Dark parliaments: The House of Uncommons and The Other Other Place

The recent silencing, for maintenance reasons, of the bell known as Big Ben met a suitably muted response from the nation. A half-hearted effort by a handful of MPs to lend the moment significance faded on the wind. But, on the day the last chimes rang across Westminster – and the small group held their vigil outside the Big Ben tower – it seems that inside the Houses of Parliament, a disruption may indeed have been felt.

The following is a thread leaked by a member of a messaging app group consisting of trainee political journalists (names have been removed and messages re-ordered for coherence):

A: HOU and TOOP making themselves known today.

B: fuck yeah

C: Decidedly odd in the lobbies

B: ‘Decidedly odd’ is a typo for ‘fucking weird’ right?

D: Old wives tales now? Are all hop groups as hot as this one?

A: Haven’t seen you around today?

D: At home working on a piece. So?

B: So stop wanking sorry working on your piece and come see for yourself

A: You do kind of need to see what it’s like.

E: I take it you guys are willing to break this story? If not maybe keep it offline?

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The Chamber of the House of Lords source

Brief. But the thread hints at a contemporary resonance for a set of phenomena portologists had thought purely historic. Phenomena that, in some cases, go back centuries, and have come to be known collectively as The House of Uncommons and The Other Other Place.

Here are just a few examples:

Lord Alconbury Incident

For several years at the beginning of the 20th Century, the Lords’ Chamber had a gardening problem. A strange plant would grow from beneath the benches along which debating peers sit. Botanists were perplexed – at a loss not only as to how the plant should be categorised, but as to where it was coming from, and how it might be stopped. The vine-like tendrils were tough, sticky and caused painful rashes and bruising to unclothed skin.

Palace staff, armed with gloves and secateurs, did their best to keep on top of it – a risky and unpopular business, the main result of which was that the mysterious weed grew back stronger. On hot and humid days, it grew so fast that the sound of stamping feet almost drowned out debate, as sitting peers attempted to keep the tendrils at bay. Consequences if they failed to do this could be serious, as demonstrated by  the ‘Alconbury incident’ of 1912.

Witnesses record that Lord Alconbury was spending the afternoon as he often did: by sleeping off his claret-sodden lunch while peers debated in the House around him. His slumped figure, gradually disappearing from view behind the benches, did not attract much attention. It was only when it came time to vote on the matter at hand (an act concerning governance of India), that someone thought to give Lord Alconbury a nudge – at which point it was found that several thick tendrils of the vine had wrapped themselves tightly around his left leg. Worse than that, the Lord appeared to be being dragged into a ‘diabolical fissure’ which had opened where the bench in front of him met the floor.

When, after great effort, clerks wrestled his leg back from the tenacious vine, his trousers were in rags, and bruises and sores covered his skin. His foot – when it was retrieved from the strange opening – was lost entirely to some kind of ‘accelerated putrefaction’. It was later amputated.

The extent of the problem during the First World War is unknown, records not being kept, but by the time of that conflagration’s end, outbreaks of Alconbury’s Curse – as the plant came to be known – appear to have died down.

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Houses of Parliament by Claude Monet

The Monstrous Chamber

The Commons Chamber was rebuilt in 1945, having burned down during the Blitz. It is unknown whether these events have any bearing on the chamber’s shaky dimensional footing during the mid-to-late ’40s, but many scholars find the timing persuasive. Throughout those years the newly-built  walls and ceiling would shimmer as if seen through heat – sometimes disappearing entirely for a moment, to reveal another, far more vast interior, in which darkly Gothic galleries ascended dizzyingly. (Less often, a vision of an ‘infinite cosmos’ faded in and out around the MPs.)

It was convention among members of the house that the phenomena, if occurring during a debate, should be ignored. This convention seems to have been observed, with the notable exception of Douglas Clifton Brown, the Speaker of the House. Hansard records him loudly admonishing the ‘monstrous chamber’. More regularly – and famously – he would interrupt the flow of debate to implore the walls around him to, “Hold fast! Hold”.

The Delphi Committee

It is the 1960s, and an elite club of Tory MPs meet in secret to discuss ways to influence party policy, and better combat the ‘socialist threat’. So far, so unsurprising. Until you learn of their meeting place.

