To follow are a series of blogs created by Coutours. These help stitch together the fascinating fabric of London into a series of interesting tales and stories to showcase London in all its glory.
History is full of important figures, people who changed the world, heroes even. The 20th century knew a lot of struggle and during those extraordinary times, Britain needed extraordinary people. We all know the names of those in the spotlight, such as Winston Churchill, but who was fighting behind the scenes? Spies played a vital role in the Allied war effort, so let’s remember some of the most extraordinary female spies from the 20th century.
“Mata Hari” sounds quite exotic, doesn’t it? Of course, that was exactly the point it was chosen by Margaretha Geertruida Zelle. She was as much a “femme fatale”, as she was a woman living in a time when choices for a woman were limited. After marrying young and struggling with married life, she had to leave her daughter behind with her ex-husband because she was unable to provide for her. She moved to Paris in 1902 for a better life and took several odd jobs to support herself. This is where she first took to the stage as an exotic dancer and quickly made a name for herself.
She performed under the name Mata Hari, meaning “eye of the day” in Malay and danced nearly nude, with only a decorated breastplate and jewellery. As she spun stories about being a Javanese princess and performed draped in gauzy shawls, her fame grew. When the war started, her career was already in decline, but since she was still beautiful and well-known, she became a courtesan and took rich and powerful lovers of all nationalities.
As she continued travelling, she caught the eye of the Germans, who offered her 20.000 francs to become a spy. She accepted, but there’s little evidence she actually passed them any information. She was also approached by the French secret service and agreed to spy for them but was soon after suspected to be a double agent working for the Germans. Her trial took place in 1917 and she was found guilty, though no real evidence that she had passed any information was provided.
So was she really a spy? Did she seduce men left and right to pass on information to the other side? Or was she just a woman trying to survive in difficult times? It’s hard to say who Margaretha really was, as history looks back on her as the ultimate femme fatale, though she herself claimed she’d never been a spy.”
Her legacy, however, is undeniable. French investigator Captain Pierre Bouchardon called her “a born spy”, though she herself claimed “I have always lived for love and pleasure.” She was killed by a firing squad, but showed grace and courage until her final moments, as she refused to wear a blindfold and reportedly blew the soldiers one last kiss before they opened fire.
Of all the Wren churches in London, this is my favourite. If churches were a selection of cakes, this would be the Fondant Fancy, a small, light, pastel gem that is easy to miss as you wander around the City. You really need to ensure that you step back from this church to admire it. It is easy to miss its best asset if you stand too close. It has the most darling of domes – a small, perfectly formed verdigris cupola. The walls are high and fortress-like with high oval windows that provide both privacy and security.
It is sad and rather strange to think that, up until the late Victorian age, ordinary working people were never formally recognised if they gave their lives to save others. It was the aristocracy or officers in the armed forces who were commended for acts of heroic self-sacrifice. It is also quite unusual for an artist to create a commemorative wall of glazed tiles to recognise these everyday acts of heroism. George Frederick Watts, a recognised artist of the time, devised the idea of individual tiles to immortalise the bravery of ordinary men and women for future generations to see. Each tile was hand painted using their name and a brief description of their sad sacrifice.
Just south of Tower Bridge there is a little piece of secret London – a hidden market. There are no signposts and there are few visual clues. Look closer and you will see a trail of people wandering away into small back roads that lead you towards Bermondsey and into a street market called Maltby Street. You will also recognize the happy faces of people who have sampled the delights of the market and are heading off elsewhere, charmed and satisfied.
London has so many exciting secrets to reveal; some are easy to find and some seem more exciting as they take a little bit more effort. To arrive in this metropolis is like opening the door to one of the world’s most fascinating museums, a veritable cabinet of curiosities. Alleyways can lead to the most amazing discoveries and squares are the keepers of secrets. Even when you think you are in a relatively bland part of town, something jumps out at you. For example, most Londoners avoid walking through Leicester Square, a I forum filled with crowds and slow walkers. However, if you walk a few steps north of the square and into Leicester Place, you will come across a surprising but small post war church. Behind the rather plain doors of the Notre Dame de France, there is a hushed and darkened church with an amazing piece of public art.
