continues]

C: I don’t know what to do. When I wake her, god, the hatred in her eyes. They’re like, black with hatred. You’ve never seen anything like it.

H: If that’s a nightmare then – I don’t know, I’m not an expert but, you need to wake her, Rachel. Look, does anyone else live with you?

C: We’ve got one other housemate but he’s never in.

H: Is there anyone else you can call, anyone in the neighbourhood, because –

C: I don’t see what anyone else could do.

H: I mean, just so you’re not – right, Rachel, what I’m going to do, I’m going to hand you back to our produ –

[Wailing sound ceases suddenly]

C: Wait.

H: She’s gone quiet. Is – is that good?

C: I don’t know… I’m opening the door.

H: Rachel –

[Sound of door opening. Static appears on the line]

C: Emma?…Jesus.

[static increases]

H: Rachel? Is everything ok?

C: She’s not – Emma? Is that you? Where are you?

H: Rachel?

C: [static dominant, voice distant] Emma? Is it you? Emma?

[only static audible]

[caller’s line goes dead]

The recording ends there. We have decided to flag this as a possible picto-door – with the huge caveat that the source is ambiguous at best. Very little is known about these breach phenonema, which seem to exploit the fragile borders between perceptions of an image and its viewer’s reality.

We include similar images for illustration only: in so doing we in no way suggest that these examples are of relevance to PoL’s field of interest.


  • Candidate: The Kilburn Hoardings Transcript
  • Type: Picto-Door
  • Status: Unconfirmed

 

Time Travel at War: Alexandra Palace and ‘The Princess’

The official website of North London’s Alexandra Palace has a timeline feature. As you scroll back and forth through the exhibition venue’s 140-year history, certain events stand out: A ‘flying bomb’ which blew out the Rose Window towards the end of World War Two; BBC transmitters jamming the navigation systems of German bombers; a devastating fire in 1980; the Palace twice being home to Belgian refugees.

But you’ll see no mention of the story that connects these strands. Maybe this is because it is, in part, a story of failure. Or perhaps it has simply been forgotten, as has so much in the history of London’s dimensional gateways.

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Winter at Alexandra Palace during WWI source | public domain

Set your mind’s timeline to the early months of World War One. The young daughter of a Muswell Hill nurse is brought by her mother to visit refugees camping in the Palace’s Great Hall. The experience will have a lasting impact on the six year old.

Now jump forward 25 years. The nurse’s daughter is back, again greeting Belgians displaced by war. This time, however, the refugees are in the Palace’s wings, being housed there largely as a front. The nurse’s daughter has no professional reason for visiting them – Mary Stratton has not taken her mother’s career path. She is at the Palace in her capacity as a foremost physicist, leading a top secret project. Behind the vast Rose Window, inside the Great Hall, a weapon is being developed that she hopes will play a decisive part in the war against Nazi Germany.

Mary Stratton is building a time machine.

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Alexandra Palace source | licence

But now we come to the 1980 fire. This event was not kind to historians of Stratton’s creation. Much of the paperwork, not to mention what remained of the machine itself, was burnt to ash along with the room it was stored in. We know that the machine had been codenamed ‘The Princess’, but the details of its workings are lost.

What does remain, thanks largely to the diligence of her sister, is a wonderful cache of Stratton’s personal letters, notes and other papers. Alongside hints of the social dynamics at work in her team, they give fascinating insight into what drove her.

“War has a habit of twisting science to the most awful destruction”, Mary wrote to her sister in 1942. “Well, I believe I am close to finding a way to turn science back upon war itself, to hasten an end to all this death without shedding a drop of blood more”.

The ideas of Albert Einstein crop up time and again. His theories on time’s illusionary nature clearly fed into Stratton’s work. And it seems his thoughts on pacifism and liberty also informed her thinking. (Mary was present in 1933 when Einstein spoke at the Albert Hall. Whether she met him in a more personal capacity during his visit to London, we can but wonder.)

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Albert Einstein source | public domain

Stratton’s papers show a wide range of influences. She drew, as Einstein had, clear links between science and literature, art and freedom.

One intriguing scrapbook has cutouts of William Whiston’s 18th Century chart of the Solar System and Gustav Dore’s depiction of Dante’s Paradise alongside a sketch of Alexandra Palace’s stained-glass Rose Window, which had awed Stratton as a child.

The visual connections inferred may give tantalising hints as to the manifestation of The Princess. A letter to Stratton’s sister certainly does. Shortly before her death, Stratton saw the 1960 film of HG Wells’ Time Machine.

