Fireworks in London

The history of London Fireworks

We’re entering into a season of historic celebration in London, as the temperature drops the autumn colours that appear the parks are as colourful as the November skies ..it’s firework season (and my favourite time of year).
fireworksWe all remember the reason, celebrating King James I’s survival following Guy Fawkes’ attempt on his life and parliament.

Throughout the 1600′s and beyond fireworks were used to celebrate and commemorate not just Nov 5th, but coronations, achievements at war, summer pleasure gardens, and general high society parties, such as those held in the squares of Marylebone by the famous socialite Elizabeth Montagu.

RoyalFireworks
The picture above (one of my most favourite), shows fireworks along the Thames opposite the now lost Whitehall Palace in 1749, they came choreographed with Music composed by Handel.

Fireworks were big business and with it came danger and tragedy.  Most famously the event of  12 July 1858 at Waterloo, when two fireworks factories exploded, killing 6 and injuring 300 as fireworks exploded in all directions causing injury and havoc.
But still we love fireworks and still we celebrate 5th November, and the capital is a wonderful place to see them.
Talking of historic celebrations and fireworks make sure you head into the city this November 8th for the Lord Mayor’s show.This 800 year old event when the Lord Mayor of  London (not Boris) leaves the City of London and heads up to Westminster to swear allegiance to the Crown.   Its full of pomp and ceremony and has a carnival atmosphere.

Among the flotillas look out for London’s ancient guardians Gog and Margog.  And just to top off it off there will be fireworks on the river at 5pm!   To find out more go to www.lordmayorsshow.org

Beautiful Holland Park

London is lucky enough to have a whole array of beautiful parks, Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens, Regents Park. But one beautiful often missed green space is the delightful Holland Park. Nestled to the west of the city, just a short walk from Holland Park station (surprise surprise) this gorgeous walled park has more of a feel of a landscaped stately home than a public London park.

Holland Park

It has the impressive history to go with it too. The park orginally formed the gardens of the grand Holland House. First built in the late 1500s back then the park stretched over 500 acres, all the way to the Thames (today it is 50 acres not a bad size for a city park). In the 1600s the house was expanded and built up into a grand form, even famed Jacobean architect Indigo Jones had a hand in its design (his beautiful gates can still been seen in the park today). So impressive was this mansion that for a long time the house was nicknamed “Cope Castle” after Sir Walter Cope its first famous resident.

The castle also had a whole host of famous residents and visitors across the centuries. Early on it was said that King William III stayed here when the London smog became too much for him.

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In the 1800s it was the headquarters of the Whig party, and poets writers used to drop by including Dickens and Byron (who famously met his lover lady Caroline Lamb here). And of course there was the writer Joseph Addison who lived and died here in 1700s.

The castle was grand both inside and out with impressive décor. It could have been a museum for all its quirky titbits lying around including (it is said) a pair of candle sticks belonging to Mary Queen of Scots, a locket which held strands of Napoleon’s hair, as well as halls decorated with numerous famous paintings.

Sadly in the 1900s it became quite unloved and un-lived in and then in 1940 was almost completely destroyed in an air-raid. Its remnants have been beautifully kept and as you walk around you can still see some of its grandeur. If you visit today scenes of the original mansion can be seen on prints around the venue.

Holland House

In 1878 historian Edward Walford described the house

“Although scarcely two miles distant from London, with its smoke, its din, and its crowded thoroughfares Holland House still has green meadows, sloping lawns and refreshing trees.”

150 years later this is still the case the remains of the house still make a grand centre piece, alongside landscaped gardens most notably the Japanese garden, complete with roaming peacocks.

Japanese Gardens Holland Park

This park has a different feel to the other London parks, its beautifully peaceful. Rather than a wide open public space, it has lots of nooks and crannies you can hide away from the crowds in.

And if this description of fanciful society living takes your fancy you can experience it for yourself as the eastern wing has been turned into a YHA – you couldn’t find more historic (and budget) accommodation in London if you tried.

I can’t recommend a visit to this park enough, one of the overlooked gems of London.

London’s lost Pleasure Gardens

London comes alive in the Summer, everywhere you go there is something to do, a festival, a performance, a concert, sport, fireworks. With the creation of the 02 Arena and the London Eye entertainment like this could be considered a modern creation. However, if you visited London 400 years ago you would have seen many of the same sights (just with less tech and advertising). For 400 years ago London was at the height of Pleasure Garden entertainment.

