On September 3rd, 1939, London was in turmoil. That morning, Prime Minister Chamberlain had taken to the airwaves to declare that Britain was at war with Hitler’s Germany. The evacuation of children was already underway, and many Londoners were responding to the first sirens and retreating to their Anderson shelters.
But in Honor Oak, a retired milkman named Albert Evans was heading outside. In unused audio from a radio programme examining that day, Evans recalls that he took a stroll up nearby One Tree Hill. What he saw from there was unxpected.
Gazing out at the barrage balloons that swayed above London, he watched as “a rent opened up in the sky, as if it were made of cloth”. Through this vast opening, torn vertically into the sky from a location roughly above the rooftops of Bermondsey, there emanated “heavenly light. Beautiful, really. And the light at the edges of it sort of leaked out of it, so that for a moment there was this sort of great mist of light, drifting over the city”. This light dissipated quickly, and – after no more than 15 seconds – the rent closed again, as abruptly as it had opened.
Given the timing, you might have forgiven Evans for thinking of the Luftwaffe. But, “I saw right away that this wasn’t the work of any military engineer. Plainly speaking, it looked more like a message from God”
He wasn’t the only one to read religious meaning into the vision. A senior civil servant – in a fit of Churchillian machismo – had taken to the roof of the foreign office to survey his expectant city. He seems to have witnessed the rift, writing in his journal that it was “nothing less than the Aureola of the Resurrected Christ”.
He, too, appears to have been unconcerned by the event. But others in London weren’t so sanguine. A minor panic in the streets around Primrose Hill made it into the pages of the Daily Express – one resident claimed that “dark shapes” could be seen disseminating from the opening.
The event would not have been visible to the majority of Londoners. Even in elevated locations, it seems to have gone unnoticed by most.
Perhaps witnesses would have made more of ithad they known that the phenomena wasn’t new – indeed, it had long borne a name: The Eye of Bermondsey.
It’s unknown when or how this term originated, but written records go back at least as far as 1552. In February of that year, Henry Machyn, the diarist and fabric merchant, writes that a vision of the rupture momentarily delayed a beheading on Tower Hill. He refers to it as the “grett suthwarke & barmes ye” (‘great Southwark and Bermondsey eye’).
Since then, there have been a handful of sightings. In 1708, an assistant to Christopher Wren seems to have seen a manifestation of the Eye from the roof of the newly built St Paul’s Cathedral. And as recently as 1997, online message boards were alight with speculation surrounding a possible visitation – alongside elaborate theories as to why this news had been suppressed by the media.
Sightings are too rare – and too fleeting – for there to be much by way of scholarly enquiry into the matter. It is hard to discern a pattern. The date of the 1939 manifestation seems too significant to be coincidence, but other sightings fall on comparatively nondescript days.
In the absence of answers, the evocation of religious imagery will continue to resonate for many.
However, some have found a curious correlation with a recent, more Earthly, occurrence – the flame of light that appears when the Shard reflects the setting sun at certain times of year. Several photos have appeared on social media, and both the location and appearance have drawn comparisons with the Eye of Bermondsey. One amateur portologist – not, presumably, a fan of London’s rapidly vaulting skyline – claimed that the historic manifestations were a prophesy: ‘a corpse candle for the death of London architecture’.
The recent silencing, for maintenance reasons, of the bell known as Big Ben met a suitably muted response from the nation. A half-hearted effort by a handful of MPs to lend the moment significance faded on the wind. But, on the day the last chimes rang across Westminster – and the small group held their vigil outside the Big Ben tower – it seems that inside the Houses of Parliament, a disruption may indeed have been felt.
The following is a thread leaked by a member of a messaging app group consisting of trainee political journalists (names have been removed and messages re-ordered for coherence):
A: HOU and TOOP making themselves known today.
B: fuck yeah
C: Decidedly odd in the lobbies
B: ‘Decidedly odd’ is a typo for ‘fucking weird’ right?
D: Old wives tales now? Are all hop groups as hot as this one?
A: Haven’t seen you around today?
D: At home working on a piece. So?
B: So stop wanking sorry working on your piece and come see for yourself
A: You do kind of need to see what it’s like.