“Dear Sis, their Machine! I nearly burst out laughing with recognition. Ours was a deal less pretty Victoriana and a shade more bashed-up Brewster Buccaneer – but something about the general feel of the thing didn’t half give me goosebumps”.

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HG Well’s Time Machine from the 1960 film, and a Brewster Buccaneer (the kind of weapon of war Stratton hoped to render obsolete)

But what of the aims of the time-weapon? The hypothetical murder of a young Adolf Hitler is a well known thought-experiment. We’ll keep to ourselves our thoughts as to where Stratton would have stood on the ethical element, but it may not have been relevant anyway. The physicist didn’t seem to believe such an enterprise was possible.

Somehow, a decoded transcript has made it into Stratton’s sister’s collection which discusses facets of the mission with uncharacteristic candour. It is addressed to the team’s superior military co-ordinator.

“I’m afraid the boys are getting rather carried away: travel back and we can murder everyone, travel forward and we can find superior weaponry and import it back through time. I’ve had to hose them down somewhat”.

For one thing, Stratton noted that The Princess, when completed, was likely to be ‘short range’: “We’re not talking about traversing epochs – yet”.

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William Whiston’s 18th Century chart of the solar system alongside Gustave Dore’s depiction of Dante’s vision of Paradise

More importantly, Stratton believed that any major changes to even recent history could endanger the integrity of our perceived reality.

Instead, she took inspiration from the technicians who were utilising the Palace’s BBC transmitters to disrupt German navigation systems. Crucially, this interference was clandestine, designed to lead the Germans to believe that their own systems were at fault.

Stratton thought that by dipping into the near past, agents could disrupt German operations which British code-breakers had discovered were planned for the near future. Enough disruption would render the Nazis unable to wage war, without the risk of damage to localised spacetime.

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An aerial shot of Alexandra Palace. The Great Hall, with its Rose Window, is visible at the building’s centre source | licence

But Mary Stratton’s theories would never be properly tested.

Whether there was a mole in the mission, or the Nazis own code-breakers intercepted a message, we may never know. Perhaps the bomb attack on Alexandra Palace was just coincidence. The damage was minor, but the team and their military superiors were spooked enough to discuss moving the project to a more secure location. However, they don’t seem to have got very far with this before the war in Europe came to an end.

Of course, in the Pacific, the closing of the war was hastened by a far more terrible scientific endeavour. The A-Bomb changed military thinking. Mary’s ideas fell out of favour, remaining so until the Hawkingsian renaissance of the 1980s.

Today not so much as a blue plaque stands to remind us of a woman who never accepted a vision of humanity that for a few dark years seemed poised to envelop the world.


  • Candidate: The Princess (AKA The Ally Pally Time Machine)
  • Type: Time Machine
  • Status: Uncompleted

Source and license for featured image.

Walthamstow’s Unquiet Village: Elswick-on-the-Marsh

A footballer, arriving early to Hackney Marsh one autumn Sunday League morning, sees strange lights flicker in the mist.

A conservationist, picking through trees at the edge of Walthamstow Marshes on a quiet afternoon, hears shouting and laughter from the adjacent field. When he emerges from the overgrowth, he finds the field is empty.

A commuter, on a train crossing the marshes one dark winter evening, thinks she sees a ramshackle settlement of odd-looking houses where she knows only scrubland should be. She puts a hand to the glass to block the reflection from the carriage lights, but the train moves on, and the vision fades into the night.

Most people would soon forget such moments – once an eerie, out of place feeling had passed. But for some residents of the streets surrounding North East London’s Lea River Marshes, the feeling might linger. It might nag at them, in the days and nights to follow, until finally an old tale from their school days surfaced in their memory. Then, they may wonder if they have played a small part in the strange, restless life of a most unusual portal: a temporally and geographically untethered market town named Elswick-on-the-Marsh.

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Even for the tiny number of locals who remember it, Elswick (pronounced Ezzik or Elzik, depending on who you’re speaking to) is notoriously elusive. Glimmers, glimpses in the half-light, unexplained voices, distant shadows: these are the ways in which Elswick manifests.

Unless you are one of the privileged few.

We learned about Elswick from Jessica, a teenager from Leyton. She, in her turn, had learned about the village from her Great Aunt (whom Jessica calls ‘Nan’).

“I don’t remember a time when those stories weren’t in my head”, Jessica told us. “Of people who had found Elswick and never returned. When Nan told them to me, her eyes would get this look. The way she used to talk about it, I never knew whether it was a good or a bad place. All I knew was that she was obsessed”.

