Shadows and clocks: Temporal Disturbances at Hornsey Town Hall

Hornsey Town Hall is suspended in time, caught between a vanished past and an uncertain future.

Recently, we walked through the revolving doors of this crumbling Crouch End landmark, right into one of the last guided tours before the building closes for redevelopment.

We tagged along. The guide was passionate, informative and – unsurprisingly – mentioned nothing of the rumours of temporal disturbances which had brought PoL there in the first place.

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What we got was a concise history of the art deco modernist building and its large assembly hall: From a 1930s heyday as the centre for local government in the leafy, Middlesex Borough of Hornsey; through its sudden redundancy in 1965, when Hornsey became part of the Greater London Borough of Haringey; to the limbo years, in which architectural neglect has contrasted community-led reuse of the space as a venue for roller-discos and art shows.

But after the tour, in the square out front, we found a quiet moment with the guide. What could they tell us about the Town Hall as a place where the borders between worlds are especially porous?

20180325_135015.jpgThe look we received would be familiar to anyone who has confronted the public amnesia that clouds the history of London’s fractious dimensional state. But as we turned to leave, the guide called us back. There was, as it happens, someone we could talk to – if we were interested in that sort of thing.

A week later, we are back in Crouch End – sat in a teashop with Janet Hispall: local resident, born-and-raised. Janet has recently retired from a career in museums, but back in the mid-60s, her first job was in the Town Hall, as a clerk to the Mayor’s office.

She says she heard the stories from day one.

Unexplained shadows in glass panes. Noises behind the oak paneling. The strange properties of the spiralling back stairs. Janet recalls hearing from one of the cleaning staff that on the upper floors, late in the evening, when the building was mostly empty, the woman would often see a grey deer passing through the twilit corridors.

“I thought they were all bonkers”, says Janet.

But then the time discrepancies began.

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It was quite an inconvenience, says Janet. You’d pop down the corridor to pick up a friend at lunchtime, only to discover you’d arrived midway through the afternoon. You’d lose an hour just going up the stairs. Scheduling meetings in the council chamber became a nightmare.

“The worst I had it was with the Day of the Double Documents” says Janet, with a knowing hamminess.

On the day in question, Janet had taken some documents to the Mayor’s office for signing, only to discover that ‘Janet’ had also done this half an hour earlier. She held the unsigned documents in one hand, while the Mayor placed the signed documents in the other.

Back at her desk – and back at the ‘timezone’ she had started in – she binned the unsigned documents and carried on with her day.

“You just got used to it”, she says.

Besides, the council workers had an ally. The Day of the Double Documents, says Janet, might not have happened if she hadn’t forgotten the golden rule:

Check the clocks.

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The Hornsey Town Hall clocks are an art deco feature still admired today. In the 1930s, they had an unusual technological element: they were synchronised, linked to a central timepiece in the basement. Long since defunct, the mechanism was still operating in Janet’s time.

“We learned to live by those clocks”.

Employees, explains Janet, viewed the time discrepancies in terms of separate rooms and corridors becoming temporally mis-matched – as if doorways were acting as the boundaries between the differing timezones.

Every room or corridor had a clock. By checking the clock before leaving one room, and checking the next one you saw, you knew instantly whether a time jump had occurred. It was found that if you retraced your steps – returned to the previous room – the time discrepancy, more often than not, would resolve itself.

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“It all seemed to come out in the wash”, says Janet. “You’d walk out at the end of the day just the same, into the safe old Crouch End streets. Didn’t bother me much. Until someone raised the question of the ‘other us’s'”

The ‘other us’s’ was one name for them. Others called them the ‘lost doppelgangers’.

“That’s where it gets creepy”, admits Janet.

Let’s take the Day of the Double Documents. Janet’s experience of that day was linear – albeit along a line that jumped back-and-forth through time. She only took the documents to the Mayor’s office once. But from the point of view of the Mayor, ‘Janet’ brought them twice.

No doppelganger left the building at the end of the day. So what about the linear experience of this ‘other’ Janet?

Were thresholds within the building acting not just as the boundaries of different timezones, but as forks in alternative realities? In this scenario, ‘other Janet’ splits from Janet the moment she leaves her office with the papers. ‘Other Janet’ then jumps to earlier in the day, delivers the documents, leaves the Mayor’s office and returns to… where?

