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.

Michael_crooked_lane
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.

20171112_183111
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.

20171127_214705
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?

St Alban Wood Street
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”.

London_Stone,_City_of_London,_2012.jpeg
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.

Church_of_St._Swithin's_London_Stone_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1031034
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.

ZX80
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”.

1981_Brixton_Riots
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”.

80s train interior
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”.

briefhist1

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.”

20171107_194319
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

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.

Screen shot 2017-10-16 at 21.41.41

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.

Screen shot 2017-10-16 at 21.37.56

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 –

Screen shot 2017-10-16 at 21.44.14

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.

Screen shot 2017-10-16 at 21.33.44

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]

Screen shot 2017-10-16 at 21.40.59

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.

Deep_Over-night_Fallen_Snow_Art.IWMART17082
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.

Flickr_-_Duncan-_-_Alexandra_Palace
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.)

Albert_Einstein,_by_Doris_Ulmann
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”.

Screen shot 2017-10-11 at 17.37.47
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”.

Screen shot 2017-10-11 at 17.42.08
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.

Alexandra_Palace_from_air_2009
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.

20170925_184114

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”.

20170925_180002

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.

20170925_190819

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.

20170925_180855

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.

Screen shot 2017-10-01 at 19.43.57
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?

20170925_191246
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.

david-marcu-5437

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.

valor-kopeny-108798

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.

samuel-zeller-28777

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.

stephen-di-donato-95758.jpg

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.

Pink_sunrise_at_Regent_Street,_London

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

 


The sources for all images on this post can be found here

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 with a narrative element, but 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
source

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.

markus-spiske-127943
source

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.

montse-monmo-82806
source

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.

IMG_20170916_120754

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.

Grand_Avenue,_Smithfield_Market,_London-8634460124

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