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Jessica says she carries in her memory a small book’s worth of Nan’s sayings about Elswick. “She’d repeat them like prayers… ‘Elswick is a doorway’ … ‘Elswick ever moves’ … ‘Elswick shows itself for a reason'”.

Nan walked the marshes almost daily, often taking Jessica with her.

“Look for a path, Nan said. An old paved road you haven’t seen before. And – how did she used to put it? – ‘Don’t take the path unless you’ve got something to trade'”.

Now, Jessica searches for Elswick alone. Nan went missing five years ago, when Jessica was not long into secondary school.

Jessica is pretty certain she knows where her aunt went.

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Much has been written about the marshes surrounding the River Lea, a tributary to the Thames. They have been drained since Medieval times and up until the 19th century were mainly lammas (common agricultural) land, used by commoners for grazing cattle and growing wheat.

The extent of the marshes, while still impressively large and wild-seeming for an area so close to London’s centre, has diminished significantly since the industrial revolution. Railways, housing, industry, waterworks, international sporting events – the enemies of the open marshland are many, and the struggle to protect what remains is ongoing.

When it comes to Elswick, the written records are much more sketchy. In fact, we found only one concrete mention, albeit from a major source. The Domesday book records the small settlement of Elleswych, in the Hundred of Beconsfield, Essex, under Lord Peter of Velognes.

We knew it was a long shot, but with the written records less than helpful, we decided we had to visit the Marshes for ourselves. We went close to dusk, knowing that most sightings occur in the still-time between night and day.

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The path that Jessica mentioned was our starting point. We can presume that when the Domesday survey was made, Elleswych enjoyed a relative degree of stability within space and time. So on which road did it lie in the 11th Century?

There are references to a paved Roman road that crossed the marshes near Leyton, but its location, if it exists at all, is disputed. There is of course the old road which crosses the River Lea at Stratford, but there is little remaining of the marshes there. We weren’t sure where to look next.

Then we read about the Black Path.

The Black Path was a porter’s way, leading from the fields to the great market of London (Lundenburh, as it was in the late Anglo-Saxon period). It was also a route of pilgrimage. Both uses seemed to chime with what we knew about Elswick.

You can follow the Black Path’s line on modern maps – look for a straight diagonal through London Fields up to Hackney City Hall which becomes, a few lost turnings later, Porchester Road in Clapton. After the marshes you can pick it up again in Walthamstow, near St James’ Park. But the path’s way across Leyton Marsh has been lost. Some open space remains here, however, so that is where we headed.

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Could Elswick have once dwelled in the lost marshes south east of Hackney?

From here we explored east and north, along the line of the Lea and inland, into Walthamstow Marshes. As twilight deepened and shadows rose from the brambles and bullrush, from the grassland and scrub, certain lights became apparent at the marsh’s edge. Half-hidden industrial buildings, streetlamps, the headlights of a distant train. Glimpsed in the gloaming, you can see how they could be mistaken for the lost village.

Sounds, too, drift across the marshes. Unexplained noises weave with crow-caws and the rattle of the passing trains. A pylon buzzes overhead, briefly harmonising with the airborne, ever-present roar of the city.

Are the stories just phantoms? Is Elswick an unreachable will-o-the-wisp?

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On Leyton Marsh we found a transient village of hawkers and traders – just not the one we were looking for

But we remember Jessica’s fervent words.

“It’s out there somewhere, the old trading post. Nan certainly had a lot to trade. So much to give… She once said Elswick only revealed itself to those in need of it. Or those whom it needed”.

Did Nan need it?

“I don’t know. It was around the time of the Olympics that Nan disappeared. She took a lot of that whole thing badly. The loss of great chunks of the marshes. She knew friends that relied on a lot of the community stuff that was lost, the allotments and all that. But – I was only a child. I can’t believe that Nan would have left me by choice”.

We feel bad for Jessica and her unanswered questions, tied up as they are with this fickle, endlessly flittering gateway – and with the uncertain future of a unique and magical part of London.


  • Candidate: Elswick-on-the-Marsh
  • Type: Temporal Untethering
  • Status: Active [monitored]

A Cycle Courier’s Guide to Folding London: The Twitchells (Part Two)

We continue our retelling of an interview with H, who works as a cycle courier for a company that collects business visas in passports. As much as possible, it is presented in her voice. In part one, H described discovering the Twitchells, the hidden network of wormhole-like portals which connect London’s streets.

