A light in the sky: The Eye of Bermondsey

On September 3rd, 1939, London was in turmoil. That morning, Prime Minister Chamberlain had taken to the airwaves to declare that Britain was at war with Hitler’s Germany. The evacuation of children was already underway, and many Londoners were responding to the first sirens and retreating to their Anderson shelters.

But in Honor Oak, a retired milkman named Albert Evans was heading outside. In unused audio from a radio programme examining that day, Evans recalls that he took a stroll up nearby One Tree Hill. What he saw from there was unxpected.

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WWII barrage balloons over London source | public domain

Gazing out at the barrage balloons that swayed above London, he watched as “a rent opened up in the sky, as if it were made of cloth”. Through this vast opening, torn vertically into the sky from a location roughly above the rooftops of Bermondsey, there emanated “heavenly light. Beautiful, really. And the light at the edges of it sort of leaked out of it, so that for a moment there was this sort of great mist of light, drifting over the city”. This light dissipated quickly, and – after no more than 15 seconds – the rent closed again, as abruptly as it had opened.

Given the timing, you might have forgiven Evans for thinking of the Luftwaffe. But, “I saw right away that this wasn’t the work of any military engineer. Plainly speaking, it looked more like a message from God”

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The Anastasis or Resurrection of Christ, Chora Church source | public domain

He wasn’t the only one to read religious meaning into the vision. A senior civil servant – in a fit of Churchillian machismo – had taken to the roof of the foreign office to survey his expectant city. He seems to have witnessed the rift, writing in his journal that it was “nothing less than the Aureola of the Resurrected Christ”.

He, too, appears to have been unconcerned by the event. But others in London weren’t so sanguine. A minor panic in the streets around Primrose Hill made it into the pages of the Daily Express – one resident claimed that “dark shapes” could be seen disseminating from the opening.

The event would not have been visible to the majority of Londoners. Even in elevated locations, it seems to have gone unnoticed by most.

Perhaps witnesses would have made more of it had they known that the phenomena wasn’t new – indeed, it had long borne a name: The Eye of Bermondsey.

L0040859 The execution of the Rebel Lords on Tower Hill
Wellcome Images | license

It’s unknown when or how this term originated, but written records go back at least as far as 1552. In February of that year, Henry Machyn, the diarist and fabric merchant, writes that a vision of the rupture momentarily delayed a beheading on Tower Hill. He refers to it as the “grett suthwarke & barmes ye” (‘great Southwark and Bermondsey eye’).

Since then, there have been a handful of sightings. In 1708, an assistant to Christopher Wren seems to have seen a manifestation of the Eye from the roof of the newly built St Paul’s Cathedral. And as recently as 1997, online message boards were alight with speculation surrounding a possible visitation – alongside elaborate theories as to why this news had been suppressed by the media.

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The Eye of Bermondsey? Or the Shard capturing the setting sun? | [with apologies to the unknown source]

Sightings are too rare – and too fleeting – for there to be much by way of scholarly enquiry into the matter. It is hard to discern a pattern. The date of the 1939 manifestation seems too significant to be coincidence, but other sightings fall on comparatively nondescript days.

In the absence of answers, the evocation of religious imagery will continue to resonate for many.

However, some have found a curious correlation with a recent, more Earthly, occurrence – the flame of light that appears when the Shard reflects the setting sun at certain times of year. Several photos have appeared on social media, and both the location and appearance have drawn comparisons with the Eye of Bermondsey. One amateur portologist – not, presumably, a fan of London’s rapidly vaulting skyline – claimed that the historic manifestations were a prophesy: ‘a corpse candle for the death of London architecture’.


  • Candidate: The Eye of Bermondsey
  • Type: Celestial rift
  • Status: Monitored

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

Beneath the overground: The Shepherd’s Bush to Willesden Junction Spectre

Recently a post did the rounds on social media. Its author declined to discuss it, but gave permission for us to reproduce it here. We do so unedited:

So a fucking weird and scary thing just happened on the overground. I’m home now, I’m fine, shaking as I type this but housemate’s making me a cup of tea so don’t panic I’m fine but just listen to this. I’m not making this up (not drunk either!!) I’d been to the cinema with a mate and we said goodnight and I got the train at Shepherds’s Bush overground station. One of the last trains on a rainy weeknight so fairly quiet but a few people on it. I get on and walk up the train looking for a nice bit of space and I can see the front carriage is completely empty. Don’t feel safe in an empty carriage at night even on those open-all-the-way-down trains so I stop in the second carriage a bit closer to other people. When the train sets off there is no-one between me and the door to the driver at the front of the train. [continues below]