E: I take it you guys are willing to break this story? If not maybe keep it offline?
Brief. But the thread hints at a contemporary resonance for a set of phenomena portologists had thought purely historic. Phenomena that, in some cases, go back centuries, and have come to be known collectively as The House of Uncommons and The Other Other Place.
Here are just a few examples:
Lord Alconbury Incident
For several years at the beginning of the 20th Century, the Lords’ Chamber had a gardening problem. A strange plant would grow from beneath the benches along which debating peers sit. Botanists were perplexed – at a loss not only as to how the plant should be categorised, but as to where it was coming from, and how it might be stopped. The vine-like tendrils were tough, sticky and caused painful rashes and bruising to unclothed skin.
Palace staff, armed with gloves and secateurs, did their best to keep on top of it – a risky and unpopular business, the main result of which was that the mysterious weed grew back stronger. On hot and humid days, it grew so fast that the sound of stamping feet almost drowned out debate, as sitting peers attempted to keep the tendrils at bay. Consequences if they failed to do this could be serious, as demonstrated by the ‘Alconbury incident’ of 1912.
Witnesses record that Lord Alconbury was spending the afternoon as he often did: by sleeping off his claret-sodden lunch while peers debated in the House around him. His slumped figure, gradually disappearing from view behind the benches, did not attract much attention. It was only when it came time to vote on the matter at hand (an act concerning governance of India), that someone thought to give Lord Alconbury a nudge – at which point it was found that several thick tendrils of the vine had wrapped themselves tightly around his left leg. Worse than that, the Lord appeared to be being dragged into a ‘diabolical fissure’ which had opened where the bench in front of him met the floor.
When, after great effort, clerks wrestled his leg back from the tenacious vine, his trousers were in rags, and bruises and sores covered his skin. His foot – when it was retrieved from the strange opening – was lost entirely to some kind of ‘accelerated putrefaction’. It was later amputated.
The extent of the problem during the First World War is unknown, records not being kept. But by the time of that conflagration’s end, outbreaks of Alconbury’s Curse – as the plant came to be known – appear to have died down.
The Monstrous Chamber
The Commons Chamber was rebuilt in 1945, having burned down during the Blitz. It is unknown whether these events have any bearing on the chamber’s shaky dimensional footing during the mid-to-late ’40s, but many scholars find the timing persuasive. Throughout those years the newly-built walls and ceiling would shimmer as if seen through heat – sometimes disappearing entirely for a moment, to reveal another, far more vast interior, in which darkly Gothic galleries ascended dizzyingly. (Less often, a vision of an ‘infinite cosmos’ faded in and out around the MPs.)
It was convention among members of the house that the phenomena, if occurring during a debate, should be ignored. This convention seems to have been observed, with the notable exception of Douglas Clifton Brown, the Speaker of the House. Hansard records him loudly admonishing the ‘monstrous chamber’. More regularly – and famously – he would interrupt the flow of debate to implore the walls around him to, “Hold fast! Hold”.
The Delphi Committee
It is the 1960s, and an elite club of Tory MPs meet in secret to discuss ways to influence party policy, and better combat the ‘socialist threat’. So far, so unsurprising. Until you learn of their meeting place.
Behind a panel somewhere in the corridors leading to the whips’ offices, there is a door to a silent and unpopulated cityscape, where wide piazzas are bordered by gleaming white columns, and great blank pediments tower over shadowy porticos. There are no clouds in the sky, and no sun. A strange light illuminates the place.
According to the unpublished memoirs of one former member, the practice came to an end when longtime members began to show signs of what they named Delphi Decay, a strange discolouring and weakening of skin, teeth and hair. Until then, he writes, nobody seemed to know or care what the place was – or how the gateway to it had opened. But the secrecy emboldened them: “I balk, in the mellowing of my dotage, at the hate-filled schemes proffered to those unearthly, echoless piazzas; to that deathly, breezeless air”.
