Stroll east along the Strand, on the side of the street closest to the river, and go past Somerset House. When you see a gap between two buildings, turn river-ward. After ducking beneath an old watch house you will find yourself in a steep, narrow alley. Suddenly you are a world away from the busses and taxis, from the harried tourists and coffee-seeking office workers. A little way down, in a wall behind a railing, there is a scratchy, misted window. Next to the window is a switch. If you are lucky, the switch will be working, and a dim light will fall on the cellar to which the window leads. Even so, you will need to press your face to the glass. Within – cut into the floor of a pale, peeling-plaster room – is a large basin. It is roughly rectangular in shape, and measures perhaps four metres by two, with a depth of a metre and a half.
You are looking at London’s first inter-dimensional gateway.
The title on the information plaque beside the window will say that you are looking at the Strand Lane Bath. The rest of the text, like the cellar light, is oddly noncommittal and far from illuminating. There are hints at a controversy surrounding the origins of this plain-seeming piece of masonry. The plaque gives almost grudging mention to what is, in fact, a substantial school of thought that the structure was a cistern, built to serve one of the 17th Century Houses which once lined the embankment alongside Somerset House. But the authors seem loath to give up the backstory that many other Londoners would tell you – that the bath is a piece of Roman London, once part of a larger network of bathing rooms, and thus at the epicentre of society in 2nd Century Londinium.
Confused origins, oral histories that contradict the paper trail, academia in conflict with folk knowledge – this is fertile ground for PoL. The story of London’s portals often gets lost in the noise.
And indeed, a further controversy surrounds the Strand Lane Bath, one not mentioned on the plaque. There is a group of scholars who agree on the ‘Roman’ part, but have something to add when it comes to the ‘Bath’ bit – we speak, of course, of those scholars concerned with the history of London’s portals. The Strand Lane Bath proves just as divisive among this community.
That Roman London contained at least one ‘manmade’ inter-dimensional gateway – and that it took the form of a bath – is not contested among portologists. The portal, known then and now as The Quaerium, is referred to in the writings of well-connected traveller Fabius Viatorio, who accompanied Emperor Hadrian on his visit to Londinium in 122 AD. Many – though not all – portologists argue that in the extract that follows, the description of the portal’s location and dimensions fit with the Strand bath:
‘In Londinium, on a hill close to that settlement’s Great River, a Merchant, with help from wise men, has built a small but wonderful temple. No Gods are worshipped within its walls. Inside the temple is a bath of modest proportions, but to submerge oneself in the milky liquid is to do more than bathe. This merchant holds famous gatherings, at which women and men sink into the water, and onwards into other Worlds’
Romans had been trying for some time to open doors to other dimensions. Perhaps it surprised them that when it happened it was in the Empire’s rainy North-Western outpost. We’ll probably never know whether The Quaerium’s builders had help from members of the subjugated population – Viatorio’s ‘wise men’ are intriguingly vague – but either way, portologists agree that whoever built the Londinium door seem to be the first documented beneficiaries of London’s uniquely leaky dimensional thresholds.
One thing portologists don’t agree on is the exact nature of the Quaerium. Debate rumbles over whether it was a door to other dimensions, a portal to other stars and planets in ‘our’ universe, or simply a place-pinned (Wellsian) time machine. Adherents of the latter cite an entry from the diary of an unnamed Roman General, in which the author recounts a dip into The Quaerium’s liquid: “I walked in a land untouched by man, hot beneath a white sun, strange birds in the sky above me, strange grasses beneath my feet. To my south were forested hills, and before them, a river flowing eastwards through a great, salty swamp”.
Again, many say the description could easily describe the Strand location in pre-historic times.
But not all scholars are convinced that the Strand Lane Bath and the Quaerium are one and the same.
PoL wanted to speak to one of the doubters, so we met up with a good friend of ours – Susan Macks, Crypto-archealogist at the University of Connecticut.
“First off, don’t listen to the Time-Machinees”, began Macks, between gulps of coffee and bites of pastel de nata. “The Quaerium was a full on TIDD [truly inter-dimensional doorway], you better believe it. But… I don’t know. I’ve been studying this doozy my entire career. It’s one of the main things that brought me to London. The Quaerium was Number One, the first documented portal in this amazing city of portals. Maybe the first, period. Like, what if The Quaerium was the door that started the whole thing? The first loose thread in the fabric, you know? These Roman dudes tugged on it almost for fun, and London’s dimensional pullover has been unravelling ever since. I love it. I love the Quaerium. I would dearly love it if we’ve found it. But I just don’t see the hard proof here, sorry”.
So, maybe just a cistern after all?
Macks believes that, like most of London’s Roman architecture, the Quaerium was likely destroyed long ago (“For all we know the descendants of Boudica smashed the thing to pieces under their stolen, golden hipposandals”). But like we say, PoL is always drawn to a confused history. And from new HQ’s for bankers to new stations for Crossrail, the ground beneath central London has rarely been such an open wound – with significant Roman artefacts still being discovered, we aren’t quite ready to give up the search.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
The image heading this post shows a photo taken on a phone camera by a close associate of Portals of London. From near Deptford Creek he watched for several minutes as clouds above Limehouse “moved in a strange, very slow, swirling movement”, in contrast to their general easterly motion across the sky.
As it happens, such a sight from this vantage point is not rare. In fact, low-lying stratocumulus clouds like the ones pictured are known for betraying the presence of a sure candidate for the Portals catalogue: The Great Whirl of Limehouse.
The existence of some kind of inter-dimensional opening in the sky above London’s docklands is, though largely forgotten by 21st Century residents, woven into Limehouse lore. In warehouses and riverside pubs, ‘The Whirl’ was once a hot topic. Tales were swapped of vanishing barrage balloons, missing carrier pigeons and the one-way journeys of brave Cessna-flying explorers. It is said the commercial pilots of City Airport still steer well clear of the area, though good luck getting them to talk about it.
And good luck getting anyone from the meteorological department to allow that anything other than ordinary atmospheric effects account for the strange behaviour of the Limehouse clouds (as for the European Space Agency, what they know of the Whirl is anyone’s guess – they certainly aren’t talking to us).
Ok, non-portal vortexes in cloud systems are common. But the Whirl’s characteristic corkscrew motion appears time and again in artworks throughout history, in a strikingly consistent part of the London sky. Views from Greenwich are a particularly rich source. Examine the images below, and make up your own mind.
First up is this engraving from 1754, in which the swirl is clear. (Our annotation marks the Whirl’s centre but you can see that clouds across the whole sky are corralled into the motion):
Note the similarities in the following painting and engraving, from separate 18th Century artists:
The swirling motion stands out clearly in Henry Dawson’s 19th Century painting:
Some even claim to discern evidence of the Whirl in JMW Turner’s ‘London from Greenwich Park’ (1809), though we aren’t so sure:
Those are some pictures, but what of words? Debate continues over the Great Whirl’s earliest mention in print, but the first unambiguous reference to it comes from Samuel Pepys’ diary. In May, 1662, the famous Naval administrator and diarist wrote:
“Then to an alehouse in Drury Lane, where I did meet with Greatorex and an acquaintance of his, who entertained us both with extraordinary tales of the great Whirl in the sky above Limehouse, through which, it is said, many wondrous worldes may be reached”
Pepys goes on to muse that he would like to gather funds for the building of a “great tower” to explore the matter. We can’t help wondering how the 17th Century might have turned out had he succeeded.
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