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.
A giant shop window, a flashing of the spoils of imperial conquest, a chance to position monarchy side by side with social and commercial interests: The Great Exhibition of 1851 was many things. Officially, the world fair – opened by Queen Victoria and housed in a vast Crystal Palace of iron and glass in Hyde Park – was a showcase for advances in global industry, arts and sciences. Even at the time it had its critics (Prince Albert only got behind it once he was sure the idea was popular), and post-colonial historians have found endless layers of meaning to this crashingly unsubtle declaration of global power.
One thought that might have occurred to your average 1850’s Londoner, as they filed slowly past the parade of statues, jewels and stuffed elephants, was that the Great Exhibition was busy. An average day saw over 40,000 visitors, more than twice the number that the British Museum sees today. On one October day, that tally reached over 100,000. With such numbers, it’s easy to see how a small tear in the dimensional fabric could have gone unnoticed by most punters. When a portal opened one Saturday afternoon, it was witnessed by only a handful. Add to that what may have been a conscious effort to keep news of the breach spreading, and frankly we are lucky to have a story to tell at all about what has come to be known as the Crystal Palace Stardoor, or more commonly, the Vacuum Sugar Event.
William Canter had booked his stall at the Exhibition in order to show off his patented vacuum apparatus, a device to enable liquids to be boiled at lower temperatures. (The invention was particularly aimed at the sugar industry – the potential for cutting fuel costs when boiling sugar cane was good news for the profits of plantation owners).
Tucked away in a corner, off the main gallery, Canter was a few minutes into an afternoon demonstration when he heard an unusual pop from inside his machine. Soon afterwards, something strange started to emanate from the large spherical apparatus.
“Some manner of darkly coloured smoke”, Canter recalled later. “My first thought was ‘Blast it, the sugar cane’s burning’. My second (and almost simultaneous) thought, was ‘How on earth can that be?'”
Martin Bull, a cab driver by trade, recalled the moment. “It didn’t look like any smoke I ever saw. Black as pitch, it was. But it moved more slowly than smoke. The stuff came seeping out of a valve in the machine and sort of hung there, a few feet off the ground. Like a little dark cloud. Then I noticed the lights”.
The “lights”, as Patty Granger, a nearby flower-seller, quickly recognised, were celestial in nature. “It was like a patch of night sky, really. But the most glorious night sky you ever saw… great swirling clouds of stars…The closer you got to it, the more of the night sky you could see. Like a window, if you get my meaning? The really strange thing was, when you walked round the back of it, you could see stars going the other way”.
Many of the witnesses recall getting close to the stardoor to get a look at the wonders that opened out beyond it; none of them, when they were tracked down years later, could forget the man and woman who got too close.
They all retold the moment. Accounts speak of a well-dressed couple, who may or may not have been connected to the sugar trade. The man was bullish and self-important, loudly insisting that they should stand closer than anyone else. The woman seemed reluctant at first, but, perhaps emboldened by her husband’s attitude, she soon made a dreadful mistake. Declaring that she’d like to see the stars beneath their feet, she craned her neck so that her entire head reached beyond the threshold of the opening.
The terrible, strangled sound which filled the air proved hard to describe for most witnesses. Some said it was not human, some said they thought the glass panes were falling in, one was sure it was the sound of screaming, and said that though it was loud it was “fractured, like a cry heard across a stormy valley”. Many said the sound seemed to come from all around them, and expressed amazement that the whole Exhibition hadn’t heard it. Interestingly, one witness said that she’d experienced a prolonged flash of brilliant light, and only afterwards began to think of it as a sound.
After the initial shock, people rushed to the woman. By the time they had pulled her back across the threshold, her fur hat and shawl had gone. Some recall a glimpse of strangely matted hair and wide, black eyes set in a bone-white face, before the woman’s husband threw his jacket over her and hurried her away into the crowds. They have never been tracked down. Canter later said he was amazed not to have heard from their solicitors.
Those still surrounding the stardoor now had a new problem. Someone noticed that while the size of the portal had initially stabilised, it was now growing again. This threw the small gathering into a panic. What if it didn’t stop? Canter himself tried desperately to tinker with his machine, thinking that somehow if he could reverse its process, the thing might be sucked back in.
Some tried to help him, some began to turn and walk rapidly away, but then, just as Canter was about to run out of ideas, there was another sudden POP, and the stardoor snapped shut.
Canter recalls a moment in which “it seemed to me as if the whole of the Crystal Palace fell silent, although of course it was only our little corner”. But the silence in Canter’s little corner was broken by something unexpected: applause. It appeared that many in the small crowd had decided that it had all been some elaborate entertainment, and they soon dispersed into the great hall around them. Canter packed up soon after, and withdrew from the exhibition the next day.
