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.
For somewhere once marked out by Roman walls, the City of London is hard to pin down. Geographically, the capital’s oldest district breaks free of its synonymous Square Mile, owning guardianship of green spaces and housing estates across London and into the surrounding counties. As a political entity, it bares superficial resemblance to a London Borough, but look closer and you’ll see it runs its affairs according to a unique set of rules.
The City’s arcane practices, developed over centuries, can sometimes seem designed to dissemble. Rituals and traditions of forgotten function and clouded origin inform the day to day runnings of the Corporation. You can see how something might go unnoticed.
It takes a dedicated researcher to uncover such a something. We at PoL are lucky to know one, a man called Iqbal Mahmud, who works as an Uber driver and has given a lot of precious free time to help us draw a picture of the strange customs surrounding one of the City of London’s most mysterious addresses: The Black House.
Mahmud lives in Whitechapel with his wife and three children. A former history student, in the downtime between parenting and working, he tends to his hobby: browsing the archives of any ancient London library he can get through the door of, following whatever paper trail takes his fancy. The City of London archives are a favourite (or used to be, before Mahmud’s discoveries led him to be unofficially barred). But this story doesn’t start in their time-worn surroundings. It starts with two American tourists, asking for a lift to a place that isn’t there.
“So I pick them up at the Tower of London” begins Mahmud, when I speak to him on the phone. The couple, a man and woman in their fifties, climb in to Mahmud’s car. They are staying at a hotel about ten minutes walk away, but this isn’t where they want to go. The man says he is looking for a local landmark that isn’t in any of the guides, some place he found on an early morning stroll from his hotel.
“The guy starts on about this ‘quaint old street’ with an ‘incredible house’ halfway down it. Doesn’t shut up about this house, he’s never seen anything like it, completely black, no windows, some kind of high-tech new building material he reckons. He keeps going on about how black it was. ‘The blackest thing I ever saw’”
The woman tells Mahmud that her husband came back to the hotel “like there’d been some kind of divine revelation”. She’s already endured a morning dragged up and down Thames Street. Now she’s being dragged back.
Mahmud knows the Thames Street area well. There’s plenty of modern architecture inbetween the smog-dusted Georgian mansions and crouched Wren churches, but he doesn’t recognise the place the tourist is describing. When Mahmud suggests they try up around Watling Street, or some of the old alleys east of Bank, the man says no – he’s sure the river was at the bottom of the street he saw.
Mahmud drives the length of Thames Street, taking every turn towards the river. Back alleys to offices, dead-ends with nothing to see except bins and workers on a fag-break. “So of course my man gets his phone out. ‘It was here, right here!’. He says the street looked more ‘quaint’, and I have to laugh because we’re round the back of an NCP car park with the roar of an underpass coming though my window and it’s about as quaint as the stairwell in my old block of flats.
But mostly he just goes on about this house. ‘The blackest thing I ever saw’. He just keeps saying that. ‘The blackest thing I ever saw’. And when we’ve been down every side road three or four times and his wife’s about ready to divorce him and I’m like my stats on this fare are screwed, I still don’t throw him out because it’s, it’s the look on his face, the desperation and, I don’t know, confusion. It stayed with me”.
The whole experience swam round Mahmud’s head for a couple of days, and then two things happened that he says have changed the way he sees London. First, there was an item in the Evening Standard. ‘US Tourist Missing’ – Wife Pleads for Information. “It was my man. Even before I saw the photo I knew it was my man”. The second thing, which happened almost simultaneous to seeing the article, was that a memory of something popped into Mahmud’s mind. He says that when it did, he nearly dropped his cup of tea.
This is where we come to the City of London archives. Two weeks prior to the Thames Street goose chase, Mahmud had been researching ‘quit rents‘, having talked his way into a rarely explored corner of the Lord Mayor’s archives. Quit rents are obscure tithes, consisting of objects rather than money, paid by the City of London to the Crown. Usually they concern property that no longer exists, or land that can no longer be precisely located. The payments survive in purely ceremonial form.
“Basically an excuse for everyone to put on fancy dress and live out a sort of medieval castle fantasy for the day”, as Mahmud puts it.
In one example a City clerk, amid much pomp, presents a royal official known as the Queen’s Remembrancer with the same centuries-old horseshoes on the same day every year. The arrangement, concerning a long-lost forge, dates back to the 13th century.
But even among such company, the files of one particular rent stood out.
“It was the normality of the records, actually. Not like the others, which are all kept in these big leather-bound books. This one, I almost missed it. It was just tossed to the back of the shelf, a bunch of old grey folders in a box”.
When Mahmud looked inside one of these folders, there didn’t seem to be any of the usual ceremony involved. “Nothing too fussy, just meticulous record-keeping, a long list of annual payments”. The payments dated back to 1479. Paper and writing styles had changed over the centuries, but the content was remarkably consistent. There was no indication in the records that anyone apart from the clerks concerned and perhaps their superiors were even aware the transactions had taken place.
Anyone who had thought to look would have found these transactions remarkable.
The first thing that struck Mahmud was that these payments were made to, not from, the City of London. The rent itself and the details surrounding it were also odd: an annual payment of “12 smooth, black stones”. The stones are described in the files as “like of obsidian only blacker and heavier”. They are to be collected (it is never made clear how or where) on “the first night after the falling of the Tears of St Lawrence”. (The Tears of St Lawrence are now more commonly known as the ‘Perseid’ meteor shower, which occurs each summer.) Then, at high tide no later than the second day after the last Perseid, the 12 stones, having been collected by the City as payment, are to be “cast into the Thames”.