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Janet doesn’t have the answers. But she hasn’t stopped searching. She is still well known within the Town Hall community.

“I’m tolerated”, she says with a smile. “They think I’m rather dotty, to be honest with you.”

She is nervous of how the forthcoming redevelopment will effect her ability to ‘investigate’.

“I’m not sure it’s all over”, she says, draining the last dregs from the teapot. “I mean, I suppose the time jumps are. But I always saw them as symptoms of an underlying malady”.

So Janet now accepts the old stories about the place?

She nods. “If you visited that place, as I have, in the dead of night. Stood in the pitch black in the centre of the great, sinking assembly hall, listened to the murmurs from deep within the lake it’s built on. If you’d seen the strange lights in the windows of the abandoned box office, you’d believe the old stories too.”


  • Candidate: The Hornsey Town Hall Temporal Disturbances
  • Type: Time discrepancy
  • Status: Historic

Cursed gifts and untold visions: The Headless Statues of Crystal Palace Park

There is much to be written about the drifts of psychic memory that swirl through Crystal Palace Park. The famous dinosaurs are a petrified glimpse into the knowledge and preoccupations of Victorian science. A deserted and beautiful subway lies hidden under an A road, a reminder of the long-demolished railway station it once served. And root-mangled stairways lead to shabby remnants of 20th Century concrete utopianism.

Keep wandering. The vast, splintering void of the soggily marooned concert stage beckons you to who-knows-where. The maze is said to be London’s largest; it is certainly its hardest to escape. The park’s resident crows guard crumbling Italianate terraces and peck at the charged ground of the burned-down Crystal Palace itself, which had been intended by the Victorians to be a permanent beacon of culture, sciences and the arts.

But all of that is for another time.

This post will be a short summing up of one of the more tangible (albeit only recently documented) phenomena: the apparent emergence of vision-inducing powers in a number of the park’s headless statues.

In each case, reports seemed to begin at around the turn of the millennium.

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‘Dante’

This manuscript-clutching gentleman is said to be a representation of Dante, who’s Inferno famously begins in a dark, impenetrable wood. It is unclear whether this claim predates the number of reports in which those who have come into contact with it find themselves standing in the middle of a thick, shadowy wood or forest.

For most, this vision seems to be fleeting and apparently harmless – the worst case being the commenter on an online forum who wrote that since touching the statue and experiencing the vision, a burning sensation occurs in his right hand whenever he enters a wooded area.

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The Hollow Woman

This one bites a little harder, so it is just as well she is up on a plinth, currently fenced off. In 2011, a woman grasping the statue while clambering up to get a better photo of the park and the distant North Downs, found herself suddenly and frighteningly transported to a ‘black and hellish’ dimension of unknown definition.

It took the very loud shouts of her boyfriend to pull her back from this vision and give her the will to remove her hand. Luckily, her subsequent dazed fall landed her on the three-foot-drop side of the wall, not the fifteen-foot-drop side.

Others who have placed a hand on the statue have described finding themselves horrifyingly breathless, adrift in a vast galaxy of stars.

Either way, we wouldn’t risk it.

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The Seated Woman

This one, situated at the top of the park – not far from the historical site of the Crystal Palace – is to be avoided at all costs. In 2004, a schoolboy using the statue as a goalpost rested his hand on her shoulder while defending a corner. It took the boy’s friends several minutes to prise his hand free, during which time the unfortunate victim had been locked in a ‘terrified trance’.

No-one knows what he saw, because he has been unable to communicate since, but his parents told a local reporter in 2014 that a decade on, their son’s nights were still plagued by relentless, screaming nightmares, and while awake their ‘ghostlike’ son was cursed by a chronic fear of music, poetry and prose.


  • Candidate: The Crystal Palace Headless Statues
  • Type: ‘Vision’ type gateways
  • Status: Presumed Active

Forgotten Futures: Blakeley’s Highwalk

Any visitor to the Barbican will know its highwalks. The criss-cross of raised footpaths provide a confusing but just-about functional means of traversing the much loved residential and cultural centre. But follow them to the estate’s edges, attempt to use them to exit to the City at large, and whatever strange logic they possess starts to break down.

A bridge you half-remember led to the tube station you want ends abruptly in mid-air, its access point fenced off. A pot-planted path entices you around a corner into an enclosed, paved backwater, where the sounds of an unseen city roar in the air around you.