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I put in my headphones and I’m looking in the rainy window opposite when the sound goes fuzzy and I see something out the corner of my eye, like the lights went on and off. I look towards the empty carriage and NOW IT ISN’T EMPTY There’s this THING in the aisle, on the same side of the train as me. I just catch it for a second. shaped sort of like a person but too big. Like a shadow but a shadow that’s THERE. Then the train goes round a corner and the front carriage swings round so the aisle where this thing is is out of view. And then the carriage swings back and IT IS MUCH CLOSER!!! It’s almost at the join between the carriages. The top of it reaches the ceiling. I leapt up and screamed I think. i’m backing away to where the other people are but now the thing is gone. [continues below]

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Other people are just staring at me, no-one does anything to help. I walk past them heart bneating and stand by a door further down the train gripping the rail. Just staring at the front craiiage. Which stays empty but I can’t get rid the image of this thing. I can’t explain it. It’s unreal. Impossibly dark and kind of like it doesn’t fit with the space it’s in, like a CGI image or something. But it was THERE. And where the face should be – that’s going to haunt me. The only way I can explain it is like a void. But thank god the carriage stays empty until the next stop when people get on. I think of getting off the train but the useless staring people around me are kind of normal and comforting in a way. Then it’s my stop and I get off and somehow manage the walk back. Fucking hell. Don’t know how I’m going to sleep tonight. Scared of closing my eyes. I’m not drunk I’m not making this up. I’m fine everyone but fucking hell [ends]

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The bends on this stretch of the line (shown in orange), around where it crosses the canal, appear to correspond with the train’s movements as described in the post [image: google maps]
The post attracted a lot of discussion online, becoming known as the ‘Void Face’ post. It piqued the interest of PoL, so we thought we’d look in to it, but in truth we expected little. Phenomena such as this are often isolated events.

However, a friend of ours put us in touch with someone who has – let’s just say – some knowledge of Transport For London’s CCTV records. This source told us she ‘shouldn’t be talking’. But she hopes that her account may be seen by the above post writer, and perhaps be of comfort. We have summarised the conversation below:

“The Shepherd’s Bush to Willesden Junction spectre. Know it well. Your young traveller was lucky to see it. Not many do.

It’s not entirely accurate, the name. You don’t see it station to station, quite, just for a period along that stretch. It seems to appear roughly where the train goes under the Westway and disappears again after we cross the line out of Paddington. You’re talking around three minutes. Unless the train gets held for whatever reason. It can hang around as long as you like if the train’s on that stretch.

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There’s a strange effect on the screen when it appears – whether that’s static on the camera or the train’s lighting we haven’t figured out yet.

No way of knowing when it will show itself, or how many days and weeks will pass between a visit. But it always comes back. Always at night, usually on a quiet train. It moves about the aisle a bit, kind of flickers on and off, flits around – though it’s doing less of that, these days. Always the front carriage – we haven’t told the drivers.

The carriage doesn’t have to be empty when it comes. It hovers near members of the public sometimes, but always keeps out of the way. You never see it pass through anyone, anything like that.

People never used to notice it. We decided it was only visible on the cameras. But just recently that’s changed. Some of them do seem to, for a moment or so. Or they look confused, like they know something’s there but they’re not sure what.

But nothing like what you’re describing.

Anyway it seems harmless enough. A couple of us keep an unofficial diary, but I’m about the only one still interested, to be honest. It’s become another part of the job.

But then I think about it and think, it is a bit creepy. I mean, what is it? What does it want?”

Our source has checked the CCTV for the time that would correspond with the sighting as described in the ‘Void Face’ post. She said the passenger’s reaction was as written, and clear to see. The ‘spectre’, however, was not present on the video.


  • Candidate: The Shepherd’s Bush to Willesden Junction Spectral Breach
  • Type: Unconfirmed
  • Status: Active

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

A Cycle Courier’s Guide to Folding London: The Twitchells (Part Two)

We continue our retelling of an interview with H, who works as a cycle courier for a company that collects business visas in passports. As much as possible, it is presented in her voice. In part one, H described discovering the Twitchells, the hidden network of wormhole-like portals which connect London’s streets.

Like I said, no-one’s going to tell you how to find them. I can drop some hints, mention a few street names, but I’m not going to break it down for you. No grid references or google pins. I know how that seems, it used to piss me off too. But I understand the secrecy now. We’re not jealously guarding some cool little club. It’s just that you have to own it. If you ride the twitchells, it’s got to be on your own terms. Because it isn’t a game.