Time Anomalies of The Not Content Lobby
The Not Content lobby – a dark, oak-lined corridor to one side of the Lords’ Chamber, which peers walk through to register their disapproval of a motion – has a habit of living up to its name. Various phenomena are associated with it, in particular a series of ‘inverse’ time anomalies. In 1840, a group of peers, voting on a tabled amendment to the wording of the fisheries convention where it related to the United Kingdom’s standing with France, thought they had spent ten minutes in the lobby. To those outside, however, the peers went missing for a full 24 hours. The subsequent effect on the result of the vote (peers are counted on leaving the lobby, and in this case had done so a day too late), led to a convention whereby the lost votes of ‘slipped’ peers – ie peers who were seen to enter the lobby but not depart it within a ‘natural’ timeframe – would be balanced out by ‘pairs’ in the Content lobby surrendering their votes.
Westminster Hall ‘raftergheists’
The celebrated, seven-centuries old hammerbeam oak rafters of Westminster Hall have been troubled from time to time by spectral breaches. Henry VIII would apparently stand and shout obscenities at the shadowy figures which writhed above trials held in the Hall. Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate of 1653 to 1659 was particularly troubled by them – attempts by an exorcist to animate the ceilings’ carved wooden angels in order to combat the ghosts were unsuccessful.
The Shadow Tower
The speculative fiction of a bored employee? Or an account of one man’s inter-dimensional experiences? Whichever side you fall down on, the diaries of William Pewter are well worth a read.
Pewter was a lamplighter – it was his job, during the last years of the 19th century, to work through the night to keep the gas lights that illuminated the clock faces of the ‘Big Ben’ Clock Tower lit. He recounts that after checking the lamps, he would descend the 334 steps from the belfry down to ground level, and enter a hidden door that led to another 334 steps – down which he would descend into ‘that dread catacomb, the inverted shadow Tower, directly beneath our proud beacon’.
Pewter doesn’t describe the strange ritual he carried out – nor whatever entity or entities compelled him to do so – save to say that it had the outcome of rejuvenating the ‘unearthly glow’ of the ‘hideous insults’ that were the shadow clocks, with their strange symbols in place of numerals.
At times he hints at a larger structure beyond the shadow tower. One passage has become well known to those who study London’s vulnerable dimensional boundaries:
“Dark parliaments whisper in the walls of this place. Dread representatives of night-wreathed boroughs stalk the very shadows. The strong-hearted have nothing to hide. But the venal should know this: the mistruths and obfuscations spoken in this place are breath and blood to the hidden ones, who descend with your black words to their own cursed House to twist and weave them into ever darker meaning in the service of their demonic legislation”.
The later pages betray an increasingly haunted man. In October, 1899 – two months before he died, aged 38, of unknown causes – he wrote of being harrowed by “those great monsters, the shadow bells, tolling ceaselessly in the darkness and deep within me wherever I turn”
The centuries have seen many notable phenomena and countless minor discrepancies. But there was little sign of dimensional disruption when PoL visited the Palace of Westminster recently.
Not that our trip was wasted. In the crypt-like visitors’ cafe we met a friend of ours, Susan Macks, Professor of Gateways and the Multiverse at the University of Connecticut, and a leading expert on London’s interdimensional gateways.
Over flat whites and triple-chocolate muffins we got her thoughts on a key debate surrounding the Westminster phenomena. Do the events constitute evidence of ‘shadow’ entities – that is, another Palace (or Palaces) of Westminster, existing in separate dimensions but somehow temporally or metaspatially linked with our own? Or do the various accounts of gateways, anomalies and untetherings share a more tangential connection?
“Oh, put me in the dimensional shadow basket. Hell, yes. Seriously, quote me on this: House of Uncommons is not a catch-all. The Other Other Place is not an umbrella term. The Pewter text is key here, right? There’s something else there. Has its moments, take its holidays, comes and goes. Manifests in a heap of different ways. But it’s there.”
“And yes, I know this throws up a whole load of questions. And no, I don’t know all the answers”.
Susan has to fly. She says she’s busier and busier in London these days. But we manage to keep her chatting a while longer.
She talks about Westminster in general. She is drawn to the area’s origins as an island, surrounded by fens, where the Tyburn split to join the Thames. Some say the road out west forded here, since Roman times and before. There may have been a place of worship where the Abbey now stands long before records begin in the 10th century.
