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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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 1966 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