If the name Dorothy L Sayers simply conjures up an image of Edward Petherbridge or Ian Carmichael portraying a ‘silly ass’ aristocratic sleuth with a monocle, perhaps it is time to think again.
Lord Peter Wimsey’s fast cars and ample wealth may have been created as wish fulfillment in hard times, but Sayers’ reality was much closer to that of her fictional heroine Harriet Vane, an independent woman of limited means trying to make a career as a writer.
D L Sayers’ own life and the London in which she lived and worked shine through several of her novels and short stories. Pym’s agency in Murder Must Advertise is modeled closely on Benson’s where Sayers worked for many years as a successful copywriter, and in Gaudy Night it is Sayers’ own first floor bedsit overlooking Mecklenburg Square that is home for Harriet.
When we first meet Harriet in Strong Poison she is on trial for her life, accused of murder. Is there any parallel with Sayers’ own life? Is this literary revenge on her own faithless lover?
Despite murder Sayers’ writing often has a light touch and ready wit. Miss Climpson’s “cattery” of female investigators disguised as a secretarial agency appears in several stories and is a nice nod to Sherlock Holmes’ Bow Street Irregulars, the street urchins who are his eyes and ears. Miss Murchison’s nail-biting infiltration of the Bedford Row office of a murderous solicitor makes the heart beat faster!
This walk explores places Sayers lived and worked and her personal and professional life unfolds and interweaves with that of her characters. Fact and fiction overlap on the walk as they do in the novels where, for one example, fictional pathologist James Lubbock shares a strikingly similar career with real-life Bernard Spilsbury, each living in the same Bloomsbury Square and each acquiring a knighthood at much the same time. Why not join Sue on this walk through Bloomsbury to find out more?
I was recently fortunate enough to see ZooNation: The Kate Prince Company’s production of SYLVIA at The Old Vic. Maria Omakinwa, who had stepped into the title role of suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst at very short notice, put up a great performance. It was very refreshing to to see a vibrant musical performance of women’s history enjoyed by a predominantly young audience. Edith Garrud, Islington’s “Jiu-Jitsu Suffragette” putting Emmeline Pankhurst’s bodyguard through their paces certainly lent itself well to dance!
Perhaps the show wasn’t entirely fair to Churchill’s position on women’s suffrage, but Delroy Atkinson’s portrayal of him torn between two strong women, mother Lady Jennie Churchill and wife Clementine was huge fun to watch.
Sylvia Pankhurst’s ongoing connection to Winston Churchill can still be found today on a bridge over the A406 North Circular Road at South Woodford. Since 2012, this has been the somewhat unlikely setting for a group of four public seats of which two commemorate a couple of Woodford’s most famous residents – on the left, Winston Churchill (MP from 1924 to 1964) and on the right Sylvia Pankhurst (resident from 1924 to 1956)
Whereas SYLVIAthe musical ends in 1927, soon after the birth of her son Richard; Sylvia the woman was only halfway through a very full life indeed and aspects of that life are depicted on panels that form the back of the seat.
At the time of Richard’s birth Sylvia was living in Woodford Green with Richard’s father, Sylvio Corio. Sylvia moved to the area from Bow and the family lived in Woodford Green for more than 30 years, first at Red Cottage on the High Road and later in Charteris Road and scandalised some neighbours by their refusal to marry.
The ‘ tiresome Miss Sylvia Pankhurst” as MI5 dubbed her, remained active in politics throughout her life. She wrote extensively, supported the Republicans in Spain during the 1930s, campaigned against arial bombardment and was tireless in the campaign against the Italian occupation of Ethiopia.
Sylvia died in Addis Ababa in 1960, where she spent the last few year of her life having moved permanently to live in Ethiopia, at the invitation of Emperor Haile Selassie. She was regarded so highly for her work for Ethiopia that she was given a state funeral, attended by the Emperor himself and other members of the royal family.
To find out more about Sylvia Pankhurst and the east London Federation of Suffragettes join Oonagh’s Radical Women of the East End walk on Sunday 2 December.
Looking at this imposing Grade II listed church in the east London suburb of Wanstead it would be hard to imagine its very unusual history.
Now well-connected by the Central Line and popular with young families, Wanstead in the 1860s was an Essex village with an expanding population and a growing community of religious non-conformists without a purpose-built place of worship. They had been offered land by a Mr GH Wilkinson, but rejected as too costly the plans drawn up for building on it.
The non-conformists knew a bargain when they saw one, and the bargain they saw was nine miles away on the Euston Road where the junction with Midland Road is now. Here was a ready built church, only a few years old but already doomed by the onward march of the railway.
St Luke’s on the New Road (now Euston Road) was part of a Victorian church-building boom: 2,438 churches were built or re-built in England between 1851 and 1875 and St Luke’s was one of several planned to serve the needs of the ever-expanding population in the large urban parish of St Pancras.
Money had been short and work was slow. It took five years to complete the project and even then funds were insufficient for the tall spire on top of the tower.
The smart new building of Kentish ragstone with Bath stone dressings, designed by architect John Johnson, finally opened in 1861. However, the church was no competition for the might of the railway companies. A mere two years after the church was completed, the Midland Railway Company secured an Act of Parliament that would allow it to extend its line down to London, compulsorily purchase the land in its way (including that occupied by the church) and replace it with the cathedral-like splendour of St Pancras Station.
