A tourist in my own town

“Italy has great food, Barcelona has great energy” (Stefon Harris)

Actually, it turns out Barcelona has great food too, but I do feel re-energised after my weekend away: My heart may belong to London, but there’s always room for an occasional holiday romance. It was such a pleasure to feel the sun on my face (yep, it’s still raining in England), stroll along La Rambla and gaze wide-eyed at La Sagrada Familia. I was unashamedly a tourist doing all the things I couldn’t and wouldn’t do back home.

I came across a list of London’s top visitor attractions the other day. The London Eye – nope, not done that. St. Paul’s – no, that neither. Buckingham Palace – errm…. You get the general idea. Even those I had been to, I’d only visited for some specific exhibition or event, never just to enjoy them for themselves. Paris and the Eiffel Tower? Essential viewing. London and Tower Bridge? Not a chance.

tourismBut why not? London’s landmarks, the museums and galleries are amongst the finest in the world. I’d served time beyond the M25. I’d learnt not to take such luxuries for granted. Even so, there’s definitely an element of complacency. The trouble with landmarks is they don’t have a deadline, no tightening noose, no pressure of a closing date. The Tower of London has been around for a very long time and let’s face it, will probably still be around for a very long time: There’s always tomorrow.

I do wonder, though, whether part of me isn’t just dismissing it on principle – All those attractions? Stuff for the tourists! You’ve as much chance of discovering London there as me having tea with the Queen. Hidden gardens, obscure museums, little known restaurants – that’s the real London. So in other words, it’s all about visiting places without visitors? Riiight. . .! Nice logic there Lindz. Some secret London which most Londoners haven’t even heard of it isn’t a more ‘real’ London than the famous bits, it’s just less crowded. Admittedly, it’s hard to feel a sense of adventure when you’re on a time-share with the world and his wife, but maybe the reason they’re so popular is that they’re actually worth seeing. Maybe the tourists had it right all along.

Which raises the question – can you can really be a tourist in your own city? Tourists are often criticised for judging by their own standards, for importing their own ideas; and to be fair, it can sometimes lead to gross cultural insensitivities: standing on the wrong side of the escalator, say, or (god forbid) talking on the tube. But it’s precisely this alternative frame of reference which allows visitors to see with a fresh pair of eyes. As a local, the hardest part is recapturing the shock of the new. Your senses are dulled by constant exposure. Just staying focussed can be a challenge – On holiday, you’re removed from all the distractions of daily life but at home, there’s no escaping the mountain of work commitments and messy house: Even palaces don’t look that great when mentally covered in dirty laundry.

The flip side, of course, is that experience offers its own rewards. The London Eye can’t show me the city skyline for the first time, but there’s still a thrill in recognising familiar landmarks or seeing how the landscape has changed. Where ever you go in London, you’re surrounded by world famous attractions. By assuming I couldn’t and shouldn’t play the tourist, ironically I’ve become the worst kind of tourist of all: I’ve seen only what I want, not what’s all around me.

I saved that list of London visitor attractions. What better place to start tapping into my inner tourist? That said, I’m still not sure I’m quite ready to start talking to strangers on the tube!

For whom the bell tolls – The Whitechapel Bell Foundry

“Established A.D. 1570” the sign above the door proclaims proudly. That date alone makes the Whitechapel Bell Foundry the UK’s oldest manufacturing business. In reality, the company can trace its history back much further to around 1420 but as Alan Hughes, whose family have owned the foundry for generations, explains – “round here, we tend not to worry about the odd hundred and fifty years”.

Whitechapel Bell Foundry Main-001

Step beyond the Foundry’s magnificent oaken facade and you might as well have lost a couple of hundred years somewhere en route. Gone is the multicultural shabby chic of modern east London. Enter instead a Dickensian world of wood panelling, narrow stairwells and rickety floorboards. Waiting in Foundry’s front room, I spy an old pendulum clocking-in clock complete with name cards handwritten in beautiful italic script: It’s almost a surprise not to see one for Bob Cratchit. When Alan himself arrives, his striking resemblance to Michael Caine only reinforces the sense of being in some lavish period drama.