Pleasure Gardens were areas of great entertainment, fayres,  outdoor theatre, operas, sports, they had it all. Originally designed for nobility in major cities across Europe, they soon became the jaunt of commoners. By the 1700s many of the gardens were closed and sold off for development as the city expanded, however small remnants of gardens can still be found…

London had 6 pleasure gardens over the years, the largest and most famous of these being the Vauxhall Gardens, Ranelagh, and Marylebone.

Vauhall_Gardens_fun
Vauxhall Gardens (originally named Spring gardens) was one of the first, stretching out along the Southbank of the Thames it opened in 1661 and remained for 200 years. It was famed for its romantic walks and its stunning central Turkish rotunda (pictured above). In 1769 Handle performed in the gardens attracting crowds of up to 12,000. Today a tiny section of the gardens remain as the unassuming Spring Gardens Park.

Ranelagh Gardens Chelsea was also located on the river. It opened in 1746 attracting a more classy clientele, it also had an impressive rotunda, which Canaletto painted in 1754. It was also famous for its masquerade balls which would go on until 4 am. Fulham football club in its early days used the garden as its home ground. Today the gardens still exist but are far less grand. Some of the ground was given over to the Chelsea Hospital, other parts are used for the annual Chelsea Flower show held last month.

Marylebone Gardens was another of the great pleasure gardens, beginning life in the late 1600s the entrance was via the Rose Tavern pub. The gardens were famed for its sport and recreation, most notably cock fighting and boxing (both male and female participants). It was believed highwayman Dick Turpin was also a regular at the grounds. Today nothing exists of gardens, however the entrance to the Rose Tavern is marked by a beautiful period lamppost on Marylebone High Street.

Want to get a feel of London’s olde worlde Pleasure Gardens, head to this year’s Underbelly Festival on Southbank.

London’s most beautiful cemeteries

London boasts of some of the most beautiful architecture, as well as the most beautiful parks, but it also has some of the most beautiful cemeteries. You might never think of visiting a cemetery for fun, or for its architecture but it really is a worthwhile day out.

The magnificent Seven
You might think of the magnificent 7 as cowboys but they are actually a group of cemeteries built in the mid 1800s to provide the answer to London’s overcrowded grave yards. Today these 7 cemeteries are famed for their architecture (often grade one and two listed) and their famous interred residents.

Take the most famous is Highgate Cemetery. There are two parts to this one, east and west.  You can visit the West by guided tour only (well worth it) and it contains the famous Egyptian Avenue (below), a beautiful circle of catacombs with a stunning Cedar of Lebanon tree in the middle. Between the two halves they boast of some famous names too from Karl Marx, Douglas Adams, Christina Rosetti, and Jeremy Beadle.

High Gate Cem

Another of these famous 7 is Brompton Cemetery, just a stones throw from Chelsea Football ground, it also has some stunning architecture, and guided tours are available. Amongst big names here are Emmeline Pankhurst (suffragette) John Snow (not the news reader but the guy that discovered the cause and cure to Cholera) and Ernest Thesiger.

All the cemeteries show off unique Victorian architecture, design and imagery and you really could spend all day admiring the tombs stones and mausoleums.

sleeping angel

As well as the big 7, there are also many smaller grave sites to enjoy (yes enjoy) in the capital. Many have been turned into small parks in which you will find local office workers enjoying their lunch (myself included). Often you will find the grave stones bunched up against walls as the urbanisation of London has reduced a once large space into a tiny one. Take for example the minute Marylebone church grounds, just off Marylebone High Street, lovingly restored by the Marylebone Society, it contains a monument to its most famous grave, that of Charles Wesley and family, who lived near by. A plaque also boasts of the original church’s baptism hall of fame including Lord Byron and Horatia Nelson.

