London Puzzles 1: Bear-Faced London
My local area of King’s Cross was traditionally connected to hunting deer, and the psychogeographic connection remains when you walk around the neighbourhood and spot the number of either accidental or deliberate references to deer and stag horns – they adorn buildings and pubs, often tucked into decorative motifs.
Having just read Dr Matthew Green’s delightfully atmospheric ‘London: A Travel Guide Through Time’, which steps into the city’s history at various key points, looking at them in detail, we went looking for bears. In his chapter on London in 1603, Dr Green describes a visit to a bull and bear-baiting pit in Southwark. The contests were not for the faint-hearted; three English mastiffs at a time hurled themselves at a chained bull, which tossed them many feet into the air so that they often landed in the stands. The dogs attacked the bulls’ lips, eyebrows and ears without having their guts stamped out, but the betting crowd was most excited when a dog got the bull by the nose and tenaciously bit down while being swung about.
The bear VS dog battles were even more horrific; the bears’ teeth were broken to make the fights last longer. Strong young bears were replaced by old blind ones to give the dogs more of a chance. Nobody found it cruel; in 1583 the Privy Council called it ‘a sweet and comfortable recreation fitted for the solace and comfort of a peaceable people.’ I find myself thinking compared to what? Counted as a legitimate national sport beloved by royalty, there were two baiting arenas in Bankside. Elizabeth I visited them while never managing to get to the Globe.
Walking around the area now, it’s hard to believe how fast everything is changing, and although little is left of such distant past times (or pastimes) there are odd glimpses of the way life was lived. Visiting Maltby Street Market yesterday, which its narrow alley of smoking sweetmeats, you do get a distinctly timeless feeling, secondhand stalls crowding the road from Vinegar Yard down to the river. During the weekdays this area is a timber yard and the home of another branch of architectural antique store Lassco.
Rounding the end of a backstreet you come to The Horseshoe Inn, Southwark, an old-school local boozer pretty typical of this area – but no-one seems able to explain the sign that stands outside. Was this on the site of one of the arenas? I’m pretty sure one of you will know the answer.