Like I said, no-one’s going to tell you how to find them. I can drop some hints, mention a few street names, but I’m not going to break it down for you. No grid references or google pins. I know how that seems, it used to piss me off too. But I understand the secrecy now. We’re not jealously guarding some cool little club. It’s just that you have to own it. If you ride the twitchells, it’s got to be on your own terms. Because it isn’t a game.

But I sound like an old-timer, one of the doomsayers. OK – riding the twitchells is fun. Those first few weeks were a rush. Through the office doors in the morning and I couldn’t pack my workload into my bag quick enough. No matter that it’s 90 minutes until my first embassy opens. Never mind the murmurs coming from the courier’s desk as I head for the door – the seen-it-all-befores sipping tea with their feet up, smirking and shaking their head. Forget them. I’ve got a new toy and it isn’t anywhere near being boring.

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The twitchells were everything I already loved about my job, times a thousand. Connecting the city, piecing disparate parts into a whole. Stealing time between drops to visit somewhere new. Chancing on the hidden places, the frozen-in-time places, tiny islands suspended in the eddies of everyday London.

Suddenly, the city became a village. Need that mid-morning espresso? Time is short and you’re across town from your favourite coffee shop, but you know a twitchell on the next road that will bring you out in spitting distance.

I could be in Fitzrovia, 20 minutes to go until a Liverpool Street pickup, and find time between for a quiet five minutes on the banks of the Long Water.

Of course, there was a flipside. Once the coordinator knows you’re plugged into the network, no drop or pickup is too outlandish. Can I get an oil worker’s passport back from Angola in Marylebone and swing by the office in Victoria to pick up a package to drop in Canada Square with a banker who’s flying from City airport 45 mins from now? Well, yes, I suppose I can.

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But even the extra work couldn’t dampen the thrill of discovery. Once I could prove inside knowledge, other couriers opened up about the twitchells. For me, finding one usually involves a change in the air, an unexpected sound or smell. Others speak of a ‘feeling’ which tells them they are close. Some more seasoned riders say that they now simply ‘see’ them, as clearly as any side road.

Experiences of riding them vary, too. Some describe being squeezed through a narrow space. Others, being flung forwards as if from a catapult. One guy told me it was how he imagined swapping places with himself in a mirror. And for me? You know those little kids toys, brightly coloured rubber poppers, you turn them inside out and wait until they flip?

That.

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I heard the inevitable macho stories. Twitchells in Blackwall tunnel. Twitchells on the Westway. Ones along the towpath that if you time it wrong you end up in the canal. The two guys who claim to have ridden hundreds on a tandem. The twitchell that still exists where an office block now covers an old road in the City – you have to ride full pelt through the foyer to hook it.

Some say that if you get up enough speed and fling yourself off the east side of London Bridge, you can hook a twitchell left hanging in the air from the bridge’s previous incarnation, but I don’t know anyone stupid enough to have tried.

There were questions I had to find the answer to myself (how to not vomit every time), and some no couriers could answer (how long have they been there? How do they manage to always drop you just behind the passing traffic?). People say the fact you can only access them on a bike is a mystery, but to me it makes sense. Something about the way you inhabit space when you ride, the counterintuitive becoming intuitive, like how you turn into a fall to right yourself.

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And then there’s the big question: what are they? Are they simply hidden alleyways? Permanent features of the city? But then, what city feature is permanent? Do twitchells remain when the visible geography of the city changes around them? Entire roads are disappearing, new ones being created. Look at Battersea, King’s Cross, Elephant and Castle. Are twitchells displaced by these developments, as people are?

Some of those courier’s tales suggest that they are not, but you hear other stories: someone taking a nasty fall onto a pavement because the twitchell they’ve come to rely on is no longer there. And then there are the new twitchells – though it’s hard to prove they weren’t there all along.

All of this is fuel for the doomsayers. They say it is a mistake to picture the twitchells as ‘wormholes’ or hidden tunnels. For them, the twitchells are the tangible manifestations of something else, a larger entity beneath London’s surface. They grow and recede, these courier’s say, like the sporocarps of a fungus. It’s just that they do so very slowly.

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A lot of the old-timers won’t use them. We’ve all had the lectures. They talk a lot about the disappearances. And yes, the disappearances are terrible. There are no white bicycles for those who never re-emerged from a twitchell. But cyclists get killed on the streets too. That doesn’t stop us, does it?

