Walking the City of London

Month: January 2021

Nature therapy to cheer us up

The weather last week was truly, truly awful but I waited until the sky brightened a little to go in search of some natural colour and some signs that nature was reasserting itself beyond the gloom.

What could be a better start that these spectacular red berries …

Here they are in their context outside St Paul’s Cathedral …

Some more berries peep out in Brewers’ Hall Garden …

Nearby Karin Jonzen’s Gardener (1971) toils patiently …

Postman’s Park has splashes of colour if you look carefully …

Along with a curious goldfish …

Congratulations to the owners or tenants of 30 Gresham Street for these displays …

There are also some pretty beds alongside St Paul’s Underground Station …

It’s nice to return home where our Car Park Attendant has created this wonderful little garden …

Incidentally, on my way back from St Paul’s this plaque caught my eye. I think the wording gives us a hint of the pride of the Kingdom when imperial power was probably at its height: ‘British Dominions beyond the Seas’ …

You might also like to read The Gentle Author’s blog on Winter Flowers.

If you would like to follow me on Instagram here is the link …

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Reasons to be optimistic

Occasionally, when I feel the dark, heavy hand of doom tapping me on the shoulder (Covid, Lockdowns, Brexit, Trump etc) I cheer myself up by looking back at times past when things looked very grim but from which we eventually recovered. One way I do this is to look at some of the images of the terrifying days of the early 1940s and compare them to the same scene today.

The following Aerofilms photo from before the war shows how St. Paul’s was surrounded by the dense city streets with buildings much closer to the cathedral than they are now. These were not only offices, but also plenty of warehouses with one of the major publishers / book distributors having their office and warehouse just north of St. Paul’s in Paternoster Square. The spires of the city churches still stood clear of their surroundings, but St. Paul’s dominated the area …

EPW055297

Christmas 1940 had been relatively quiet, however on the evening of the 29th December a large bomber force appeared over the City just after 6pm and for just over the next three hours incendiary bombs rained down on the City along with high explosive bombs. This combination caused maximum damage. High explosive bombs would rip buildings apart, exposing their contents to the impact of the incendiaries. During the peak of the raid over 300 incendiary bombs a minute were falling across the City and St. Paul’s quickly became surrounded by a sea of flame, fire crossing over the small streets and debris falling all around. These pictures show what was considered to be the almost miraculous survival of St Paul’s Cathedral …

Two things strike me about the lower photograph. Firstly how dirty the cathedral stonework had become after over 300 years of London pollution. Secondly, two of those shrapnel marks that stand out so clearly against the soot-stained cathedral are still preserved today …

You can see where other scars from the bombing have been repaired.

This aerial view shows how close the Cathedral came to destruction …

Copyright : Popperfoto – Getty Images.

The view today …

As a result of the bombing, many of the narrow alleys nearby dating from medieval times simply disappeared as did Paternoster Row (although the name still lives on) …

Copyright : Guildhall Library.

This picture is entitled ‘Prince Albert raises his hat as Holborn Circus burns behind him‘ …

Copyright : Guildhall Library.

And he is still there in the same jaunty pose, albeit relocated a few yards to the east. You can read more about the statue here

St Clement Danes was seriously damaged …

Copyright : Associated Press.

But eighty years later Dr Johnson carries on nonchalantly reading his book. He is no longer imprisoned behind railings and has a fully restored church behind him …

The building still bears its Second World War scars …

In the book I consulted for these photographs the good Doctor gets a further mention …

Copyright : Guildhall Library.

Nothing much has changed. The photograph above is looking south from Fleet Street, this is the view today looking north …

St Mary-le-Bow was completely gutted. I was moved by this poignant picture of a service being conducted in the roofless building in 1941 …

Copyright : PopperfotoGetty Images.

