The personal authentic travels of a world-wide drifter, you'll always see pics of me at the locations being described (if the other blogs you're reading don't do that, odds are they were NEVER there, just saying…)
When in London, assuming you’re a fan of all things historical and/or literary, green spaces worth exploring on a nice sunny day are her graveyards. One of the most famous of these is Bunhill Fields Cemetery. While this land was “formally designated” by the city leaders to that purpose in 1665, it was believed by them to have been functioning as a common burial ground since the early Roman period, and even possibly before. This is why the area was at that time referred to as “Bone Hill,” and over time became Bunhill, its name today. In 1867 city health officials deemed the cemetery “full” an no more bodies could be buried here. Then, an act of Parliament while deciding its future designated the land as open green space and it has been protected as such ever since.
This “Green space” is located in the section of London known as the Islington, and is listed as Grade I on the Register of Historic Parks and Gardens. It is a short northeast walk from The Barbican Center, where you can still see remnants of the historic Roman city walls still standing today. This graveyard, as such, was initially outside of “The City” (which is how Londoners refer to the historic fortress protected by the walls on three sides and wide expanse of the Thames River on the fourth), and because it was not consecrated land adjacent to a church, it was where people could bury friends and family who were disdained by that august institution (think poets, writers, actors, and religious non-conformists, etc.). The ground is also less than half a mile, about an 8 minute walk, directly west of where Shakespeare initially hung out, where the Theater and Curtain are located; this was before he moved to the land south of the Thames River, near where the reconstructed Globe theater now sits.
The reason this land was outside of London proper, as laid out by the Romans (the fortified city) … was most likely because it was a type of wetland, a moor, better for feeding livestock and farming than as support for heavy stone buildings. Initially it belonged to the church but in 1315 it was granted to the mayor and the people of London. In 1498 the land was reserved to allow soldiers to practice military exercises and archery. Then, in 1665 the city decided to formally convert the land into a burial ground for people who had died because of the plague, and hence most likely never received last rights, and could not be accommodated by churchyards.
Because the land was unconsecrated — i.e., not attached to a church, [England had already separated from the Catholic Church back in 1534 during the time of King Henry the 8th], the land became popular with “non-conformists” essentially political/religious dissenters, the Protestants (of various alignments) who refused to join the Church of England (the then state religion, led by the monarch rather than the Pope).
[Going out on a bit of a limb here, as the religious history of this period is NOT my strong suit… but, as I understand it… (correct me if I’m wrong)]
For example, among these were the “Separatists” … a group that we in America refer to as the Puritans/Pilgrims (which any historian will tell you are a names they would not have recognized, it wasn’t how they referred to themselves). But, this group was only one of among a whole variety of Protestant sects popping up in the period. This was happening because the bible had been translated into English, and was now being produced cheaply by printing presses instead of painstakingly by priests, so that people had started to read and interpret the book for themselves, rather than relying on priests to tell them what was in it. And some of those began to feel that the church should be HOLY, and that while the Pope was corrupt, Kings (or Queens) weren’t much better. That they were too political and “of this world” to lead their church — that it should be “purified” of government influence and corruptions — hence why we in the US lump them into one big group of “Puritans”. But also among the dissenters were some who were just not aligned to any specific group… although as I understand it, all christians HAD to go to church on Sundays (In 1570 Elizabeth began allowing the first Muslims to legally live in England, and Cromwell in 1657, allowed Jews to resettle in England after they’d been expelled in 1290), so Christians were no longer alone in the country.
This unconsecrated ground consisted of about four acres (1.6 hectares), and London residents were buried here for almost 200 years, between 1665 and 1854 — by which time the city walls were essentially down or absorbed into other buildings (a fact rediscovered during the WWII blitz), and what was considered to be London had expanded well past it. While today only about 2,000 gravestones and monument are still visible, its believed that as many as 123,000 people are interred there before it was considered too full to continue using, as already discussed, in 1867.
At that time, improvements were made, these including the planting of trees and shrubs, and the installing of nice looking gates marking off pathways and open spaces, while protecting the gravestones. After WWII (and the blitz) landscape architects were brought in to maintain and or restore the most historic bit, while also making the park aspect more appealing to locals.
Of course, beyond these places being pleasant green spaces, they are also a tourist destination in part because it’s a chance to pay your respects to famous people who in their lifetimes did something or produced something that has meaning to you today.