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Should you explore these dislocated spaces, or better still find yourself on one of the dwindling number of similar stretches that are adrift about the City, you might see – moving through them with detached, ritualised ease – a smartly-dressed woman in her seventies.

This is Gillian Clarke, and for three decades she has been searching for an old friend of hers, or at least for what she believes to be the means of his disappearance: The highwalk where there is – or was once – a gateway to other worlds.

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The truncated limbs and architectural non-sequiturs Gillian treads are the decayed afterimages of a once shining vision: a post-war dream to replace the crater-pocked landscape the Luftwaffe made with an airborne City of the future, in which motor cars stream along unbroken highways, while pedestrians glide above happily on a City-wide network of ‘pedways’.

Driven by the London County Council (later the Greater London Council) and embraced by the Corporation of London, the scheme was made law in the 1960s – any new office block was compelled to accommodate the plan.

But – as is well known by those who study the restless borders of the capital’s dimensional territories – London resists a unifying vision. Londoners, along with their shops and their pubs, remained stubbornly ground-level, and the pedestrian paradise never materialised.

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Gillian and her colleague John Blakeley worked in the London County Council’s planning department in the 1960s, when John had been bursting with optimism. He was, says Gillian, as we walk the remnants of the network-that-never-was, “one of the bright young things at the LCC, pushing hard to implement the whole thing from the start”.

But progress was slow, and as the 1970s wore on, Gillian witnessed a change in John. “The barriers – funding, the conservation lobby, public apathy – wore him down”, says Gillian. He withdrew into himself. Gillian remained a good friend but he began to alienate other members of staff.

He became a figure of derision, not least because of a magpie-like habit of cluttering his desk with an array of unusual items.

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“The ‘Trinkets’, the others called them. He was vague about them, even to me. Said he found them in markets, junk shops. I mean, this was the ’70s. There was a lot of odd stuff you could pick up in the hippy shops off Carnaby Street. But some of these things were beyond odd.”

There were unidentified fragments of bone, obscure dried plants, bizarre sculptures. Pieces that might have been Roman coins, except their strange symbols weren’t Roman. But strangest of all, she says, were the “little gadgets” arranged among the hoard.

“Every now and then one of these things would appear around his desk. It seems unreal now, but they clicked and whirred away in his corner of the office for years”. The mechanisms were made of stone, or strange metal, impossibly intricate, and engaged in seemingly perpetual motion, their purpose mysterious. “They’d be hard to explain even now – we never could find the batteries –  but back then they seemed like witchcraft. Only they were around so long they just became background noise”.

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One thing in particular Gillian remembers well. “There was a pair of them – two smooth, jet-black stones, shaped like flattened, elongated eggs”. One evening, when most of the office had gone home, John had showed Gillian a trick.

“He placed one in my hand, and lightly touched the one he was holding, tracing his finger across it in – well, in a pattern which I have tried to recall many times since”.

As he did so, Gillian’s stone lit up – briefly, warmly – with a swirl of colours, and spun ever so slowly in her palm.

This was the 1980s, Gillian recalls. Things were changing in the City. Thatcher’s government was working hard to dissolve what was now the Greater London Council. The pedway scheme seemed suddenly like the whimsy of a previous era – some pieces of the network were already disappearing.

And Gillian had begun to worry about John’s health.

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“He seemed unwell to me. Tired, thinner. It wasn’t just middle-age. I looked at him one day and he seemed suddenly much, much older. And something was gone. Some spark, some desire for life in the city.”

Then, at an office Christmas party, things came to a head. John had had a bit too much wine. He lashed out at his colleagues, at their ‘tiny lives’, their ‘lack of ambition’… ‘so much is achievable. You haven’t got a clue’.

Gillian took him into a side room to calm down. That is when he told her that his Trinkets hadn’t come from junk shops.

“Whether he said ‘other worlds’ or ‘other times’, I can’t remember”, Gillian says. “But he told me that in some redundant recess of an unconnected section of highwalk somewhere, there was a doorway”. A doorway nobody knew but him.

He was drunk, he was rambling, she thought.

“I don’t think so now”

He left the party, but at some point that night he must have returned, because in the morning his desk was cleared out. John – along with most of his strange collection – was gone.

