London Labyrinths

Kings Cross Labyrinth

King’s Cross Labyrinth Mural, Varnishers Yard N1

Eagle-eyed readers may notice that a detail from this installation is pictured on my website.  Labyrinths have played quite a large part in my life since my partner developed a deep interest in all things labyrinthine some years ago. A quick glance round our living room reveals several labyrinth artefacts. On the mantelpiece alone I can see a small lace labyrinth, a photograph of a labyrinth made from sand on a beach and an invitation to a labyrinth gathering in Texas. Casting my eye around further, I spot the cover of the yellow paperback edition of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Dans le labyrinth, an A1-size conference poster about labyrinth initiatives hiding unsuccessfully behind a chair, and a wooden chest in the window bay that contains plastic and wood finger labyrinths, a small fabric labyrinth and other bits of labyrinth kit.

Much of the last few days have been spent checking the index to my partner’s forthcoming book about … (yes, of course it is about labyrinths!) and so much in need of fresh air and exercise I set out for a long walk, but the labyrinth doesn’t let me go…

Phillip O'Reilly Kings X labyrinth

King’s Cross Labyrinth mural detail


Tucked away in the Regent Quarter between Caledonian Road, York Way and Pentonville Road; Phillip O’Reilly’s ceramic installation can be found on the wall of Varnishers Yard. The glazed tiles that make up the seven metre by seven metre mural were hand made in the artist’s Peckham studio and use images of local industry, films, novels and plants. So if you peer closely you might just make out trains, barges and local parks.  The labyrinth is one of two Wall-Works commissioned from O’Reilly by P&O Estates.

Fen Court 2

Fen Court


The labyrinth on Fen Court, just off Fenchurch Avenue in the City, aims to provide a space for quiet contemplation in the midst of the hustle and bustle of City life.  Fen Court is the site of the old graveyard of St Gabriel Fenchurch, destroyed by the Great Fire in 1666 and never rebuilt.


Fen Court


fen court pigeon

Fen Court, EC3


Unlike many of the City’s squares and gardens, Fen Court is often far from tranquil.  It is a busy thoroughfare with  several doors opening onto it and smokers from nearby offices making good use of a strategically placed ash tray. Only at the weekend is it possible to get clear sight of the 5-circuit paved path and for a pigeon to enjoy the space undisturbed by human feet.

The labyrinth in front of the entrance to The Warren Playground on Whitfield Street in Fitzrovia is also paved and not especially conspicuous.  Indeed I had stood on it more than once without realising that the pattern of the pavers at my feet was a labyrinth.


The Warren Playground Labyrinth


As with Fen Court it is not ideally suited to the contemplative walker as it provides the link between road and playground, but it is a good size for children to race around its square seven-circuit path based on a medieval pattern.  Presumably the existence of a labyrinth and the name of the playground both play homage to nearby Warren Street.

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Warren Street tile motif


The tiling on the Victoria Line platforms of Warren Street station depicts a warren.  Not the single twisting, turning, though essentially unimpeded path of the labyrinth, but the tricks and dead ends of a maze – designed to confound. I’ve always enjoyed the bold pattern and bright colours of these tiles, but the link is erroneous as Warren Street takes it’s name from Anne Warren, wife of Charles Fitzroy, first Baron Southampton who laid out Warren Street’s houses in 1799.

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Labyrinth at Warren Street


Though of course there is a labyrinth on this as on all tube stations – part of Labyrinth, Mark Wallinger’s artwork celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Tube with 270 individual vitreous enamel artworks echoing the Tube’s roundel logo.


Labyrinth of Light – St Giles Cripplegate


Not all labyrinths are permanent, nor can all be seen during the day.  One of London most impressive labyrinths of the last few weeks has been landscape artist, Jim Buchanan’s stunning Labyrinth of Light cast onto the ground in front of St Giles Cripplegate and overlooked by the Barbican Centre across the water.


Installing the light labyrinth

The pattern is projected from the roof of St Giles Cripplegate each evening between dusk and about 10pm. But if you want to see it you need to hurry, as the installation is only for Lent and will finish on Wednesday 23rd March.

A Foot in each Hemisphere

JFS Crossing Meridian Line Essex Road Leyton London E10

Crossing the Line

When I moved into the east London house in which I live, I was intrigued to discover in a nearby street a concrete paving slab with a neat brass inlay marking the line of the Greenwich Meridian.  Twenty years later, I still take pleasure making sure I have a foot in each hemisphere as I cross the Prime Meridian.  Though the elegantly shod feet in the picture above are not mine but belong to my friend JSF!