Although normally off-limits, on various Saturdays the Whitechapel Bell Foundry opens its doors to general public.  Dates are announced in September for the following year and sell out almost immediately. The rarity factor helps: There are now just 8 foundries left in the world so anyone with a love of bells is hardly spoiled for choice. For many, however, the real attraction is the connection to one bell in particular: Big Ben, recast at Whitechapel in 1858. No sound defines London better than that beloved bell. Londoners lined the streets and cheered when Big Ben first made the journey from Whitechapel to Westminster by horse drawn carriage. All through the Second World War it rang, a symbol of defiance against Hitler. Even today if, on rare occasion, something goes wrong, it always makes headline news and countless column inches will analyse when we’re going to get our bongs back.

Even though large bells still account for the majority of Whitechapel’s business, nowadays they’re a more modest size than Big Ben’s mighty 13.5 tonnes: “Even if we could melt the metal, we couldn’t get anything bigger out the door!”. The metal, a mixture of copper and 22% tin, is heated in the foundry’s furnaces and then cast using a specially constructed loam mould. Large bell casting only takes place on a Friday as they need at least the weekend to cool down. Sure enough, the first mould we come across is still warm to the touch. ‘What’s the secret to successful mould making?’ someone asks, enjoying the heat. Good clay, goat hair and horse poo explains Alan with a grin. “Horse manure is porous so it helps to let any gases escape”. Hands are rapidly removed from the warm mould.

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The size and shape of a bell has a significant influence on its tone. It is possible just to cast a bell and have done with it (a so-called “maiden bell”) but to achieve that aesthetic, harmonious bell sound, tuning is required. By careful removal of metal from the inside of the bell, the tuner can sharpen or flatten the various notes of the bell from the ‘strike note’, the sound the bell makes when it’s first struck, to the ‘hum note’, the lingering sound produced by the vibration of the entire bell (There are in fact five key notes the bell tuner is concerned with). Modern technology has helped considerably in providing precise sound analysis, so much so that someone tone deaf could now do a bell tuner’s job, but it still takes extraordinary skill to know exactly how much metal to remove and from where on the bell:  “One mistake – We smash up the bell and start all over again”.

Given the precision of the work and the pristine world of modern manufacturing, Whitechapel’s workshop comes as quite a shock. It’s a riot of equipment, dust, debris and of course bells, which crowd every surface and every corner. Alan’s good humoured safety warning at the start of the tour suddenly takes on a level of seriousness : “There are literally dozens of ways to hurt yourself here: We’d prefer it if you didn’t!”. Conditions are so cramped in the upstairs area used for small bell production, the foundry can’t employ anyone there over 5ft8. I enjoy the momentary satisfaction of standing tall at 5ft 3 alongside my doubled-up tour companions.

Heightism aside, how does Whitechapel recruit? By comparison with pop star, astronaut or banker, bell making hardly seems a likely choice of career so it’s a real surprise to learn the foundry receives far more applications than it could ever have positions. With only 20 staff, the team is small, bordering on tiny, and people tend to stay – the nearby wall is covered with memorials to all those who’ve died or retired on the job. We’ve always been far more interested in people who actually want to join, says Alan. A passion for bells is far more relevant than previous experience. As if to make a point, he picks up a handbell. It’s a beautiful thing, all gleaming bronze and seductive curves, and the sound it makes is exquisite – rich, resonant, far removed from the shrill, tarnished cry that once summoned me to school assembly.

How rarely do we get the chance to appreciate a bell? For most of us, it’s simply the sound of order and obedience. Fire drill – leave now, door bell – open up, bicycle – step aside, a symbol of compliance. It makes a business like the Whitechapel Bell Foundry all the more remarkable. Nothing about it complies with the modern world. Arcane industry, family values, hand craftsmanship. By rights it shouldn’t exist. Then again, as the irreverent company motto puts it : “Nothing is impossible: For those who don’t have to do it themselves”.