But I sound like an old-timer, one of the doomsayers. OK – riding the twitchells is fun. Those first few weeks were a rush. Through the office doors in the morning and I couldn’t pack my workload into my bag quick enough. No matter that it’s 90 minutes until my first embassy opens. Never mind the murmurs coming from the courier’s desk as I head for the door – the seen-it-all-befores sipping tea with their feet up, smirking and shaking their head. Forget them. I’ve got a new toy and it isn’t anywhere near being boring.

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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.

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But even the extra work couldn’t dampen the thrill of discovery. Once I could prove inside knowledge, other couriers opened up about the twitchells. For me, finding one usually involves a change in the air, an unexpected sound or smell. Others speak of a ‘feeling’ which tells them they are close. Some more seasoned riders say that they now simply ‘see’ them, as clearly as any side road.

Experiences of riding them vary, too. Some describe being squeezed through a narrow space. Others, being flung forwards as if from a catapult. One guy told me it was how he imagined swapping places with himself in a mirror. And for me? You know those little kids toys, brightly coloured rubber poppers, you turn them inside out and wait until they flip?

That.

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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.

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And then there’s the big question: what are they? Are they simply hidden alleyways? Permanent features of the city? But then, what city feature is permanent? Do twitchells remain when the visible geography of the city changes around them? Entire roads are disappearing, new ones being created. Look at Battersea, King’s Cross, Elephant and Castle. Are twitchells displaced by these developments, as people are?

Some of those courier’s tales suggest that they are not, but you hear other stories: someone taking a nasty fall onto a pavement because the twitchell they’ve come to rely on is no longer there. And then there are the new twitchells – though it’s hard to prove they weren’t there all along.

All of this is fuel for the doomsayers. They say it is a mistake to picture the twitchells as ‘wormholes’ or hidden tunnels. For them, the twitchells are the tangible manifestations of something else, a larger entity beneath London’s surface. They grow and recede, these courier’s say, like the sporocarps of a fungus. It’s just that they do so very slowly.

Pink_sunrise_at_Regent_Street,_London

A lot of the old-timers won’t use them. We’ve all had the lectures. They talk a lot about the disappearances. And yes, the disappearances are terrible. There are no white bicycles for those who never re-emerged from a twitchell. But cyclists get killed on the streets too. That doesn’t stop us, does it?

I’ll admit some of what they say stays with me. “Fine, you’re young, I can’t change your mind any more than if I tried to get you to quit drinking”, one old-timer told me. “But promise me this: When you start to sense the belly of the twitchells, the inside, when there’s a second or two of darkness where there used to be nothing, and you start to see things out of the corner of your eye – figures, shadows beside you in the darkness – don’t wait for them to get closer. As soon as you start to see them – stop”.

And the other old-timers, the ones who never stopped riding the twitchells, they do look pretty bad, kind of weary, ghostlike. But that could just as easily be the years of coffee and car fumes, or too many hard winters.

I’m not stupid, I know this isn’t forever. I’ll quit one day. But I’m still having the time of my life.

And I haven’t seen any shadows in the darkness yet.

 

THIS BLOG IS NOT A USER’S GUIDE


  • Candidate: The Twitchells
  • Type: Unconfirmed
  • Status: Active

 


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

A Cycle Courier’s Guide to Folding London: The Twitchells (Part One)

This is a guest post, of sorts. A written version of an interview with a good friend of PoL’s, presented with a narrative element, but in her voice as much as possible. She wishes to remain anonymous, so we will refer to her as H. H describes herself as a quasi cycle courier. New to the gig, she rides for a company that collects business visas in passports. It’s a job that mixes speeding through the city with a lot of hanging around waiting for embassies and consulates to process the visas. H is Czech born, zero-houred and of newly uncertain residential status. We’re grateful she found the time to talk to us about this fascinating candidate for the catalogue.

No-one’s going to tell you exactly how to find them. There’s an etiquette to follow. Besides, even if I laid it all out, doesn’t mean you would find them the same way. All I can do is tell you one way it might go.

It doesn’t have to start on a bike. Maybe it starts in a cafe. Let’s say Clerkenwell Road, 5pm on a Friday. Rush hour, but you’re not rushing because your last job of the day is a pickup from a company in the building next door and it won’t be ready til 5.30. Your dropsheet’s complete so you have won yourself a little sit down with a cup of tea, your phone nice and quiet in its strap pocket. From a stool in the window, you watch the peloton. London’s two-wheeled commuters are heading east and north. Young creatives on too-clean single speeds mix with overly lycra-d managers and the grey-suited Brompton guys. A few couriers weave in and out of the pack, dashing to make their final drops and get to the pub.