I’ll admit some of what they say stays with me. “Fine, you’re young, I can’t change your mind any more than if I tried to get you to quit drinking”, one old-timer told me. “But promise me this: When you start to sense the belly of the twitchells, the inside, when there’s a second or two of darkness where there used to be nothing, and you start to see things out of the corner of your eye – figures, shadows beside you in the darkness – don’t wait for them to get closer. As soon as you start to see them – stop”.

And the other old-timers, the ones who never stopped riding the twitchells, they do look pretty bad, kind of weary, ghostlike. But that could just as easily be the years of coffee and car fumes, or too many hard winters.

I’m not stupid, I know this isn’t forever. I’ll quit one day. But I’m still having the time of my life.

And I haven’t seen any shadows in the darkness yet.

 


THIS BLOG IS NOT A USER’S GUIDE


  • Candidate: The Twitchells
  • Type: Unconfirmed
  • Status: Active

A Cycle Courier’s Guide to Folding London: The Twitchells (Part One)

This is a guest post, of sorts. A written version of an interview with a good friend of PoL’s, presented in her voice as much as possible. She wishes to remain anonymous, so we will refer to her as H. H describes herself as a quasi cycle courier. New to the gig, she rides for a company that collects business visas in passports. It’s a job that mixes speeding through the city with a lot of hanging around waiting for embassies and consulates to process the visas. H is Czech born, zero-houred and of newly uncertain residential status. We’re grateful she found the time to talk to us about this fascinating candidate for the catalogue.

No-one’s going to tell you exactly how to find them. There’s an etiquette to follow. Besides, even if I laid it all out, doesn’t mean you would find them the same way. All I can do is tell you one way it might go.

It doesn’t have to start on a bike. Maybe it starts in a cafe. Let’s say Clerkenwell Road, 5pm on a Friday. Rush hour, but you’re not rushing because your last job of the day is a pickup from a company in the building next door and it won’t be ready til 5.30. Your dropsheet’s complete so you have won yourself a little sit down with a cup of tea, your phone nice and quiet in its strap pocket. From a stool in the window, you watch the peloton. London’s two-wheeled commuters are heading east and north. Young creatives on too-clean single speeds mix with overly lycra-d managers and the grey-suited Brompton guys. A few couriers weave in and out of the pack, dashing to make their final drops and get to the pub.

Clerkenwell_Road

You spot one, balancing on his self-build at the traffic lights. Something about the way his eyes are checking the other cyclists makes you keep watching him. He seems nervy, as if he’s expecting something to happen. Is he just sizing up the competition, eager for the rush-hour race? But instead of burning for the front when the lights turn green, he hangs back a little. Not until the pack gets ahead of him does he really put his feet to the pedals.

So that’s it. He wants a challenge. You watch him close down the peloton quickly. Then something happens which will come to change your world entirely. The courier is about a metre behind the last of the group – and right across the road from where you are sitting – when he vanishes. Completely. Like he was a sticker that someone removed from the world.

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Let’s say you sleep on that and in the morning put it down to a long week and too much caffeine.

But a month later you are heading south on Edgware road, nostrils full of shisha smoke and car fumes, when it happens again. This time you’ve been trailing a courier from Paddington, half-competitively, half because something about the way he’s navigating the city – cruising complex junctions, finding little cuts you didn’t know about – tells you you might learn something from him. You guess he’s heading for Marble Arch and you’re right. You’re watching him closely to see how he tackles it. But he never gets that far. He’s about half a block ahead of you when you see a movement, a wobble, an intentional shift towards the kerb. What is he thinking? He’ll be thrown from his bike. There’s a small tree on the pavement, he’ll buckle his wheel on that, or worse. A split second later the tree is there, but the courier is not.

You get off your bike, and stare at the empty space for a long time.

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The next couple of months are like a wonderful waking up. You start to see them everywhere. Couriers not just vanishing, but appearing out of nowhere on the street ahead of you. You see them so often you wonder how you never noticed it before. You ask other couriers about it, coming to recognise a certain response when you do. A little movement of the head. A smile, or it’s opposite, the worried look. The shutting down of conversation. You raise the subject with more and more couriers just to test this reaction.

Something is dawning on you. Certain things start to make sense, in hindsight. People crossing London faster than you reckon anyone should be able to. Guys returning to the office almost dry when you’re still dripping from the rainy ride back. The time you overheard your co-ordinator on a call to a rider: “Deliver this one by road please. Time is less important than making sure it 100% doesn’t get lost”.

It’s like when scientists know that something they can’t see is there because it’s the only way to account for the things they can see. All of a sudden the last few months only make sense if – your spine tingles at the thought of it – if there is some kind of hidden route through London, some network of shortcuts that doesn’t adhere to the same physical laws that the streets and alleyways do.

