Yes, the name of this inner north-west London district – which sits between Hampstead and Kentish Town – does originate with an oak.

Up until the early 19th century, the tree was apparently used as a marker between the parish boundaries of Hampstead and St Pancras. So that’s the oak part.

The gospel part comes from the use of the term to describe the medieval custom of ‘beating the bounds’ – an annual event in which residents would walk around their parish boundary and literally beat prominent boundary markers as a way of conveying to a then largely illiterate people where the borders were located. The oak, said to have stood on the corner of Southampton and Mansfield Roads, was one such marker.

As well as the beating part, the event would also involve the singing of hymns and, yes, the reading of sections of the gospels while standing under the oak. Hence Gospel Oak.

The oak was also apparently used as a site for open-air preaching at other times and it’s said that St Augustine, 14th century Bible translator John Wycliffe, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, and fellow evangelist George Whitefield are among the many who preached under the oak (although many of these claims can be taken with a grain of salt).

The area was predominantly rural until the mid-1800s when local landowners  Lord Mansfield, Lord Southampton and Lord Lismore began selling off the land for development. The houses built here were apparently at the more affordable end of the market, perhaps not surprising given the area became criss-crossed with railroad lines. Devastated by bombing during World War II, large parts of Gospel Oak were rebuilt in the mid-20th century.

The (now) London Overground station which bears the name Gospel Oak (pictured below) was opened in 1860, originally with the name Kentish Town (but quickly renamed Gospel Oak when Kentish Town was used elsewhere). Other landmarks include St Martin’s Church in Vicars Road (pictured above), which has been described as one of the “craziest” of London’s Victorian churches, and All Hallows Church in Shirlock Road.

One of the area’s more famous residents, Michael Palin, has lived in the area since the 1960s and reportedly planted a new oak in Lismore Circus in 1998 but the tree has apparently not survived.

PICTURES: Google Maps


It should probably come as no surprise that this rather elegant memorial in the former graveyard of St Pancras Old Church is that of architect – and founder of a rather remarkable museum – Sir John Soane (as well as his wife Eliza and their oldest son, John).

The tomb, described by architectural commentator Nikolaus Pevsner as an “outstandingly interesting monument”, was, of course, designed by the heart-broken Soane, the architect of neo-classical buildings like the Bank of England and Dulwich Picture Gallery, following the death of his wife on 22nd November, 1815.

Erected in 1816, it features a central cube of Carrara marble with four faces for inscriptions topped by a domed canopy supported on four ionic columns. A Portland stone balustrade surrounds the whole structure as well as stairs down to the subterranean tomb itself.

Among the symbolic decorative elements on the monument are a pine cone finial – a symbol of regeneration, a serpent swallowing its tail – a symbol of eternity, and reliefs of boys holding extinguished churches – symbols of death.

Sir John’s son, John, was buried in the tomb after his death in 1823 and Sir John himself was interred following his death on 20th January, 1837.

The monument is said to be only one of two Grade I-listed monuments in London – the other being Karl Marx’s gravestone in Highgate Cemetery. It is also famously said to have formed part of the inspiration for Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s design of famous K2 red telephone box.

The Soane tomb was vandalised in 1869 – and it was suggested at the time that it should be relocated to Lincoln’s Inn Fields for its protection.

It was more recently restored in 1996 by the Soane Monuments Trust and again, after more vandalism, in 2000-01 as part of a restoration of St Pancras Gardens by the London Borough of Camden.

The graveyard of St Pancras Old Church, incidentally, is also the site of The Hardy Tree.

WHERE: St Pancras Gardens, Pancras Road, Camden Town (nearest Tube station is Kings Cross St Pancras); WHEN: Daylight hours; COST: free; WEBSITE: https://posp.co.uk/st-pancras-old-church/; www.camden.gov.uk/parks-in-camden.

PICTURES: Michael Day (licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0).

Another of the opulent Victorian hotels built at London’s railway termini, the Midland Grand Hotel was designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott in an ornate High Gothic style.

Scott’s design for the new hotel – which was to be built adjoining the railway station and would form its southern facade on Euston Road – was selected over 10 other submissions to win an 1865 competition run by the Midland Railway Company.