And we talk about ‘Westminster’, the metonym. The word that describes a place, a system, a community, an establishment, a club. A by-word for democracy that is also an end to discussion. An answer. A means of wielding power, and of ceding it. A beacon. A facade. A hope. A lie.
“I’ve been waiting for this doozy to come back”, says Susan, as she reaches for her jacket. “If what your young reporters are hinting at is true, well – I better clear some space in my diary.”
Candidate: The House of Uncommons and The Other Other Place
Status: Historic (pending review)
The featured image is taken from The Fugitive Futurist (1924) by Gaston Quiribet
Recently a post did the rounds on social media. Its author declined to discuss it, but gave permission for us to reproduce it here. We do so unedited:
So a fucking weird and scary thing just happened on the overground. I’m home now, I’m fine, shaking as I type this but housemate’s making me a cup of tea so don’t panic I’m fine but just listen to this. I’m not making this up (not drunk either!!) I’d been to the cinema with a mate and we said goodnight and I got the train at Shepherds’s Bush overground station. One of the last trains on a rainy weeknight so fairly quiet but a few people on it. I get on and walk up the train looking for a nice bit of space and I can see the front carriage is completely empty. Don’t feel safe in an empty carriage at night even on those open-all-the-way-down trains so I stop in the second carriage a bit closer to other people. When the train sets off there is no-one between me and the door to the driver at the front of the train. [continues below]
I put in my headphones and I’m looking in the rainy window opposite when the sound goes fuzzy and I see something out the corner of my eye, like the lights went on and off. I look towards the empty carriage and NOW IT ISN’T EMPTY There’s this THING in the aisle, on the same side of the train as me. I just catch it for a second. shaped sort of like a person but too big. Like a shadow but a shadow that’s THERE. Then the train goes round a corner and the front carriage swings round so the aisle where this thing is is out of view. And then the carriage swings back and IT IS MUCH CLOSER!!! It’s almost at the join between the carriages. The top of it reaches the ceiling. I leapt up and screamed I think. i’m backing away to where the other people are but now the thing is gone. [continues below]
Other people are just staring at me, no-one does anything to help. I walk past them heart bneating and stand by a door further down the train gripping the rail. Just staring at the front craiiage. Which stays empty but I can’t get rid the image of this thing. I can’t explain it. It’s unreal. Impossibly dark and kind of like it doesn’t fit with the space it’s in, like a CGI image or something. But it was THERE. And where the face should be – that’s going to haunt me. The only way I can explain it is like a void. But thank god the carriage stays empty until the next stop when people get on. I think of getting off the train but the useless staring people around me are kind of normal and comforting in a way. Then it’s my stop and I get off and somehow manage the walk back. Fucking hell. Don’t know how I’m going to sleep tonight. Scared of closing my eyes. I’m not drunk I’m not making this up. I’m fine everyone but fucking hell [ends]
The post attracted a lot of discussion online, becoming known as the ‘Void Face’ post. It piqued the interest of PoL, so we thought we’d look in to it, but in truth we expected little. Phenomena such as this are often isolated events.
However, a friend of ours put us in touch with someone who has – let’s just say – some knowledge of Transport For London’s CCTV records. This source told us she ‘shouldn’t be talking’. But she hopes that her account may be seen by the above post writer, and perhaps be of comfort. We have summarised the conversation below:
“The Shepherd’s Bush to Willesden Junction spectre. Know it well. Your young traveller was lucky to see it. Not many do.
It’s not entirely accurate, the name. You don’t see it station to station, quite, just for a period along that stretch. It seems to appear roughly where the train goes under the Westway and disappears again after we cross the line out of Paddington. You’re talking around three minutes. Unless the train gets held for whatever reason. It can hang around as long as you like if the train’s on that stretch.
There’s a strange effect on the screen when it appears – whether that’s static on the camera or the train’s lighting we haven’t figured out yet.
No way of knowing when it will show itself, or how many days and weeks will pass between a visit. But it always comes back. Always at night, usually on a quiet train. It moves about the aisle a bit, kind of flickers on and off, flits around – though it’s doing less of that, these days. Always the front carriage – we haven’t told the drivers.
The carriage doesn’t have to be empty when it comes. It hovers near members of the public sometimes, but always keeps out of the way. You never see it pass through anyone, anything like that.