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But talking to couriers is still getting you nowhere. Until, one day, in the basement at the Nigerian embassy, you make a breakthrough. A courier you’ve pestered many times before suddenly drops his defences. Sighs and says, “Look, I can’t spell it out to you, that’s just the rules. But you know where one or two are already, you just have to… Okay, hooking into a twitchell is a personal thing …”. [‘Twitchell!’ He says ‘twitchell’, these things have a name!] He goes quiet. Say’s he’s said enough already. Then he grins and says, “But you’re gonna love it”. You grin back. And when you finally emerge from Nigeria into the darkening London streets, they have changed forever.

So you go back to that spot on Edgware Road. You fling yourself down that stretch, turn into the pavement, and… nearly kill yourself on the tree. Clerkenwell Road goes almost as badly.

But it isn’t just the London streets that have changed – it’s you. Edgware and Clerkenwell don’t seem to matter. You feel – you know – that it’s not a question of if you find a twitchell, but when. And where.

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When it does finally happen, your mind is elsewhere. You’re cycling along in that blissful way, being carried along the winding streets by pedal-memory, thinking about who knows what – dinner, shopping, your home town, your parents, your lovelife. Apart from the movement of legs, pedals and wheels, your bike could be standing still. It is the streets which are flying past you.

Then something makes you look at your surroundings. You have been so faraway you forget where you are, forget the time of day. How did I get here, where am I going? Which blackened Georgian office block is that? Which crouching church down that alley? It is the smell that brings it back to you – the cold tang of raw meat: You are wheeling around the edge of Smithfield market, and it is dawn. But suddenly there’s another smell: sweet coffee, belgian waffles. It is unexpected, out of place. You are knocked off course.

Something makes you jerk towards the kerb. A pothole? That heart-in-mouth moment, you’re coming off your bike and it’s too late to stop it. You hit something, or something hits you. Your body braces for a pain that doesn’t come. Somehow you are still on your bike. The street still rushes by, but it is not the street you were on a second ago. It is not even the same part of London. It is Queensway, and a waffle house is just opening up. You slam on your brakes, throw your bike to the kerb and vomit into the gutter.

Straightening up, you smile.

You’re in.

Part Two

Victoria and Albert and the Stardoor: The Vacuum Sugar Event

A giant shop window, a flashing of the spoils of imperial conquest, a chance to position monarchy side by side with social and commercial interests: The Great Exhibition of 1851 was many things. Officially, the world fair – opened by Queen Victoria and housed in a vast Crystal Palace of iron and glass in Hyde Park – was a showcase for advances in global industry, arts and sciences. Even at the time it had its critics (Prince Albert only got behind it once he was sure the idea was popular), and post-colonial historians have found endless layers of meaning to this crashingly unsubtle declaration of global power.

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The Crystal Palace at Hyde Park

One thought that might have occurred to your average 1850’s Londoner, as they filed slowly past the parade of statues, jewels and stuffed elephants, was that the Great Exhibition was busy. An average day saw over 40,000 visitors, more than twice the number that the British Museum sees today. On one October day, that tally reached over 100,000. With such numbers, it’s easy to see how a small tear in the dimensional fabric could have gone unnoticed by most punters. When a portal opened one Saturday afternoon, it was witnessed by only a handful. Add to that what may have been a conscious effort to keep news of the breach spreading, and frankly we are lucky to have a story to tell at all about what has come to be known as the Crystal Palace Stardoor, or more commonly, the Vacuum Sugar Event.

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Crowds averaged over 40,000 people a day

William Canter had booked his stall at the Exhibition in order to show off his patented vacuum apparatus, a device to enable liquids to be boiled at lower temperatures. (The invention was particularly aimed at the sugar industry –  the potential for cutting fuel costs when boiling sugar cane was good news for the profits of plantation owners).

Tucked away in a corner, off the main gallery, Canter was a few minutes into an afternoon demonstration when he heard an unusual pop from inside his machine. Soon afterwards, something strange started to emanate from the large spherical apparatus.

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Industrial technology was displayed extensively

“Some manner of darkly coloured smoke”, Canter recalled later. “My first thought was ‘Blast it, the sugar cane’s burning’. My second (and almost simultaneous) thought, was ‘How on earth can that be?'”