In this cemetery you will find among other notables the remains of the great Romantic poet and painter, William Blake (28 November 1757 – 12 August 1827) — or at least a monument point out the general location (I have a feeling the original stone may have been destroyed in the blitz)
While like many of the greats, the value of his work wasn’t fully recognized until after his death…. in fact his contemporaries thought he was a little bit off his rocker. Although he was a committed Christian, many of his poems and paintings are deeply religious in nature, he was none the less equally hostile to the Church of England (actually, organized religion in general — a man of my own heart), which is why he was buried in this graveyard. Blake, who was 19 years old when the American revolution broke out was a man of his time and influenced by the ideals and ambitions of the revolutions that occurred during it, at least at first… when he got older, what happened in France during “the terror” soured him on them. These ideals can be seen in the lyrics of one of his most famous works a song that every school child in the country probably knows by heart, and one that at this point is so closely associated with England that you’ve probably heard it in any number of BBC productions, not to mention the wedding of Prince William to Kate Middleton, the hymn “Jeruselum”
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?
And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic mills?
Bring me my bow of burning gold:
Bring me my arrows of desire:
Bring me my spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire.
I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.
In reality, it was a mostly part of a larger works, that until it was set to music in 1916 by sir Hubert Parry, at the behest of the government who wanted a hymn to put into the Church of England that supported WWI (1914-1918), it was mostly obscure. Also, one has to wonder what a man who was so anti the church must have felt to have his words turned into a hymn to be sung within it.
In addition to Jeruselum, back when you were in school you may have learned two of his other poems, “The Tyger” and “The Lamb”, which are often taught together
“The Tyger by William Blake”
Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies.
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?
And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?
What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp,
Dare its deadly terrors clasp!
When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
“The Lamb by William Blake”
Little Lamb who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee
Gave thee life & bid thee feed.
By the stream & o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing wooly bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice!
Little Lamb who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee
Little Lamb I’ll tell thee,
Little Lamb I’ll tell thee!
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb:
He is meek & he is mild,
He became a little child:
I a child & thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.
Little Lamb God bless thee.
Little Lamb God bless thee.
Another great name from British literature was the Novelist Daniel Defoe. Although he was a prolific writer with as many as 545 titles have ascribed to his name, works that included satirical poems, political and religious pamphlets…. some of which resulted in his being thrown into Prison by Queen Anne (there’s a huge statue of her in front of St Paul’s Cathederal, and Olivia Colman won her Oscer for playing her in the movie The Favorite) for being a dissenter …. today he’s really only known for one thing… namely, for being the author of Robinson Crusoe, published in 1719, and thought to be second most translated work ever written, after the Bible. His second most remembered work is probably the novel “Moll Flanders.
For all that success, it seemed to me fairly obvious from what’s written on Defoe’s grave that he must’ve died poor with only a very basic gravestone marking his body because this grave was paid for through fundraising from the children of Britain￼
This Monument is the result of an appeal in the Christian World Newspaper to the Boys and Girls of England for funds to place a sutable memorial upon the grave
It represents the united contributions of seventeen hundred Persons
— in fact according to Wikipedia, I wasn’t totally off the mark, in spite of the fact that the monument was created in 1970… because he died while in hiding from his creditors —
The third famous person to be buried here is John Bunyan, the author of Pilgrim’s Progress. Bunyan was another famous non-conformist who rejected the Church of England, a political/religious stance that landed him in jail for 12 years, during which time he wrote his most famous work. In addition to that seminal work, he had 60 other volumes published, most of them expanded sermons.
If you’re not a familiar with it, while Robinson Crusoe was the 2nd most translated book after the bible, this books is right up there having been translated into 200 languages. And since it was first publish, has NEVER been out of print and became one of the most published books in the English language; by 1938, 250 million copies of the book had been sold and 1,300 editions had been printed — I counted over 25 different editions for sale today on Amazon, and this is 250 years after the author’s death.
The guy who took the picture of me with the tomb was the Chinese guy in the image above, and after he asked why this guy was so important that I wanted the photo take with him. So I told him, “back in the day most people didn’t own a lot of books. If you were a protestant the odds are that unless you were VERY rich you most likely only owned two of them, the first was a copy of the bible, and if you could afford it, your second purchase was a copy Pilgrim’s Progress. Back in the day it was one of the most well read books in countries where Protestants lived. Today while most English speakers have heard of the book, they probably have never read it nor do they know why it was important, unless they studied it for a University course.”
For two centuries Pilgrim’s Progress was the best-read book, after the Bible, in all Christendom, but sadly it is not so today.
When I ask my classes of young and youngish evangelicals, as I often do, who has read Pilgrim’s Progress, not a quarter of the hands go up.
Yet our rapport with fantasy writing, plus our lack of grip on the searching, humbling, edifying truths about spiritual life that the Puritans understood so well, surely mean that the time is ripe for us to dust off Pilgrim’s Progress and start reading it again.
Certainly, it would be great gain for modern Christians if Bunyan’s masterpiece came back into its own in our day.
