Forgotten Futures: Blakeley’s Highwalk

Any visitor to the Barbican will know its highwalks. The criss-cross of raised footpaths provide a confusing but just-about functional means of traversing the much loved residential and cultural centre. But follow them to the estate’s edges, attempt to use them to exit to the City at large, and whatever strange logic they possess starts to break down.

A bridge you half-remember led to the tube station you want ends abruptly in mid-air, its access point fenced off. A pot-planted path entices you around a corner into an enclosed, paved backwater, where the sounds of an unseen city roar in the air around you.

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Should you explore these dislocated spaces, or better still find yourself on one of the dwindling number of similar stretches that are adrift about the City, you might see – moving with detached, ritualised determination – a smartly-dressed woman in her seventies.

This is Gillian Clarke, and for three decades she has been searching for an old friend of hers, or at least for what she believes to be the means of his disappearance: The highwalk where there is – or was once – a gateway to other worlds.

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The truncated limbs and architectural non-sequiturs Gillian treads are the decayed afterimages of a once shining vision: a post-war dream to replace the crater-pocked landscape the Luftwaffe made with an airborne City of the future, in which motor cars stream along unbroken highways, while pedestrians glide above happily on a City-wide network of ‘pedways’.

Driven by the London County Council (later the Greater London Council) and embraced by the Corporation of London, the scheme was made law in the 1960s – any new office block was compelled to accommodate the plan.

But – as is well known by those who study the restless borders of the capital’s dimensional territories – London resists a unifying vision. Londoners, along with their shops and their pubs, remained stubbornly ground-level, and the pedestrian paradise never materialised.

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Gillian and her colleague John Blakeley worked in the London County Council’s planning department in the 1960s, when John had been bursting with optimism. He was, says Gillian, as we walk the remnants of the network-that-never-was, “one of the bright young things at the LCC, pushing hard to implement the whole thing from the start”.

But progress was slow, and as the 1970s wore on, Gillian witnessed a change in John. “The barriers – funding, the conservation lobby, public apathy – wore him down”, says Gillian. He withdrew into himself. Gillian remained a good friend but he began to alienate other members of staff.

He became a figure of derision, not least because of a magpie-like habit of cluttering his desk with an array of unusual items.

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“The ‘Trinkets’, the others called them. He was vague about them, even to me. Said he found them in markets, junk shops. I mean, this was the ’70s. There was a lot of odd stuff you could pick up in the hippy shops off Carnaby Street. But some of these things were beyond odd.”

There were unidentified fragments of bone, obscure dried plants, bizarre sculptures. Pieces that might have been Roman coins, except their strange symbols weren’t Roman. But strangest of all, she says, were the “little gadgets” arranged among the hoard.

“Every now and then one of these things would appear around his desk. It seems unreal now, but they clicked and whirred away in his corner of the office for years”. The mechanisms were made of stone, or strange metal, impossibly intricate, and engaged in seemingly perpetual motion, their purpose mysterious. “They’d be hard to explain even now – we never could find the batteries –  but back then they seemed like witchcraft. Only they were around so long they just became background noise”.

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One thing in particular Gillian remembers well. “There was a pair of them – two smooth, jet-black stones, shaped like flattened, elongated eggs”. One evening, when most of the office had gone home, John had showed Gillian a trick.

“He placed one in my hand, and lightly touched the one he was holding, tracing his finger across it in – well, in a pattern which I have tried to recall many times since”.

As he did so, Gillian’s stone lit up – briefly, warmly – with a swirl of colours, and spun ever so slowly in her palm.

This was the 1980s, Gillian recalls. Things were changing in the City. Thatcher’s government was working hard to dissolve what was now the Greater London Council. The pedway scheme seemed suddenly like the whimsy of a previous era – some pieces of the network were already disappearing.

And Gillian had begun to worry about John’s health.

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“He seemed unwell to me. Tired, thinner. It wasn’t just middle-age. I looked at him one day and he seemed suddenly much, much older. And something was gone. Some spark, some desire for life in the city.”

Then, at an office Christmas party, things came to a head. John had had a bit too much wine. He lashed out at his colleagues, at their ‘tiny lives’, their ‘lack of ambition’… ‘so much is achievable. You haven’t got a clue’.

Gillian took him into a side room to calm down. That is when he told her that his Trinkets hadn’t come from junk shops.

“Whether he said ‘other worlds’ or ‘other times’, I can’t remember”, Gillian says. “But he told me that in some redundant recess of an unconnected section of highwalk somewhere, there was a doorway”. A doorway nobody knew but him.

He was drunk, he was rambling, she thought.

“I don’t think so now”

He left the party, but at some point that night he must have returned, because in the morning his desk was cleared out. John – along with most of his strange collection – was gone.

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Gillian walks me along dark, weed-taken paths that weave through a brutalist office complex; through the strange, double-backing corridors of a post-modern development somewhere behind Bishopsgate. We have passed fag-breaking office workers, a few sleeping bags – even the occasional hurried Londoner, using the walkways for their intended purpose.

Now, we stand at the windswept, south-eastern edge of what remains of London’s walkways in the sky. Across a grey, choppy river, The Shard makes its presence known.

Gillian tells me there was one item John didn’t take with him that night. He left it in her desk drawer, for her to find.