Scott was apparently reluctantly involved – he only entered the competition after pressure from one of the company’s directors despite apparently previously refusing to get involved with the project prior to that.

His expensive – and expansive – design (apparently resembling his rejected plans for government offices in Whitehall) included an 82 metre high clock tower at the east end of the more than 170 metre long facade and a 76 metre high tower at the west end (it also originally had an extra floor that wasn’t included in the final building).

The luxurious property – considered from the outset one of London’s best hotels, it cost whopping £438,000 – featured some 300 bedrooms, a grand double staircase, curved dining room and mod-cons like water-driven lifts (it was the first private building to boost these and one remained in place until 1958), an electric bell calling system and flushing toilets.

Staff communicated via a system of speaking tubes and wary of fires after the Palace of Westminster burned down, a “fireproof floor”. The property also boasted the first ladies’ smoking room in London in 1873 and, in 1899, the first revolving door in Britain was installed at the entrance.

Decorative details in the best guest rooms, meanwhile, included Axminster carpets, carved marble fireplaces, 18 foot high ceilings, and vast windows. En suite bathrooms, however, were not included.

The hotel’s east wing opened on 5th May, 1873, but it wasn’t completed until spring of 1876. One Herr Etzesberger, formerly of the Victorian Hotel in Venice, was apparently appointed general manager.

Guests included music hall singer and comedian Marie Lloyd, Jesse Boot (of Boots chemists fame), railroad and shipping entrepreneur Cornelius Vanderbilt and George Pullman (of the Pullman sleeping car fame).

The hotel was taken over by the London, Midland and Scottish Railway in 1922. It closed in 1935 thanks to its now outdated and expensive-to-maintain facilities and, despite innovations like a Moroccan coffee house and in-house orchestra.

Renamed St Pancras Chambers, the building was subsequently used as railway company offices. It survived the Blitz and attempts to have it demolished thanks to a high profile campaign led by poet Sir John Betjeman, architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner and the Victorian Society and in 1967 the hotel and St Pancras station were given Grade I-listed status.

British Rail continued using it as offices but in the 1980s the building was deemed unsafe and closed. It was restored in the 1990s and in 2004, permission was given for it to be redeveloped into a new hotel – the same period during which the station was being redeveloped into one of the largest rail termini in Europe in order to accommodate cross-channel trains.

This project saw the main public rooms of the old Midland Grand Hotel kept and restored as well as some bedrooms while the former driveway for taxes was converted into the new lobby and a new bedroom wing constructed. The upper floors of the original building, meanwhile, were converted into 68 apartments.

The five star, 245 room St Pancras Renaissance Hotel opened on 14th March, 2011, to guests but the formal opening took place on 5th May that year – exactly 138 days after it first opened its doors.

Facilities at the property today, part of the Marriott group, include The Chambers Club, The Booking Office Bar & Restaurant, MI + ME, The Marcus Wareing-designed Gilbert Scott Restaurant, the Hansom Lounge – where afternoon tea is served, and George’s Bar. There’s also a spa and leisure club and pool and meeting facilities.

The premises has appeared in films including the The Secret GardenRichard III, Batman Begins, Bridget Jones’ Diary and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. It also served as the backdrop for the Spice Girls video clip, Wannabee.

For more, see www.stpancraslondon.com.

PICTURE: Top – LepoRello (licenced under CC BY-SA 3.0);  Right – David Adams; Below – Jwslubbock (licenced under CC BY-SA 3.0).

Located in the churchyard of St Pancras Old Church, the Hardy Tree takes its name from its association with novelist Thomas Hardy.

Before Hardy found fame as the author of such novels as Tess of the D’Urbervilles, The Mayor of Casterbridge and Far from the Madding Crowd, in the 1860s he worked as an assistant to a West End-based architect, Arthur Blomfield.

Blomfield’s firm, in order to make way for a new line for the Midland Railway, was commissioned by the Bishop of London to exhume bodies from their graves in the churchyard and relocate them.

Hardy was given the job of supervising the removal of the corpses – apparently among those exhumed was a coffin containing a man with two heads!