Behind a panel somewhere in the corridors leading to the whips’ offices, there is a door to a silent and unpopulated cityscape, where wide piazzas are bordered by gleaming white columns, and great blank pediments tower over shadowy porticos. There are no clouds in the sky, and no sun. A strange light illuminates the place.

According to the unpublished memoirs of one former member, the practice came to an end when longtime members began to show signs of what they named Delphi Decay, a strange discolouring and weakening of skin, teeth and hair. Until then, he writes, nobody seemed to know or care what the place was – or how the gateway to it had opened. But the secrecy emboldened them: “I balk, in the mellowing of my dotage, at the hate-filled schemes proffered to those unearthly, echoless piazzas; to that deathly, breezeless air”.

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Chamber of the House of Commons  UK Parliament | license

Time Anomalies of The Not Content Lobby

The Not Content lobby – a dark, oak-lined corridor to one side of the Lords’ Chamber, which peers walk through to register their disapproval of a motion – has a habit of living up to its name. Various phenomena are associated with it, in particular a series of ‘inverse’ time anomalies. In 1840, a group of peers, voting on a tabled amendment to the wording of the fisheries convention where it related to the United Kingdom’s standing with France, thought they had spent ten minutes in the lobby. To those outside, however, the peers went missing for a full 24 hours. The subsequent effect on the result of the vote (peers are counted on leaving the lobby, and in this case had done so a day too late), led to a convention whereby the lost votes of ‘slipped’ peers – ie peers who were seen to enter the lobby but not depart it within a ‘natural’ timeframe – would be balanced out by ‘pairs’ in the Content lobby surrendering their votes.

Westminster Hall ‘raftergheists’

The celebrated, seven-centuries old hammerbeam oak rafters of Westminster Hall have been troubled from time to time by spectral breaches. Henry VIII would apparently stand and shout obscenities at the shadowy figures which writhed above trials held in the Hall. Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate of 1653 to 1659 was particularly troubled by them – attempts by an exorcist to animate the ceilings’ carved wooden angels in order to combat the ghosts were unsuccessful.

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Westminster Hall source | public domain

The Shadow Tower

The speculative fiction of a bored employee? Or an account of one man’s inter-dimensional experiences? Whichever side you fall down on, the diaries of William Pewter are well worth a read.

Pewter was a lamplighter – it was his job, during the last years of the 19th century, to work through the night to keep the gas lights that illuminated the clock faces of the ‘Big Ben’ Clock Tower lit. He recounts that after checking the lamps, he would descend the 334 steps from the belfry down to ground level, and enter a hidden door that led to another 334 steps – down which he would descend into ‘that dread catacomb, the inverted shadow Tower, directly beneath our proud beacon’.

Pewter doesn’t describe the strange ritual he carried out – nor whatever entity or entities compelled him to do so – save to say that it had the outcome of rejuvenating the ‘unearthly glow’ of the ‘hideous insults’ that were the shadow clocks, with their strange symbols in place of numerals.

At times he hints at a larger structure beyond the shadow tower. One passage has become well known to those who study London’s vulnerable dimensional boundaries:

“Dark parliaments whisper in the walls of this place. Dread representatives of night-wreathed boroughs stalk the very shadows. The strong-hearted have nothing to hide. But the venal should know this: the mistruths and obfuscations spoken in this place are breath and blood to the hidden ones, who descend with your black words to their own cursed House to twist and weave them into ever darker meaning in the service of their demonic legislation”.

The later pages betray an increasingly haunted man. In October, 1899 – two months before he died, aged 38, of unknown causes – he wrote of being harrowed by “those great monsters, the shadow bells, tolling ceaselessly in the darkness and deep within me wherever I turn”

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source | public domain

The centuries have seen many notable phenomena and countless minor discrepancies. But there was little sign of dimensional disruption when PoL visited the Palace of Westminster recently.

Not that our trip was wasted. In the crypt-like visitors’ cafe we met a friend of ours, Susan Macks, Professor of Gateways and the Multiverse at the University of Connecticut, and a leading expert on London’s interdimensional gateways.

Over flat whites and triple-chocolate muffins we got her thoughts on a key debate surrounding the Westminster phenomena. Do the events constitute evidence of ‘shadow’ entities – that is, another Palace (or Palaces) of Westminster, existing in separate dimensions but somehow temporally or metaspatially linked with our own? Or do the various accounts of gateways, anomalies and untetherings share a more tangential connection?