She reaches into a pocket, and holds out her palm to show me – a single, jet-black stone. ‘This’, she says, her fingers closing again around the flat, oval shape. ‘This is the reason I still look for John’.

She has no idea if John Blakeley’s highwalk even remains. Every time she returns, another piece of the network has gone, lost to Crossrail or the steady flow of skyscrapers.

Her search has become more of an annual habit, a mark of respect. Whatever hope Gillian retains is cold and resting like the stone in her pocket.


  • Candidate: Blakeley’s Highwalk
  • Type: Inter-dimensional [unconfirmed]
  • Status: [unknown]

 

 

Night static: The Nine Elms Entity Recordings

These are transcripts of three recordings made within the last month. They were leaked to us by someone working for a company that logs radio traffic within the security industry. The fate of the subjects (whose names have been changed) is unknown. PoL’s attempts to follow it up with the relevant bodies and corporations have met with resistance.

The events within, to our mind, constitute convincing evidence for some manner of cross-dimensional breach.

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RECORDING ONE: 7.1.18 0218 

Guard One: Found anything?

Guard Two: Give us a chance

G1: How’s it looking down there?

G2: Well creepy

G1: Diddums. I did say I’d go

G2: Next time you can

G1: Suits me…. Are these your Maltesers?

G2: Hands off. I know how many’s left. Four

G1: (munching) Two

G2: Wanker

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G1: What? You’ve got pockets, haven’t you? Anything left lying around the trailer is fair game

G2: Nob

G1: Is anything down there or what?

G2: Not much. Apart from the ingress

G1: They need to get that sorted

G2: Yep

G1: You’re not warming your soggy socks on the heater again, my nostrils can’t take it

G2: [inaudible]

G1: But is – can you hear anything?

G2: Not with you all over my frequency

G1: Oh fine, then. Tweetie bye

[30 seconds pass]

G2: There’s nothing down here

G1: You’re still alive! I’ll call off the search party

G2: Weird, though. Definitely heard something

G1: Have you been up the far end? Checked every dark inaccessible corner? You can’t just swish your torch around and call that a search, you’ve got to get down on your hands and knees and get in there

G2: Yeah, yeah. Oh!

G1: What?

G2: Nothing. Must have been a rat. Passed right by my foot

G1: Why I let you have all the fun jobs, I don’t know

G2: I’m heading back. It’s well creepy down here

G1: Wuss

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RECORDING TWO 9.1.18 0346

G2: What’s it going to be down here, anyway?

G1: Basement rooms for the service staff

G2: Spacious, at least

G1: Might look a bit different when they’ve put the dividing walls in

G2: Oh yeah. They’ll never know how creepy it was

G1: Don’t start that again. A grown man, afraid of the dark. Ever thought maybe night security isn’t the job for you?

G2: Wasn’t it meant to be your turn?

G1: It’s you who keeps hearing things

G2: Well, there isn’t much down here

G1: You surprise me

[light static appears on Guard Two’s end]

G2: [inaudible] see it when its finished

G1: Finished? The block? They won’t finish them, mate. No-one’s buying the flats

G2: — said they’re all sold off-plan to foreign billionaires [inaudible] even built

G1: That was the first lot. The foreign billionaires have moved on now

G2: -‘ll be your Brexit

G1: Maybe. And so what?

G2: So, it’s a waste is what

G1: Well, they won’t get built, mate, cry about it all you like. Might be a few rich wankers knocking about down the road in their private gyms and floating pools, but this crop’ll stay like this for a while yet. Empty shells

[static]

G1: Of course, they’ll still want security at night, so suits me

[static]

G1: Loz?

[static]

G1: You still there, mate?

G2: -d on

G1: What?

G2: There is something

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G1: Something? What?

G2: – light [inaudible] – of hovering light

G1: A torchlight? Is someone down there?

[static]

G1: Loz? You there, mate?

G2: Not a torch. Wait, it’s gone now, behind a – no, there – HELLO?  —‘S THERE?

G1: Loz?

[static ceases]

G1: Loz? Listen, if there is someone down there then maybe you should –

G2: I don’t know

G1: What?

G2: I’m walking towards it, but – Maybe I imagined it

G1: Imagined it? Jeez. Is this a repeat of the time you thought we were under attack by terrorists and it was scrawny teenagers making a youtube video?

G2: Gagh

G1: What?

G2: Suddenly stinks down here, the water [inaudible]

G1: What?

[silence]

G1: Look, if you want to head back for a cuppa I won’t call you a wuss. You’re freaking me out, now

[static returns]

G2: – water’s moving

G1: You what?

G2: – flowing toward – ugh

G1: Now what?

G2: -ssive dead rat

G1: Seriously mate, the kettle’s boiling

[static ceases]

G1: Loz?

G2: That light up the other end, it seemed to – maybe I’ll take a look

G1: Loz, mate, leave it. You said yourself you imagined it

[silence]

G1: Loz?

G2: Yeah, OK

G1: You’re heading back in?

G2: Yes

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RECORDING THREE 12.1.18 0258

G2: There were elms, you know.

G1: You what?

G2: Elms. Elm trees. Around here, centuries ago. Nine of them, presumably

G1: Fascinating. What made you think of that?

G2: All that water I guess

G1: This ingress?

G2: See, it was all marsh round here, originally

G1: Loz. What are you gibbering on about?

