You can't get grander than the great hall at the Guildhall in the City of London. It's where the Lord Mayor's Banquet is staged. And the other day was the venue for India's Republic Day celebrations.
Quite a statement to celebrate India escaping colonial apron strings and becoming a republic in a building so commemorative of Empre.
Take this - the over-grand classical style memorial to Nelson ...
However you look at it, it's in your face.
The great hall was built in about 1440 and was titivated up a couple of hundred years later after the Great Fire of London.
And of course if there's a Nelson commemoration, then Wellington can't be far away ...
Wellington of course was a prime minister, but he commanded an army in action so he was familiar with the battlefield.
You can't say the same for Pitt the Younger. But yes, he's here too ...
And there's more - a mausoleum of empire! The Guildhall's guilty secret.
So, during the pandemic I rediscovered vinyl. With generous domestic encouragement, I got a half decent deck which I could plug into our TV soundbar, and retrieved what was left of my record collection from the loft.
And I've now (just about) played them all - only a few dozen albums, but it's taken me months to get through them in a rather haphazard fashion.
Quite a bit of my vinyl has vanished over the decades - lent, taken, sold, lost. And after the vinyl era, I have bought lots of CDs. It's not that my musical tastes simply got frozen in time in 1973. Honest!
A few of the albums fell flat. But more gave real delight - not simply nostalgia, though there's plenty of that, but fine music too.
On this post, I'm sharing a selection of my musical back pages - a vinyl blast from the distant past!
Canonbury Tower is by quite a comfortable margin the oldest building in Islington.
It's early Tudor and was constructed by 1532 - though bits of it are a little later. The building was designed as a rural retreat for the canons of St Bartholomew's priory in Smithfield (hence Canons' Burgh from which comes Canonbury).
I had the privilege today of a tour round, organised by Islington Guided Walks. The building is privately owned - by the Marquess of Northampton - and I couldn't photograph the two splendid, wood panelled rooms which are the highlights of the interior (though there are some photos on the Wikipedia page).
But the outside is the real joy - once part of a much bigger suite of buildings and designed with quasi-regal panache.
At the rear, you get a glimpse of what would have been the courtyard, complete with a mulberry tree planted, so we're told, by Sir Francis Bacon 400 years ago. That may be a bit of a tale, but it's certainly true that Bacon lived here.
The gardens of Canonbury Tower were long since built on - and very stylishly too. But the two octagonal pavilions at the end of the grounds survive - and have been adapted as part of later structures.
You can see one of them here - the ground floor brickwork is quite probably the original sixteenth century construction.
The tower itself is basically a staircase, leading to a small flat roof which commands spectacular views. Take a look!
This is facing south towards the City, with the Shard in the distance ...
... and here we're looking out west towards Islington's Upper Street ...
... this view is looking to the north-west. You have Union Chapel on the left of the photo, and on the skyline to the right is Hampstead Heath and Highgate hill ...
... and to the east, you have on the right, an adjoining building which is in part of Tudor construction and is now a school.
But it's the view overlooking central London which is the most striking, especially with the sky as it was this morning!
The ancient walled city of Valletta, the capital of Malta, boasts fine Baroque architecture, the most ornate cathedral I have ever seen, imposing maritime forts and beautiful small gardens.
But explore the maze of streets, and tucked away you find quite a few traditional family-run shops with old style shopfronts.
So let me introduce you to another side of one of Europe's most beautiful cities.
This holy trinity of suffering saints adorns the ancient Maltese city of Mdina, an ancient walled city - largely Baroque in architecture - which has a population of under 300. It remains the seat of the Catholic archdiocese of Malta, and has seven churches - most of them still in use.
Of our saints, this post is about the one on the right - St Agatha.
She is a Sicilian 'virgin' martyr from the mid-third century. The story goes that she resisted the advances of the local Roman governor, who then informed on her as a Christian. She was tortured and imprisoned, and died in jail.
At one time during her religious persecution, Agatha and some friends escaped from Sicily to Malta, and stayed in a small crypt in Rabat (adjoining Mdina). She only spent a short time in Malta, but that accounts for the particular reverence of her on the Maltese islands. The church that the statues in Mdina overlook is dedicated to St Agatha.
She is one of Malta's patron saints and it is said that her intercession saved the island from Turkish invasion in the mid-sixteenth century.
Squeamish readers should perhaps stop here. The story of St Agatha's sufferings is not pleasant; and the manner in which they have been represented in sacred art is excruciating.
According to the church, St Agatha's tortures extended to the cutting off of her breasts with tongs. (I did warn you!) This is depicted in the painting above and in stained glass in Rouen cathedral in France.
These are, as you can see, fairly graphic. But even they are nothing compared to the Mdina statue.
Agatha is the patron saint of rape victims, breast cancer patients, wet nurses, and (due to the shape of her severed breasts!) bellfounders.
This painting shows her in jail before the tongs were applied -
But if you think that we have now plumbed the depth of the meeting ground between the macabre and the sacred, I have to inform you that in religious art of the early modern period, St Agatha was often represnted carring her breasts on a salver.
And indeed there is a custom in some localities of Southern Europe of marking the feast of St Agatha - it's the 5th February, since you ask - by making breast-shaped pastries or buns. These are sometimes called the Minne di Sant'Agata ("Breasts of St. Agatha") or Minni di Virgini ("Breasts of the virgin"). Those shown here come from Sicily.
What better way to mark the New Year than a walk through our splendid capital city. I went today with friends from the Greenwich Observatory - where this panoramic view was taken - over to Wapping on the other side of the river.
And we made our way across the Thames not on the water, or above the water, but below the riverbed.
The Royal Observatory at Greenwich marks the meridian line and gave its name to GMT, Greenwich Mean Time.