People never used to notice it. We decided it was only visible on the cameras. But just recently that’s changed. Some of them do seem to, for a moment or so. Or they look confused, like they know something’s there but they’re not sure what.
But nothing like what you’re describing.
Anyway it seems harmless enough. A couple of us keep an unofficial diary, but I’m about the only one still interested, to be honest. It’s become another part of the job.
But then I think about it and think, it is a bit creepy. I mean, what is it? What does it want?”
Our source has checked the CCTV for the time that would correspond with the sighting as described in the ‘Void Face’ post. She said the passenger’s reaction was as written, and clear to see. The ‘spectre’, however, was not present on the video.
Candidate: The Shepherd’s Bush to Willesden Junction Spectral Breach
In the course of our attempts to catalogue London’s inter-dimensional gateways, PoL has learned to keep an open mind. The unpredictable happens when a Londoner treads too close to the city’s precarious dimensional bounds. We are accustomed to the scattershot nature of the resulting stories.
But it seems we may not be the first to try to impose a sense of order on this chaotic history.
The boundaries within what PoL terms ‘base London’ can be slippery enough, vulnerable to the whims of restructuring governments or other quirks of history. But that doesn’t stop attempts to set them in stone. Plaques, posts, and kerbside markings can be seen all over the city, manifesting the often invisible lines between parishes and other entities.
For example, the boundary between Hammersmith and Fulham parishes, once marked by a now lost irrigation known as Parr’s Ditch, is carved into tide-weathered stone where the ditch once entered the Thames (the plaques read H.P. 1865 | F.P. 1865):
It isn’t just the initials of neighbouring parishes that are etched around the city. More obscure symbols may represent historic Guilds with administrative powers over an area.
The photo below left was taken by George Sandeman, who forwarded it to us via Twitter. George found these markings on a kerb in Soho, close to a more traditional boundary marker.
Below right shows a post-type marker from Sydenham Hill, at the borders of Lammas Green, one of a number of Corporation of London estates that can be found far from the geographical constraints of the Square Mile.
But it is the possible existence of a set of still stranger markings with which this post is concerned.
A friend of PoL’s, Iqbal Mahmud, has been in touch, to tell us of a file he discovered in a neglected corner of the City of London archives, while he was investigating the strange instances around the Black House.
The file, says Iqbal, comprised several sheets of paper, and about 10 to 15 photos.
“I didn’t think much of it at first. The words ‘Black House’ got my attention. But I couldn’t make much sense of it after that”.
He copied the relevant page into his notebook, and put it out of his mind. But in the months since, it has crept back into his consciousness. And Iqbal has come to believe that what he discovered is very important indeed.
The page that mentioned the Black House appeared to show a kind of key, comprising a long list of obscure symbols – with text next to each symbol apparently denoting its meaning.
“I asked the clerk about it – he didn’t know what it was. He called a superior over and she didn’t know either”
The superior made a phone call, but whoever she spoke to was of little help. Iqbal went back to his table, made a quick copy of the page, and finished up his research for the day, placing the Black House files back on the shelves where he found them. He never saw them again. Nor has he found anyone who will admit to knowing anything about them.
Iqbal says it seems obvious now. “That was the moment, asking about that one file. Like, someone in there realised what I had, realised what I was on to, and then the files disappeared”.
This is our sketch of the symbols Iqbal copied down, with the meanings assigned to them shown in corresponding grid format below:
And then there were the photos.
Black and white prints – Iqbal reckons they dated from around the 1950s – artless and functional, the kind of thing a surveying official might make. They appeared to show examples of the markings in situ – on kerbs, above doorways, placed in brick walls. Frustratingly, the images were close-up. Iqbal doesn’t recall any features that gave away a specific location.
What he’s sure of is that the document he saw was the key for some kind of marking system, and that at least some of these symbols are, or once were, etched on to streets around the city.
Are they boundary markings? The presence of the Black House on the list would suggest that if so, then it could be dimensional boundaries they are attempting to mark.
But who made them?
And do they simply represent a desire to describe known phenomena? Or are they an attempt to exert some form of power or control over London’s doorways?
These are questions to which PoL will return.