Another of my favourites and most interesting is Post Man’s Park, hidden behind ‘Little Britain (yes it is a real place) just a short walk from St Paul’s and Barbican. This small park/former grave yard has an interesting Victorian memorial to ordinary people who lost their lives in heroic ways. It features young people, fascinating stories its a moving place and a most see for any visitor to London.

postmans park

Another of my favourites and slightly larger than the other inner city ones is Old St Pancras church, this ancient church boasts of some greats such as John Soane, one of London’s greatest architects (in my opinion) he designed his own mausoleum which later became the inspiration of the red telephone box. Also here is the memorial of Mary Wollstonecraft (who used to be burred here). It is believed her daughter Mary Shelley and lover Percy Bysshe Shelley planned their elopement here. Another interesting feature is the Hardy Tree, an old tree surrounded, with numerous grave stones. It was loving named after the author Thomas who worked here and was in charge of moving the graves to create space for the railway being built just behind the church (the now famous St Pancras/Kings cross).

Hardy Tree

There are so many interesting grave yards, and cemeteries in London, full of history, fabulous architecture, quirky history, and wildlife, don’t be too spooked to miss out on these London gems.

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Oxford Street’s Secret Garden

If you’ve been busy shopping, and fighting the crowds in Oxford Street, you might want to escape the craziness and find a quiet tranquil spot.

Well just two minutes off Oxford Street is the newly opened Brown Hart Gardens. Its easy to miss though because its not your normal city park.

Built on top of an old Victorian substation, overlooking the pretty Mayfair shops are the glamorously designed, and very spacious roof top gardens and cafe.

The substation itself is quite impressive, it resembles more of a mausoleum or temple than an electricity hub. If you’re lucky the grand green doors will be open and you can peer in at the Victorian tiling, and see the busy Crossrail contractors going in and out. (If the doors aren’t open you can peer through the sides, which is quite interesting – it almost resembles and abandoned railway station down there.)

Brown hart

Either side of the impressive temple entrance you’ll see the stairs that lead you up to the gardens.

Although the gardens are recently opened, they are not a new creation.  When the substation was originally built in 1905 the Duke of Westminster insisted that the land be returned to the local community in someway (quiet a modern idea) and so beautiful Italian gardens were built on top.  This existed until the 80s, then closed.  The gardens were re-established and re-opened in June.

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It’s worth a visit, and when you’re there make sure you take in the surroundings, this tiny tranquil off-shoot of Oxford Street, is surrounded by some of the most beautiful buildings.

You can’t miss:

- The Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral,built in 1890s by the famous Architect Alfred Waterhouse.

- The Stunning gothic Duke Street Mansions and surrounding Peasbody buildings. – the first ever housing association homes, built in the late 1800s in an attempt to alleviate the slum housing conditions in London.

Its a beautiful area, and it’s well worth stepping back from the Oxford Street crush and stepping back in time.

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Visit Kensington Palace

We’ve seen a lot of Kensington Palace this week, home to the new Prince George, but did you know you can actually visit Kensington Palace.

For years I knew it as the home of Princess Diana, and I would walk past wondering what it would be like to live there but didn’t actually realise  you go and visit and explore inside.

It makes for a great day out.

What people don’t realise is its quite a large complex and the royals residences are actually at the back and are completely private (and secure) the main house at the front and the gardens are open to the public.

Its been home to many former monarchs (including two King Georges). Most famously it was the home of Queen Victoria.  It was here she grew up, met her future love, Prince Albert,  and became Queen at the young age of 18.

She is one of our most famous and long ruling queens (63 years – Queen Elizabeth is not far behind her with 60 years) and the beautiful exhibition inside the Palace gives us a glimpse into her difficult childhood, her strained relationship with her mother, and her isolation.

You can stand on the stairs at the spot she first laid eyes on the handsome young German prince.  You can also view her wedding dress, which highlights how tiny the young queen was, and view the intimate letters she wrote to Albert.

Victoria-Albert

As well as the Victoria exhibition, there are a number of other royal apartments you can visit, it’s a great up close and personal way to see how the royals lived.  You can also venture through the ornate gardens, overlooking Kensington Gardens. These include the luxurious Orangery, now a famous restaurant.

As well as the viewing the house they also have temporary exhibitions, and currently running is the Fashion Rules exhibition; a beautiful collection of dresses from contemporary royals including a young Queen Elizabeth and Princess Diana.

This beautiful palace is definitely worth a visit.

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You can find more info on visiting it at www.hrp.org.uk/KensingtonPalace/

London’s Lost Landmarks

London’s skyline has changed dramatically over the years, and with it we have lost some impressive (and some not so impressive) landmarks. Today we may see remnants of those landmarks and the secrets that go with them. Here are just a sample of my favourites.