It’s unclear exactly how high up news of this event reached. Canter and the other witnesses were tracked down years later by a civil servant, and the interviews remained classified until very recently. Someone must have made the initial report. What does seem clear is that a decision was made to keep news of the phenomenon from Prince Albert, the Exhibition’s great patron. To PoL’s mind, this presents an intriguing ‘what if?’. Prince Albert was keen to position himself as a champion of scientific progress. The Victorian Movement didn’t really get going until after Prince Albert’s death. What if he had learned of the stardoor, and with his support the 19th Century interest in portals had peaked twenty years earlier? Would the Movement have retained its momentum to a greater extent than it did? If it had, we might be living in a very different base reality today.
The image heading this post shows a photo taken on a phone camera by a close associate of Portals of London. From near Deptford Creek he watched for several minutes as clouds above Limehouse “moved in a strange, very slow, swirling movement”, in contrast to their general easterly motion across the sky.
As it happens, such a sight from this vantage point is not rare. In fact, low-lying stratocumulus clouds like the ones pictured are known for betraying the presence of a sure candidate for the Portals catalogue: The Great Whirl of Limehouse.
The existence of some kind of inter-dimensional opening in the sky above London’s docklands is, though largely forgotten by 21st Century residents, woven into Limehouse lore. In warehouses and riverside pubs, ‘The Whirl’ was once a hot topic. Tales were swapped of vanishing barrage balloons, missing carrier pigeons and the one-way journeys of brave Cessna-flying explorers. It is said the commercial pilots of City Airport still steer well clear of the area, though good luck getting them to talk about it.
And good luck getting anyone from the meteorological department to allow that anything other than ordinary atmospheric effects account for the strange behaviour of the Limehouse clouds (as for the European Space Agency, what they know of the Whirl is anyone’s guess – they certainly aren’t talking to us).
Ok, non-portal vortexes in cloud systems are common. But the Whirl’s characteristic corkscrew motion appears time and again in artworks throughout history, in a strikingly consistent part of the London sky. Views from Greenwich are a particularly rich source. Examine the images below, and make up your own mind.
First up is this engraving from 1754, in which the swirl is clear. (Our annotation marks the Whirl’s centre but you can see that clouds across the whole sky are corralled into the motion):
Note the similarities in the following painting and engraving, from separate 18th Century artists:
The swirling motion stands out clearly in Henry Dawson’s 19th Century painting:
Some even claim to discern evidence of the Whirl in JMW Turner’s ‘London from Greenwich Park’ (1809), though we aren’t so sure:
Those are some pictures, but what of words? Debate continues over the Great Whirl’s earliest mention in print, but the first unambiguous reference to it comes from Samuel Pepys’ diary. In May, 1662, the famous Naval administrator and diarist wrote:
“Then to an alehouse in Drury Lane, where I did meet with Greatorex and an acquaintance of his, who entertained us both with extraordinary tales of the great Whirl in the sky above Limehouse, through which, it is said, many wondrous worldes may be reached”
Pepys goes on to muse that he would like to gather funds for the building of a “great tower” to explore the matter. We can’t help wondering how the 17th Century might have turned out had he succeeded.
London’s gas holders are vanishing. These towering Victorian marriages of form and function have, for several generations, been a distinctive part of the urban landscape. But modern gas networks have rendered them obsolete, and they now stand redundant and vulnerable, occupying valuable land.
While most Londoners would acknowledge the need for new housing, not everyone looks at gas holders with the cold eye of the developer. Many want them to stay. They are admired from trains, gazed at from pavements, campaigned over, documented, repurposed, pulled down and put back up again. They are loved.
Of course, they can be met with indifference, too. But if you stopped your average Londoner and asked them about that hulking great circular relic of the industrial era behind those houses over there, at the very least they’d know what it was. They may call it a gas holder, or a gasometer, or something else, but they’d be able to tell you roughly why it was built. And, 99 times out of 100, they’d be right. Because all of those hulking great things were built to hold gas.
Except for the one that wasn’t.
By the late 1860s Frederick Hercules Henderson was down on his luck. Thirty-nine and unmarried, he was broke. Born of not inconsiderable means, he had invested his money in urban canal shipping, only to see the industry destroyed by the railway boom of the 1840s. He had the air of a man who had been left behind by his century.