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Gillian walks me along dark, weed-taken paths that weave through a brutalist office complex; through the strange, double-backing corridors of a post-modern development somewhere behind Bishopsgate. We have passed fag-breaking office workers, a few sleeping bags – even the occasional hurried Londoner, using the walkways for their intended purpose.

Now, we stand at the windswept, south-eastern edge of what remains of London’s walkways in the sky. Across a grey, choppy river, The Shard makes its presence known.

Gillian tells me there was one item John didn’t take with him that night. He left it in her desk drawer, for her to find.

She reaches into a pocket, and holds out her palm to show me – a single, jet-black stone. ‘This’, she says, her fingers closing again around the flat, oval shape. ‘This is the reason I still look for John’.

She has no idea if John Blakeley’s highwalk even remains. Every time she returns, another piece of the network has gone, lost to Crossrail or the steady flow of skyscrapers.

Her search has become more of an annual habit, a mark of respect. Whatever hope Gillian retains is cold and resting like the stone in her pocket.


  • Candidate: Blakeley’s Highwalk
  • Type: Transgalactic [unconfirmed]
  • Status: [unknown]

 

 

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

Time Travel at War: Alexandra Palace and ‘The Princess’

The official website of North London’s Alexandra Palace has a timeline feature. As you scroll back and forth through the exhibition venue’s 140-year history, certain events stand out: A ‘flying bomb’ which blew out the Rose Window towards the end of World War Two; BBC transmitters jamming the navigation systems of German bombers; a devastating fire in 1980; the Palace twice being home to Belgian refugees.

But you’ll see no mention of the story that connects these strands. Maybe this is because it is, in part, a story of failure. Or perhaps it has simply been forgotten, as has so much in the history of London’s dimensional gateways.

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Winter at Alexandra Palace during WWI source | public domain

Set your mind’s timeline to the early months of World War One. The young daughter of a Muswell Hill nurse is brought by her mother to visit refugees camping in the Palace’s Great Hall. The experience will have a lasting impact on the six year old.

Now jump forward 25 years. The nurse’s daughter is back, again greeting Belgians displaced by war. This time, however, the refugees are in the Palace’s wings, being housed there largely as a front. The nurse’s daughter has no professional reason for visiting them – Mary Stratton has not taken her mother’s career path. She is at the Palace in her capacity as a foremost physicist, leading a top secret project. Behind the vast Rose Window, inside the Great Hall, a weapon is being developed that she hopes will play a decisive part in the war against Nazi Germany.

Mary Stratton is building a time machine.

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Alexandra Palace source | licence

But now we come to the 1980 fire. This event was not kind to historians of Stratton’s creation. Much of the paperwork, not to mention what remained of the machine itself, was burnt to ash along with the room it was stored in. We know that the machine had been codenamed ‘The Princess’, but the details of its workings are lost.

What does remain, thanks largely to the diligence of her sister, is a wonderful cache of Stratton’s personal letters, notes and other papers. Alongside hints of the social dynamics at work in her team, they give fascinating insight into what drove her.

“War has a habit of twisting science to the most awful destruction”, Mary wrote to her sister in 1942. “Well, I believe I am close to finding a way to turn science back upon war itself, to hasten an end to all this death without shedding a drop of blood more”.

The ideas of Albert Einstein crop up time and again. His theories on time’s illusionary nature clearly fed into Stratton’s work. And it seems his thoughts on pacifism and liberty also informed her thinking. (Mary was present in 1933 when Einstein spoke at the Albert Hall. Whether she met him in a more personal capacity during his visit to London, we can but wonder.)

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Albert Einstein source | public domain

Stratton’s papers show a wide range of influences. She drew, as Einstein had, clear links between science and literature, art and freedom.

One intriguing scrapbook has cutouts of William Whiston’s 18th Century chart of the Solar System and Gustav Dore’s depiction of Dante’s Paradise alongside a sketch of Alexandra Palace’s stained-glass Rose Window, which had awed Stratton as a child.

The visual connections inferred may give tantalising hints as to the manifestation of The Princess. A letter to Stratton’s sister certainly does. Shortly before her death, Stratton saw the 1960 film of HG Wells’ Time Machine.

“Dear Sis, their Machine! I nearly burst out laughing with recognition. Ours was a deal less pretty Victoriana and a shade more bashed-up Brewster Buccaneer – but something about the general feel of the thing didn’t half give me goosebumps”.