The Big Chill – Ice Bars, Ice Hotels and the London Ice Sculpting Festival

There is a place in Southern Iceland where the Breiðamerkurjökull Glacier meets the Atlantic Ocean. Under the inscrutable gaze of the surrounding mountains, this vast river of ice finally yields to warmer maritime air, a mighty warrior kneeling before the conqueror, the endless expanse of Jökulsárlón, the melt-water lake, a monument to the struggle. All across the lagoon icebergs, scattered and lost, drift towards the seaward channel. They are the survivors, crawling on the battlefield, jagged and broken but still hoping for escape, their frozen armour glinting proudly in the sunshine. It is one of the most hauntingly beautiful places on earth, enough to melt even the coldest of hearts.

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I first visited Jökulsárlón five years ago. It was the beginning of a love affair with ice, no less passionate today than it was back then, standing on a rocky Icelandic shore (Apparently I’m a ‘pagophile’ – a lover of ice – but it didn’t sound the sort of thing to be shouting about too loudly on the internet!). Killer, healer, homeland, wilderness, sculptor, sculpted: ice is an extraordinary substance. Thanks to its peculiar chemistry, its temperate freezing point and lightness of form, it covers nearly 10% of the earth’s surface. It touches our lives in so many everyday ways, from the simple pleasure of an iced drink to the adrenalin rush of the skating rink, yet remains mysterious, contradictory: More fragile than glass, yet capable of sinking ships. Freezing to the touch, yet will burn the skin blacker than the hottest flame. Definitions here are elusive, slipping through the fingers like ice itself.

In spite of the name, the real place of pilgrimage for ice worshippers isn’t Iceland, but Jukkasjärvi in northern Sweden. We’re deep into polar territory here, the Arctic Circle a distant memory some 145km to the south, the average winter temperature 18 degrees below – a perfect home for the world’s first Icehotel (nowadays, there are at least 7 others). Opening from December to April, the entire hotel is sculpted out of snow and ice harvested from the nearby Torne River. No two years are ever the same – It’s created from scratch each winter and only the magnificent ice chandelier is ever saved from the summer sun. Competition for places on the artistic team is fierce, especially the right to create one of the hotel’s fifteen ‘art suites’ : This year, you could sleep in anything from a tube train to Frankenstein’s laboratory. A constant five degrees below, stay in this frozen fantasy palace and for once, claiming your holiday was “really cool” wouldn’t be an exaggeration.

But what about something closer to home? How does a London ice lover get their fix? In spite of the fact the UK usually goes into meltdown at just a mention of snow, London is one of the few cities in the world with an Icebar – Below Zero. You can take your chances on the door, but it’s definitely better to book. The cold area is small and numbers are strictly limited, a maximum of 60 for no more than 40 minutes at a time – not that the adjacent warm bar is a bad place to linger, it’s just whether you’d settle for urban cool if you came for ice.

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On arrival, you’re kitted out in what’s officially described as a “designer thermal cape”: In reality, it’s more of a hooded blue poncho. It’s intended not just to protect you from the ice, but also the ice from you – Given the amount of heat the average human being generates, put 60 people in a room and it’s the equivalent of switching on a 5 bar heater. The extra layers are obviously necessary, but the effect is still vaguely ridiculous. As I step into the cold, the neon glow and hooded crowds suddenly make me feel I’m in some pantomime version of Star Wars. I resist the urge to tell the doorman, ‘these are not the droids you’re looking for’ and head instead for the bar. The price of entry here includes a complimentary cocktail served (naturally) in a glass made of ice. Thereafter drinks are £6.50 a shot, £10.50 if you’ve accidentally lost your original glass. Read the reviews online and these prices receive (not unreasonably) a decidedly frosty reception. Then again, go to the Ice Hotel and you’ll be charged an equally staggering amount : You can’t claim the Ice Bar doesn’t give you an authentic experience.

