Monthly Archives: December 2016

Curiocity – the book

Way back in 2011, I wrote this blog post about something I’d been sent in the post. It was called Curiocity and was a tiny fold-up magazine that featured arcane trivia on one side and a weird map on the other. I think I was one of the first – if not the first – to write about the project. The first editions were numbered and then they began to appear in alphabetical order, with each letter indicating the theme, often wilfully obscure and tangential. It was a wizard wheeze, and I even contributed to later editions but Curiocity the magazine only got as far as G, when they stopped. I was miffed, partly because I’d not got round to asking how it should be pronounced – “curio city” or curiosity”?

That’s because the pair behind Curiocity – Henry Eliot and Matt Lloyd-Rose – had been approached to write a book. I remember them announcing this to a bunch of us London nerds in a pub in Farringdon. How, we wondered, was this fascinating map concept going to make it into a book? Well, the answer arrived earlier this year with the publication of Curiocity: In Pursuit of London. If it wasn’t for the publication of Up In Smoke, it would probably be the best London book of the year.

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I’m not sure when bookshops started having London sections, but I know that I first became aware of the concept of “London writing” in 1999, when Granta published a marvellous London special. Ackroyd’s biography appeared shortly after and a genre was defined. Since then, the concept has exploded. People have always written books about London, but now it has developed into a mini industry all of its own. My bookshelves groan with London books, many brilliant, others less so. There is, in these London bookshop sections, perhaps an over-reliance on ‘secret/eccentric” London-type books, which all seem to contain pretty much the same information just with slightly different covers. But there are also gazetteers on London place names, London maps, London statues, London rivers, London animals, London graveyards, London pubs, London murders, London folklore… my house is packed with these specialist tomes, the best of which are rich in detail and lovingly compiled.

Even so, I’m tempted to chuck them all out because all this information and more can be found in Curiocity. Ostensibly divided into 26 alphabetic themes, the book basically contains all the London trivia, information and history you’d ever require in one place. The esoteric nature is hard to grasp and harder to describe but for example G is for Grids,  a chapter that takes in everything from bollards to bikes – and the bike page includes entries on velodromes, cyclist cafes, Queen videos, mass transit cycling events, recumbent hire and the serial number of the most ridden Boris bike. It’s a mix of trivia, history and listing information that reminds me of peak-era themed issues of Time Out crossed with The London Encyclopedia and then given the Burroughs cut-up technique. 

What’s particularly edifying is there is no attempt to thin out or dumb down  – it’s a total mind dump, with the editors throwing every possible piece of information they can have at the pages and then worrying how to make them stick later. It’s also beautifully illustrated, with special maps created and conceived for the occasion. And while the gargantuan size takes it a long way from the flimsy fold-up map I first received in 2011, it’s gratifying that the spirit of the project has not only survived but been allowed to expand and prosper to the benefit of anybody fascinated by London books and with space enough on their bookshelves for more.

Curiocity: In Pursuit Of London by Henry Eliot and Matt Lloyd-Rose.

 

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The Effra: still flowing under Herne Hill

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Several of these lovely iron plaques have recently appeared in South London to mark the flow of the River Effra, the lost London river that now lies beneath the streets between Norwood and Vauxhall. It’s a wonderful project and Diamond Geezer has more details. He notes that the first plaques were laid in July and the project appears to be some way from completion, with several plaques yet to be installed. But there is a flurry of them around Herne Hill along Dulwich Road, where they make a nice counterpoint to the Effra’s other principal markers, the stinkpipe.

For those interested in the Effra, a book by Jon Newman has also just been published about the river. I once followed the course of the Effra in the company of a water diviner, who got us all lost in the middle of an estate during a snow storm while taking us on a route that bore very little resemblance to those diligently mapped by Effra experts. Still, it made for an entertaining afternoon.

 

 

Inside the Whitechapel Bell Foundry

Spitalfields Life reports that the Whitechapel Bell Foundry is to close. This is one of London’s oldest companies, founded in 1570 and based at its present site for 250 years. I met the owner of the foundry in 2015, and wrote this piece for Completely London magazine.