G2: Maybe that’s where all the water keeps coming from

G1: From the past?

G2: From the – I don’t know, the ground water, the water table, what have you

G1: More likely to come from the sewers, given the smell

G2: Do you know there’s the timbers of a jetty up by MI6 which are six and a half thousand years old?

G1: Blimey, you’re a font of enlightenment this morning

G2: Just trying to keep you company. I know how spooky it is down there

G1: Doesn’t bother me

G2: Is the water moving?

G1: Hold on – no. Yes! It’s hard to say

[static appears on the line]

G1: woah

G2: Rat?

G1: -nake!

G2: A snake? Really? Could be an eel?

G1: -k, yeah. Maybe. [inaudible] glimpse in my torchlight

G2: Pretty weird, either way. How did that get in?

[static]

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G2: You seen enough yet?

G1: – check up the far end, I guess

G2: You did hear it too, this time?

G1:  -ot sure now. There was –teen floors of plastic wra-[inaudible] a gale above our head-

[static increases]

G1: -ait!

G2: What is it?

G1: [inaudible] hovering light

G2: What? The light? Is it – what is it doing?

G1: Hovering. Jee- [inaudible] the fuck is it?

G2: I don’t know what it is. I hoped I imagined it. Maybe get out now, Col

G1: – there but not there –

G2: I know. Get out now, Col

G1: [inaudible]

G2: What?

G1: – moving. It’s moving. It – [inaudible]

G2: Get out, Col!

[From here heavy static covers Guard One’s end of the line, his words hard to discern]

G1: [inaudible] – kiz —

G2: Col?

G1: – close [inaudible] me!

G2:  Col? What’s happening?

G1: [inaudible] yer [inaudible] ack! – agh!nah–

[end of audio]


  • Candidate: The Nine Elms Entity Breach
  • Type: Unknown
  • Status: Unknown

Hidden worlds: The Stoke Newington Nursery Vanishing

Halfway along Stoke Newington Church Street is a rift. A lost world of leaf, iron and stone; a crouching, brooding interruption in the row of high-end bakeries, fashionable cafes and designer home-ware shops:

Abney Park Cemetery.

One of the ‘Magnificent Seven’ garden cemeteries built when Victorian London was too full of the dead, Abney Park’s garden element has, over the years, assumed feral dominion over the dwindling numbers of burials. And the graveyard’s dark, knotted pathways and strange, ivy-ridden desire lines have come to acquire a reputation for danger.

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Recent council ‘clean-up’ operations have tried to address this. But, when it comes to the advanced woodland ecology, at least, the authorities are fighting a losing battle.

Beneath the wild-turned trees that spread in every direction from the ruined chapel at the cemetery’s heart, worried by creepers, slowly crushed by roots, lie forgotten numbers of graves.

One of them, maybe, belongs to one Alice Mayhew. If so – and if you could find the 19th Century headstone – it would tell you that Alice was 6 years old when she died.

It would be half right.

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Alice’s father, William Mayhew, was a prominent local Methodist and businessman. When he announced, in October 1882, that his daughter had died, and that she had been quietly buried in a secret location, his status may have accounted for how little further investigation took place. But it also meant that the people of Stoke Newington were quick to fill the gaps with rumours.

That the child had been buried in Abney Park was just one. Some said she had never left the large, sprawling house. She was still there somewhere – dead or alive, depending on the teller.

Another, persistent rumour, that seemed to have the weight of having originated with the house-staff, was that Alice hadn’t died at all, but disappeared – unaccountably – from under the family’s nose.

But the story which took hold among the community was that what had killed Alice was arsenic in the nursery wallpaper.

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The use of arsenic to fix colouring in wallpaper dates to the 18th Century. Most manufacturers had ceased the practice by the 1880s. But the dangers had been known – and arsenic-free wallpaper been marketed – for decades before that.

From birth, Alice was a sickly child. While there were days spent wandering through nearby Clissold Park, she spent much of her short life in the nursery and bedroom – both, it was said, plastered with bright, colourful, poisonous wallpaper.

Arsenic’s ability to attack respiratory functions proved too much for the already weak child. The father – so goes the tale – ashamed to have aided his daughter’s death in such a preventable manner, had quickly buried the body.

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Now, diaries have come to light which cast a different light on these rumours, and suggest a related, but less straightforward answer to the mystery.

The diaries, long thought lost, belonged to Alice’s mother, Elizabeth Mayhew.

Alice’s walks, her diet, her degrees of illness are all recorded in meticulous detail, in a loving mother’s hand. But where the diaries become relevant to PoL’s field of interest is in their accounts of Elizabeth’s conversations with her daughter, and especially those involving the girl’s vivid imagination.

“She delighted me with her talk of the birds again. Such an imaginative little soul. It is the wallpaper, you see. With its darling design of birds in a tree, of late it has quite enchanted Alice”.

Alice speaks more and more of ‘playing’ with the birds depicted on her nursery wall, telling her mother how they fly into the nursery and perch on the furniture when Alice is alone.

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A ‘darling design of birds in a tree’ is the only description we get of the wallpaper, except for a reference to William having proudly chosen the “gaily coloured” paper when Alice was still a baby.

The birds take an increasing hold on the six year old. Alice dreams about the birds, chatters away to them when she thinks nobody can hear, talks to her mother of nothing else and begins to complain of her once-cherished walks outside, pining for the nursery as soon as she leaves the house.