It’s said that after he had removed the bodies, Hardy had to decide what to do with the headstones which remained and came up with the idea of placing them in a rather lovely fanned collar around an ash tree growing in a part of the churchyard unaffected by the railway line.

Whether Hardy was actually responsible for the placement of the gravestones remains somewhat uncertain (although it’s a nice story). But his work in the graveyard is believed to have at least partly inspired his poem, The Levelled Churchyard.

The moss-covered gravestones and tree have since merged and now make a fascinating monument to the churchyard’s past life, attracting Hardy pilgrims from across the world. And, of course, the churchyard is also famous as the site where Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, planned her elopement with poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, while she was visiting the grave of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft not to mention Charles Dickens’ famous reference to it in A Tale of Two Cities and its association with so-called ‘resurrection men’ or ‘bodysnatchers’ in the 19th century.

PICTURE: Stef (licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

 

This year marks 200 years since the publication of Mary Shelley’s book, Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus, so it’s timely to have a look at the life of this famous Londoner.

Shelley was born on 30th August, 1797, in Somers Town, London, to feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft and political philosopher, novelist and journalist William Godwin. Her mother died soon after her birth, leaving her upbringing to Godwin (and his second wife Mary Jane Clairmont who apparently didn’t get on with Mary).

While she received little formal education, she was tutored in a range of subjects – everything from literature to art, French and Latin – by her father and visiting tutors. Godwin described her as having a great desire for knowledge.

She first met her future husband, the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, while still a teenager. Shelley, who was estranged from his wife, had struck up a friendship with her father and was subsequently a regular visitor to their house.

Mary and Percy began secretly meeting each other at Mary Wollstonecraft’s grave in St Pancras Churchyard and then on 28th June, 1814, the couple eloped to France, taking Mary’s step-sister Claire Clairmont with them but leaving Shelley’s pregnant wife behind.

They went on to Paris and then, through war-ravaged France, to Switzerland. At Lucerne, however, a lack of money forced them to turn back and they returned to London where Mary’s father refused to have anything to do with her.

Now pregnant, Mary and Shelley moved into lodgings with Claire in Somers Town and later in Nelson Square where they were known for entertaining his friends. Shelley’s wife, meanwhile, gave birth to his son – something that must have been hard for Mary – and it is believed that he was also a lover of Mary’s step-sister Claire.

Mary gave birth to her first child, a daughter, on 22nd February, 1815, but she died just 12 days later. That same year, the death of Shelley’s grandfather brought himself considerable wealth and with their financial situation now relieved, in August, 1815, they moved to Bishopgate, in Windsor Great Park. In January, 1816, Mary gave birth to her second child, a son, William.

In May, 1816, the couple travelled with their son William and Mary’s step-sister Claire to Geneva in Switzerland where they hoped to improve Percy’s health. It was during the time they spent there that a ghost-writing contest in June, 1818, led her to write what would be the basis of the novel Frankenstein – credited with introducing genre of science fiction into English literature.

Returning to England, the Shelley’s took up residence in Bath (Clairmont was pregnant by Lord Byron and they wanted to keep this from the Godwins). Harriet Shelley, Percy’s estranged wife, drowned herself in the Thames on 9th November and it was following that, that on 30th December, Mary and Percy married at St Mildred’s Church in London with Mary’s father and step-mother as witnesses.

In March, 1817, the Shelley’s took up residence in Marlow where Mary gave birth to second daughter, Clara Everina Shelley, on 2nd September. Then in March, 1818, the family – along with Claire Clairmont and her daughter – travelled to Italy where it was hoped the warmer climate would help Shelley, who had been diagnosed with pulmonary disease.

There they lived at various addresses and were in Venice when Clara died of dysentery on 24th September, 1818. They traveled to Rome in April the following year and there, on 7th June, William died of malaria, leaving the couple devastated.

Their fourth child and only surviving child, Percy Florence Shelley, was born in Florence on 12th November. Their Italian sojourn continued for the next couple of years until, on 8th July, 1822, Percy Shelley and his friend Edward Williams were drowned in a squall in the Gulf of Spezia.