“The world is full of bells,” says Alan Hughes, and he should know. Bells are in his blood. Hughes is the fourth generation of his family to be master bellfounder at Whitechapel Bell Foundry, the oldest manufacturing company in the United Kingdom. Operating since 1570, the foundry has cast some of the most famous bells in the world. Big Ben was one of theirs, as were the bells at Westminster Abbey, the cockney bells of St Mary-le-Bow and America’s Liberty Bell. “I feel more like a caretaker than the owner,” says Hughes. “It’s so old. It was started by somebody walking these streets when Shakespeare was alive and Elizabeth I was on the throne. The world was unrecognisable. Yet it’s the same business, doing the same thing, essentially the same way.”

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In 1738, Whitechapel Bell Foundry moved to their present site on Whitechapel Road, having been founded up the road at Aldgate. The shop front is discreet and the Georgian offices modest. A display area depicts highlights from the past 445 years, such as cuttings from the Queen’s visit in 2009 and, hanging above the door, a gigantic moulding gauge, which looks like a pterodactyl’s wishbone and was used to create the mould for the 13.5 tonne Big Ben. They are proud of their history at Whitechapel, but past a small internal courtyard comes a clanging reminder that this is a living enterprise. Here is the foundry’s workshop, a large space filled with old bells, new bells, castings, moulds, metal dust, furnace bricks, and the damp thick smell of clay. In one corner, a tuner stands turning a bell on a lathe, gradually shaving off the rough interior metal by millimetres until he gets the right tone. It’s a busy, dirty, noisy place, which is why the foundry’s popular tours don’t take in the factory floor. “It’s lovely to be involved in a company that actually makes things,” says Hughes. “Here we are surrounded by bankers and financial services and I’m sure that’s very necessary and profitable but there’s nothing tangible, there’s no nuts and bolts.”

The foundry makes around 35 tonnes of bells each year, of varying sizes and for all occasions, exporting as far as Australia. They make church bells, hand bells, tiny bells for instruments like the calliope (a sort of steam organ) and ornamental bells using methods unchanged for centuries. “The fundamentals haven’t changed in 4,000 years,” says Hughes. “You create a mould, which means you make a space, the shape of which is the exact shape of the cast you wish to create, and you pour in liquid metal. That cools and the mould is then broken. Our moulding material – called the loam – is sand, bound with clay, hair and horse manure. What has changed is that we have far tighter control of technique and purity, and greater understanding of acoustics. We can produce bells that sound better, are better tuned, are better made and will last longer.”

That’s some claim given that even old bells are extraordinarily durable. “The demand for bells has been falling steadily since the 19th century and the fundamental problem is that once you have a well-made bell, you never need to replace it,” says Hughes. “There are two at Westminster Abbey that we cast in 1583. They are rung once a day every day and there’s nothing wrong with them. The oldest bell we’ve worked with are in North Kent and from the 1200s. There’s nothing wrong with them. Providing they are used sensibly, a bell will go on forever.”

Hughes was introduced to the family business – his great-grandfather purchased the company in 1904 – at a young age, going on tower inspections with his father during school holidays. “I’d sit at the top of the tower and write down measurements that he shouted out at me,” he recalls. Hughes “drifted” into working at the foundry, starting in the workshop in 1966. Now office based, he still keeps his hand in. “Nobody here can do everything,” he says. “We have loam-moulding, sand-moulding, tower bell tuning, handbell tuning, leatherwork, carpentry, joinery, fitters, turners, blacksmiths, bell hangers, steel fabricators. I started in the loam shop and still have the record for the greatest number of loam hand-mixes in one day, I did eight – the closest anybody has got is six. I have done frame building and bell hanging and I am currently the blacksmith’s mate. I enjoy the physical work. You end the day thirsty, dirty and exhausted but can fix it with a beer, bath and bed.”

Running the bell foundry is, Hughes suggests, tiring but satisfying work. “I like the idea that I am involved in creating things that will still be operating not only years after I have died, but possibly centuries,” he muses. “Not many people are in such a fortunate position that they will leave something behind that will outlive them so long.” No wonder the foundry seems timeless. Back outside, the 21st century continues. Upon leaving the foundry, a tiny bell above the door chimes clearly and with pride.

http://www.whitechapelbellfoundry.co.uk/