Elizabeth writes:

“This business of the ‘birds in the wall’ has become an unhealthy obsession. In truth, it is quite distressing. Not only does Alice talk to the birds, she tells me, with great sincerity, that they talk back. ‘Not with our words, Mama. But they talk to me'”

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At the same time, Elizabeth recounts a decline in Alice’s health.

“William thinks me most childish but I am sure the thing to make Alice well again is to paste over those god-forsaken birds. It’s hard for a mother to say, but, she frightens me. My daughter frightens me. She is now in constant, whispering communion with the creatures, and becomes secretive and irritable if I dare to ask what they speak of. And she has turned on me. ‘I don’t like it here’, she says. ‘I don’t like you. I want to play with the birds in the wall'”.

Eventually, however, Elizabeth got her way in having the walls repapered, and Alice’s health did improve. For Elizabeth, it marked an upturn in the family’s fortunes: “My happy, interested little girl has returned”.

But we know that’s not the end of the story.

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The Mayhew house is no longer there. Like much of the area’s grand and outdated Victorian housing stock, it was swept away in the post-war rush to provide social housing.

So we return to Abney Park Cemetery.

A little hut by the main entrance houses the Trust volunteers. The stories accumulated in the Park’s 180-year history need tellers. But the Trust also maintains the Park. Lately, their council-aided efforts have made a visible difference. The new, sparklier Abney Park is good news for many, bad news perhaps for cruisers, the jobless homeless, and others for whom the park offered a rare secluded space.

But Abney Park can still keep a secret.

Deep into the graveyard, at the turning of a path which seems to tunnel further than we feel the edge of the Park should be, two parakeets swoop overhead: a squawking apparition of green that cuts the grey January afternoon.

Birdlife thrives here.

The final diary entry of Elizabeth Mayhew recounts in cold, dead prose how, shortly before dawn, she had been awoken by a strange nightmare, a flutter of wings. She runs down the corridor to her daughter’s room. The bed is empty, so she runs to the nursery.

The nursery is empty, too, dead still in the gathering light. Down the middle of the new, striped-blue nursery wall is a large tear, frayed at the edges as if claws have made it. Beyond is a world of leafy, bird-less trees.


  • Candidate: The Stoke Newington Nursery Vanishing
  • Type: Picto-door
  • Status: Historic

Intersecting parallels: The Greenwich Meridian Glitch

Each night, a bright green beam cuts through the sky above Greenwich: a laser, marking the path of the Prime Meridian (the imaginary line – from the north pole to the south pole – from which all other lines of longitude are measured).

It is emitted from the Royal Observatory, high on the hill at Greenwich Park. Another (carved and gilded) representation of the line crosses the building’s forecourt. Many tourists stand here to take the same photo: one foot either side of the meridian, their body half in the western hemisphere, half in the eastern.

There’s only one problem. This zero degrees longitude, accepted in the 19th Century as the global standard for navigation and time-keeping, is the old prime meridian. The new one – invisible, locatable only via GPS – is some 100 metres to the east. The traditional method of calculating longitude was supplanted, and the new meridian adopted, in the 1980s.

Which is interesting, because it was around this time that strange occurrences began to be reported in Greenwich Park.

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A 19th Century marine chronometer for determining longitude at sea source | public domain

The first recorded instance of a temporal or spatial discrepancy within the region of the prime meridian(s) occurred one autumn morning in 1987. A park keeper told of how, while he was out sweeping leaves at dawn, he suddenly ‘jumped’ from one side of the hill to the other. The man refused to cross that patch of ground again, and was re-employed by the council in a different park soon after.

Since then, reports have been sporadic and varied. The precise nature of the Meridian Glitch, as some call it, is unknown – its behaviours unpredictable. But, looked at chronologically, one begins to see a kind of haphazard – and possibly worrying – evolution in the stories:

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The bandstand at Greenwich Park source | licence

Bonfire night, 1994: a small group of Londoners, conducting an unofficial fireworks display halfway up the hill, note a bizarre, two minute delay between the launch of rockets and their explosion in the Greenwich sky.

Summer, 1999: three German teenagers are parted from their school group. They turn up less than an hour later, their teachers having recently sounded the alarm. The students are tired and shaken, and speak of being lost in an empty, dusk-lit park for ‘days’.

Winter, 2002: the owner of a house in the Vanburgh Park Road area, on the eastern edge of Greenwich Park, has a cat who likes to go on extended wanderings in the park. One day, an eerily similar feline walks through the cat-flap: another black-and-white, identical mannerisms, identical appearance – except for a nick in its left ear. After a week of strange co-existence in the house, the owner witnesses the two cats fighting. The original sustains a vicious swipe to the left side of its head, and scampers in the direction of the park. It is never seen again.

Spring, 2006: a Canadian couple stumble from the crowded path that winds up the hill below the Royal Observatory into a silent world of dark, dense woodland. They emerge hours later and lodge a series of complaints with confused Observatory staff.

2013, Twitter:  ‘Got a bit freaked out in greenwich park today. Were they filming some kind of period horror film? #morningjog’

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Looking roughly South-East, up the hill towards the Observatory source | licence

Tim Merriman is an interesting character. A former estate agent, he holds a history of science degree and describes himself as a ‘freelance portologist’. His research into the Meridian Glitch – which he began after hearing the cat story –  has garnered a lot of attention in portal-watching circles. He is a proponent of the theory that the positioning of the prime meridians is key.