I am pretty sure that the window behind them that gives the unusual view of St Paul’s has now been filled with this beautiful stained glass work by John Hayward. Here the Virgin Mary cradles the church named after her as if it were a child, surrounded by church spires that survived the Blitz …

St Lawrence Jewry was also terribly damaged with only the walls and steeple remaining. This picture was taken on 30th December 1940 …

Copyright : Media Storehouse.

Now fully restored, it contains some of my favourite stained glass by Christopher Webb. In one window an angel holds the roofless, windowless church filled with rubble. In the background St Paul’s is illuminated by flames and searchlights pierce the sky as buildings burn …

In another the angel holds the restored building …

I have written previously about the lovely stained glass that can be found in the City and you can access the blog here : Dick Whittington, Hipster, City Stained Glass.

London Wall on the morning after the big December 1940 attack …

Copyright : PopperfotoGetty Images.

A scene typical of what Londoners faced on returning to work after an air raid. Fire hoses snake across the rubble filled street.

In this image a War Artist records the damage in Cannon Street …

The view today, as close as I can get it without being run over …

Christ Church Greyfriars, Newgate Street, could not be saved …

Copyright : PopperfotoGetty Images.

It’s now laid out as a garden …

Image courtesy of Jenikya’s Blog.

It’s impossible to consider the history of London without referencing some of the great disasters which have befallen it in the past and last year, living in Covid times, I published a piece about the terrible pestilence of 1665 : Samuel Pepys and the Plague – ‘God preserve us all.

I’m not making direct comparisons between these past disasters and the current pandemic – just reminding myself that even after terrible events a kind of normality usually returns, although life is never exactly the same as before. What seems to be unchanging, however, is people’s resilience and a spirit of helping others that I find positively uplifting.

I am indebted to the author of this book for some of the wartime photographs. It also contains a fascinating commentary …

I have also used quotations and pictures from from the excellent London Inheritance blog which you can access here.

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What do pigeons do all day? And why was one awarded the Croix de Guerre?

I was visiting Bunhill Fields burial ground last week with a view to writing about it again for a New Year blog. Whilst focusing my camera on an interesting tombstone I was photobombed by this cheeky fellow …

Although anthropomorphism is frowned upon by some, I do tend to indulge every now and then and felt the pigeon was definitely sending me a message along the lines of ‘why are you writing about boring bits of stone when you could be writing about me?’ So I took the hint and this week’s blog is the result.

Obviously I started with some serious research. Have you, for example, ever wondered what pigeons do all day? Wonder no more – here is a breakdown of their typical activity over 24 hours …

Pie chart of pigeon activity over a 24 hour period (n=12) | © www.londonpigeons.co.uk

Just how smart are they?

From my own observations it is obvious that the pigeon population has become aware of the Covid risk and birds are now practising social distancing as a matter of course …

With total isolation for the particularly vulnerable …

Sadly, however, they tend to lose all self-control when presented with food (just like some humans do when presented with alcohol and the opportunity to party) …

A kind lady has just distributed a handful of bread!

It has been difficult to establish the average pigeon’s IQ. As an expert in this field has written …

‘Pigeons have a very high brain to body mass ratio. The academic literature on pigeon intelligence is fairly non-existent. This is partly due to the difficulty in administering traditional IQ tests to pigeons: they have a notoriously short attention span and furthermore find it difficult to hold a pen’.

An MRI scan reveals a very large brain relative to body size …

Pigeon brain cross-section| © www.londonpigeons.co.uk

City of London pigeons, again according to my observations, spend a lot of time walking rather than flying and there would appear to be two reasons for this. Firstly, our fondness for eating ‘on the go’ due to our busy lifestyles which results either in accidental food distribution or occasional bursts of generosity where we share our snacks with our feathered companions. I have also witnessed acts of intimidation where rougher elements of the pigeon community hang around in an intimidating fashion in parks and outside supermarkets giving humans the ‘feed me or else’ glare …

The second reason, I believe, is the presence of a number of pairs of peregrine falcons that nest on Tate Modern and on the towers of the Barbican. A pigeon represents a tasty meal …

Photograph David Tipling/Getty Images.