Deep in the depths of an old wood stands an enormous tree. Its girth is such that it takes six people with arms at full stretch to hug it. It is Amazonian in size and yet this is not the Amazon; this is the lovely, leafy locale of Barnes, London
and this is Barney. I was first introduced to Barney at the launch of The Woodland Trust’s ‘Ancient Tree Hunt’, an initiative for people to go out into their local parks, woods and forests to measure trees. The idea was to get people to enjoy these ‘testaments to time’ and also to see if they could find any undiscovered ancient or notable trees. You would need several tape measures and some help to gauge Barney’s girth. So, what is Barney and why is he here?Barney is the largest and oldest London Plane tree and possibly also the most hidden tree in London which is quite an achievement considering his size.
As you walk along New Bond Street you will reach a pedestrianized section. Continue past Pete’s flower stall and you will encounter a park bench on which two amiable characters are sat, holding a conversation and on the verge of a laugh. Look closer and they have been caught in animation – bronze characters captured mid conversation. These are no ordinary people, they are the two main protagonists of the allied forces in WWII. Named “Allies”, this is a sculpture of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.
Mention Brutalism to your average Brit and most will think of ugly, concrete buildings that seem to sap England of joy! Concrete, which partners drizzle in such a bleak union in the way that cheery red brick has never achieved. It doesn’t help that this branch of the modernist movement is called “Brutalism.” Brutalism gave us The Barbican, The Hayward Gallery, Queen Elizabeth Hall and Trellick Tower alongside other iconic buildings of the 1950’s to 1970’s. We didn’t like it; we considered it brutal and aggressive as well as new and totalitarian. Hang on a minute, Brutalism doesn’t actually mean brutal. The word comes from the French ‘brut’ which means ‘raw’ or ‘unprocessed’ or in my case ‘dry’ as in Champagne! “What!” I hear you cry. “So these towering monoliths weren’t the product of dystopian monsters bent on revenge for human destruction of the earth?” *
Welcome to East London’s French Quarter; an area of genteel 18th Century houses sitting rather primly amongst the pubs, the markets and the hipsters.
Spitalfields was the favoured spot in East London where thousands of French Huguenot silk weavers settled from 1685. They were attracted here by its weaving heritage and liberal attitude to religious immigrants. These Huguenots, also known as French Calvinists, emigrated in their thousands to London and to other parts of the world after the 1685 Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. The Edict was a piece of legislation that dated back to 1598 to protect the Protestants and inspire tolerance. However, Louis XIV had other ideas. He didn’t think this liberal stance sat with his desire for autocracy and so in 1685 dispensed with it.
It was the Romans who saw the potential of the Thames and created our first Docklands. They built wharves and docks by the first London Bridge which grew into the biggest docks in the world. By the late 1960's they could not cope with the massive container ships and rapidly went into decline and inevitably closed. They remained derelict until the 1980's which marked the start of their amazing redevelopment. A walk around the old docks of Wapping, Shad Thames, Rotherhithe, Limehouse and The Isle of Dogs reveals the docks' salty sea-dog past!
The docks have some of the best pubs in London; the oldest in the area is The Prospect of Whitby dating back to 1520. There is a noose hanging outside the river side of the pub - not a warning to settle your lunch bill before leaving but a reminder of the area's notoriety. Smugglers and pirates were rife in this area, perhaps the most famous being Captain Kidd who is immortalised in a nearby pub and allegedly the inspiration for Daniel Dafoe's Treasure Island.
As a tour guide and a lover of London, I will be writing a series of interesting stories about London; tales I have heard, places I have visited, tasty food I have eaten and delicious drinks I have enjoyed. Watch out for this every week or so.