Addendum: Graham Herod, a former City of London tour guide with a growing interest in London’s portals, (and a special interest in the Church of All-Corners-Within-The-Wall) tells us he has seen no such symbols in his many years walking London’s streets.
“The starry mills of Satan are built beneath the earth and waters of the mundane shell”.
Matthew Lindon eyes me over his omelette and chips.
“That was another one of Stewart’s things, the poetry. He’d launch into it on tea breaks. All sorts, but William Blake, mainly. Dark Satanic Mills and all that. He was proud of Blake’s connection to Lambeth”
Matthew speaks often of Stewart, chief mechanic – and, the way Matthew tells it, guardian spirit – at the small metal-pressing workshop under the arches of Waterloo station, where Matthew worked as a young man.
As well as poetry, Matthew says, Stewart was full of stories. “Some true, some bollocks, some somewhere in between”.
One was that their archway was once a store for London’s dead – a waiting room for bodies destined for the corpse trains of the Necropolis Railway. Another told of a hermit who kept a cave-like home somewhere in the labyrinth of tunnels, left alone by railway staff.
But there was another, still stranger story.
Stewart would lean in close and tell Matthew of how, many years ago, he had glimpsed – somewhere beneath a grate, or beyond a crumbling wall, or within some dark recess – an opening to a strange, hell-like dimension, an industrial otherworld of endless, grinding machinery.
We are just behind the station, in the last greasy spoon left standing among the fusion street-food outlets and craft coffee places along the old market street known as Lower Marsh. “Waterloo was nothing but marshes in Blake’s day, as Stewart would tell you. If the station wasn’t raised on arches, the whole thing would sink into the mire”.
Matthew is supposed to be walking me around the undercrofts and hidden tunnels. But he seems to be putting this off, wringing every last minute out of our late breakfast, and every last memory from his time at the ‘miraculous little workshop’ he once worked at.
“How the gaffer kept things going I don’t know. He was mates with the railway guys, I think. Didn’t seem to pay any rent. I don’t think many people knew we were there. Despite the noise”.
The ‘noise’ came from three pedal-operated electric-hydraulic presses, shaping metal near continuously for 8 hours a day. “There was a nice kind of equilibrium, for a while. Gaff in his booth with his paperwork. Me and couple of others working the machines, ear defenders on”.
And Stewart, eyes sparkling, overalls slick with grease, flitting from machine to machine, with a wrench in one hand and oil can in the other.
“That’s what made me grow apart from Stewart. Him and those machines. I’d catch him whispering to them sometimes. Freaked me out after a while”.
But in the evening, in the quiet of the shop, as the things stood there – huge and looming in the twilight – Matthew admits there was something about them. A presence.
Matthew started leaving early, avoiding being left with Stewart and the machines. Avoiding the subject he knew Stewart would raise. “He got more and more obsessed with this place he’d seen. Haunted, I’d say. Said he still searched for the – the rift he called it”.
But Stewart had never found it again. And he began to get the idea that he was too old, somehow. That because Matthew was young as Stewart had been, perhaps he could help find it. “From the way he described it, God knows why he wanted to”.
Matthew avoided Stewart, and things carried on for a while.
Then the accidents began.
A series of failings in the presses’ safety mechanisms. A few near misses: bad cuts from flying metal that should have been stopped by the steel guard. And then worse. A man’s hand got in where it shouldn’t. “Crushed all four of fingers. Funny way to request early retirement, as someone put it. And after that – “.
But Matthew trails off. I sense there’a part of the story he isn’t yet ready to tell. He drains his tea and we finally make it out into the streets.
Matthew says he can’t remember exactly which set of arches the press shop was under. There are half-forgotten railway storerooms behind peeling-paint doors, passageways you’d need a torch and a hardhat for, arches bricked up entirely. And then there are bars, performance spaces, theatre companies.
As we walk, Matthew brightens, and a free-flow of associations fills the air between us: pints bought with pence, a 7-inch of Waterloo Sunset, a girl he used to meet for sandwiches by the river.
Then we stop. We’re in a tunnel filled with a wash of sound made from hip-hop from speakers in the ‘legal-graffiti’ arches of Leake Street, and the drills of construction workers turning nearby arches into new restaurants and event spaces. This isn’t the Waterloo Matthew remembers. But he seems to approve of the noise.