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HG Well’s Time Machine from the 1960 film, and a Brewster Buccaneer (the kind of weapon of war Stratton hoped to render obsolete)

But what of the aims of the time-weapon? The hypothetical murder of a young Adolf Hitler is a well known thought-experiment. We’ll keep to ourselves our thoughts as to where Stratton would have stood on the ethical element, but it may not have been relevant anyway. The physicist didn’t seem to believe such an enterprise was possible.

Somehow, a decoded transcript has made it into Stratton’s sister’s collection which discusses facets of the mission with uncharacteristic candour. It is addressed to the team’s superior military co-ordinator.

“I’m afraid the boys are getting rather carried away: travel back and we can murder everyone, travel forward and we can find superior weaponry and import it back through time. I’ve had to hose them down somewhat”.

For one thing, Stratton noted that The Princess, when completed, was likely to be ‘short range’: “We’re not talking about traversing epochs – yet”.

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William Whiston’s 18th Century chart of the solar system alongside Gustave Dore’s depiction of Dante’s vision of Paradise

More importantly, Stratton believed that any major changes to even recent history could endanger the integrity of our perceived reality.

Instead, she took inspiration from the technicians who were utilising the Palace’s BBC transmitters to disrupt German navigation systems. Crucially, this interference was clandestine, designed to lead the Germans to believe that their own systems were at fault.

Stratton thought that by dipping into the near past, agents could disrupt German operations which British code-breakers had discovered were planned for the near future. Enough disruption would render the Nazis unable to wage war, without the risk of damage to localised spacetime.

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An aerial shot of Alexandra Palace. The Great Hall, with its Rose Window, is visible at the building’s centre source | licence

But Mary Stratton’s theories would never be properly tested.

Whether there was a mole in the mission, or the Nazis own code-breakers intercepted a message, we may never know. Perhaps the bomb attack on Alexandra Palace was just coincidence. The damage was minor, but the team and their military superiors were spooked enough to discuss moving the project to a more secure location. However, they don’t seem to have got very far with this before the war in Europe came to an end.

Of course, in the Pacific, the closing of the war was hastened by a far more terrible scientific endeavour. The A-Bomb changed military thinking. Mary’s ideas fell out of favour, remaining so until the Hawkingsian renaissance of the 1980s.

Today not so much as a blue plaque stands to remind us of a woman who never accepted a vision of humanity that for a few dark years seemed poised to envelop the world.


  • Candidate: The Princess (AKA The Ally Pally Time Machine)
  • Type: Time Machine
  • Status: Uncompleted

Source and license for featured image.

Walthamstow’s Unquiet Village: Elswick-on-the-Marsh

A footballer, arriving early to Hackney Marsh one autumn Sunday League morning, sees strange lights flicker in the mist.

A conservationist, picking through trees at the edge of Walthamstow Marshes on a quiet afternoon, hears shouting and laughter from the adjacent field. When he emerges from the overgrowth, he finds the field is empty.

A commuter, on a train crossing the marshes one dark winter evening, thinks she sees a ramshackle settlement of odd-looking houses where she knows only scrubland should be. She puts a hand to the glass to block the reflection from the carriage lights, but the train moves on, and the vision fades into the night.

Most people would soon forget such moments – once an eerie, out of place feeling had passed. But for some residents of the streets surrounding North East London’s Lea River Marshes, the feeling might linger. It might nag at them, in the days and nights to follow, until finally an old tale from their school days surfaced in their memory. Then, they may wonder if they have played a small part in the strange, restless life of a most unusual portal: a temporally and geographically untethered market town named Elswick-on-the-Marsh.

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Even for the tiny number of locals who remember it, Elswick (pronounced Ezzik or Elzik, depending on who you’re speaking to) is notoriously elusive. Glimmers, glimpses in the half-light, unexplained voices, distant shadows: these are the ways in which Elswick manifests.

Unless you are one of the privileged few.

We learned about Elswick from Jessica, a teenager from Leyton. She, in her turn, had learned about the village from her Great Aunt (whom Jessica calls ‘Nan’).

“I don’t remember a time when those stories weren’t in my head”, Jessica told us. “Of people who had found Elswick and never returned. When Nan told them to me, her eyes would get this look. The way she used to talk about it, I never knew whether it was a good or a bad place. All I knew was that she was obsessed”.