Tim sent us an email with some thoughts:

“What is interesting is that the choosing of a ‘prime’ meridian is entirely arbitrary; a construct. Not a lot more than 19th Century maritime power dynamics determined that zero degrees should pass through Greenwich. But arbitrary decisions can have tangible effects! Time and even space are shown increasingly to be functions of human perception. And perception is powerful stuff. A kind of creation. You see, we might think of ourselves as observers, but in observing we perceive and in perceiving we create in surprising ways. In London, where the dimensional structure is already extremely fragile, ideas such as the Greenwich Prime Meridian – tied up, as it is, with big concepts like Time, Empire and Global Uniformity – can have unintended real-world consequences”.

We think we get it.

Greenwich_London
source | licence

But any possible reasons behind the dimensional disturbance are perhaps less important than its future manifestations. Are we witnessing the development of something more dangerous, more malevolent, than the simple ‘wormhole’ type doorway that the park keeper experienced 30 years ago?

There is one piece of evidence Tim is keen to track down: the rumoured ‘last selfie’ image. On a busy day in summer, 2014, a phone still attached to a selfie stick was found abandoned in the park and handed in to museum staff. By the time Tim got word that staff members had seen something ‘unexplainable’ – and extremely disturbing – in the background of the mystery tourist’s most recent photo, the phone itself had disappeared once more, and those involved were unwilling to discuss it.

We monitor the situation with interest.


  • Candidate: The Meridian Glitch
  • Type: [Unstable]
  • Status: Active

Featured image: Randi Hausken |licence

Thames Mud, Long Memory: The Bellarmine Jug

The original mudlarks were children who scoured the Thames slime for coal, copper or other items that had fallen from commercial ships: a symbol of inequality in 19th Century London. Poverty remains in the capital, of course – often in sight of the luxury developments that now line the river – but the working docks and their ecosystem are gone. Today’s mudlarks are hobbyists, artists or historians, recalling a piece of London’s long story with every upturned Roman coin or wartime bullet casing.

Of the various associations that exist to promote and regulate this endeavour, PoL is – inevitably – drawn to one of the more esoteric.

The Redriff Society prefer to be known as ‘sifters’. To walk the Thames shoreline, they say, is to beat the bounds of London’s parallel, interspatial parishes.

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Maeve Atkins is their bookkeeper and defacto leader. We find her on a wintery Sunday in December, holed up in her tiny studio in the rafters of the old granary at Rotherhithe. Steam from a kettle curls around shelves of Thames finds and stacks of Maeve’s whirling river-world paintings. On the small table between us is a photograph. It shows the same small table, in the same studio, one year ago.

On the table in the photo is a Bellarmine jug.

These stoneware vessels, named for the bearded cardinal Robert Bellarmine, were also known as Bartmann jugs. German manufacturers produced them in their thousands between the 16th and  18th centuries. Beloved of sailors, they travelled the world as vessels for drink or other small items. Fragments turn up in the mud frequently, but the tidal river is a far from gentle guardian: intact specimens are rare.

But not unheard of, if the photo is anything to go by. This one is caked in river mud, but the greyish-brown glaze, cartouche on a round body, and scratched bearded face on its neck are all there. A typical Bellarmine jug.

Or not.

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source | public domain

That it was unbroken was unusual. But from the moment she saw it, Maeve knew that this specimen held deeper secrets. It was found last December by David Thorpe, a Redriff Society member. The night before he brought it to her studio, the Society had their Christmas party. She had seen him arrive at the pub’s upstairs rooms, looking “very out of sorts”, and leaving shortly after.

David had always been an uncomfortable fit in the Society. “Some of us see the foreshore as more than a threshold between water and land”, says Maeve. “David wasn’t exactly singing from that hymn sheet, shall we say”. She sometimes thought the only reason he didn’t join a more “conventional” mudlarking group was that their monthly meet-up was just down the alley from his flat. That and they laid on free food.

“Some of the City professionals who live round here, they stay in their little boxes. They shop elsewhere, pretend the council estates aren’t here and wherever it is they socialise is always a cab ride away. But not David. I could tell he was looking to be part of something”.

Sat amongst the clutter that afternoon a year ago, speaking as if recounting a dream, he told Maeve exactly what he’d found.

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The Bellarmine Jug

Alone on the foreshore, dusk descending fast, David had decided to call it a day when he spotted it – a bearded face in the mud, grimacing through the half-light. He had found fragments before; a deep thrill grew as he scraped away the sand and mud to reveal the bottle.

He felt its pigs-bladder shape in his hands, and took some rags from his bag to wrap it. As he did so he noticed something else. The bottle was sealed. He knew he should wait to get it inside, in the light, but curiosity got the better of him. With his penknife he scraped a waxy substance from the neck of the bottle. A dusty knot of something, held together by string or hair, rolled out on to his hand. Recoiling from the feel of it, he dropped it to the darkening shore.

As he crouched, searching for the object with the cold LED of his torch, he sensed a movement over his shoulder. Thinking someone was approaching, he turned to look, only to find he was still alone.