Pragmatically, the church quickly capitulated, accepted £12,500 for their early surrender of the land and were allowed to keep the fabric of the building.
At this point those astute non-conformists in Wanstead made an offer of £526 to buy the fabric of St Luke’s. This was accepted: Mr Reed a Walthamstow builder dismantled and transported the materials to Wanstead at a cost of £2,000. Even the crypt under the church was brought from the original site! John Johnson, the original architect, was commissioned to adapt his design to fit the rather different shaped and sized plot of land available.
As for St Luke’s, they had enough money from the deal to commission Basil Champneys to build a replacement safely out of the way of the railways in Oseney Crescent, Kentish Town.
Oonagh Gay of Crouch End Walks and I were joined by a very interesting group of walkers for our Ada Salter – Beautifying Bermondsey walk for Open Garden Squares on Saturday afternoon. Instead of our usual circular route that takes in all aspects of Ada’s fascinating life in Bermondsey, we concentrated on her horticultural achievements.
For the first time since we started the walks in the Spring we were able to use the grasp in Ada’s left hand, carefully crafted by sculptor Diane Gorvin, for some of her favourite dahlias. These long-stemmed imports, though are not as hardy as the seed-grown, single flowered Coltness variety favoured by Bermondsey Council nurseries in the 1920s that provided the Borough’s famously colourful displays in parks and window boxes. Bermondsey’s planting was rightly famous and Mr Johns, Superintendent of Gardens had three new strains of dahlia confirmed by the Royal Horticultural Society: Coltness Purple, Yellow and Salmon. The salmon-coloured was renamed Bermondsey Gem and the yellow, Rotherhithe Gem. Coltness mixed dahlia seeds are available from many suppliers – but I haven’t been able to track down any Bermondsey or Rotherhithe Gems.
Mr Johns’ favourite street tree was the flowering cherry and we saw cherries in abundance.
The Cherry Gardens of Samuel Pepys day are long gone, but the present Cherry Gardens, a small stretch of garden between River and housing on Bermondsey Wall marks a tussle between the local community and developers that Ada would surely have approved. Originally ear-marked by the local authority for low-density housing the land was compulsorily purchased in the 1980s by the London Dockland Development Corporation who threatened to obscure the River view and access with high rise blocks. Cherry Gardens today is part of the compromise reached when local people won out against the LDDC and Southwark Council regained half the land.
I don’t think the sculptor intended Ada and Alfred’s daughter Joyce to be embellished but when we visited on Saturday she was shaded from the sun by a distinctly contemporary baseball cap and fishing with the local lads. On a previous visit she was listening to music in a way unforeseen at the time of her tragically early death in 1910.
And further along the river wall at Providence Square, as Oonagh and I made our way back after visiting the wonderful floating gardens at Garden Barge Square, we met another young person fishing. This Banksy is much faded and it’s hard now to see the syringe on the end of his line.
And if you would like the full version of this walk, Oonagh is leading the next one on 9th July. You can book here
We got both fresh air and fun on yesterday’s Bermondsey walk and some stunning views of the Thames and the London skyline to boot! Each time I walk these streets as spring turns to summer and the trees come into full leaf, I marvel at how green Bermondsey is and how forward thinking Ada Salter was. After almost eighty years Bermondsey’s streets are still tree-lined and the estates full of well-maintained shrubs and playgrounds.
I was delighted and very touched when Bermondsey novelist, Mary Gibson gave me a copy of her second novel Jam & Roses, in which Ada features and which covers many of the places we covered on the walk. Mary has now published four novels set in Bermondsey and you can find out more about them on her website http://www.marygibsonauthor.co.uk
It was pretty windy when Oonagh led the first of our Ada Salter walks in Bermondsey last week, but that didn’t put off the group who all enjoyed the mix of Garden estate, old warehouses and sunning Thames views upriver. Ada’s trees, planted as part of the Beautification programme should look even better next Saturday with more in leaf. Why not join us and enjoy the Salters’ legacy?
The next walk is on Saturday 13th May at 11am. Click here to book.
After a couple of months of hibernation and planning I’m shall be starting to offer a regular programme of walks again from March. I’m excited to announce new walks for 2017 about two women I admire very much.
Ada Salter: Beautifying Bermondsey
This year Capital Walks ventures south of the River to Bermondsey celebrating the life and achievements of Ada Salter; socialist, pacifist, environmentalist, youth-worker and Quaker. Ada was the first female Mayor in London and the first Labour woman mayor in the British Isles. Ada loved singing and plants; with her husband, local doctor and MP Dr Alfred Salter, she made a significant impact on health, housing, employment and labour relations. The Garden Suburb she created and the tree planting she championed can still be seen today. Oonagh Gay, of Crouch End Walks, and I have put a route together that explores her achievements and the ethical socialism that underpinned them.
Back in Bloomsbury, I have been indulging long-held enthusiasm for the writing of Dorothy L Sayers and developing a walk around some of DLS’s haunts along with those of her alter ego Harriet Vane and other familiar characters from the novels. See where Peter Wimsey broke his collarbone, where Harriet lived, where her fictional lover Philip Boyes imbibed Strong Poison and find out more about the woman who brought them all to life.