If I had one real criticism of the London Ice Bar, it would be the current design. Yes, the bar is made of ice. Yes, there are ice murals on the walls, but there are none of the intricate sculptures for which the Ice Hotel is famous. Fortunately, January also sees the capital play host in Canary Wharf to the London Ice Sculpting Festival. Now in its fourth year, this free celebration of frozen art has put London firmly on the international ice sculpting stage. 20 artists from 10 different countries battle it out across 3 days of competition. For sheer intensity and excitement, the first Friday is hard to beat (Being a working day, it’s also the least crowded – Over 50,000 people are thought to have attended this year!). Here are the single block events – the set theme competition, this year ‘River Life’, and the individual freestyle. Working at this scale, the intricacy of the designs is breathtaking, especially on an unseasonably mild January day when it’s a race against time to beat the heat: Sculptures die with every moment they live.

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If I was ever in any doubt as to the extraordinary skill of these artists, having a go myself in one of the ice sculpting workshops really hammered the point home. This isn’t just artistically challenging but intellectually demanding – understanding the conditions and the response of the ice – and physically tough to boot. The longer I worked, the more my frozen fingers complained. Looking round at our efforts, I saw a few goods, plenty of bads and at least one downright ugly (mine!).

Come the weekend and there’s a complete change of pace with the start of the two-day big-block pairs competition. Vast 2m tall, 2 tonne blocks of ice are specially shipped in for the country teams to craft, this year on the theme of ‘Fabulous Fashion’. When so much of the ice we get in this country is milky, ‘white’ ice – a form of frozen slush – just to see ice of this diamond purity is in itself a revelation : suddenly, I understand how the word ‘crystal’ could have come from krystallos, the ancient greek for ice.

Saturday sees much of the preparation work take place : what you lose in the lack of detail is more than compensated for by the drama of chainsaws and fountains of flying ice, especially later in the day when the blocks are dramatically underlit. With the immediate pressure of competition lifted, the artists also seem more relaxed – Reverend Butter from Team USA (otherwise known as Rolando De La Garza) hams it up Texas Chainsaw Massacre style; The UK’s Mike Kerslake begs for ‘crowd-funding’ when he needs a lighter for his blowtorch. By Sunday afternoon, however, the serious mood returns as everyone races towards 5pm and the competition deadline. This year’s winner was Africa, a stunning result in its own right, but even more so when you consider this was the first year they’ve ever participated. Then again, as Mario Amegee from the African team says : “When you have art, it’s ok. You can do everything, you know”.

Ice: Extraordinary substance. Extraordinary people.

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Xmas Past & Xmas Presents: 400 Years of Xmas Tradition at the Geffrye Museum

“I think there are more people in this store than there are in the whole of Canada”

6pm. 23rd December. Just two shopping days to go until Christmas and I still haven’t bought a single present. I’m clearly not the only one who’s left it all to the last minute. My Canadian friend wasn’t exaggerating – the World and his Wife really are in John Lewis. Not that it makes me feel any better, any more than the walls of novelty gifts screaming at me to “Keep Calm”. Back in 1647, the Puritans tried to ban Christmas. Right now, life would be a lot easier if they’d succeeded.

They reckon us Brits will spend a staggering £22.3bn this year on Christmas. If Christmas UK were a country, it’d be about the same size as Bahrain and they’re a member of OPEC. Probably a lesson in there somewhere. Want to survive Christmas? Shop early, spend hard, strike oil.

It’s easy to assume the commercialisation of Christmas is something recent, but in reality, we’ve been over-indulging at Xmas for at least 150 years. Records from 1868 show Lord Braybrooke and his family enjoyed no less than 10 courses for Christmas lunch, polishing off (amongst others) 34 rabbits, 18 partridges and 2 ducks. Even a basic Christmas lunch of goose, pudding and stuffing would cost an ordinary man a week’s wages.