Determined to show she could write and look after her son, Mary Shelley returned to England in mid-1823 and lived in The Strand with her father and stepmother until in the summer of 1824 she moved to Kentish Town. Her novel, The Last Man, was published in 1826 followed by The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck (1830), Lodore (1835), and Falkner (1837) as well as working on numerous other writing projects.

Shelley never remarried although she was linked to various men romantically including American actor John Howard Payne whose offer of marriage she rejected.

After her son Percy left university in 1841, he came to live with her and between 1840 and 1842 Shelley travelled to various locations in Europe with her son. Sir Timothy Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s father, died in 1844 with the result that Shelley and her son were now financially independent.

Percy married Jane Gibson St John in 1848 and Mary lived her son and daughter-in-law, splitting their times between the ancestral Shelley home – Field Place in Sussex – and Chester Square in London as well as accompanying them on their travels overseas.

Shelley suffered considerable illness in the last years of her life – including debilitating headaches and bouts of paralysis in her body – before on 1st February, 1851, she died at the age of 53 from a suspected brain tumour at the Chester Square property.

She had asked to be buried with her mother and father, but Percy and Jane instead buried her at St Peter’s Church in Bournemouth closer to their home. In order to fulfill her wishes, they had the bodies of her parents exhumed from St Pancras graveyard and reburied with her.

Despite gaining respect as a writer in her own lifetime, Shelley’s reputation in the literary arts was overshadowed by that of Percy’s after her death. But in more recent decades her overall writing career has come to be more closely examined and applauded.

If you missed it, for more on Mary Shelley’s links with London, see our special series 10 sites from Mary Shelley’s London.

PICTURE: Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell (oil on canvas, exhibited 1840/NPG 1235). © National Portrait Gallery, London (licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

We’ve come to the end of our series on significant London sites related to Mary Shelley – in honour of the 200th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein – so it’s time for a quick recap before launching our next Wednesday series…

1. Somers Town…

2. St Pancras Old Churchyard…

3. Marchmont Street, Somers Town…

4. Church of St Mildred, Bread Street

5. The Temple of the Muses, Finsbury Square…

6. St Giles-in-the-Fields…

7. Charles and Mary Lamb’s house…

8. Chester Square…

9. A lock of Mary Shelley’s hair…

10. Memorials to Percy Bysshe Shelley…

 

 

Looking at Two St Pancras Square. PICTURE: Dylan Nolte/Unsplash

Having died in 1797 at the age of just 38, Mary Shelley’s mother and noted feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft, was buried in the churchyard of St Pancras Old Church.

“Her remains were deposited, on the fifteenth of September, at ten o’clock in the morning, in the church-yard of the parish church of St Pancras, Middlesex,” wrote Godwin afterwards. “A few of the persons she most esteemed, attended the ceremony; and a plain monument is now erecting on the spot, by some of her friends…”

Apart from the fact it is where her mother was buried, the grave played an important role in Shelley’s story. Not only is it said that her father, William Godwin, taught her to read her name by tracing the letters on the gravestone, it later became a place of key importance for Shelley in her developing relationship with Percy Bysshe Shelley.

In fact, it was at this gravestone that Mary and the poet would meet in secret prior to their elopement to Europe (some even speculate it was here that they first consummated their love). Secrecy was a necessity – Percy Shelley was already married and Mary’s father disapproved of their relationship.

Interestingly, Wollstonecraft is no longer buried here (although the gravestone still stands there). In 1851, as per the wishes of Mary Shelley, Wollstonecraft’s remains – and those of her husband which were buried there after his death – were removed by her grandson, Percy Florence Shelley and reinterred in the Shelley family tomb in St Peter’s Churchyard in Bournemouth.

The tomb is Grade II-listed. The lettering was restored in 1992 to mark the bicentenary of the publication of Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.

PICTURE: The gravestone in St Pancras Old Churchyard (Chris Beckett/licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0/Image cropped and lightened)

This week marked 20 years since the British Library’s St Pancras building was officially opened, so we thought it timely to take a look at this London ‘treasure’.

Located on Euston Road, the building, complete with rather grand piazza, was designed by architect Sir Colin St John Wilson and his partner MJ Long.