The Greenwich Meridian is the imaginary line of longitude that divides the globe into east and west, as the Equator divides it south from north.  The Meridian passes from Pole to Pole through England, France, Spain, Algeria, Mali, Burkina Faso, Togo, Ghana and Antarctica.  Each year, many thousand visitors from all over the world visit the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, and most take the opportunity of a photograph astride the Line. By contrast, very few people seem to take much notice of the many, varied and freely accessible Meridian markers elsewhere.

My local borough of Waltham Forest has perhaps been more diligent than many in marking the presence of the line.

Mayor Cllr Derek Arnold with Colchester Road Millenium plaque
Mayor Cllr Derek Arnold with Essex Road Meridian plaque

The discreet brass plaque in Leyton that captured my imagination dates back to 26th June 1984, and is one of several installed by the borough of Waltham Forest to mark Meridian Day. This commemorated one hundred years since the International Meridian Conference, held in Washington DC in 1884, which agreed to adopt the meridian line that passed through the Principal Transit Instrument at Greenwich as the Prime Meridian.

Nationally, commemorative stamps were issued by the Royal Mail, the Duke of Edinburgh planted a tree and the Red Arrows flew up the Line. More locally, the Mayor of Waltham Forest installed the plaque here in Leyton.

Milleniun Meridian Marker Colchester Road Leyton E10
Millennium Marker Colchester Road, Leyton E10

Sixteen years later style and taste had changed. The Millennium year of 2000 saw a rash of green and yellow compass roses pop up on every street in Waltham Forest crossed by the Meridian. Apparently designed to last only for the year, there was no planned programme to remove them, and those that have survived the wear and tear of the last sixteen years now look rather sorry for themselves.

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Leyton Sixth Form College – Meridian House

Very close to the two plaques above, the Line passes through the aptly named Meridian House, part of Leyton Sixth Form College, and decorated with fine representations of two Greenwich observatory instruments on the front wall. The one on the left is Hooke’s ten foot Mural Quadrant of 1676, on the right, Troughton’s 10-foot Transit Instrument, which defined the Greenwich Meridian from 1816–50.

Prime Meridian Wood Street E17

Prime Meridian Marker Wood Street E17

Pleasingly, the borough seems to have decided to return to a more durable and elegant style of marker than the green and yellow compass roses. Last year new permanent markers started to appear comprising a cast metal pavement plaque alongside a line of white stone studs.


Meridian Markers, Pole Hill

Not all the markers in Waltham Forest are purely decorative.  Pole Hill in Chingford, eleven miles north of the Observatory at Greenwich, was a convenient point for a reference marker to check that the main telescope really was pointing due north. And in 1824, John Pond, the Royal Astronomer at the time, built the taller of these two stone pillars to provide an alignment check for the Greenwich telescope.

Inscription on Meridian Pillar, Pole Hill

Extraordinarily, the smaller pillar on Pole Hill (an Ordnance Survey Trig. Point) is still used by the Observatory, but not to align the telescope.  Instead it is the point from which Observatory staff check the green beam of the Millennium Laser that has blazed out across London’s night sky from the Old Observatory Building at Greenwich since midnight 31st December 1999.  So, if on a clear night, you see a wobble in the laser beam, it might not be anything wrong with your eyes.  It may just be that someone from the Observatory is checking with a colleague at Pole Hill that the beam is still correctly aligned and accurately illuminating the Prime Meridian for many miles.

Ordnance Survey Trig Point, Pole Hill

Dorothy Annan’s Technology Mural

Much as I love the Barbican  it can seem pretty bleak, especially in the late afternoon of a grey February day. So it is always a pleasure to plan a route to the library that takes me past Dorothy Annan’s joyful celebration of British technology in the 1960s.

Dorothy Annan mural Speed Highwalk Barbican Estate

Dorothy Annan Mural Speed Highwalk, Barbican London 


Now to be found on the Speed Highwalk between Speed House and the Barbican Centre, these nine beautifully crafted ceramic panels celebrate the “white heat” of 1960s communications technology.

Dorothy Annan Radio Communications and Television, Mural Speed Highwalk, Barbican Estate London

Radio Communications & Television


The murals were commissioned in 1960 (at £300 a panel) by the Ministry of Public Building and Works to “add interest at street level” to the Farringdon Street side of the Fleet Building.  So named because of the subterranean River Fleet flowing beneath, the thirteen-storey  glass and concrete block  was built to house the Central Telegraph Office.  Designed under the supervision of the GPO’s Chief Architect Eric Bedford (who later designed the longer-lasting Post Office (now BT) Tower) this was London’s largest telephone exchange boasting 12,000 subscriber lines and employing 600 staff.