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We also have the Victorians to thank for other essential elements of Christmas. The printed Christmas card first appeared in 1843 (the brainchild of Sir Henry Cole who’d grown tired of hand-writing seasonal notes to numerous friends and colleagues), the Christmas cracker in 1848. As for the Christmas tree – The idea of decorating fir trees had been around in Germany for many years, but it wasn’t until the 1840s and Victoria & Albert’s enthusiasm for the custom that the English practice really caught on.

Of course, it was this fascination with Christmas Past which had got me into trouble now with Christmas present(s). It was all going so well. I’d booked a day off work last week. I was all set to go Christmas shopping. Then I heard about the Christmas exhibition at the Geffrye Museum. It sounded so much more appealing than battling crowds and battering credit cards on Oxford Street. Off to Hoxton I went instead. What can I say? Christmas has always been a time of giving in to temptation.

The Geffrye Museum is London’s Museum of the Home. Located in the magnificent 18th Century almshouses built at the bequest of Sir Robert Geffrye (a former Lord Mayor of London), it explores how the typical English middle-class home has evolved over the years. Like many of London’s best-kept secrets, it’s free to enter so there’s no excuse not to visit the café. Even if you’ve no interest in domestic design, its smoked salmon bagels are sensational – not to be missed.

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Every year, the museum plays host to its annual Christmas exhibition. All the period rooms are authentically decorated, each recreating seasonal festivities from a different period of history. You squeeze through the museum’s wormhole corridors suddenly to emerge in another moment and another time – from a 17th Century hall to the self-conscious style of a modern day loft.

For all this, what struck me the most during my visit wasn’t how much Christmas had changed, but how little. A speed dating session with 400 years of history and I’d met fabrics and furnishings in every shape, colour and style but Christmas? Maybe three types at most: The feasting and frivolity of the 1600s with their semi-pagan undertones; the neglect of the 18th Century; the Victorian revival. Look in on a late 19th Century drawing room and most of the elements of a modern Christmas are recognisable but even in a 1630s hall, the decorative holly is comfortably familiar.

I never really understood how much I appreciated the stability of Christmas until one year when it was all change. Christmas in transit through South East Asia : Shops open, sunshine, not a Brussels sprout in sight (ok, so maybe it wasn’t all bad!). I missed all our silly family traditions more than words could say. There’s so little in modern life that’s reassuring and routine. How many other customs have just fallen by the wayside? It’s easy to criticize the commercialization of Christmas, but it has at least helped to keep it on the map, to make it a constant. Would I really make the same time for giving and sharing, food family and friends without the pressure of collective expectation?

Cards, crackers and the pudding no one eats. Leaving it all last minute again. Socks, family squabbles and snow (lack of): Some things about Christmas never change, but you know what, that’s just the way I like it.

Do need to shop earlier next year though!

Merry Christmas x

It’s Good to Talk: The London Lecture Scene

I’ve become a Skeptic. I don’t meant that healthy dose of cynicism most Londoners need to survive the finer points of life in the capital – £5 a pint, rush hour congestion, the latest over-hyped restaurant opening – but London Skeptics In The Pub, the award winning lecture group.

Once a month, a load of enthusiasts get together in The Monarch, Camden, to discuss everything from politics to philosophy, history to science. An expert speaker presents on a chosen topic and then it’s opened up to the floor for discussion. Right from the first, I was hooked: it’s thought provoking, good-natured and charmingly chaotic, especially towards the end when everyone’s had a few / few too many. No surprises then that it’s also almost always packed (if you go along, make sure to get there early – it’s first come, first serve). Given your average undergraduate’s attendance record at lectures, Universities across the country could learn a thing or two from these guys.

Guest presenter Richard Firth-Godbehere takes a break from discussions during an interval at London Skeptics In The Pub

Talks and lectures are fast becoming one of my favourite forms of entertainment. Living and working back in London has brought with it a rediscovered pleasure in midweek nights out: None of the military precision planning that coloured life in the country (the joys of rural public transport and no connections between home and work), just walk straight out into a world of social possibilities.