The largest public building to be constructed in the 20th century in the UK, it was designed specifically to house the British Library collections – which itself had only been created in 1972 when an act was passed by Parliament.

The building – which did draw some criticism over its design when it was completed but has been embraced by the public – was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth II on 25th June, 1998.

Grade II-listed since 2015, it’s comprised of 112,000 square metres spread over 14 floors – including five below ground – and features 11 reading rooms specialising in various subject areas including one for ‘manuscripts’, another for ‘maps’ and another for ‘rare books and music’.

The centrepiece of the building is the King’s Tower which is home to the library of King George III and the Sir John Ritblat Treasures of the British Library Gallery.

The collection housed at the library includes more than 150 million items. Highlights – many of which are housed in the Treasures Gallery – include a copy of the Magna Carta, the Lindisfarne Gospels, and Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook as well as a first edition of The Times (18th March, 1788), manuscripts by everyone from Jane Austen and James Joyce to Handel and the Beatles, and the Diamond Sutra, the world’s earliest dated printed book.

The library, which also hosts temporary exhibitions, is also home to a restaurant, cafe and several coffee shops as well as its own retail shop.

There are now plans to further develop the campus by expanding onto a 2.8 hectare site at its northern end with the aim, among other things, of creating more exhibition spaces, new learning facilities and a permanent home for the Alan Turing Institute, the UK’s national centre for data science and artificial intelligence. A joint venture led by Stanhope plc, working with architects Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners (RSHP), won a competitive process to undertake the development last year.

WHERE: British Library, 96 Euston Road (nearest Tube stations are Kings Cross St Pancras, Euston and Euston Square); WHEN: 9.30am to 6pm (includes Treasures Gallery – exhibition times can vary); COST: Free (but admission fees may be charged for exhibitions); WEBSITE: www.bl.uk.

PICTURE: Top – Aerial view of the St Pancras building (Tony Antoniou); Below – One of the reading rooms (Paul Grundy).

An intriguing feature at St Pancras Church are the eight female figures known as caryatids employed to support the rooves of two pavilions standing above the north and south entrances to the crypt.

The caryatids are modelled on those on the Erechtheum on the Acropolis in Athens – Henry William Inwood, who designed the church with his father William Inwood, apparently brought plaster casts of the original back to England to help with their plans for the building.

The caryatids, which were modelled by John Charles Felix Rossi, are made of terracotta constructed around cast iron cores. An original from Athens can be seen in the British Museum.

Unlike the caryatids on the Athens’ structure, however, each of the Inwoods’ statues carries an extinguished torch or empty jug, a reference to their position over the entrance to the crypt – a place of the dead.

The entire building, which is also known as St Pancras New Church to distinguish it the original St Pancras Church which is located to the north, was built between 1819-1822 and is an early example of the Greek Revival style. Other features of the church which also reference this style include its octagonal tower, modelled on the Tower of the Winds in Athens.

The church (we’ll take a more in-depth look at the building as whole in an upcoming post) now has a Grade I listing.

WHERE: St Pancras Church, Euston Road (nearest Tube stations are Kings Cross/St Pancras and Euston Square); WHEN: 8am to 6pm, Monday to Thursday (see website for Sunday times); COST: Free; WEBSITE: http://stpancraschurch.org

PICTURE: Tony Moorey (licensed under CC BY 2.0) Top image cropped. 

This name – now only usually used in reference to several buildings and landmarks around the Kings Cross area including churches, a road, hotel and railway stations – was originally that of a separate village.

The village was named for the church in its midst which had been dedicated to St Pancras. The church – which has been dated back to at least the Norman era – is said to have been built on one of the earliest sites of Christian worship in the UK and was dedicated to a Roman-era boy martyr, St Pancras (in Latin, St Pancratius).

Tradition holds that St Pancras was a citizen of Rome who converted to Christianity and was beheaded for his faith during the Diocletian persecution in the early 4th century when aged just 14. When Pope Gregory the Great sent St Augustine on his mission to England in the late 6th century, he sent relics of the saint with him, hence why many English churches are dedicated to St Pancras.

The village which had been based around the church was apparently largely abandoned in the Middle Ages – possibly due to flooding – and the area was only resettled in the late 18th century with the development of Camden Town and Somers Town.