But Henderson still enjoyed a degree of social status. His influential friends included the scientist Arthur Longthorn, and thus he was present at the Greenwich Unveiling (more of which in a later blog), the event at which Longthorn showcased his revolutionary ‘Worlds Machine’ to a select gathering, so kickstarting the Victorian interest in inter-dimensional travel. Henderson was far from the only person present at the Unveiling who would become involved in the 19th Century Portal movement. But he was perhaps the only one who saw clearly the popular, commercial potential in what he had witnessed. His pursuit of this potential would eventually devastate his health, end a valued friendship, and financially ruin Henderson for good.
Sadly, the early part of the development of London’s first commercially accessible Portal appears to be undocumented (Henderson feared corporate theft so initial plans were a closely guarded secret). We know, of course, Henderson had concluded that only the constructors of London’s cast-iron gas holders could produce the huge, circular frame he needed. His model even included the customary telescopic ‘frame-within-a-frame’ mechanism. Only it wasn’t a gas container that Henderson’s machine needed to hoist.
At Greenwich, he had witnessed Longthorn harness electricity to create what Henderson referred to as “modest openings in the Kosmos: akin, if you will, to doors that are slightly ajar, facing one another across a dark hallway”. Henderson wanted to throw those doors wide open, and to do this he needed to generate a lot of power. His contraption was designed to hoist a membrane filled with zinc and copper sulphate, and is said to have utilised four miles of wires. It has been described as a giant walk-in battery and electrical circuit in one.
Opened among great fanfare, ‘Henderson’s Door’ was advertised as offering a brief, life-changing vision into the reality of other worlds. ‘Step From This Earth in an Instant!’ proclaimed the posters.
Many took up the offer. Initially, The Door was a great success. Members of the public spoke of visions of ‘impossible worlds’, and of having seen ‘heaven itself, more glorious than I ever imagined’.
A range of pricing catered for all Londoners. Politicians and other members of high society paid 2 guineas for an hour-long ‘voyage’ on Saturdays, and the working classes queued up for the popular 1 shilling ticket on a Tuesday night. Whatever the occasion, whenever Henderson opened his Door, the surrounding streets would buzz with food stalls, postcard sellers, and others hoping to cash in on the phenomenon.
(The image below, a contemporary drawing, shows a man selling dumplings near Henderson’s Door on ‘poor night’. Note how the Door’s wiring is wound so tight that only a few spots of light shine through. However, light bursts out of the top of the structure. It was said that when active, Henderson’s Door lit up the sky “from Hampstead Heath to the Oak of Honor”)
For a brief moment, Frederick Henderson was the most venerated man in London. But it would not last. Just four months after opening his attraction, Henderson was forced to close it, amid concerns about the safety of the electrical framework.
Opinion had already begun to turn against the project following stories of disappointed punters. Many questioned Henderson’s claim to have opened a door to other worlds. He was accused of hoodwinking a susceptible public with the use of ‘hidden vents’ and lighting tricks.
These claims were leant credence by the fact that, as Henderson himself admitted, not everybody would experience other worlds once walking inside his machine. “I can only open the Door”, said Henderson. “One must step through it oneself”.
A public spat between Henderson and Longthorn didn’t help. Longthorn accused his former friend of stealing his work uncredited and turning it towards ignoble goals.
But it was an editorial in the Times of London which perhaps did most to close the Door down (and there are many who detect the hand of Longthorn in its writing):
“…This mountebank, this fraud, this thief. This shameless charlatan. With nothing but the basest contempt for you, my fellow citizens, he would enrich himself by endangering London – and so, by extension, England, for surely our fair land would flail and flounder like a wounded beast were its head to be cut off by the wires and trickery of this vile imposter…”
Henderson went to his grave defending his invention, and he went to his grave early, entering a rapid physical and spiritual deterioration which his contemporaries ascribed to his very public ‘trial’, but which modern scholars believe was caused by a high concentration of dimensional breaches. Nobody walked through Henderson’s Door more often than Henderson himself.
Forgotten now, many books were written about Henderson’s Door in the years after Henderson’s death. But it was the mysterious case of Sam Peech – the Lambeth street urchin who several witnesses recalled walking wide-eyed into Henderson’s contraption during an early test – that provided the subject of the best-selling book on the whole affair:T.P Maudley’s ‘The Boy Who Didn’t Return’.
The disappearance of the gas holders is sad enough. It is happening in towns and cities across Britain. Only when they are entirely gone from our neighbourhoods might we fully understand the connection we had to them.
But if what remains of Henderson’s Door was to go, pulled down by an energy company scratching their heads at the apparent administrative error that led to such a large piece of infrastructure going unrecorded – that would be a shame indeed.
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