Pigeons are monogamous and mate for life and their mating ritual is quite cute. A single male will nod his head at the female which takes his fancy and spread his tail feathers to communicate his interest. The birds look directly at each other, and if the hen likes what she sees, she will nod back. The male will then prune his feathers, leaving the next move to the female. If interested the hen will hold out her head and move closer to the male and fan her tail feathers.

Things get spicy when the male offers his beak and indulges in a pigeon kiss (rubbing their beaks together) …

The hen will feed the male from her beak and together they will coo. Once she demonstrates she is ready, four seconds later its all over …

After mating the first egg will be laid within 10 days, with a second arrival following a couple of days later.

When it comes to food they don’t seem to be that fussy. I have observed them eating …

  • Bread
  • Chips
  • Biscuits
  • Cooked rice
  • Crisps
  • Pizza

I think it rather sad they get called flying rats. They often seem to me to be positively fastidious, especially when there are pools of water around that they love to splash about in, like this one I spotted making sure to wash under his wings …

And lots of mutual grooming takes place too – occasionally leading to energetic bouts of hanky-panky.

A quick question for you. Who wrote the following to friends who were coming to visit him …

‘I hope Lady Lyell & yourself will remember whenever you want a little rest & have time how very glad we should be to see you here. I will show you my pigeons! Which is the greatest treat, in my opinion, which can be offered to human beings’.

It was the man whose writings brought about one of the most fundamental and controversial changes in the way we viewed the world – Charles Darwin …

Although he never wrote On the Origin of Pigeons he clearly became very fond of them after he started studying and breeding them for scientific purposes in 1856. He wrote to another friend about a trip to London ‘where I am going to bring a lot more pigeons back with me on Saturday, for it is a noble and majestic pursuit, and beats moths and butterflies, whatever you may say to the contrary’. Although his study of pigeons informed On The Origin of Species, Darwin’s real ‘pigeon book,’ The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication, did not come out until 1868. Its long and beautifully illustrated section on pigeons is still readable and relevant to both naturalists and pigeon fanciers today …

Here’s one of his illustrations …

And let’s not forget pigeon bravery in two World Wars. Here’s a picture of a carrier pigeon being released from a port-hole in the side of a tank near Albert in the Somme on 9th August 1918. The Tank Corps often used carrier pigeons to relay information during an advance …

One of the bravest military birds was Cher Ami, who now poses stuffed in the Smithsonian Institution …

On 13th October 1918, despite being seriously wounded, she successfully delivered the following message which effectively saved the lives of almost 200 men …

‘We are along the road parallel to 276.4. Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heavens sake stop it’.

Military vets made Cher Ami a prosthetic limb and sent her home to well earned retirement. For her part in saving the 77th Division, she was awarded the Croix de Guerre, one of France’s highest military honours for her gallantry in the field. General John Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force, said ‘There isn’t anything the United States can do too much for this bird.’

Capt John Carney, Cher Ami’s trainer, holds the feathered hero.

Pigeons continued in service during the Second World War. In the early 1940s, the American Signal Pigeon Corps consisted of 3,150 soldiers and 54,000 birds. Some 90 per cent of the messages got through. And these avian secret agents saved countless lives, too – of 54 Dickin Medals (the animals’ Victoria Cross) awarded in World War II, 32 went to pigeons.

One of its most famous recipients in World war II was a pigeon called Commando – read more about him here.

So next time you are tempted to frighten a pigeon or shoo it away remember this – they may be a distant relative of a war hero or descended from one of Charles Darwin’s feathered pals. And maybe look a bit more closely at them too – their colouring can be very attractive …

Who’s a pretty boy then?

I hope you enjoyed this little pigeon journey. For help with this blog I am indebted to the informative and occasionally hilarious London Pigeons website which provided some of the data.

If you would like to follow me on Instagram here is the link …

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