“Oh, put me in the dimensional shadow basket. Hell, yes. Seriously, quote me on this: House of Uncommons is not a catch-all. The Other Other Place is not an umbrella term. The Pewter text is key here, right? There’s something else there. Has its moments, take its holidays, comes and goes. Manifests in a heap of different ways. But it’s there.”

She smiles.

“And yes, I know this throws up a whole load of questions. And no, I don’t know all the answers”.

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A plan of the Houses of Parliament prior to the fire of 1834 source | public domain

Susan has to fly. She says she’s busier and busier in London these days. But we manage to keep her chatting a while longer.

She talks about Westminster in general. She is drawn to the area’s origins as an island, surrounded by fens, where the Tyburn split to join the Thames. Some say the road out west forded here, since Roman times and before. There may have been a place of worship where the Abbey now stands long before records begin in the 10th century.

And we talk about ‘Westminster’, the metonym. The word that describes a place, a system, a community, an establishment, a club. A by-word for democracy that is also an end to discussion. An answer. A means of wielding power, and of ceding it. A beacon. A facade. A hope. A lie.

“I’ve been waiting for this doozy to come back”, says Susan, as she reaches for her jacket. “If what your young reporters are hinting at is true, well – I better clear some space in my diary.”


  • Candidate: The House of Uncommons and The Other Other Place
  • Type: Various
  • Status: Historic (pending review)

 


The featured image is taken from The Fugitive Futurist (1924) by Gaston Quiribet

Intersecting parallels: The Greenwich Meridian Glitch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The bandstand at Greenwich Park source | licence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tim sent us an email with some thoughts:

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

We think we get it.

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source | licence

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

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

We monitor the situation with interest.


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

Featured image: Randi Hausken |licence

Under river, outside time: The Woolwich Foot Tunnel Anomaly

When the Woolwich foot tunnel closed for repairs in 2011, it should have been a routine job. The pathway had been providing pedestrians with a quick route beneath the Thames since 1912. A century on, a few minor improvements were necessary. Contractors were hired to plug holes, improve access and bring communications capabilities into the 21st Century: swapping leaky tiles for a leaky feeder.

But Woolwich residents will recall that the refurb of this much loved and much used walkway did not go according to plan. When it finally re-opened it was 8 months behind schedule, having been closed for more than a year and a half. What the average Woolwich dweller doesn’t know, however, are the unusual circumstances behind this delay.

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Part of the works were to update the lifts  sourcelicence

Mention the 18 month time frame to someone who worked on the Woolwich Tunnel job and you may be met with a mysterious smile. A year and a half may have seemed a long time to those who relied on the tunnel for their daily commute. But for those who were down there beneath the river, that time-frame has a different meaning. When one contractor tells me he aged 3 years on the Woolwich job, it is not a metaphor. For, deep down beneath river and clay, hidden from those above ground, something was occurring. That something was a time anomaly.

A time anomaly, from the perspective of someone who experiences it, involves a clearly defined part of landscape or architecture, in which time ‘stops’. Years of study into such phenomena has proved largely fruitless in terms of explanations. And even less so when it comes to predicting when and where they might arise. There is some anecdotal evidence that temporary spaces, or spaces temporarily under a different use, lend themselves to time anomalies, and the Woolwich event would appear to support this.

But they are notoriously hard to define – not having experienced one, PoL isn’t about to try. The best thing we can do is listen to those that have experienced them. The following testimony is from one of the contractors on the Woolwich foot tunnel job (he wishes to remain anonymous). His words are presented uninterrupted, with as little editing as possible.

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Woolwich from the river, pre foot tunnel times  source | public domain

“I was one of the first ones to experience it. We were working from both ends, as it were, and had tents on both sides of the river. It was pretty basic, if you wanted something from the other side, you just had to walk it through the tunnel. Anyway the foreman’s on the other side and he radios to ask me across. So I walk through the tunnel – the ‘long walk’, we called it, funnily enough – and it’s slightly spooky because no one else is down there, they’re all working on the lift shafts, and I get up the other side, find the foreman, and his eyes nearly pop out of his head. Says he only radioed like a minute ago and how did I get there so quick? Wouldn’t take my word for it I’d walked. Reckoned I had a buggy down there or something, that it was some kind of prank.