The slopes leading up to the Observatory were also the location, on 15 February 1894, of an explosion in which a 26-year-old Frenchman, Martial Bourdin, died. He was, it seems, a 'propaganda-by-the-deed' anarchist carrying a bomb which exploded prematurely. He may have intended blowing up the Observatory.
This was the incident which Joseph Conrad transposed in to fiction in one of his greatest novels, The Secret Agent, published in 1907.
In the centre of Greenwich, there's the entrance to one of London's most curious transport arteries. The Greenwich Foot Tunnel under the Thames was commissioned by the London County Council and opened in 1902.
The tunnel stretches for 370 metres below the Thames at a depth of fifteen metres. It's open 24 hours a day - as is a similar foot tunnel a little further out in Woolwich - and is used by about 4,000 people daily.
I'm surprised the foot tunnel isn't much busier - it's spacious and well lit and not in the least spooky. Honest!
On the north side of the river, you surface on the southern tip of the Isle of Dogs - once a maritime area of shipyards and wharves, and still bearing some reminders of its glory days.
The SS Great Eastern - the largest ship of its time - was built and (eventually) launched here in the 1850s.
And there are other reminders of the area's maritime past
Among the architecturally more intriguing buildings is a former Presbyterian church at Millwall, built in the 1850s and closed for worship in the 1970s, which is now The Space, an arts and performance venue.
It's a bit cluttered in design but at least it stands out!
As you head up the west side of the Isle of Dogs and pass Canary Wharf, you reach Limehouse, and the magic of Narrow Street and its riverside tavern, The Grapes - and there are steps down to Ratcliff 'Beach'.
But our destination was a little further west, the excellent, and historic, Prospect of Whitby at Wapping.
This is Omri at Folkies Music, the instrument shop he runs in Kilburn. It's a wonderful place, stuffed full of instruments; it's a repair shop too and sells some second-hand vinyl (not mainly folk, in spite of the shop's name, and very much of my era).
I came across it by chance. One of those serendipitous discoveries that come with walking round London.
Folkies dates back to 2008. It's close to Kilburn tube station, where Kilburn High Road becomes the splendidly named Shoot Up Hill. There's building work underway, but I'm told that the shop's future here is not in doubt (for the moment at least)
The shop developed from the wonderfully named Accordions of London, the signage of which is still prominent - what a throwback to an earlier era!
And the shop - along with its accordions - features prominently in this affectionate film (made by Mark James and dating from 2012) about Kilburn High Road.
There is a real charm and magic about the place - and the instruments make it so entrancing. A bit like fish markets, you can't go wrong visually in a musical instrument shop.
Do, please, take a look! And here's the Folkies site: https://folkiesmusic.co.uk/
The cathedral at St Alban's - just twenty minutes by train out of London - is spectacular. It's an imposing Norman abbey built as a shrine to the first English saint, with some really magical medieval wall paintings.
St Alban was a third century English convert who lived here in what was then the Roman town of Verulamium. Bede mentions his shrine, and he was venerated from shortly after his death.
At the dissolution of the monasteries, Alban's relics were scattered and have not been retrieved. But the shrine to the man who converted him, St Amphibalus, was rediscovered in the nineteenth century, and what there is of his remains are now inside the cathedral.
The initial monastery here was built, it seems, by 800 CE, and the abbey which is the basis for the current church was completed in 1115. It fell into disrepair after the the Reformation, but was restored in the nineteenth century and became a cathedral in 1877.
It's amazing to think that some of these wall paintings are eight-hundred years old. Some are very faded; others remain vivid. And there are quite a few of these sacred images.
The cathedral has arches and coloured stone which remind me of the mezquita in Cordoba - see what I mean?
And there's a wonderful rose window and the biggest altar-piece I've ever seen in an English church.
While we were there, a choir was practising for a carol concert - they were rather good, don't you think?
Everyone thinks that their home patch is special. That's the way it should be. But excuse my parochialism, I am absolutely convinced that my local splash of green, Waterlow Park, is the loveliest in London.
It's been shown to best effect on recent sunny winter mornings. There's something bewitching about it. The park is just 26 acres, on the southern slope of Highgate Hill, looking out towards the City four miles or so away. It's gorgeous!
The park was given to the people of London as 'a garden for the gardenless' by Sir Sydney Waterlow in 1889. He was a business man and philanthropist, a Lord Mayor of London and the Liberal MP for Islington North (the seat now held by Jeremy Corbyn).
There's an imposing statue in the park of this public benefactor.
Adjoining the park is Lauderdale House, which dates back to 1580 and has a nice cafe and an outside seating area.
And the park has three ponds, all fed by natural springs. The photo below is of the middle pond where I have seen a kingfisher (just once, but how many Londoners have spotted a kingfisher in their local park!) and terrapins.
From the park you have an enticing view over high-rise Central London, which adds to the magic.
And fun fact: unlikely as it may seem, Mott the Hoople (remember those dudes?) wrote a song about the park entitled 'Waterlow'.
I remember very clearly the first record I ever bought. It was a single, of course, and was topping the charts at the time - Gerry and the Pacemakers, 'How Do You Do It?'
That would have been in April 1963. I was six.
As with all my other singles (and my, I do feel sad about this!), somewhere on my life's journey, my 45 rpm masterpiece has gone AWOL.
But today, at the local Oxfam shop, I found this! Not quite the same as the single I bought almost sixty years ago. But no matter.
This is the EP, or extended play, version, with four songs - singles just had one number on each side. And it has a proper cover complete with photo of Gerry Marsden, which my 1963 single most certainly didn't have.
I am well happy with my purchase. And if you don't know 'How Do You Do Ity?', well, here it is - I can't say it feels contemporary, but it is, I would suggest, endearingly dated.
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