This last stipulation struck Mahmud as oddest of all. Not least because parts of the paperwork hint that, similar to other historical rents, the same 12 stones were being presented year after year.
Occasionally, the arrangement appears to have been reaffirmed, often with mention that the “stones have been renewed” . This seems to happen once a century. Such entries fall in 1479, 1609, 1737, 1862 and 1992.
And what is the property for which this strange rent is being paid? Here’s where Mahmud nearly drops his tea. The offerings are made against, “territory south of Thames Street, given over to the Black House”.
“Well, I went back to the research” says Mahmud, happily. “And it became a bit of an obsession”. A Freedom of Information request didn’t get him very far. The reply was a “masterpiece of disinformation”. And he’s pretty sure that he’s seen those grey folders for the last time, everyone he speaks to claims total ignorance of their existence. “Good thing I took notes”. So Mahmud returned to what he does best. And where GPS had failed, London’s libraries played a blinder. Because once he started to look for it, the Black House turned up everywhere.
The references Mahmud found are too many to list here. One of the most striking comes from John Evelyn, the 17th Century diarist and society figure. Famously, Evelyn was a witness to the Great Fire of London. The following is from his diary, just days after that momentous event:
“Sunday 9th September 1666
I went againe on foote to Survey the sad and dismal ruines. As with the whole Citty, the Conflagration hath consumed all houses between the river and the mountaines of rubbish which once were Thames Streete. Nothing remaines amongst the smoake and ashes except one dreadfull place, alone on the sultry heape; a house of a bredth so vast and an aspect so blacke that I am astonish’d it was unknownst to me. By what grace of God it was saved I don’t know… I did later return with others to see the speectacle, only to find nothing in that part of the ruines. A boy who witnessed it alongside me, is since nowhere to be founde. But perhaps the strange house had beene a spirit of my wearyness; God’s mercy I discover’d so before I present my Survey to his Majestie.”
Mahmud’s sister, who lives in Romford, put him on to an intriguing old clapping-game rhyme, still heard in playgrounds in Essex:
Father quick to follow when Mother went down / To The Old Black House in London Town / 1,2,3 Father coming up the track / 4,5,6 Mother never coming back.
But Mahmud’s favourite is from the self-published memoirs of a 1960s sound technician, Frank Coleby, who found himself working for The Beatles at their Apple Records HQ, during the time that they were signing almost any jobbing singer-songwriter who walked through their Baker Street door. Coleby recalls:
“A tall, curiously grey young man, worse-the-wear for drugs by the look of him, shuffled in one Saturday morning.He had one song.A dirge so terrible, its chorus has never left my mind: ‘Have you met the ones from the Black House? / If you have you’ll never be the same / They’ll take away your worries at the Black House/ Follow, don’t follow / Go in, Go out / Follow them down again’. Truly awful. Paul thought it had something and George tried putting sitar to it, but John put the kibosh on it. Said it was “too fuckin’ maudlin”. We never saw the young lad again.”
Then there are the map anomalies. Below is a 1666 map, showing the extent of damage caused by the Great Fire. Some features have long confused historians. Mahmud finds it interesting, too.
Below is a section of the map, zoomed in to show the buildings. Most of them are numbered, their name or function listed in the accompanying key. It is the one that isn’t numbered that is of interest here. It is at the centre of the image, just east of the square of river representing Queenhithe dock.
“None of these things mean much on their own”, says Mahmud. “But they start to add up, you know?”
We do know. It was time to for PoL to do some digging of our own. We wanted to look more into the Perseids connection. When we did, we found a striking correlation. The Perseid meteor shower (named for the constellation Perseus, from where the meteors appear in the night sky) is caused when the Earth passes through dust left by comet Swift-Tuttle as it orbits the sun. Very rarely, Earth and Swift-Tuttle pass by close enough that the comet is visible in our skies. But there are other years where it passes just out of sight (close passes occur every 130 years or so). These can be seen on the graph pictured, and the list of years is familiar.1479, 1609, 1737, 1862, 1992 – in other words, the years that the Black House files record the mysterious ‘renewal’ of the arrangement.
“That’s massive” says Mahmud when I call him with our findings. We fire questions at each other: What is the comet’s connection to the Black House and the strange payments? If the Black House is some kind of gateway into our world, do those using it also use the comet, as a sort of stepping stone from wherever it is they come? Or is it just a marker? Do the stones come from the comet? What strange material is the Black House made of? One thing Mahmud and I agreed on: there are a lot more questions than answers. Mahmud for one is excited about looking into the pass-by dates that pre-date 1479. For all we know there could be another box of papers somewhere preceding that date.
“Shit, man… And I thought I was through with the Black House. This has drawn me right back in. You can tell my wife”. Mahmud tells me he has been taking the Black House home a bit recently. For one, he felt duty bound to compile everything he’s found about the phenomenon, track down the wife of the missing American, and send her his findings. “Might not help her, but what can you do?” He promises to keep us posted.
It seems to PoL that the City of London is hiding, if somewhat carelessly, the presence of a gateway, sanctioned to materialise within its borders. A kind of port, perhaps, or an embassy, for entities unknown. It’s all very interesting, and certainly a candidate for inclusion in the catalogue, but we can’t help hoping that Iqbal in his hunting doesn’t get too close to finding the Black House.
Candidate: The Black House, south of Thames Street