Of course, being a school night, it’s not exactly carte blanche. Anything too late or too boozy – well, it’s doable, but it definitely makes for a difficult next day in the office; and there’s no point in blowing the entire budget before you’ve even got to the weekend. Talks are perfect not least because they’re so inexpensive: London Skeptics is a mere £5 a pop and even tickets to the Southbank rarely cost more than a tenner in spite of the higher-profile line up. Often, however, there’s no charge at all: Gresham College in Holborn, for example, provides hundreds of free public lectures a year on everything from ‘Hawaiian Religion & Dance’ to ‘Criminal Minds’.

In other words, there’s plenty of spare change to round off the evening with a drink or a meal – Both of which are perfectly possible given most talks are done and dusted by 9pm at the latest. No need for world speed eating records inhaling packets of crisps during the interval nor risk of death by dodgy kebab after the show’s finished.

Naturally, it helps if the lecture itself is worth listening to. Inevitably, some are better than others but on the whole, I’ve rarely been disappointed. Most speakers aren’t there out of obligation but for sheer love of their subject and that enthusiasm is infectious, no matter what. So often the talks I’ve enjoyed the most are on the subjects about which I’ve known the least – David Eagleman on the science of the subconscious brain or Pete Goss on sailing solo around the world (and for someone who doesn’t do boats and gets seasick on the Thames, that’s saying something!)

Miss the point of a movie and the director’s hardly going to be on hand to explain himself. Still think that modern art masterpiece is just a stuffed sheep: How can you argue the toss with the gallery (unless of course you go along to one of their free lectures! Try the National Gallery’s lunchtime series)? A talk, however, is an interactive experience. You can question or clarify or get to see something in a completely different light thanks to comments from the audience. It’s the ultimate in user-generated content, a reminder of a time when it was all about conversation not elements in a conversational media strategy.

no wifi

But let’s suppose you do get stuck in a less than stimulating session: What then? I’d be lying if I said it never happens (you’d be surprised at how dull some celebrities can be – so much so I now actively avoid “Evenings With” on principle). Fortunately, talks quite often have unusual or “off-limits” homes. The whole premise of The Lost Lectures is to be as much about the location as the lecture : They’ve hosted events at secret locations all over the capital including a lighthouse and an East London Boxing Hall. Equally, Barts Pathology Museum has an intermittent programme of seminars which includes a rare opportunity to see this Grade II listed site and its 5000 specimens.

The growing ranks of the London lecture scene prove what everyone in business has long since known : The best discussions don’t happen in the boardroom, but the bar.

Or should that be the museum and the boxing ring?

For a comprehensive list of talks and lectures in London, see www.talksandlectures.com

Going Out In Style: The Eerie World of London’s Victorian Cemeteries

I have a lot of time for the Victorians. They never did anything by halves. No matter how functional or utilitarian a building, they built it big and bold and beautiful. Today, we’re lucky if even the most essential of services are fit for purpose. What modern sewage works could be described as “elegant”, “ornamental” and “sumptuous”? Yet, the Abbey Mills Pumping Station from 1868 is all this and more. You may not be able to polish the proverbial, but Charles Driver’s Byzantine masterpiece comes pretty close.

If the Victorians treated sewage in style, they dealt with that other unpleasant side effect of life – death – with no less grandeur. The Nineteenth Century saw a marked shift away from simple burial in a parish churchyard to lavish, European style public cemeteries, beautifully landscaped with tomb-lined avenues and shady cypress trees.  Vast amounts of money were spent on grandiose memorials and prestigious plots. At a time when the average factory worker earned just 35p / week, prime cemetery places cost anything up to 10 guineas, the same as a house in wealthy Holland Park.