While the church – now known as St Pancras Old Church – was restored in the mid-19th century, a new parish church – known as St Pancras New Church – which built about a kilometre away on Euston Road.

PICTURE: Stephen McKay/licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

ice-skating-in-the-tower-moatLondon’s obsession with ice-skating is the subject of an exhibition which opened at the Museum of London earlier this month. Skating on Ice looks at the history of the popular pastime, from the 12th century – when locals are described strapping animals bones to their feet to skate on ice at Moorfields – across the centuries (and the developments that went with them) to today. Among the artefacts on show is an 1839 oil painting by J Baber depicting skaters on the Serpentine in Hyde Park, sketches from the London Illustrated News showing a rescue operation to recover the 40 of some 40 skaters who plunged beneath the ice in Regent’s Park on 15th January, 1867, a navy blue gabardine skirt suit from Fortnum & Mason dating from the 1930s and a series of skates, ranging from some made of animal bones through to a pair of Victorian racing skates known as Fen Runners and a pair of ice skates used from the late 1930s by Londoner Christina Greenberry at Streatham Ice Arena. Runs until 8th February. Entry is free. See www.museumoflondon.org.uk for more. (Pictured – ice-skating in the Tower of London moat).

• Christmas is looming and so, if you haven’t been out and about already, here’s five Christmas trees worth seeing over the coming few days (excluding the obvious one in Trafalgar Square):

  • Covent Garden. Always a glittering treat (this year complete with virtual prizes!).
  • St Pancras International. A rather odd design this year, this 100 foot tall tree is inspired by the Cirque du Soleil show Amaluna and lights up every time a donation is made to Oxfam.
  • Granary Square, Kings Cross. Looking like a Christmas tree frozen inside an ice-cube, this seven metre high installation – Fighting fire with ice cream – by British artist Alex Chinneck features some 1,200 lights.
  • Tate Britain, Millbank. An upside down tree, designed by Iranian artist Shirazeh Houshiary.
  • Connaught Hotel, Mount Street, Mayfair. Designed by British sculptor Antony Gormley, this 57 foot tall tree features a trunk transformed into a pillar of light.

Prince Charles last week unveiled the foundation stone for a tower that will take visitors to Westminster Abbey into the institution’s new museum and galleries. The tower is being built outside Poet’s Corner – between the 13th century Chapter House and 16th-century Henry VII’s Lady Chapel – and will be the principal entrance to the medieval triforium, which has never before been opened to the public and which house the proposed The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries. The tower and galleries, costing almost £23 million, will be the most significant addition to the abbey since Nicholas Hawksmoor’s west towers were completed in 1745. The galleries, which will be located 70 feet above the abbey’s floor, are due to open in summer 2018, and will display treasures from the abbey’s history as well as offering magnificent views of Parliament Square and the Palace of Westminster. To help meet the cost of the new galleries, the abbey has launched a #makehistory campaign asking for public donations to the project. For more, see www.westminster-abbey-galleries.org/Content/Filler.

Send all items for inclusion to exploringlondon@gmail.com.

Escher_Hand-with-a-Reflecting-Sphere-1935The first major UK retrospective of the work of 20th century Dutch artist Maurits Cornelis (MC) Escher opened at Dulwich Picture Gallery in London’s south yesterday following its run at the Scottish National Gallery of Art. The Amazing World of MC Escher showcases more than 100 works – including original drawings, prints, lithographs, and woodcuts – as well as previously unseen archive material from the collection of Gemeentenmuseum Den Haag in The Netherlands. Arranged chronologically, highlights include 1934’s Still Life with Mirror – perhaps the first time the artist used surreal illusion, well-known 1948 lithograph Drawing Hands, the almost four metre long 1939-40 woodcut Metamorphosis II, the 1943 lithograph Reptiles and two of his most celebrated works, Ascending and Descending (1960) and Waterfall (1961). Runs until 17th January and is accompanied by a series of special events. Admission charge applies. For more, see www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk. PICTURE: M.C. Escher, Hand with Reflecting Sphere (Self-Portait in Spherical Mirror), January 1935, Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague, The Netherlands/All M.C. Escher works © 2015 The M.C. Escher Company-The Netherlands. All rights reserved. http://www.mcescher.com.