Martin Bull, a cab driver by trade, recalled the moment. “It didn’t look like any smoke I ever saw. Black as pitch, it was. But it moved more slowly than smoke. The stuff came seeping out of a valve in the machine and sort of hung there, a few feet off the ground. Like a little dark cloud. Then I noticed the lights”.

The “lights”, as Patty Granger, a nearby flower-seller, quickly recognised, were celestial in nature. “It was like a patch of night sky, really. But the most glorious night sky you ever saw… great swirling clouds of stars…The closer you got to it, the more of the night sky you could see. Like a window, if you get my meaning? The really strange thing was, when you walked round the back of it, you could see stars going the other way”.

Many of the witnesses recall getting close to the stardoor to get a look at the wonders that opened out beyond it; none of them, when they were tracked down years later, could forget the man and woman who got too close.

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The Vacuum Sugar Apparatus

They all retold the moment. Accounts speak of a well-dressed couple, who may or may not have been connected to the sugar trade. The man was bullish and self-important, loudly insisting that they should stand closer than anyone else. The woman seemed reluctant at first, but, perhaps emboldened by her husband’s attitude, she soon made a dreadful mistake. Declaring that she’d like to see the stars beneath their feet, she craned her neck so that her entire head reached beyond the threshold of the opening.

The terrible, strangled sound which filled the air proved hard to describe for most witnesses. Some said it was not human, some said they thought the glass panes were falling in, one was sure it was the sound of screaming, and said that though it was loud it was “fractured, like a cry heard across a stormy valley”. Many said the sound seemed to come from all around them, and expressed amazement that the whole Exhibition hadn’t heard it. Interestingly, one witness said that she’d experienced a prolonged flash of brilliant light, and only afterwards began to think of it as a sound.

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After the initial shock, people rushed to the woman. By the time they had pulled her back across the threshold, her fur hat and shawl had gone. Some recall a glimpse of strangely matted hair and wide, black eyes set in a bone-white face, before the woman’s husband threw his jacket over her and hurried her away into the crowds. They have never been tracked down. Canter later said he was amazed not to have heard from their solicitors.

Those still surrounding the stardoor now had a new problem. Someone noticed that while the size of the portal had initially stabilised, it was now growing again. This threw the small gathering into a panic. What if it didn’t stop? Canter himself tried desperately to tinker with his machine, thinking that somehow if he could reverse its process, the thing might be sucked back in.

Some tried to help him, some began to turn and walk rapidly away, but then, just as Canter was about to run out of ideas, there was another sudden POP, and the stardoor snapped shut.

Canter recalls a moment in which “it seemed to me as if the whole of the Crystal Palace fell silent, although of course it was only our little corner”. But the silence in Canter’s little corner was broken by something unexpected: applause. It appeared that many in the small crowd had decided that it had all been some elaborate entertainment, and they soon dispersed into the great hall around them. Canter packed up soon after, and withdrew from the exhibition the next day.

L0023919 Steel engraving: Crystal Palace, 1851 exhibition

It’s unclear exactly how high up news of this event reached. Canter and the other witnesses were tracked down years later by a civil servant, and the interviews remained classified until very recently. Someone must have made the initial report. What does seem clear is that a decision was made to keep news of the phenomenon from Prince Albert, the Exhibition’s great patron. To PoL’s mind, this presents an intriguing ‘what if?’. Prince Albert was keen to position himself as a champion of scientific progress. The Victorian Movement didn’t really get going until after Prince Albert’s death. What if he had learned of the stardoor, and with his support the 19th Century interest in portals had peaked twenty years earlier? Would the Movement have retained its momentum to a greater extent than it did? If it had, we might be living in a very different base reality today.


  • Candidate: The Vacuum Sugar Event
  • Type: Stardoor
  • Status: Historic

Londinium’s Lost Portal: The Quaerium

Stroll east along the Strand, on the side of the street closest to the river, and go past Somerset House. When you see a gap between two buildings, turn river-ward. After ducking beneath an old watch house you will find yourself in a steep, narrow alley. Suddenly you are a world away from the busses and taxis, from the harried tourists and coffee-seeking office workers. A little way down, in a wall behind a railing, there is a scratchy, misted window. Next to the window is a switch. If you are lucky, the switch will be working, and a dim light will fall on the cellar to which the window leads. Even so, you will need to press your face to the glass. Within – cut into the floor of a pale, peeling-plaster room – is a large basin. It is roughly rectangular in shape, and measures perhaps four metres by two, with a depth of a metre and a half.

You are looking at London’s first inter-dimensional gateway.

Maybe.