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The tide was coming in fast. Soon it would cut off his route to the steps. He gave up on the lost item, cursing his hastiness, and trudged back upstream, the Bellarmine safely wrapped in his bag.

At the top of the steps, closing the gate, he glanced back along the beach, and froze. The foreshore had been empty moments before. Now, about 25 yards downstream, close to where he had found the jug, someone stood at the water’s edge.

A man, tall, stocky, silhouetted against the river’s dancing, reflected lights. His body was turned towards David, the face in shadow – except for something metallic, catching the light where the mouth would be, like a knife clenched between teeth.

In the stranger’s hand, hanging at his side, was a spade. If it hadn’t been for this, David might have left the man to it. But Society membership comes with responsibilities. It had taken him six months just to get his trowel license. He called out, but the man didn’t move.

A boat passed, its wake breaking loudly against a nearby section of river wall. David sighed. He was in little mood for a confrontation. Watching his feet on the black, slimy steps, he descended to the narrowing beach. He looked again along the river’s edge. Where the man had stood there was only the dark, indeterminable shore.

An unpleasant feeling took hold of him. He was certain the stranger was still there, choosing to remain hidden – in the shadows under the utility company’s jetty, or close to the wall behind the house boat. Enough. He turned, climbed the steps and crossed the river path.

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From then, the night came in a daze of increasing darkness. Footsteps echoing off river-fronting warehouses; the friendly white walls of the pub; tinsel draped on maritime oil paintings; 2000 Miles; lost in oak-lined corridors; the sound of the river booming against the pub’s outer walls; a mirror in the little room reserved for Society podcasts; a shadow, just behind his reflection, that moves a split-second after he does;

he can no longer sort dreams from waking;

feet running, slipping on cobbles; the whispering of uprooted gravestones in the churchyard of St Mary’s; a shadow crosses a patch of light in the Rotherhithe alley; fists hammer against gated entrances; his solid front door; the sheets tight around his ankles, a weight there; silt, mud, marshy waters; roots furl around his limbs; in the grey depths cormorants streak past like eels; he wants to shout but his mouth is clamped shut; blood at the back of the nose; a train in a tunnel under the river, water rising up the windows.

Finally, thankfully, a morning sky through open curtains. Then, exhausted, he slept.

And now, here he was.

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Maeve had soothed her guest with practicalities. A find such as this would have to go to the Museum. She would happily pass it on for him, take it off his hands. At this, he visibly brightened.

The afternoon had turned to evening, so Maeve turned another lamp on.

David’s eyes lighted on one of her shelves, and he got up to take a closer look. Amongst a collection of clay pipes and river-glass was an old docker’s hook. A tool for hoisting cargo. It was a plain hook – a short wooden handle attached to a long, question mark of steel, the rusted point still sharp. While David turned it slowly in his hands, Maeve retrieved a book she thought might be relevant from the small room at the back of her studio. When she returned, David was gone. So were the Bellarmine jug and the docker’s hook.

It was the last time Maeve saw him.

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source | licence

The studio, and our tea, is getting cold. Through a tiny window, a twilight sky is visible. Maeve suggests a walk.

As we follow the Thames Path downstream, its alleys and switchbacks pulling us between the restless, lapping river and the still, oddly quiet roads and bridges, Maeve recalls the book she had been intending to show to David. It concerned the use of Bellarmine jugs as ‘witch bottles’, a practice that continued well into the 19th Century. Personal items such as hair would be sealed within and the bottle buried in a significant place – to bind agreements, or direct curses, or otherwise exert power over friend or foe.

At the old tidal gauge, we turn to head back on the inland path. Passing quays of posh yachts, ad hoc nature reserves and the long walkways of canal-shaped housing estates, you feel the docks are still here, close to the surface, being felt by this peninsula-like community.

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The people of the docks worked hard, Maeve tells me. She speaks of backs broken, ships built and launched, sailors who travelled the world and returned. Strong bonds, obscure customs. Fiercely guarded secrets and promises that must be fulfilled. And later, lifted from the mud close to where the remnants of an ancient forest are suspended in the clay, a skull with a docker’s hook lodged through its jaw.

Maeve had gone looking for David that evening. Along the wall, down on the foreshore. But the foreshore is long. He had never mentioned where exactly he found the witch bottle.

We are back on the cobbled street outside Maeve’s studio. As we part, she fixes me with a look – of sadness? Resignation?

“You never know what the river will bring on the next tide” she says. “Nor do you know what secrets it holds, never to be revealed again.”


  • Candidate: The Bellarmine Jug, Rotherhithe
  • Type: Unclassified [Object of Interest]
  • Status: Unknown

Wren’s Restless Sanctuary: The Church of All-Corners-Within-the-Wall

The church buildings of Medieval London have a long reach. 350 years since perishing in the Great Fire, afterimages linger. Outlines exist as small City of London gardens, or live on in the walls of the churches that Christopher Wren built after the fire – Wren’s classical forms had to fit the wayward foundations of their medieval predecessors, which is partly what makes his churches so striking.

Wren’s churches faced their share of destruction, of course. After the Blitz, some were rebuilt. Some are now gardens, too. Most still project an ancient, stone-spoken wealth, perhaps only superficially at odds with the breakneck pace of global finance as it channels through today’s City. Whatever your faith or otherwise, it can be soothing to step from the windblown, canyon-like streets of Moorgate or Bishopsgate into the deep, centuries-won calm of a City church.

