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Archive of ‘adventures’ category

London Places: Kensal Green Cemetery

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A trip to a graveyard might not, perhaps, be everyone’s first choice for a Saturday outing – but when we heard that Kensal Green Cemetery was having an Open Day this weekend, we decided to go along and take a look.

I’m lucky enough to live near one of London’s loveliest graveyards – Bunhill Fields – and I love walking in Stoke Newington’s atmospheric Abney Park Cemetery – so I was intrigued to visit another of London’s most famous cemeteries and take some photographs.

Kensal Green Cemetery was first opened in 1833, its design inspired by the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. Today it is considered one of London’s ‘big seven’ cemeteries which also include Highgate and Abney Park. It is a fascinating place to explore, and there are a whole host of well-known people buried there, including Wilkie Collins, Thackeray and Trollope: we also stumbled unexpectedly on the surprisingly understated grave of the inventor Charles Babbage.

The cemetery is enormous – 72 acres of grounds, including two conservation areas. It is clearly a haven for wildlife – we saw plenty of birds, wildflowers and insects as we strolled along the shady pathways.

Some parts of the cemetery are obviously in recent use, with contemporary headstones and carefully-tended plants. Other areas feel much older: here, the lettering on headstones is worn away; monuments are tangled with ivy; weeping angels have broken wings; buttercups and fallen petals scatter the long grass; and bees buzz amongst overgrown rose briars.

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G K Chesterton wrote about the cemetery in his poem ‘The Rolling English Road’:

‘For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen
Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green’

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Retracing London’s Drovers’ Roads

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This Saturday I took to the streets of Hackney for a walking tour with a difference, hosted by my friends Misty and Howard.

The walk was part of a Landscape Institute series of walks and talks for the Chelsea Fringe, imagining what London might be like if we were to adopt a green infrastructure approach to development.

Howard and Misty’s walking tour was based on their shortlisted entry for the recent A High Line for London design competition run jointly by the Landscape Institute, Mayor of London and the Garden Museum and inspired by New York’s High Line. Their design focused on revitalising the ancient London Drovers’ Roads – the route used to move livestock from pasture to market between Hackney and Bishopsgate. From 1300 up until 1900 sheep, cows and even turkeys were driven from Wales and Scotland to London to be sold at market along these routes.

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 We met at Hackney Town Hall for the start of the walk, where Misty and Howard handed out some beautifully-designed maps they had created, complete with an envelope of seed bombs to be scattered along the route.

They spoke briefly about the ideas behind their design, and then asked us to imagine we were cattle that had been driven all the way from Scotland, stopping off to pasture on rich commons along the way. To start the walk, they led us off towards London Fields  holding a teasel aloft (far more appropriate than a tour guide’s umbrella).

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En route, Misty and Howard told us more about the history of the Drovers’ Roads, and the drovers themselves. Because of the difficult and highly responsible nature of their work, they were typically well-paid and well-respected members of the community. However their life on the road was tough, requiring them to walk hundreds of miles and sleep night after night in the open air: according to Sir Walter Scott, their diet would consist of little but some handfuls of oatmeal, onions and ‘a ram’s horn of whisky’.  They were also very superstitious: Scott describes how they tied knots in cows’ tails to protect them against witches’ curses.

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At London Fields, we had the chance to put our seed bombs to good use, as well as spotting some clear evidence of the Drovers’ Roads still to be seen London today: as well as this sign for ‘Sheep Lane’ we spotted ‘Lamb Lane’ and the ‘Cat & Mutton’ pub . We learned that Broadway Market itself was once called Mutton Lane because it was so frequently used by the drovers.


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We stopped off at Hackney City Farm to see some real life livestock midway along the route, including this splendid pig, which gave Misty an opportunity to quote from an eighteenth-century essay,  the rather brilliantly titled ‘The graces and anxieties of pig keeping’:

‘A pig is sluggish, obstinate, opinionated, not very social and has no desire of seeing foreign parts. Think of him as a multitude forced to travel and wondering what the devil it is that drives him! Judge by this the talent of the drover!’

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After a peep into the pretty Hackney City Farm garden, we were on our way again.

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Following the drovers’ route took us along Columbia Road, where we stopped off for a quick coffee, and to admire some of the shop windows – as well as to meet a friendly local resident…

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 Misty and Howard told us more about their design for the competition as we went on: taking inspiration from the Drovers’ Route, it features permeable paving with hoof-shaped holes, planted with trample-tolerant plants; rowan trees (believed by the drovers to be lucky); and lighting in the trees inspired by the tail feathers of the turkeys that would once have roosted in the tree-tops. They’ve even chosen plants that could be used along the route, including plants that would have been used as fodder and those with animal names or folklore associations – Shepherd’s Purse, Lamb’s Ears, Cow Parsley, Cowslip, Cock’s Foot etc. Other plants selected have seeds that would have been transferred by the animals as they passed by.

