Tuesday, 5 February 2013

A Chip off the Old Block

Judy attended a conference in Canning Town last Friday so I thought I'd hitch a train ride and visit a couple of places. The first was the Thames Foreshore because the tides almost fitted in with our arrival time and the second was Westminster Abbey where I hoped to photograph a Medieval tomb slab with its bronze letters still in situ.

I arrived at Queenhithe on the North Bank around one O'clock hoping to snatch an hour or two after the noon low tide but found the dock filling rapidly and the spots I wanted to search already below water. I really should have checked what kind of tide to expect not just the time of it because this was obviously a spring tide and that means exposed areas not seen for months but also a rapid tide that hides those areas away just as quickly as it shows them.

I couldn't find much in the way of iron and that's never a good sign on the foreshore. I became more interested in pottery sherds, pipe bowls and the chance of worked stone which means getting your eye out of looking for the blackened discs of hammered coins and into the big stuff. Its a micro and macro view you adopt for either, the first crouched over and the second from an upright stance. You can't do both at once, believe me.

A Post- Medieval floor tile fragment

I did find a piece of worked stone. Not a great piece but certainly an interesting one because it looked to be from the same building I'd already had four nicely decorated pieces from in the past. The difference was that this piece wasn't blackened with soot but clean. It was also relatively small so I could actually take it home in a carrier bag rather than have to come down by car to pick it up as I had to with the others.

I know it doesn't look like much and that's why on-one else had ever bothered with it. However, the style of the moulding may be plain but the stone it's made from tells a story. A dull grey when saturated this stone was a cream-white when freshly cut. It's Caen Stone, a white limestone from Normandy and the Norman's first choice building material. The Tower of London was made from it, so was Canterbury Cathedral. Old St Pauls was made from it too and I'm willing to bet that what I have found on the Thames Foreshore are parts of that great building.

St Pauls was originally built in the Romanesque style but was made over into Early English Gothic after the Great Fire of 1135 damaged the Norman fabric. The other pieces I have are Early English in style and come from a very impressive church indeed. One piece is carved with 'dog tooth' ornament and its large scale tells us that the arch it once decorated was very large in scale too, cathedral sized in fact. There cannot be many candidates, and St Pauls was not only one of the largest Cathedrals in Europe in the Middle Ages but also London's largest building by far.

In decline by the 16th century and decaying by the 17th, work then began on its restoration, however the Great Fire of London damaged it so badly that Old St Pauls was demolished. What the rubble was used for is a matter of conjecture but it would have been useless as building material and most likely used as ships ballast.

Early English dogtooth ornament.  Approx 10 inches square
Excepting today's piece all those found before were black with soot on the exposed faces, possibly from the fire itself. I had to scrape it off manually to reveal the beauty of the stone beneath but it was worth all the effort because they may be the only remains in existence of one of England's great buildings.

Of course there's no way of proving this because contemporary pictures of Old St Pauls do not go into the detail of the decoration, but the Early English style was standard for the times and the decoration of St Pauls would have been similar to Canterbury.

Later on...
Then it was time to set off on a short journey to a standing Early English cathedral at Westminster. The Abbey. I fully expected to have to pay a voluntary donation on entry but wasn't prepared for what the Abbey had in store for me. Right there in front of the entrance was a grey sign with numbers that even at a distance looked eye watering. As I approached, seriously, I could not believe what I saw!

The entrance fee demanded was simply astonishing. Yet tourists queued and paid up. While I stood there staring at these astronomical numbers my mind went into calculator mode. Twenty adults went through the portal in five minutes which is £360. I then walked all the way around the building in ten minutes flat and came back to be astonished a second time because just as many people were entering as before. They'd taken at least £1000 in a quarter of an hour!

It was not a busy time either...

I didn't enter. I couldn't afford it. I could have gone in to worship for free but with a piece of wet stone in a Tesco carrier bag needing to be vetted by a security guard before entry I really couldn't come up with a valid answer as to why I should have it on me, especially as it was very similar indeed to the mouldings visible just inside the portico... a chip off the old block!

So, wasted effort really and a research mission fail. I couldn't have taken pictures anyhow unless by stealth because the Abbey has banned that popular pastime and valuable research essential, presumably to protect even more revenue made in their own images. That the exit was not through a gate but via a shop didn't surprise me. How lovely for us to be forced to pay through the nose at one end and then have the pee extracted at the other. I'll bet there's a charge for the toilets too.

 Taken at probably the least busy time of the week.  £90 queued and more where that came from

I walked back to the City to meet with Judy at Tower Gateway Station. We then walked back to Embankment for drinks at Gordon's Wine Bar. The tide was as high as I have ever seen it at Custom House and was almost over the top of the wall. Gordon's remains one of the filthiest dives in town but because of its grubbiness and great wine is easily one of the most popular. Often you cannot move for crowds and getting seated like winning a prize. The bottle we shared cost £13. It was worth every penny.

Later we went to the late night opening at the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery too. We walked through galleries containing untold trillions of pounds worth of the best art the world has to offer, yet neither cost a penny to enter and neither force you through a shop on your way out. How very civil. Let's hope and pray it remains that way...


  1. If you think the Abbey was expensive(which obviously it was), just as well you didn't go to Borough market.
    Great post by the way.

  2. Thanks, I've added your blog to my blogroll.

    I remember Borough Market back in the late seventies when I first started mudlarking. Bankside was deserted and derelict then, as was most of Southwark. Go there now and you'd never appreciate just how black and grim it was in the recent past, would you?

    Shame they demolished the oil supply pipe jetty for the power station. I always made good finds around that structure

  3. Very good article and photos. I really enjoyed reading.

    1. Thanks David, I've linked to your blog from my sidebar. Love the Massachusetts Volunteer Militia button story, and see that early American military buttons command very high prices if rare! Astonishing prices sometimes. I'll have to do a piece on British volunteer and militia buttons from the Napoleonic war period.