Clerkenwell_Road
source

You spot one, balancing on his self-build at the traffic lights. Something about the way his eyes are checking the other cyclists makes you keep watching him. He seems nervy, as if he’s expecting something to happen. Is he just sizing up the competition, eager for the rush-hour race? But instead of burning for the front when the lights turn green, he hangs back a little. Not until the pack gets ahead of him does he really put his feet to the pedals.

So that’s it. He wants a challenge. You watch him close down the peloton quickly. Then something happens which will come to change your world entirely. The courier is about a metre behind the last of the group – and right across the road from where you are sitting – when he vanishes. Completely. Like he was a sticker that someone removed from the world.

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source

Let’s say you sleep on that and in the morning put it down to a long week and too much caffeine.

But a month later you are heading south on Edgware road, nostrils full of shisha smoke and car fumes, when it happens again. This time you’ve been trailing a courier from Paddington, half-competitively, half because something about the way he’s navigating the city – cruising complex junctions, finding little cuts you didn’t know about – tells you you might learn something from him. You guess he’s heading for Marble Arch and you’re right. You’re watching him closely to see how he tackles it. But he never gets that far. He’s about half a block ahead of you when you see a movement, a wobble, an intentional shift towards the kerb. What is he thinking? He’ll be thrown from his bike. There’s a small tree on the pavement, he’ll buckle his wheel on that, or worse. A split second later the tree is there, but the courier is not.

You get off your bike, and stare at the empty space for a long time.

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source

The next couple of months are like a wonderful waking up. You start to see them everywhere. Couriers not just vanishing, but appearing out of nowhere on the street ahead of you. You see them so often you wonder how you never noticed it before. You ask other couriers about it, coming to recognise a certain response when you do. A little movement of the head. A smile, or it’s opposite, the worried look. The shutting down of conversation. You raise the subject with more and more couriers just to test this reaction.

Something is dawning on you. Certain things start to make sense, in hindsight. People crossing London faster than you reckon anyone should be able to. Guys returning to the office almost dry when you’re still dripping from the rainy ride back. The time you overheard your co-ordinator on a call to a rider: “Deliver this one by road please. Time is less important than making sure it 100% doesn’t get lost”.

It’s like when scientists know that something they can’t see is there because it’s the only way to account for the things they can see. All of a sudden the last few months only make sense if – your spine tingles at the thought of it – if there is some kind of hidden route through London, some network of shortcuts that doesn’t adhere to the same physical laws that the streets and alleyways do.

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But talking to couriers is still getting you nowhere. Until, one day, in the basement at the Nigerian embassy, you make a breakthrough. A courier you’ve pestered many times before suddenly drops his defences. Sighs and says, “Look, I can’t spell it out to you, that’s just the rules. But you know where one or two are already, you just have to… Okay, hooking into a twitchell is a personal thing …”. [‘Twitchell!’ He says ‘twitchell’, these things have a name!] He goes quiet. Say’s he’s said enough already. Then he grins and says, “But you’re gonna love it”. You grin back. And when you finally emerge from Nigeria into the darkening London streets, they have changed forever.

So you go back to that spot on Edgware Road. You fling yourself down that stretch, turn into the pavement, and… nearly kill yourself on the tree. Clerkenwell Road goes almost as badly.

But it isn’t just the London streets that have changed – it’s you. Edgware and Clerkenwell don’t seem to matter. You feel – you know – that it’s not a question of if you find a twitchell, but when. And where.

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When it does finally happen, your mind is elsewhere. You’re cycling along in that blissful way, being carried along the winding streets by pedal-memory, thinking about who knows what – dinner, shopping, your home town, your parents, your lovelife. Apart from the movement of legs, pedals and wheels, your bike could be standing still. It is the streets which are flying past you.

Then something makes you look at your surroundings. You have been so faraway you forget where you are, forget the time of day. How did I get here, where am I going? Which blackened Georgian office block is that? Which crouching church down that alley? It is the smell that brings it back to you – the cold tang of raw meat: You are wheeling around the edge of Smithfield market, and it is dawn. But suddenly there’s another smell: sweet coffee, belgian waffles. It is unexpected, out of place. You are knocked off course.

Something makes you jerk towards the kerb. A pothole? That heart-in-mouth moment, you’re coming off your bike and it’s too late to stop it. You hit something, or something hits you. Your body braces for a pain that doesn’t come. Somehow you are still on your bike. The street still rushes by, but it is not the street you were on a second ago. It is not even the same part of London. It is Queensway, and a waffle house is just opening up. You slam on your brakes, throw your bike to the kerb and vomit into the gutter.

Straightening up, you smile.

You’re in.

Part Two

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