Dorothy Annan took her inspiration from the new communications technology. She researched her subject thoroughly, visiting Post Office buildings across London and photographing physical elements of the new technology to incorporate into her designs.

Power & Generators Dorothy Annan Mural Speed High walk Barbican, London

Power and Generators


The stylised and abstract panels representing the hardware of communications technology at the cutting edge: cables, pylons, aerials, generators, power lines, is softened by the muted colour palette.

Lines over the countryside Dorothy Annan Mural Speed HIghwalk Barbican, London

Lines over the Countryside


Each one of the nine panels is a unique work of art and the influence of her contemporaries including Ben Nicholson, Paul Klee and Joan Miro is evident.

Impressions derived from the patternsproduced by cathode ray oscilligraphs used in testing Dorothy Annan mural Speed Highwalk Barbican London

Impressions derived from the Patterns Produced by Cathode Ray Oscilligraphs used in Testing


The panels are each made up of forty biscuit-ware tiles, each roughly thirty by forty-six centimetres and manufactured by Hathernware Ltd of Loughborough.  Dorothy Annan hand scored each of the 360 wet clay tiles to her own design in the Hathernware studios and, after the first firing, she decorated, glazed and fired them in her own London studio.

detail from Cable Chamber with Cables Entering from the Street Dorothy AnnanMural Speed Highwalk Barbican, London

Detail from Cable Chamber with Cables Entering

Dorothy Annan (1908-1983) was a ceramist and a painter and is now best known for her murals. Politically left-wing, she was a member of the Artists International Association (along with Paul Nash, Ben Nicholson and Frank Auerbach) whose aim was the “unity of artists for peace, democracy and cultural development. The AIA saw travelling exhibitions and murals as a means of promoting wider access to art. Many functional and utilitarian post-war public buildings like the Fleet Building were brightened up by murals.

Overseas Communication showing cable bouys Dorothy Annan Mural Speed Highwalk Barbican, London
Overseas Communication showing cable buoys


Sadly very few survive, Dorothy Annan’s largest work, Expanding Universe at the Bank of England was destroyed in 1997. Her only other surviving work in London – a London County Council commission for Caley Street school in Tower Hamlets – was happily rediscovered in 2008.  The Fleet Building mural was heading for the same fate. The building had been in a state of near dereliction for many years after computerisation superseded telegraph and Telex, and Goldman Sachs  – who had acquired the site to build their new £350m European HQ  – did not initially see merit in the work.


Fleet Building Faringdon Street
Fleet Building Farringdon Street © Copyright Thomas Nugent and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

But thanks to a campaign by 20th Century Society and Tile and Architectural Ceramics Society among others, the mural (though not the building to which it was affixed) was awarded Grade II listing by English Heritage in 2011.  In 2013, with agreement of the Corporation of the City of London and a dowry of £100,000 from Goldman Sachs the panels were relocated to Speed Highwalk preserving them for posterity and “adding interest” at highwalk level.

Dorothy Annan mural Speed highwalk Barbican, London
Dorothy Annan mural – looking back from the end


Third Thursdays


Pioneers, Poets & Pacifists in Bloomsbury – Thursday 19th May 11:00 am

On this stroll though Bloomsbury squares we meet ten of the lesser known women who played a significant role in science, medicine, politics, the arts. They include the distinguished scientist imprisoned as a conscientious objector, the first woman to gain a Master of Surgery degree, the novelist who championed education for disabled children but opposed women’s suffrage, and more…

Meet at Euston Square underground  Click here to book

Now that the days are longer and the evenings lighter Third Thursday Walks shift to the evening

The ‘New Woman’ in East Bloomsbury – Thursday 16th June 6:30 pm 

Follow in the footsteps of some of the pioneers of women’s education, employment and suffrage.  On this walk through east Bloomsbury’s quiet streets and squares we will see where the first women Doctors trained,  discover the Rational Dress Society and why it was needed, meet the advertising copywriter who became a famous detective writer, the activist who established a women-run printing press and much more.  This is a circular walk from Russell Square tube.

Meet at Russell Square underground    Click here to book 

Clowning about in Clerkenwell – Thursday 21st July 6:30 pm

This two-hour walk centres on Joseph Grimaldi, the most celebrated English Clown, who lived, worked and died in this historic area. Hear the extraordinary story of Joey’s life, loves and work as we stroll through an area long associated with entertainment and with the Italian community. We meet at Chancery Lane Station (north exit – Grays Inn Road side) and finish in Joseph Grimaldi Park near Kings Cross.

Meet at Chancery Lane Station Click here to Book



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