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Almost as if we really were the animals ourselves, we were given some more seed bombs to scatter as well as some teasels, which made Woody the Boxer a bit excited: maybe he thought they were a bunch of hedgehogs he could play with?

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The last stages of the route took us past St Leonard’s Church and down Shoreditch High Street to Bishopsgate. These would be the final stages of the drovers’ journey, before the animals were taken to market and to slaughter: Misty and Howard had some gory descriptions to share of what conditions would have been like in the crowded marketplaces.

Just before Liverpool Street Station, the walking tour came to an end –  and the hungry drovers’ party went in search of some sustenance at the nearby Well & Bucket pub. Thankfully we managed something a bit better than oatmeal and onions…

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Thanks Misty and Howard for an intriguing morning – and the chance to see some familiar East London places in a new light.

The Chelsea Fringe runs until 9 June 2013.

See You at Rick’s!

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Casablanca has been my favourite film since forever, so clearly I couldn’t resist Future Cinema‘s latest extravaganza, which sees the Troxy  in Limehouse transformed as if by magic into Rick’s Café Américan.

I’d never been to a Future Cinema event before and having heard tales of their most recent Shawshank Redemption themed event, I had to admit to feeling a bit unsure about what I was getting myself into. The fun begins as soon as you book your tickets and receive your instructions and ‘papers’ complete with your new identity for the occasion – I became Gabriela Ostrowska of Italy for the evening. Arriving at the Troxy, the queue was full of people decked out in impressive 1940s finery, clutching their papers for inspection, whilst members of the Moroccan police shouted out orders, and various shady characters lurked in the shadows or struck up conversations with those waiting in line.

Once inside the theatre, however, there were champagne cocktails, swinging music from Benoit Viellefon and his Orchestra, roulette tables and Moroccan food from Moro. The music was fantastic and I enjoyed the chance to practice my (pretty woeful) swing dance steps on the dance floor, but even more fun for me was spotting the various characters from the film as they appeared amongst us: from Major Strasser and his fellow Nazi officers striding about, to Senor Ferrari, complete with fez and fly-swat, chatting with guests; from Sam leading a rousing chorus of ‘Knock on Wood’, to Rick himself coolly playing chess in the corner. There was plenty going on around us: the police hauling off anyone who looked like a ‘suspicious character’, much hushed talk of exit visas, and of course, the arrival of Ilsa and Laszlo to look out for.

 My highlight of the evening, however, was singing the Marseillaise in a recreation of my favourite scene from the film – I’ll admit to having been a little disappointed that most of the audience didn’t seem to share quite the same level of enthusiasm for joining in (but perhaps unlike me they hadn’t got the words ready in advance, ahem…).

Finally came the opportunity to watch the film itself, with every ‘Here’s looking at you, kid,’ getting a big cheer from the audience. Even though I must have seen it dozens of times, it was just as brilliant as ever, and I still teared up at the final scenes, as Laszlo tells Rick, ‘Welcome back to the fight. This time I know our side will win.’

At the very end of the evening we were granted our exit visas assuring us safe passage to Lisbon. Sadly it was time to leave Casablanca behind us and head back out into the cold and wet East London night…

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Fame at Last!

I took part in the Children’s Writers and Illustrators Joined up Reading Conference, this weekend, organised by the Society of Authors.

I was there to talk about writers’ websites, alongside Sarah Benton, Sales and Marketing Manager for Hot Key Books, the Guardian’s Julia Eccleshare and author and History Girls’ blogger,Celia Rees. The session was chaired by author John Dougherty, who’s also part of a group of writers blogging at An Awfully Big Blog Adventure.

It was a great session (you can read more about our discussions on the Booktrust website) but hands down the most exciting thing about the day was being drawn by illustrator Sarah McIntyre who created this brilliant illustration of our panel. I love how she’s even managed to capture my favourite red clogs!

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Il Vacanze

I’ve just returned from a much-needed holiday in Italy where I spent a week staying in a beautiful cottage in a small hillside village in Liguria… a week of walking through sunwarmed olive groves; handfuls of wild cherries straight from the tree; views of a bright blue sea; befriending local cats; discovering tiny sun-faded churches; meadows sprinkled with daisies, wild sweet peas and butterflies; eating spaghetti scoglio, stuffed courgette flowers, local figs, foccaccia and torta verde; drinking prosecco and homemade grape juice; and by night, watching fireflies and hearing owls hooting to each other in the dark.