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The view through the window  source | licence

The title on the information plaque beside the window will say that you are looking at the Strand Lane Bath. The rest of the text, like the cellar light, is oddly noncommittal and far from illuminating. There are hints at a controversy surrounding the origins of this plain-seeming piece of masonry. The plaque gives almost grudging mention to what is, in fact, a substantial school of thought that the structure was a cistern, built to serve one of the 17th Century Houses which once lined the embankment alongside Somerset House. But the authors seem loath to give up the backstory that many other Londoners would tell you – that the bath is a piece of Roman London, once part of a larger network of bathing rooms, and thus at the epicentre of society in 2nd Century Londinium.

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A model of Londinium  source | licence

Confused origins, oral histories that contradict the paper trail, academia in conflict with folk knowledge – this is fertile ground for PoL. The story of London’s portals often gets lost in the noise.

And indeed, a further controversy surrounds the Strand Lane Bath, one not mentioned on the plaque. There is a group of scholars who agree on the ‘Roman’ part, but have something to add when it comes to the ‘Bath’ bit – we speak, of course, of those scholars concerned with the history of London’s portals. The Strand Lane Bath proves just as divisive among this community.

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That Roman London contained at least one ‘manmade’ inter-dimensional gateway – and that it took the form of a bath – is not contested among portologists. The portal, known then and now as The Quaerium, is referred to in the writings of well-connected traveller Fabius Viatorio, who accompanied Emperor Hadrian on his visit to Londinium in 122 AD. Many – though not all – portologists argue that in the extract that follows, the description of the portal’s location and dimensions fit with the Strand bath:

‘In Londinium, on a hill close to that settlement’s Great River, a Merchant, with help from wise men, has built a small but wonderful temple. No Gods are worshipped within its walls. Inside the temple is a bath of modest proportions, but to submerge oneself in the milky liquid is to do more than bathe. This merchant holds famous gatherings, at which women and men sink into the water, and onwards into other Worlds’

Romans had been trying for some time to open doors to other dimensions. Perhaps it surprised them that when it happened it was in the Empire’s rainy North-Western outpost. We’ll probably never know whether The Quaerium’s builders had help from members of the subjugated population – Viatorio’s ‘wise men’ are intriguingly vague – but either way, portologists agree that whoever built the Londinium door seem to be the first documented beneficiaries of London’s uniquely leaky dimensional thresholds.

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According to records The Quaerium predates London’s fortified wall  sourcelicence

One thing portologists don’t agree on is the exact nature of the Quaerium. Debate rumbles over whether it was a door to other dimensions, a portal to other stars and planets in ‘our’ universe, or simply a place-pinned (Wellsian) time machine. Adherents of the latter cite an entry from the diary of an unnamed Roman General, in which the author recounts a dip into The Quaerium’s liquid: “I walked in a land untouched by man, hot beneath a white sun, strange birds in the sky above me, strange grasses beneath my feet. To my south were forested hills, and before them, a river flowing eastwards through a great, salty swamp”.

Again, many say the description could easily describe the Strand location in pre-historic times.

But not all scholars are convinced that the Strand Lane Bath and the Quaerium are one and the same.

PoL wanted to speak to one of the doubters, so we met up with a good friend of ours – Susan Macks, Crypto-archealogist at the University of Connecticut.

“First off, don’t listen to the Time-Machinees”, began Macks, between gulps of coffee and bites of pastel de nata. “The Quaerium was a full on TIDD [truly inter-dimensional doorway], you better believe it. But… I don’t know. I’ve been studying this doozy my entire career. It’s one of the main things that brought me to London. The Quaerium was Number One, the first documented portal in this amazing city of portals. Maybe the first, period. Like, what if The Quaerium was the door that started the whole thing? The first loose thread in the fabric, you know? These Roman dudes tugged on it almost for fun, and London’s dimensional pullover has been unravelling ever since. I love it. I love the Quaerium. I would dearly love it if we’ve found it. But I just don’t see the hard proof here, sorry”.

So, maybe just a cistern after all?

Maybe.

Macks believes that, like most of London’s Roman architecture, the Quaerium was likely destroyed long ago (“For all we know the descendants of Boudica smashed the thing to pieces under their stolen, golden hipposandals”). But like we say, PoL is always drawn to a confused history. And from new HQ’s for bankers to new stations for Crossrail, the ground beneath central London has rarely been such an open wound – with significant Roman artefacts still being discovered, we aren’t quite ready to give up the search.


  • Candidate: The Quaerium
  • Type: [Contested]
  • Status: Historic