West Africa’s literary history comes under examination in a new exhibition opening at the British Library at St Pancras on Friday. West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song features more than 200 manuscripts, books, sound and film recordings, artworks, masks and textiles taken from the library’s African collections and elsewhere. It explores how key figures – from Nobel Prize winning Nigerian author Professor Wole Soyinka through to human rights activist Fela Kuti, the creator of Afrobeat, and a generation of enslaved 18th century West Africans who agitated for the abolition of the slave trade – used words to both build society and fight injustice. Key items on show include a 1989 letter Kuti wrote to the president of Nigeria, General Ibrahim Babangida, in which he agitated for political change, a pair of atumpan ‘talking drums’ similar to those still used in Ghana, a carnival costume newly designed by Brixton-based artist Ray Mahabir, and letters, texts and life accounts written by the most famous 18th century British writer of African heritage, Olaudah Equiano, enslaved and freed scholar Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, and Phillis Wheatley, who, enslaved as a child, went on to write Romantic poetry. The exhibition, which will be accompanied by a major series of talks, events and performances, runs until 16th February. Admission charge applies. For more, see  www.bl.uk/west-africa-exhibition.

Two new war related exhibitions opened in London this week. Opened on Monday at the City of London’s Guildhall Library, Talbot House – An Oasis in a World Gone Crazy, recounts the story of army chaplains Philip ‘Tubby’ Clayton and Neville Talbot and their creation of an Everyman’s Club – where countless soldiers spent time away from the fighting – in a house in the Belgian town of Poperinge, a few miles from the frontline at Ypres. The exhibition, created to celebrate the centenary of the house’s creation in 1915, features items from Talbot House, the memoirs of ‘Tubby’ and part of the hut where he wrote them after fleeing the Germans. Runs until 8th January and the exhibition also features two ticketed events. Entry to the exhibition is free. For more, follow this link. Meanwhile, Lee Miller: A Woman’s War opens at the Imperial War Museum in Lambeth today, displaying 150 photographs depicting women’ experiences during World War II. The four part exhibition looks at women before the war, in wartime Britain, in wartime Europe and after the war. Runs until 24th April. Admission charge applies. For more, see www.iwm.org.uk.

Send all items for inclusion to exploringlondon@gmail.com.

title-page-1950-cs-lewis-the-lion-the-witch-and-the-wardrobe-copyright-cs-lewis-pteFrom Peter Rabbit to Aesop’s Fables, animals and their appearance in some of the classics of literature are the subject of a new exhibition which opened at the British Library in St Pancras yesterday. Animal Tales explores the role animals have played in traditional tales around the world along with their importance in the development of children’s literature, and their use in allegorical stories such as CS Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as well as literary transformations between man and beast (this last in a nod to the fact it’s the centenary of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis). Highlights in the exhibition include one of the first children’s picture books – the 1659 edition of Comenius’ Orbis sensualism pictus, an 18th century woodblock edition of Wu Cheng’en’s Journey to the West, and a soundscape installation drawn from the library’s world leading collection of natural history recordings along with other animal tales from the sound archive. The exhibition, which runs until 1st November, will be accompanied by a series of events. Entry is free (and the display includes a children’s reading area and a family trail brochure). For more, see www.bl.uk. PICTURE: The title page from the 1950 London edition of CS Lewis’ The Lion, the witch and the wardrobe. © CS Lewis Pte Ltd.

Gladiators will battle it out on the former site of London’s open air Roman amphitheatre in Guildhall Yard this weekend. The shows – which will recreate what gladiatorial games were like in Roman Londinium – will be presided over by an emperor with the crowd asked to pick its side. The ticketed event, being put on by the Museum of London, takes place Friday night from 7pm to 8pm and on Saturday and Sunday, from noon to 1pm and between 3pm and 4pm. Admission charges apply. To book, see www.museumoflondon.org.uk.