And it’s here that it finally spills out.
“This lad started, a school leaver, few years younger than me. Stewart takes him under his wing, of course. Whispering in his ear the way he used to with me. One day the lad didn’t turn up for work. His Mum worried sick – he hadn’t turned up at home either. They found him a few weeks later – found his body, anyway.
“In a locked store, I think it was. Nobody could explain how he had got there – and nobody could explain the state his body was in. His poor Mum had to identify what was left of it”.
What Stewart knew of it Matthew never found out. The mechanic never returned to the workshop.
“Gaff saw him once, I think. A shell of a man, is all he would say. None of us suspected him or that. We’d all been questioned. Like I say, they couldn’t explain how a person could even do that, let alone prove that anyone had”.
The business didn’t last much longer. Matthew learned the Knowledge, and spent a career “praying the fare doesn’t want Waterloo”.
We walk out from under the arches, past the construction workers, past Upper Marsh. And then back under, to where we part company beside a series of mosaics depicting Blake’s paintings and poetry – Dark Satanic Mills and all that.
“When the factories came it must have seemed like they would be here forever”, says Matthew.
There is much to be written about the drifts of psychic memory that swirl through Crystal Palace Park. The famous dinosaurs are a petrified glimpse into the knowledge and preoccupations of Victorian science. A deserted and beautiful subway lies hidden under an A road, a reminder of the long-demolished railway station it once served. And root-mangled stairways lead to shabby remnants of 20th Century concrete utopianism.
Keep wandering. The vast, splintering void of the soggily marooned concert stage beckons you to who-knows-where. The maze is said to be London’s largest; it is certainly its hardest to escape. The park’s resident crows guard crumbling Italianate terraces and peck at the charged ground of the burned-down Crystal Palace itself, which had been intended by the Victorians to be a permanent beacon of culture, sciences and the arts.
But all of that is for another time.
This post will be a short summing up of one of the more tangible (albeit only recently documented) phenomena: the apparent emergence of vision-inducing powers in a number of the park’s headless statues.
In each case, reports seemed to begin at around the turn of the millennium.
This manuscript-clutching gentleman is said to be a representation of Dante, who’s Inferno famously begins in a dark, impenetrable wood. It is unclear whether this claim predates the number of reports in which those who have come into contact with it find themselves standing in the middle of a thick, shadowy wood or forest.
For most, this vision seems to be fleeting and apparently harmless – the worst case being the commenter on an online forum who wrote that since touching the statue and experiencing the vision, a burning sensation occurs in his right hand whenever he enters a wooded area.
The Hollow Woman
This one bites a little harder, so it is just as well she is up on a plinth, currently fenced off. In 2011, a woman grasping the statue while clambering up to get a better photo of the park and the distant North Downs, found herself suddenly and frighteningly transported to a ‘black and hellish’ dimension of unknown definition.
It took the very loud shouts of her boyfriend to pull her back from this vision and give her the will to remove her hand. Luckily, her subsequent dazed fall landed her on the three-foot-drop side of the wall, not the fifteen-foot-drop side.
Others who have placed a hand on the statue have described finding themselves horrifyingly breathless, adrift in a vast galaxy of stars.
Either way, we wouldn’t risk it.
The Seated Woman
This one, situated at the top of the park – not far from the historical site of the Crystal Palace – is to be avoided at all costs. In 2004, a schoolboy using the statue as a goalpost rested his hand on her shoulder while defending a corner. It took the boy’s friends several minutes to prise his hand free, during which time the unfortunate victim had been locked in a ‘terrified trance’.
No-one knows what he saw, because he has been unable to communicate since, but his parents told a local reporter in 2014 that a decade on, their son’s nights were still plagued by relentless, screaming nightmares, and while awake their ‘ghostlike’ son was cursed by a chronic fear of music, poetry and prose.
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.
Should you explore these dislocated spaces, or better still find yourself on one of the dwindling number of similar stretchesthat are adrift about the City, you might see – moving through them with detached, ritualised ease – 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.
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.
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.
“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”.
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.
“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.
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.