Wembley Stadium 1923 – 2003
The most recent and most controversial of our lost landmarks is Wembley Stadium and most notably the twin towers. Wembley Stadium was built as the heart piece of the British Empire Exhibition in 1924. Ever since the great exhibition of the 1800s, exhibitions proved popular and happened every couple of years. This stadium was built as the centre piece and along with its terraces made the perfect place for a national exhibition. But it wasn’t long before it became the home of football, hosting its first FA cup final in April 1923.

After 90 years its iconic status was known across the world and how this ‘listed’ building was ever allowed to disappear from the skyline is anyone’s guess. Today those famous twin towers are buried a few miles west on the edge of the A40 making one of London’s newest parks Northala Fields.

Skylon 1951 – 1952
Before the twisty Orbit Tower of the 2012 Olympics was ever conceived there was the Skylon, this tall floating tower stood in prime place on London’s Southbank was built in 1951 for the Festival of Britain.

Skylon 1951

The Festival of Britain was yet another of these regular exhibitions and a celebration of all that was great and British, and to signify technological advances of our great country the Skylon was built. It looked a bit like a cigar on spider legs and it hovered 15 meters above the ground to a height 90 meters. It only remained a year on the riverside, before being dismantled and disposed of.

Watkins Tower 1891 – 1907 
Heading back to Wembley we discover another lost landmark on this site, or rather the land mark that never was. This was the site of the infamous Watkins Tower; the British Eiffel Tower which was built here in a bid to out do the famous French tower. Planned as a centre piece of a pleasure park on this site, easily accessed by the brand new railway system. However it soon became as a bit of a joke, nicknamed ‘Watkins Folly’, as when the park opened 5 years after the building began, this was centre piece was nothing but a half built tower.

Watkins Eiffel Tower

Eventually, following set back after set back including financial, and the death of the designer, the tower was given up on and what was built was demolished in 1907.

London Bridge 1176 – 1831
The most well known of our lost landmarks is London Bridge. In its 600 years it would have been quite a sight to see across the river, and played a key part in London’s history, being one of the Thames’ only bridges for that period and the only way to get from North to South on foot. 

By 1358  the bridge was already cluttered with shops and residences. And by the 1500s some of the residences stood 7 stories high and overhung the edges of the bridge. The bridge proved a chronic fire hazard, and was subject to a number of fires. The worse being in 1212 when two fires broke out at either end trapping the inhabitants. Up to 3000 people died, many by drowning after residents jumped in panic into the river below.

The bridge was a bustling thoroughfare, and would have been as crazy to cross as Oxford Street at Christmas. The bridge would have also been a gruesome sight with the heads of executed traitors hung on one end as a deterrent. The most famous heads to decorate the bridge being Thomas Moore and Guy Fawkes.

In the mid 18th century, all buildings on the bridge were ordered to be demolished by an act of Parliament, as new bridges were planned and safety became a key issue. It was eventually demolished and rebuilt in 1831. Although (as is well known) the current bridge is actually even more modern, the 1830s bridge having been demolished and moved stone by stone to America in the 70s.

Tyburn Gallows 1196 – 1783
Each year millions of people pound the pavement of the famed Oxford Street in search of a bargain, however for 6 centuries millions of people pounded this same street for a very different reason;  For at the West end of this infamous road stood the Tyburn Gallows, the key execution spot for the city of London. Not only did many criminals meet their grisly end here but many came to watch. It’s estimated that some executions attracted up to 200,000 viewers.

Prisoners used to make their way from the Newagte prison in the north, along the Oxford Street, their last stop being St Giles Church at the east end (which still stands today just next to Tottenham Court Road) where church wardens would take pity and buy them a last beer at a watering hole next to the church.

Among those executed were the famous Jack Sheppard, who was well known for escaping some of London’s most secure prisons in creative ways. He was finally executed in front on huge crowds – no doubt expecting a final break away, in 1724.  It is said his autobiography was being sold to the crowds that day, such was his fame.

Jack Shepherd execution at Tyburn

Another famous hanging to take place here was that of Oliver Cromwell. This famously disliked politician actually died naturally in 1658, but a few years later following the restoration of the monarchy his body was dug up and he was posthumously hung at Tyburn with his severed head hung ceremoniously outside Whitehall. (Although many dispute that it was actually his body that was put through this ritual.).