A new International Visitors Victim Service has been launched in London to specifically help foreign nationals affected by crime in the city. The first of its kind in the UK, the service, which has been established by the Metropolitan Police working with independent charity Victim Support and embassies, already operates across the five central London boroughs and is now available through a mobile police kiosk located in the West End’s “impact zone”, an area which spans Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus (alternatively they can contact the International Visitor Advocates by calling 0207 259 2424 or visit the West End Central Police Station at 27 Savile Row.

The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has celebrated the creation of 100 new pocket parks across London’s 26 boroughs in a scheme which is now being adopted by other locations across the country. The parks range from a rain garden in Vauxhall to a dinosaur playground in Hornsey and have seen more than 25 hectares of community land converted into enhanced green areas. A free exhibition is running at City Hall until 28th August which focuses on the stories of 11 people involved in the creation of the parks. For more on London’s “great outdoors”, you can see an interactive map at www.london.gov.uk/outdoors.

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Get an up close and in-depth look at the Bronze Age as virtual reality comes to the British Museum this weekend. For the first time, families including children aged 13 or over will be able to wear Samsung Gear VR devices to virtually explore a Bronze Age site designed by Soluis Heritage which features objects from the museum’s collections. They will also be able to enter an “immersive fulldome” where they can explore a virtual reality world featuring a Bronze Age roundhouse and objects. The event will take place in the Samsung Digital Discovery Centre on Saturday and Sunday. For more, see www.britishmuseum.org.

british-library-aerial-shotThe British Library at St Pancras has been given Grade I heritage status, joining the top 2.5 per cent of listed buildings in England. Designed by architect Sir Colin St John Wilson and his partner MJ Long and completed in the late Nineties, the library is the largest public building to have been built in the UK in the 20th century. At the heart of the library is the King’s Library tower which houses the library of George III as well as the Treasures Gallery where national treasures such as the Magna Carta, Lindisfarne Gospels and original Beatles lyrics are displayed. The library was listed along with seven other libraries in England, all of which have been given Grade II status. Meanwhile the record-breaking exhibition Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy has entered its final month before closing on 1st September. The display features two of the four surviving Magna Cartas as well as the US Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights – in the UK for the first time – and more than 200 objects including medieval manuscripts, artworks, 800-year-old garments and esoterica such as King John’s teeth and thumb bone. Admission charge applies. For more, see www.bl.uk/magna-carta. PICTURE: Tony Antoniou/British Library.

Help build The People’s Tower in Douglas Square in Deptford, south east London, this weekend. French artist Olivier Grossetete has been invited by the Albany to build the tower – with your help – out of cardboard boxes. Tower assembly takes place between 10am and 3pm on Saturday and then between 11am and 5pm on Sunday, there will be free live music and family entertainment in the Albany Garden as the tower is finished and then knocked down. No booking is required. For more, check out www.thealbany.org.uk.

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Chromolocomotion,-Terrace-Wires-art-programme-at-St-Pancras-International-1In contrast to the colourless smog which has lain over London, Scottish artist David Batchelor’s sculpture, Chromolocomotion, brings a splash of colour to the Grand Terrace at St Pancras International. Unveiled this week, the 20 by 10 metre work consists of 44 L-shaped pieces of coloured perspex suspended from the Grade I-listed roof of the Barlow Shed. It replaces Lucy and Jorge Orta’s Cloud: Meteoros and is the second installation commissioned by St Pancras International’s owners HS1 Ltd as part of the Terrace Wires initiative. The work will remain in place until late September. For more on the initiative, see www.terracewires.co.uk. PICTURE: HS1 Ltd.

TerraceWires

Lucy and Jorge Orta’s sculpture Cloud: Meteoros is the first sculpture to be unveiled for the ‘Terrace Wires’ project at St Pancras International. The sculpture, which hangs on wires from the station’s roof, features two clouds hovering over the station floor on which figures can be seen looking down. Says artist Lucy Orta: “Our sculpture is symbol the space in between: that of the daily routines of the millions of passengers and visitors to the station and the freedom of our imagination, daydreams – looking up to the sky.” The sculpture will remain in place for the rest of the year. For more on art at St Pancras, see http://stpancras.com/art/ and www.terracewires.comPICTURE: Sam Lane/HS1 Ltd.