But I stand my ground and he starts to see I’m not lying. Anyway he forgets what he called me there for. He gives me this big red plastic box, tells me to walk back over and hold it up for him when I get to the other side. So I head back down, the lonely walk back, thinking shouldn’t we be getting on with some work. When I get to the top I wave the red box in the air and radio the foreman. ‘You just left me!’ he’s saying, ‘No more than a minute ago’. That’s when I start to feel a bit weird.

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Entrance to the tunnel seen from the river  source | licence

My initial feelings was I was pretty freaked out by it all. But once everyone else had experienced it, it was amazing how quickly it seemed normal. It became like a joke. It was a laugh, you know, a source of giggles. Someone said we’d invented the teleporter and were all going to be rich. The foreman stopped trusting watches and phones when we were down there, and took to using egg-timers. A few of the young agency lads tried to claim extra on their time sheets. That was the thing, though: time froze when you were down there. If you were down there for the full working day, fixing the tiling, you’d basically finish work, come back up and it would still be morning. Which was great at first – I don’t live in London so I did a lot of sightseeing, Cutty Sark, The Royal Palaces – but then we all realised how knackered we were.

It never really occurred to any of us to tell anyone about it at the time. It was like, who would believe you? You didn’t even believe it yourself. Plus it was such a wheeze. I think there was a feeling that as soon as head office was on to it the whole thing would be over. No more fun.

People started experimenting. Some of the guys camped out in there to see how long they could. 3 days and nights it was, and they still came back at the same moment they’d left. That freaked the site manager out though. He was having a nightmare with the timetables as it was. Biggest problem was making sure that if anyone from head office came down it wouldn’t look like he was sending people home ten minutes after they logged on – although that’s exactly what he was doing. Anyway he soon put a stop to all the mucking about.

Not before I had my one very strange moment, though.

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The stairs  source | licence

One thing we couldn’t get our head round was how the two, sort of, time-places a guy was in seemed to be happening at the same time, as it were. Like I see you emerge across the river in no time at all, but there’s also a ‘you’ who reckons he’s spending four hours in the tunnel.

So Petar, this Bulgarian lad, thought of a little experiment. One morning before anyone else is down the tunnel, he ties a long rope round his waist, and hands the other end to some of the guys. Then he sets off down the tunnel, see. And I’m to follow him down as far as the bottom of the stairs, and then stop and watch him walk down the tunnel. ‘Don’t put your foot off the stairs, don’t step in the tunnel’, he told me. And I didn’t.

So I’m watching him, and he’s got something in his pocket, a secret signal for when he’s across the river, when he gets to the surface. When the others see he’s surfaced, they’re supposed to shout down at me and pull on the rope. Anyway, I’m kneeling down and craning my head down so I can watch Petar walk around the curve, [the tunnel bends in an inverted bow underground – PoL] and he laughs and waves at me for a minute, then gets bored, keeps walking. And he’s just about to round the curve, out of sight – it hasn’t been long, just a minute or so, around the same time it’d took us to walk down the steps – and I feel the rope around me tighten. Then I hear the lads up top. ‘He’s across. Waving a red flag’. The thing is, Petar hears it too.

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This image shows how the tunnel bends out of sight  source | licence

And he stops. Turns round. And he’s looking at me. His hand slowly reaches into his big jacket pocket, and he pulls out the edge of this large red flag. For a moment I grin. I reckon they’re all having me on. But it’s the look on his face, that’s what still haunts me. Nobody’s that good an actor. His face – and he’s a big man, mind you, fearless. Our Petar was a big character, always at the centre of things, always with this big smile. Never saw him take anything too serious in all our days til then, but – I don’t know how to describe it, it was – fear. Just plain fear on his face. And he’s looking right at me and I know what he’s thinking. I know what he’s trying to figure out – do I keep going, or do I come back? He takes one step towards me, then stops. I don’t know how long we looked at each other like that, neither of us talking. Then in the end he turns round again, and carries on, out of sight.

Well, I’m up those stairs like a shot and when I get up top there he is, across the river, unmistakeable even from that distance, red flag in one hand, another guy’s arm around his shoulders.

Anyway I didn’t like that. That freaked me out, that did. Petar didn’t talk about it much. Nobody spoke much about any of it after that. The jokes kind of came to an end and we just got on with the job. Tried to ignore it.”

The tunnel was re-opened in early 2012. No time-discrepancies have been reported since that date.


  • Candidate: The Woolwich Anomaly
  • Type:  Time-Anomaly
  • Status: Inactive

Source and licence for featured image