So what changed? Even though every parishioner had the right to be buried in their parish churchyard, massive increases in population plus a series of cholera epidemics meant the churchyards were running out of space. London was hardest hit : In the 50 years between 1800 and 1850, the city’s population more than doubled.  The writings of London doctor and social reformer, George Walker, are full of horrific descriptions of stinking shallow graves and overflowing decay. Eventually, Parliament bowed to public pressure : Between 1832 – 1841, they authorised the establishment of a seven commercial cemeteries in suburban districts around London. A decade later, the city’s churchyards were closed to further burials.

In all, the Victorian period saw over 100 cemeteries established around the city but these first few remain the most important. In 1981, the historian Hugh Meller christened them “The Magnificent Seven” and the nickname’s stuck ever since.  At the heart of their magnificence lies a complex Victorian relationship with death – The fact that death was all around and average life expectancy only 44, even for the wealthiest; the influence of Ancient Rome and the need for your name to live on after death; the far greater part played in everyday life by Christianity, the belief in the eternal soul and resurrection of the body. Queen Victoria herself set the social standard for the day, building memorial after memorial and staying in mourning for Prince Albert for over 40 years.

Each of the Magnificent Seven has its own distinct characteristic from the relative simplicity of Tower Hamlets to the splendour of West Norwood. By far the most famous is Highgate, something often ascribed to the fact Karl Marx is buried there although all the cemeteries have their fair share of celebrities. Its popularity in literature and film must also have helped. Either way, it’s undeniably magnificent and would certainly have figured in my list of favourites had it been possible to wander round freely – As it is, you can meet Mr. Marx and enjoy the East Cemetery at leisure, but visits to the older (and arguably more impressive) West Cemetery are as part of a guided tour only (For more information see www.highgatecemetery.org)

So which then are amongst my pick of London’s Magnificent Seven?

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Abney Park

Abney Park is everything you’d imagine an old cemetery to be. Although it was once the most impressively landscaped cemetery of the period, years of neglect left the 31 acre site wild and overgrown. Now a local nature reserve, gravestones and monuments peep through untamed woodland and ivy ensnares even the tallest statues. The effect is at once both magical and eerie – part fairy grotto, part Hammer House of Horror set. There’s even an old, ruined chapel at its heart just to complete the effect. In reality, however, the most famous thing ever filmed here is far less sinister – The video for Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black.

Look out for – William and Catherine Booth, founders of the Salvation Army.

Brompton Cemetery

For a complete contrast, head west to Earls Court and Brompton Cemetery. Light, open and impeccably maintained, a grand carriage-way runs through the centre to a beautiful Italian-style chapel: It could be the grounds of lavish stately home. Created by architect Benjamin Baud, key to the design also was John Loudon, the Scottish botantist who would go on to write the single most important book of the period on cemetery design. He believed all townsfolk should have access to green ‘breathing spaces’ and saw cemeteries as the public gardens of the future.

Look out for – Peter Rabbett, Jeremiah Fisher & Mr.McGregor. Beatrix Potter apparently took inspiration for the names of her characters from tombstones in Brompton Cemetery.

Kensal Green

Last but by no means least is the grand old dame of London cemeteries, the 72 acre Kensal Green Cemetery. Although the oldest of the seven (it celebrates its 180th Birthday this year), for me it’s also the most vibrant, no doubt in part because it’s still a working cemetery. Old and new sit side by side, a poignant reminder that death comes to us all but also a celebration of the ever-continuing cycle of life. Not that the old is eclipsed by the new. In spite of the odd example of vandalism, Kensal Green is art gallery meets history lesson: No less than 140 monuments and buildings are listed, including a stunning Grade I Anglican chapel based on the temples of Ancient Greece (For the truly macabre, there’s an extensive network of coffin-lined catacombs to be found under the chapel; They’re currently closed but normally, you can take a tour on the first and third Sunday of the month).

Look out for – Isambard Kingdom Brunel, civil engineer and one of the greatest Britons of all time.