We only ask that you take care before you do.

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St Michael, Crooked Lane. Demolished 1831 | public domain

Does a plaque clearly state the building’s name? Is the church marked on a map? If not you may be entering the strange, unanchored existence of an entity that has come to be known as the church of All-Corners-Within-the-Wall.

Our best account of the constantly moving church comes from a 19th Century document written by a London Corporation clerk. It is an addendum to a survey of the City’s churches, carried out after The Union of Benifices Act had been passed by parliament in 1860. The Act paved way for the demolition of a number of City churches, to account for dwindling congregations.

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St Peter Cornhill, today | photo: PoL

Here are some extracts from the addendum:

Towards evening – I will allow that I was much fatigued – I came across an example that was, remarkably, unfamiliar to me. The solemn, solid walls were of an aspect typical of Wren and his contemporaries, but I did not gain from them the Godly gladdening of heart I have come to expect. Rather, they appeared to me most desolate and inhuman… inducing in me a sudden and tenacious melancholy…

Such was the darkness within, I had need to strain my eyes. No light reached me from the row of high, round windows. Even a great tear in the roof – through which I had clear sight of the early evening sky – aided me not. Once my eyes had adjusted I saw that the interior, like the roof, was in a state of disrepair. The pews were scattered and broken, the pulpit gone completely…

I confess that the place left me in such a state of disquiet that I became quite disoriented… panic took hold of me… I cannot say how long I was trapped within the cursed stone walls…

When finally I did emerge, the streets were not – it seemed to me – the streets I had entered from… so close to the furthest reaches of the City did I find myself, that I had the distinct sense that the damned building was attempting to expel me.

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St Dunstan-in-the-East| photo: PoL

It seems little credence was given to this report by the Corporation at large. It languished, unread, for 150 years.

Until it was found by a new acquaintance of PoL.

Graham Herod is a City of London tour guide who has hopes of becoming London’s first widely recognised portologist. When we meet in his favourite wine bar, deep within the warren of alleys between Cornhill and Lombard Street, he has a folder of research with him which suggests he means it.

The folder contains a host of possible sightings of the lost church. They range from minor anomalies – bells heard at strange times of night, towers glimpsed down unexpected alleys – to more substantial accounts.

Herod is clear that the phenomenon is a temporal untethering. But from when and where exactly was the church untethered? What psychic trauma guides its endless haunting of the Square Mile’s time and space?

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The tower of St Alban, Wood Street | photo: PoL

Perhaps the answer can be found in the far from restful history we have touched upon. Churches burned, bombed, rebuilt, demolished, reused. Many pieces of destroyed churches live on elsewhere. The spire of St Antholin resides in a Forest Hill council estate. Pulpits were removed from demolished churches to be used in other parishes. An entire Wren construction has been rebuilt brick by brick in Missouri, USA.

From the troubled histories, Herod has compiled a list. He won’t be drawn into naming them, but he says he “has his favourites”.

PoL can’t help speculating. Could St Swithin, London Stone be a contender? It was damaged by bombing, and until its demolition in 1962 housed the London Stone, a mysterious lump of limestone invested with all manner of significance over the centuries. Was being wrenched from such a task enough to destabilise the church’s dimensional footing?

Herod considers this, before musing, “If that were the whole story, it would be just as likely we’d be chasing an untethered WHSmiths”.

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The London Stone (behind the grille in the wall), before being moved to its current home at the Museum of London source | license

It is time for PoL to take in the London air.

Outside on the City streets, ghostlike Wren churches are everywhere. St Peter Cornhill appears to fold in and out of the surrounding buildings. The garden inside the bombed-out remains of St Dunstan-in-the-East evokes a London reclaimed by nature. The disembodied tower of St Alban Wood Street makes for a forlorn apparition amongst post-modern office buildings.

But these churches aren’t going anywhere, just yet.

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A bomb damaged St Swithin’s, London Stone, shortly before its demolition in the 1960s. The stone is behind the grille in the wall source | license

Reaching the steps of St Paul’s, our mind wanders to those weeks, a few years ago, when a tent city of anti-capitalist activists filled the courtyard here. The memory chimes with one of Herod’s favourite accounts of an encounter with the church of All-Corners-Within-The-Wall.

In the late 1990s, a small group of protestors, part of a march against global capitalism, set out with a party planning to “free” the river Walbrook. They seem to have entered All-Corners somewhere along the route of the culverted river. Emerging, mildly traumatised, from the church, they found themselves within the heavily-secured inner courtyard of the headquarters of a trans-national financial corporation, and staged an impromptu occupation.

Why does Herod like this story so much?

“Well, I like to think it’s another clue. The church I’m looking for is political”.

For PoL, it is yet another layer to the mystery.


  • Candidate: The Church of All-Corners-Within-The-Wall
  • Type: Temporal Untethering
  • Status: Active

The featured image shows the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral, with the tomb of Christopher Wren | public domain

Love and Entanglement in Subatomic London: The Spooky Action Machine

Camberwell, 1980. In the cold, dingy attic room of a smog-blackened terraced house, two undergraduates are on the brink of something. They are physics students, although the strange, gaffer-taped structure that fills the room could be mistaken for an art project. A crudely bolted network of steel piping – propped up by beer crates and books – connects a large refrigerator, the workings of a spin dryer, a tangle of wires and a bank of television screens, circuit boards and telephones.