In the late 1700s, with the area becoming more built up, and home to the richer classes, the hangings were deemed to lower the tone, and create too much traffic on this now busy road. So hangings ended. Today the site of the actual gallows (sometimes known as the Tyburn Tree) lies just beyond Marble Arch, at the junction of Edgware Road is and marked by a plaque in the middle of the roundabout.

Site of the Tyburn Gallows

White Hall Palace 1530 – 1698
Today Whitehall is famed for its political presence, and its famous Palace of Westminster (Parliament). But back in the 16th century it was equally as important and would have proved a mighty sight with the grand Palace of Whitehall sitting on the banks of the Thames. This magnificent palace was said to be more beautiful than Versailles and the Vatican with over 1500 rooms and extensive recreation grounds, including a cock pit, tennis courts and bowling green. It stretched from Westminster to Trafalgar square.

This palace was also where government met, as well as where the monarch lived. King Henry VIII married one of his many wives here and also died here. Tragically this vast and beautiful place was completely gutted by fire in the late 1600s. Only a few remnants remain, one being Banqueting House which was constructed in 1622, which was used as entertaining quarters, and is today owned by the Royal Historic Palaces. Another area that survived was the tiltyard – an area used for jousting tournaments, which today is known to us Horse Guards Parade.

whitehall

To get an glimmer of what this great palace may have looked like all those years ago, view today’s Whitehall from St James’ Park.

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Sunny Days in London

Summer is well and truly on its way, so grab your picnic and check out my guide to London’s best parks.

Regent’s Park
This beautiful park just a short walk from Oxford Street, was built for the Prince Regent in the early 1800s. Today it is still has a very royal feel to it, surrounded by the regents canals and plush regency mansions, its a beautiful respite from the busy city. Particularly make sure you wander through the Avenue Gardens which are very regal and will make you feel like a king.

regents park avenue

Regent’s Park is also the home to London Zoo. If you plan to visit the Zoo, which is the North of the Park, take the zoo canal ride from Little Venice.

Quirky Fact
Regents Park contains a secret garden, The Garden of St John’s Lodge just off the Inner Circle

Primrose Hill
Officially part of Regent’s Park, its so special I just had to add it on separately. This small hill at the very North of Regent’s Park offers the best views in London, and is a beautiful spot for a picnic or bit of sun worshiping. Head down the Hill to Regents Park Road (towards Camden) and enjoy some of Primrose Hill’s cool cafe’s and boutique stores.

Quirky Fact
Primrose Hill is home to numerous notable and famous residents, including Sienna Miller, Rachel Weisz, and Jeremy Clarkson.

Greenwich
Another of my all time favourites, and a great location for London views. You can easily make a day of a visit to Greenwich with it’s quaint market, beautiful Naval College grounds, and the famous Royal Observatory, all overlooking the Thames, and the crazy city CBD. If you don’t have the energy to climb the hill (which I wouldn’t recommend missing out on) it’s just as pleasant to chill out in the grounds of the Naval College overlooking the river.

Quirky Fact
The naval college was once the site of one of London’s most prestigious royal palaces and birth place of Henry VIII.

Hyde Park/Kensington Gardens
A classic must see, stretching all the way from Kensington to Marble Arch, it’s easy to forget your in the city in this beautiful extensive park, surrounded by some of London’s best landmarks including Kensington Palace the Royal Albert Hall, as well as the famous Princess Diana Memorial. The best way to see the extent of it is to jump on a Boris Bike and cycle the park.

Quirky Fact
The famous Marble Arch at the Oxford Street End of the Park was once Arch entrance to Buckingham Palace, but was deemed unsuitable for the royal residence and moved to park instead.

Hampstead Heath
The beautiful Hampstead Heath, is a great relaxing spot, on the side of the quaint Hampstead village, and another great spot for a London view, as the park is London’s highest point. It makes a great escape from the city. It also contains some great walks and there are out door pools as well as historic London houses, such as Ivenforth House, and Kenwood.

hampstead heath

Quirky Fact
For a spooky pint, head to the Spainards Inn, one of London’s most haunted pubs. Which is reputedly haunted by famous Highwayman Dick Turpin, among others.

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