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The word ‘cemetery’ come from the Greek ‘koimeterion’ or ‘a place of sleep’. London’s Victorian cemeteries are as much a respite for the living from city life as a resting place for the dead. Morbid, eerie, peaceful, sublime, they are a fascinating taste of times gone by, a gateway to another world; and you never know, you might even meet a few famous faces whilst you’re there.

Shooting Ghosts : Fear and Understanding in the Greenwich Foot Tunnel

Chairman Meow has started playing trick or treat. When it’s time for dinner, he’s all affection, treating us to loads of cuddles and purrs but if food then isn’t forthcoming, he gets up to all sorts of tricks – Tapping the side of your face with a paw, pushing papers off the desk, running dementedly round the house only to freeze suddenly as if he’s seen a ghost.

The Chairman isn’t the only one getting into the Halloween spirit. Halloween is big business now in the UK : It’s estimated we spend a terrifying £300m on the festival. As a Brit, it’s hard not to feel a little sadness at the eclipse of our native Guy Fawkes, but it’s perhaps unsurprising. Let’s face it, this damp little island really doesn’t have the climate for any kind of outdoor activity in October, let alone something involving significant amounts of combustion: Bonfires and fireworks just don’t cut it in the rain. Halloween has no weather worries, no burnt children, no religious sensitivities, just fancy dress fun for all ages. In fact, it’s fast closing in on Christmas and Easter for popularity; And like Christmas, the festivities are starting earlier and earlier every year. With a fortnight still to go, I saw three zombies cycling past – it seems even the Walking Dead nowadays prefer Boris bikes.

Check any list of London’s scariest spots and you’ll almost always find a mention of the Greenwich Foot Tunnel, a 370m pedestrian subway under the Thames between Cutty Sark and Island Gardens. Opened in 1902, it transformed the lives of shipworkers south of the river who’d previously been dependent on the overcrowded and often unreliable ‘horse ferry’ to get to work in the docks on the Isle of Dogs. It was a magnificent piece of Victorian engineering but more recently, it’s fallen on hard times. Although there’s ongoing work to give the tunnel a much needed facelift, it remains dirty, seedy and crumbling. As the excellent Secret London Guide puts it “At times of low traffic, it feels like the loneliest, most desolate place in London.”

Greenwich Tunnel Ghosts

With Halloween just round the corner, it seemed like the perfect excuse for a visit but as I descended the staircase and stepped into the tunnel, my first feelings weren’t of fear but bitter disappointment. Shabby and decaying yes, but frightening? Hardly. For a start, it was just so busy. It never occurred to me it could be this crowded (clearly naivety on my part: I’ve since found out more than 1.5m Londoners use the tunnel every year and it’s almost at capacity!). Far from being a sinister highway, this was more like the fast lane on the M25. As wave after wave of people dashed past, there were certainly some scary sights, but none of them remotely supernatural.

Still, I was here now. No point in rushing off. I might as well make the most of it and take time to explore. It’s funny how the human brain works but the longer I spent in the tunnel, the more uncomfortable I started to feel. Maybe it was the humidity, the stale, slightly foetid air; Or perhaps the echoes, which danced all around and disorientated the senses on a rollercoaster of sound. When a group of lads came through on skateboards I genuinely (ie embarrassingly) panicked, imagining it was the roar of 50ft of river-water suddenly bursting through into the tunnel. The Greenwich Tunnel isn’t a frightening place, it’s a place where you bring your own fears and watch them fester and multiply in the dark corners of your mind.

Halloween is full of ghost stories to inspire fear, but maybe the real ghost is fear itself, that lingering memory of negative experience which haunts us throughout our lives. Even faced with our obvious unhappiness in the country, for months we couldn’t make the decision to return to London for fear of the past – fear of our former shoe-box lifestyle, fear of the cost of living, fear for the Chairman. In the end, it was only the realization that our marriage was more important that put those fears into perspective and gave us the courage to act.

So why did I finally flee the foot tunnel and scuttle back to the surface? They say the only thing you have to fear is fear itself but when an enormous spider suddenly starts crawling towards your leg, I’m happy to make an exception.