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Jessica says she carries in her memory a small book’s worth of Nan’s sayings about Elswick. “She’d repeat them like prayers… ‘Elswick is a doorway’ … ‘Elswick ever moves’ … ‘Elswick shows itself for a reason'”.

Nan walked the marshes almost daily, often taking Jessica with her.

“Look for a path, Nan said. An old paved road you haven’t seen before. And – how did she used to put it? – ‘Don’t take the path unless you’ve got something to trade'”.

Now, Jessica searches for Elswick alone. Nan went missing five years ago, when Jessica was not long into secondary school.

Jessica is pretty certain she knows where her aunt went.

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Much has been written about the marshes surrounding the River Lea, a tributary to the Thames. They have been drained since Medieval times and up until the 19th century were mainly lammas (common agricultural) land, used by commoners for grazing cattle and growing wheat.

The extent of the marshes, while still impressively large and wild-seeming for an area so close to London’s centre, has diminished significantly since the industrial revolution. Railways, housing, industry, waterworks, international sporting events – the enemies of the open marshland are many, and the struggle to protect what remains is ongoing.

When it comes to Elswick, the written records are much more sketchy. In fact, we found only one concrete mention, albeit from a major source. The Domesday book records the small settlement of Elleswych, in the Hundred of Beconsfield, Essex, under Lord Peter of Velognes.

We knew it was a long shot, but with the written records less than helpful, we decided we had to visit the Marshes for ourselves. We went close to dusk, knowing that most sightings occur in the still-time between night and day.

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The path that Jessica mentioned was our starting point. We can presume that when the Domesday survey was made, Elleswych enjoyed a relative degree of stability within space and time. So on which road did it lie in the 11th Century?

There are references to a paved Roman road that crossed the marshes near Leyton, but its location, if it exists at all, is disputed. There is of course the old road which crosses the River Lea at Stratford, but there is little remaining of the marshes there. We weren’t sure where to look next.

Then we read about the Black Path.

The Black Path was a porter’s way, leading from the fields to the great market of London (Lundenburh, as it was in the late Anglo-Saxon period). It was also a route of pilgrimage. Both uses seemed to chime with what we knew about Elswick.

You can follow the Black Path’s line on modern maps – look for a straight diagonal through London Fields up to Hackney City Hall which becomes, a few lost turnings later, Porchester Road in Clapton. After the marshes you can pick it up again in Walthamstow, near St James’ Park. But the path’s way across Leyton Marsh has been lost. Some open space remains here, however, so that is where we headed.

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Could Elswick have once dwelled in the lost marshes south east of Hackney?

From here we explored east and north, along the line of the Lea and inland, into Walthamstow Marshes. As twilight deepened and shadows rose from the brambles and bullrush, from the grassland and scrub, certain lights became apparent at the marsh’s edge. Half-hidden industrial buildings, streetlamps, the headlights of a distant train. Glimpsed in the gloaming, you can see how they could be mistaken for the lost village.

Sounds, too, drift across the marshes. Unexplained noises weave with crow-caws and the rattle of the passing trains. A pylon buzzes overhead, briefly harmonising with the airborne, ever-present roar of the city.

Are the stories just phantoms? Is Elswick an unreachable will-o-the-wisp?

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On Leyton Marsh we found a transient village of hawkers and traders – just not the one we were looking for

But we remember Jessica’s fervent words.

“It’s out there somewhere, the old trading post. Nan certainly had a lot to trade. So much to give… She once said Elswick only revealed itself to those in need of it. Or those whom it needed”.

Did Nan need it?

“I don’t know. It was around the time of the Olympics that Nan disappeared. She took a lot of that whole thing badly. The loss of great chunks of the marshes. She knew friends that relied on a lot of the community stuff that was lost, the allotments and all that. But – I was only a child. I can’t believe that Nan would have left me by choice”.

We feel bad for Jessica and her unanswered questions, tied up as they are with this fickle, endlessly flittering gateway – and with the uncertain future of a unique and magical part of London.


  • Candidate: Elswick-on-the-Marsh
  • Type: Temporal Untethering
  • Status: Active [monitored]

Londinium’s Lost Portal: The Quaerium

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.

Maybe.

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The view through the window  source | licence

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.

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A model of Londinium  source | licence

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.

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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.

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According to records The Quaerium predates London’s fortified wall  sourcelicence

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?

Maybe.

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.


  • Candidate: The Quaerium
  • Type: [Contested]
  • Status: Historic