Sitting atop this contraption, as though it were the most natural place to be, is a cat.

The students place the cat, Erwin, inside the refrigerator (which is empty apart from a steel plated lining), type instructions into the modified ZX80 taped to the door’s inside, and slam the door shut. A brief frenzy of bucking and whirring is followed by one almighty jolt – and then silence.

After a few, charged seconds, the students check the fridge. Then, satisfied that there is no trace of Erwin within it, they leave the room – locking the door behind them. Once downstairs, they take a tin of cat food from a cupboard in the kitchen, and step out into the dark, November night.

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Sinclair ZX80, an early home computer

“Erwin was a little grumpy when we got to Sam’s flat in Highgate”, says Maja Toft, down the phone from Copenhagen. “But otherwise, he seemed fine. We let him out of the exit machine, gave him some dinner, and had him snuggle up with us in Sam’s big bed. He didn’t seem phased to be a pioneer in quantum entanglement travel”.

This is a story of subatomic physics and its potential to open gateways. But it is also a story of music, politics and romance. Maja and her boyfriend Sam Harper had been working on their machine for months, keeping little contact with the world outside college and their makeshift laboratory. But before that?

Dancing.

Maja says they fell for each other in the student bar, to a soundtrack of new wave and synth pop.

“I had grown up loving punk, reggae, all of that. As a young Danish woman, I took London Calling literally. The UK music scene is what brought me to England’s capital. Oh” – she laughs, a soft, warm chuckle that becomes familiar as the call goes on – “and the especial malleability of your city’s subatomic structure, of course”.

London Calling

As Maja herself admits, had she listened a little closer to the lyrics of The Clash’s album, she might have realised that they painted a less than rosy picture of London and the UK.

By April 1981, Maja and Sam had begun to experiment with using the quantum gateway personally. Meanwhile, just up the road in Brixton, riots had broken out against a back-drop of heavy-handed stop-and-search tactics directed at London’s black population.

White, middle class, and raised in Denmark and the US respectively, Maja and Sam felt inoculated against the issues surrounding the riots. However, says Maja, “My politics were formed in that time. It was so unfair, even as a callow young incomer I saw that. What a struggle it was for some. How easy it had been for me”.

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Police presence in Brixton, 1981.

Politics leant their work some urgency. Could instantaneous travel change the world for the better?

But, admits Maja, they had another, less outward-looking motivation.

“It was really just a way to get to each other’s bedrooms quicker”, she laughs. “The journey from Camberwell to Sam’s place in Highgate wasn’t great, especially in winter, especially at night”.

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The kind of tube interior Maja was hoping to avoid

So, they studied. For Maja, Imperial College was a natural fit. It had been an early centre for the study of subatomic properties in uranium (until the nuclear arms race drove the research underground).

But the couple were restless. They found their tutors too mired in theory. Between lectures they spent hours in the pub, hammering out ways to make the new ideas practical.

“It was an exciting time in quantum physics”, Maja says. “Stephen Hawking was our hero, tying together a lot of strands. In terms of portals, The Victorians had done some interesting things, but they were chancers, really. They left little useful science. Einstein, Schrodinger – those guys got us past Newton and blind luck”.

Einstein was uncomfortable with what he termed ‘spooky action at a distance’: quantum entanglement, the idea that subatomic particles can affect one another over distances.

“Spooky action, many-worlds theory: Hawking took them seriously. And we took Hawking very seriously indeed”.

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And now, with the help of Maja and Sam’s machine, quantum entanglement was going to change the world.

Maja laughs again, but this time there’s a bitter edge.

“You know, Sam hated that we never managed a two-way machine. That I could get to his bedroom from mine, but not the other way round. I don’t think it was the science that bothered him. I think he just felt cornered.”

For the first time the lightness has left Maja’s voice.

“And – it’s silly – we argued over what to call the thing. I said the Love Walk Generator. Love Walk was a pretty lane in Camberwell that we liked to stroll down in the early days. Spooky Action Machine was Sam’s suggestion. It was certainly catchier. By the time I realised he had suggested it because it abbreviated as SAM, it had stuck.”

There is a silence where the laugh should be.

“I can’t remember whether it was me or Sam who saw the cracks first.”

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Love Walk, Camberwell

Cracks?

“Look – it’s hard to talk about, even now. It wasn’t just the falling out of love. There was… things that didn’t make sense. And – god – the nightmares, and the – our skin”.

Another pause.

“It wasn’t ready. The science wasn’t ready. You could say, yes, we achieved what we set out to achieve. But it wasn’t supposed to – no, it wasn’t. It was a failure”.

Sam moved back to the US and they lost touch. Maja hung on in London for a few years before moving back to Copenhagen.

“I’m a materials scientist, now. Sam would find that funny”.

And the machine?

“Oh, you know I don’t know? I’ve wondered about that a lot over the years. I suppose it’s in some basement somewhere, or in a scrap heap. Hey, hopefully someone fixed the fridge up and used it to keep their groceries fresh”.

Maja’s easy chuckle comes rolling down the phone once more.


  • Candidate: The Spooky Action Machine
  • Type: Quantum Entanglement Device
  • Status: Historic