City views

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For the Londonphile’s Christmas special this year I will share with you some photos of our pretty city. These were the result of a super day out for bloggers organised by the good folks at the City of London. We lucky participants gained access to one of the turrets on Tower Bridge and down into its bascule chambers, and took a trip along the Thames at sunset in a London Port Authority Boat, amongst other treats.

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Tower Bridge’s turrets are located just above its walkways – and while the former are not accessible to the public the latter can be visited as part of the Tower Bridge Exhibition. We visited the northern turret, whose narrow ledges are accessed via a number of tiny doors on each side of the small room seen above. While the views are quite literally breathtaking, they are certainly not for the faint-hearted – the only barriers being the turret wall and an iron post in the crenel (the photo below gives you some idea of the set up). Given my former fear of heights these photos are nothing short of miraculous!

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While the views from Tower Bridge’s walkways are similar, I’d have to say that those from the turrets are superior, especially as they afford more side views from the bridge. However the good news is that your viewing pleasure will be vastly improved in 2014 with the addition of glass flooring in the walkways – something that IanVisits has written about in more detail here. This innovation will enable visitors to look down upon the bridge itself and to view the bridge lifts from above. Those less fond of heights will be relieved to hear that the entire floor will not be made of glass – there will be a narrow strip of glass flooring only, so that people can still walk across a non-transparent surface should they prefer.

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We were also taken down to visit Tower Bridge’s huge bascule chambers underneath the river bed – where the counterweights that balance the bridge swing down when the bascules are opened. I’ve written about these previously after taking one of the bridge’s excellent Engineering Tours. Tours for early next year are almost fully subscribed so you’ll need to be very quick to get on one of those – otherwise if you can get together a group of at least six people you can book a behind-the-scenes private tour of these subterranean areas for £29 per person.

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While there is no way for the public to organise outings on a London Port Authority Boat – from which the rest of these photographs were taken – I would highly recommend a trip on the Thames Clippers to those looking for a cheap and easy way to access London’s spectacular river views. The bridges are looking particularly special now at night with the coloured lighting. The clippers have an outside deck area from which you can take photographs, but you may want to avoid peak hour as people do use the service to commute.

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The Londonphile is on holiday until the second week of January – wishing you all a fabulous festive season!

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Eel Pie Island

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Just twice a year Twickenham’s Eel Pie Island opens its doors to the general public when the normally private island holds open studio weekends for its artists. I availed myself of the the opportunity to visit last weekend for the pre-Christmas opening and crossed the bridge to this most exclusive island, which boasts 26 artists’ studios, only 50 or so houses and around 120 residents.

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It’s thought that the island was originally in three parts and may have once been connected to Twickenham by a prehistoric causeway. The footbridge which now connects the island to the mainland was only built in 1957. Once across and on dry land again, one main walkway (pictured above) runs much of the length of this very narrow island, with houses, studios and boathouses along either side. Housing styles vary immensely – from the cute and rustic to the surprisingly modern – and there was even a new house in the process of construction and one to let in case you’re tempted to move in. Despite its extremely narrow nature, views were only available back across the Twickenham side of the river (see below) during the open studios as private houses line the other side.

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Eel Pie Island has a long history as a place of leisure and entertainment – its name derives from the pies once served there to visiting boating parties and day trippers. Sadly this taste sensation died out on the island along with its eel population. The Eel Pie Island Hotel was long a top musical destination – particularly for jazz and blues – and also saw one David Jones play there before metamorphosing into David Bowie. The hotel closed in 1967 when the owner was unable to afford necessary repairs – squatters moved in and it has been claimed that by 1970 it had become the largest hippie commune in the UK. The hotel burnt down in mysterious circumstances in 1971 while it was being demolished.

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The island is also home to both the Richmond Yacht Club and the Twickenham Rowing Club as well as working boatyards. In keeping with this boating theme, several of the artists studios are housed in old boats, including one with a fantastic roof terrace composed of the old ship’s deck. There are nature reserves at both ends of the island, including a bird sanctuary, but these are not accessible to the public.

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Open Studios events are held twice a year, generally once in summer and in the lead up to Christmas. Keep an eye on the Eel Pie Island Artists website for future events. They’re free but do bring some cash as the artists don’t have credit/debit card facilities.

For more historical detail and images see Twickenham Museum’s Eel Pie Island page.

2013 update: another open weekend will be held on Saturday 22nd & Sunday 23rd June from 11am until 6pm.

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St Bride’s Church

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St Bride’s Church – arguably best known for its wedding cake spire – is a place brimming with history – and even a rather gruesome surprise or two. There have been eight places of worship (the earliest dating from Roman times) in total on St Bride’s Fleet Street site – a location that has also made it the journalists’ church of choice; today it features an altar to fallen reporters. But 1,000 years of its history was hidden away underground until the Blitz unearthed St Bride’s secrets.

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St Bride’s was amongst a number of City churches that were destroyed in the 1666 Great Fire and rebuilt by Wren only to be destroyed again during the Second World War. But these bombs did indeed have a silver lining of sorts, as they exposed the crypts that had long lain beneath the church. Sealed up after parliament decreed there were to be no more burials in the City, this underground area was revealed to contain seven crypts, a medieval chapel, two charnel houses, and loads of bodies – many dating from the Great Plague of 1665 and the 1854 cholera epidemic.

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You can visit St Bride’s and most of its crypts any day of the week, but to get the full picture of its history – and full access to its underground areas – take one of their regular guided tours. These 1.5 hour tours are the only way to access St Bride’s rather ghoulish – and absolutely fascinating – charnel house and ossuary. A narrow passage past a rather prosaic kitchen and storage area leads you to these unusual last resting places.

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The medieval charnel house (pictured above) features literally piles of bones buried on top of one another in an unusual chequerboard pattern – and I’m told it goes much deeper than what is currently visible. The ossuary is decidedly more organised and contains the remains of 227 individuals all neatly packed away in numbered cardboard boxes. The bones were identified by their coffin plates – some of which can also be seen in the ossuary. Names and other data, such as cause of death, have been systematically recorded, along with drawings of each bone.

I managed to catch the last tour for 2012, but they start up again on Tuesday 8th January, and then run each fortnight at 3pm, £6 each. You can book in advance on 020 7427 0133 or info@stbrides.com or just turn up on the day.

http://www.stbrides.com/visit/guided-tours.php

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