Is It Possible To Step Back In Time?

London

It’s all about opening a window to the past.

As cities change they shed their pasts. This was never London’s problem because past and present have always existed together in an ever-changing collision of styles and tastes. One senses that this is now coming to an end as international corporate architecture flattens life from the metropolis.

And yet.

Dennis Severs (he of the celebrated house in Folgate Street) once told me that if he could get a person to open a window to the past they would understand for a moment how history was shaped. I had that with him on one foggy night overlooking the bell tower of the Wren church in Spitalfields when the present melted away to reveal a different time.

It also happened again on the night of the premiere for the film ‘Wilde’, which I had worked on. Jude Law (Bosie), Stephen Fry (Oscar) and I were walking between Leicester Square and the Strand in period clothes with green carnations in our buttonholes, on our way to the Savoy. I looked back at them for a moment and it felt as if I was seeing the pair strolling through the misted night by the river over a century earlier.

Last night it happened again.

I was walking underneath Blackfriars Bridge. On one corner was a man selling roasted chestnuts – on the other was a young student played the cello. St Paul’s Cathedral shone across the high dark tide.

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To my right, guests were arriving at a party being held in one of London’s most famous houses – over the last 450 years its residents watched ferrymen carry Londoners to and from Shakespeare’s Globe. They saw the Great Fire, passed heads on poles at London Bridge, saw the lanes of London’s marshy South Bank give way to wharves, workshops and tenements. There’s a book about the house, ‘The House By The Thames and the People Who Lived There’ by Gillian Tindall.

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I was heading to the Globe’s Jacobean Theatre, lit entirely by candlelight, to sit on a narrow bench and watch a three hour long Jacobean play, which sounds like a horrible trial but wasn’t at all – in fact the time flew past. The play, ‘Knight of the Burning Pestle’ (a euphemism for syphilis) was a comedy for children by Francis Beaumont, first performed in 1607. It’s the first parody in English, and predates ‘Don Quixote’, which is similar in structure.

The Knight of the Burning Pestle performed at the Globe Theatre

The first performance took place in a house known for biting satire and sexual double entendre right around this very spot in Blackfriars.

In the play two audience members, a grocer and his wife (Phil Daniels and Pauline McLynn) start heckling the actors, then insinuate their gormless son Rafe into the action, causing chaos. Seated in the Pit meant being dragged into the action. Ms McLynn offered me grapes and Rafe spat his teeth out all over us after being punched in the face. It was a raucous, bawdy, hilarious play as Rafe fought a ten-foot bloodstained barber and seduced a bearded harem princess.

It’s the first play to break the fourth wall to allow a commentary on the action, and even with all the quests and fights and deaths and slapstick, including crashing through the roof, it’s a long night, but at the end of the play there’s an extraordinary petal-strewn speech about youth and London that nearly moved me to tears. At this point the sense of the present falling away returned and lasted for several hours.

The present day was restored upon arriving on Blackfriars station, London’s only station on a bridge, which has spectacular views of Tower Bridge and the Thames. Are there any places where the past has revealed itself to you? I’d love to hear about them.

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6 comments on “Is It Possible To Step Back In Time?”

  1. Joza says:

    In the early hours of a foggy Autumn night at Whitby Goth Weekend in the mid 1990s, I was with a group of friends (obviously black-clad with hair crimped and backcombed to the max). We walked around a corner of Whitby old town into the market square and straight into the early 1960s. A Ford Anglia, early Mini, people in suits, policemen with capes and whistles, all very surreal. Of course we later discovered we’d walked straight into Hearbeat filming on location – I’d love to know if, somewhere in the out takes, there is the moment when Hearbeat suffered an inadvertent vampire invasion!

  2. @skippybe says:

    I used to work at an amusements arcade on New Street in Birmingham, in a building which had originally been a Masonic hall and then converted to a cinema (until it in turn was killed by the VCR in 1983). One day when business was slow the manager took us up a maintenance staircase into the old auditorium, above the arcade’s suspended ceiling, and it was all still there, locked up and never touched: tiered rows of dusty seating, moth-eaten drapes either side of where the screen had been, mildewing signs for old brands of ice creams and sweets. I don’t believe in the ghosts of people, but I absolutely believe in the ghosts of places.

  3. Vivienne says:

    Quite envious. Not sure I’ve ever had a real feel of being back in time, but there are a few pockets which lend themselves to this nostalgia. Green Park, late, with just the gas lamps, and parts of lincoln’s Inn, before you reach Chancery Lane – again, you have to be there alone and late at night. Was once near Kent House station, near Beckenham, there are a few roads that are unadopted so just have dirt instead of Tarmac. Quite wide roads with small separate Victorian villas. The lack of road markings and the old fashioned lighting really take you back.

  4. Brian Evans says:

    Vivienne-I know the bit around Kent House Station, and it is very atmospheric. Silverdale in Sydenham used to be till they pulled down all those old and crumbling Victorian Houses. The Edwardian “Thorpes “estate in Sydenham still feels a bit like that. (The 4 or 5 roads all end in “Thorpe”-eg Bishopsthorpe). Around Calderstones Park in South Liverpool (Near Cressington Station I think) is very much like that, and also around Great Malvern Station too. If I remember rightly they are both still gas-lit.
    I have read “The House by the Thames” by Gillian Tindall and it is a cracking read. At the moment I am reading “West End Chronicles” by Ed Gilbert, which deals with the wanton corporate destruction of so many grand old houses in Piccadilly and Mayfair. An excellent book (but depressing) -I’m sure admin has read it.

  5. John Griffin says:

    I often go to Whitby (fossil hunting, not Goth or Steampunking) and it is the weirdest most atmospheric place in the winter.Henrietta St in a sea fug, emerging down one of the passages to the riverside, with a boat drifting out on the tide, could be anytime. Gets you the neck shivers.

  6. Helen Martin says:

    We went past on the train, John and I thought it would be a fascinating place to visit. Obviously I was right. Another time perhaps.

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