The George Inn is the last surviving galleried coaching Inn in London, i.e., think a historic motel for people traveling around England by horse led coaches. These were places travelers could come and spend a night while waiting for a connecting coach to a different location, or just come for a drink.
[Also, as I discuss at the very end of this piece, don’t skip it… Shakespeare and Dickens both frequented this place, and it’s adjacent to a location important to Chaucer]
First established during the Medieval period in 1542, (making the business 480 years old) and then known as “George and Dragon”, after the legend of Saint George and the Dragon — but later becoming known as just The George — the inn had to be rebuilt in 1677 after Great Fire of London, this pub is now a National Trust building, and hence protected from modern re-development of the land.
While not as big as it once was (there’s no room for carriages to turn around anymore, or for horses to be housed), it’s still worthy of a visit.
As the sign above says, in the late 1800’s the north part of the complex was pulled down (what would have been to the opposite side of what is now the outdoor patio area) the building that remains still has its original exteriors, interiors and even a few gas lanterns … something that has almost entirely disappeared from London because well… fire hazard, and as I said it was already rebuilt once after the great fire, they don’t want to have to do it again).
Finding it was a bit of a challenge (I walked by it twice) as it’s hidden down what on first glance looked to just be yet another alley…
I actually stopped a local girl in her early 20’s asking her to take this picture for me. I’m standing by it’s front gate just off the street’s sidewalk, and yet she was a little shocked; she told me that she walks down that street multiple times a week and had no idea it was there nor its historic relevance.
After looking around the courtyard area I went into the building itself and walked around exploring the place and taking pictures. At the time I didn’t realize it was a National Trust building and was half expecting someone to give me shit for not buying food or a drink. But their behavior, kind of not taking any issue with my being there, is explained now that I know this. National trust buildings while they might double as businesses or even private homes, are first and foremost historic places owned by the government/Trust. that are open to the public and their structures kept ‘healthy’ by money from the trust.
That said, at a certain point I decided I was getting thirsty and decided to order my first Shandy of this trip to England
Shandy’s are my pub drink of choice; if you’ve never heard of it its British beer watered down with lemonade and it’s how local kids get turned into alcoholics… oops did I say that out-loud? … introduced to alcohol.
Because of covid I was initially going to drink it outside but then I realized the 2nd floor was accessible and I had not seen anyone going up there, and it was more than a bit chilly that day…
So I took my glass upstairs — not the easiest feat for me, I’m not great at stairs under the best of conditions and having to take a very full glass up them without spilling it was a challenge — to happily discover I was all alone up there.
After my drink I got ready to leave and spotted an elderly woman who came into the inn’s yard but with no apparent intention of staying… she was just there to see it and took a few pictures. First I asked her to take a picture for me (see below)
Then we got to talking and she confirmed my suspicions that she, like I, was a history buff. Then she told me her next stop was the recently discovered Roman floor mosaics that I had read about two weeks ago while still in the USA, so I asked if I could join her… and she said “of course.”
Lastly, a thing of note, for people with a literary bent…. it is known that both Shakespeare and Dickens frequented this Inn. Not only that, but Dickens, who had the misfortune to spend some of his life living in Marshalsea Prison, just a block or two away from this location… refers to the Inn in his novel Little Dorrit, a book about a girl born and raised at that same prison (one doesn’t tend to think about this, but most of the time places authors refer to in their novels, particularly ones set in what where then current times, include buildings that readers might recognize, and this was true in the works of Dickens).
Also, while it’s no longer there, just to the right of the George, off of the adjoining road called Talbot yard (see map below) there used to stand another establishment called The Tabard, that today is only memorialized with a single blue plaque (not much to see, it’s kind of sad)
That inn was established in 1307 (so 200 years OLDER than the George), and was also rebuilt after the Great fire of London, but was later torn down in 1873 — it had been there for FIVE HUNDRED AND SIXTY SIX YEARS!!!!! While sadly the building no longer exists, its name should ring a bell for those of you familiar with the works of the poet Geoffrey Chaucer. He referred to it in his seminal work The Canterbury Tales because it famously was where people in the 1380’s, who were making the pilgrimage to the Shrine of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral, would first spend a night, and as such it is mentioned in his 14th-century literary work. The inn’s proprietor was a man named Harry Bailey
Bifel that in that season on a day,
In Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay
Redy to wenden on my pilgrymage
To Caunterbury with ful devout corage,
At nyght was come into that hostelrye
Wel nyne and twenty in a compaignye
Of sondry folk, by aventure yfalle
In felaweshipe, and pilgrimes were they alle,
That toward Caunterbury wolden ryde;
The chambres and the stables weren wyde,
And well we weren esed atte beste;