London Country

29/9/04 London Under Ground

"For everything exists, & not one sigh nor smile nor tear,
One hair nor particle of dust, not one can pass away."

Wm Blake Jerusalem 1/13.66

"Lieut K.T. SPINNEY, Signalling Officer, at Battalion, crossed over to the German 1st line in an endeavour to obtain information as to the situation. He was however unable to get in touch with either our own men or those of the 17th Notts and Derby Rgt. He was forced to retire owing to the presence of small parties of the enemy, four of whom he shot. He returned safely to Battalion Headquarters, but his orderly was wounded in No Man's Land and had to be left. Shortly after his return Lieut SPINNEY was killed by a shell bursting at the entrance to Battalion Hd. Qrs."

War Diary 17 KRRC, Beaumont Hamel, 3 September 1916

"Genius named them, as I live! What but genius could compress
In a title what man's humour said to man's supreme distress?"

"Trench Nomenclatura" Edmund Blunden

On Friday 17 September 2004, I set out on the strangest war walk so far, feeling ill and doubting my sanity but at the same time on some level convinced that I could learn something from tracing my great unclcle's psy-journey through faimiliarly-named Picardy trenches on a modern A-Z of London. And, I reasoned, if I can't, at least I might learn something new about my own city.

I haven't forgotten. I will be brief. Lean and Mean.

NB the slideshow is a fairly hefty 3084 bytes which may take a while to load with a dial-up connection. Plenty of time to wash the car, or groom a favourite pet. Alternatively, you could right-click the link, open it in a new window, and read the rest of this page while you wait. You would be among a select group of people. Very select. You might even be unique. Except that I've read it. Well, most of it.

The Slides

1. Title

Undoubtedly flies in the face of copyright regulations. The background is a very small part of a trench map (Sheet Number: 57D SE 1 & 2 Edn 2D) held by PRO Kew under ref: WO 297/1494.

I was actually looking for a different quote: "London - continually building & continually decaying desolate" (Jerusalem 3/53.19) but mislaid it and anyway thought the one I found better.

2. Knightsbridge Barracks

A communication trench running n-s behind the front line at Beaumont Hamel (just across the river Ancre from the even-more-infamous Thiepval). This was the location of Jock's - 17KRRC -Battalion HQ during the battle of 3rd September.

3. Pallets

Both 2 and 3 were taken opposite the barracks in Knightsbridge. Everywhere I looked I seemed to see tunnels, scaffolding and pallets, a city being re-imagined. Emerging from the ground.

4. Constitution Hill

Hyde Park Corner appears on the trenchmap as a crossroads of four trenches, with Piccadilly to the n. and Uxbridge Road to the nw. The suburbs have come to the centre: psychogeographic democracy.

I turn right into Constitution Hill and a tunnel of London Plane trees, Platanus x hispanica, also the dominant feature of Buckingham Palace garden, next door. Jays and magpies are fighting in the canopy. Sounds like WWIII.

5. St. James St.

Everything for the Gent.

6. Burlington Arcade

And the Lady.

7. Penfriend

6 & 7 taken in Burlington Arcade, yet another tunnel. A comm. trench running n. off Piccadilly/ St. James St. It struck me that - sadly - the lists of a dead officer's effects, so often found in their buff treasury-tagged folders at Kew, are like shopping lists in reverse.

8. Stanford's, Long Lane

Deflated worlds.

9. Long Lane

More tunnels, scaffolding, ladders. Behind the camera is a restaurant called Estaminet.

10. No Man's Land, near Beaumont Hamel, Summer 2004

From Charring Cross running sw. was the front line, Gordon Trench.
Where imagined London - and everything else - were unimagined, forever.


24/9/04 Signing On / 9 September 2004

Leaving washing drying amid blood red vine leaves and darkling grapes, I swapped my pen for a paddle and headed townward on a dead dog. Thameslink is built in the watercourse of the Fleet River, once renown for disgorging its putrid load into the Thames at Blackfriars. Modern river traffic crosses the Thames in some comfort (at least outside the rush hour). It is is mostly bipedal, alive (just), perfumed (debatable) and tidal. High tides at 8:30 and 5:00 when the rattling hordes head home to walk their dogs rather than tie them in bags and toss them into the current. At least for a month or two after Christmas.

I emerge from the Clerkenwell tunnel that, as the aquine name perhaps suggests, is prone to flooding in wet weather. The run off from Farringon Road combined with raw sewage no longer has the healing properties of yore, other than providing unlucky clerks with an excuse for lateness (well, slightly more plausible than "the dog ate my travelcard"). At Farringdon I shake the drips off my boots, present a chewed but legible ticket to the machine and head right into Cowcross St (interesting name: I guess any bovine would be pretty miffed if they knew they were a patty throw away from the biggest meat market in the country).

But I'm digressing. It is Wednesday 8 September 1915, 7:25 pm and a large cigar-shaped object has been seen in the sky above the Haisborough lightship off the coast of Norfolk. It is not moving and appears to be waiting.

Austria's most famous neurologist once said, "sometimes a cigar is just a cigar". This, unhappily for the citizens of London, was not one of those times.

Commander Mathy's zeppelin, L13, had made good time across the North Sea and was waiting for a protective cloak of darkness to wrap around the cloth, wood and several thousand cubic feet of highly flammable hydrogen keeping his 20 man crew aloft in two small gondolas hung from its vast underbelly. Soon after 8:00pm the majestic craft began to move inland, making landfall at Cley on Sea, Norfolk, and heading south across the dim marshes of the eastern seaboard. From the sky above Cambridge, the lights of London were already visible on the horizon, providing the ex-destroyer Captain both with a bearing and the reassurance that news of their imminent arrival had not reached the capital.

More than one eyewitness commented on the strange beauty of the "silver ghost" as it dodged the beams of searchlights positioned in a protective ring around the city. But if this was theatre, it would soon become clear, from the shocked faces of the injured, and the agonized crys of the newly-bereaved, that 20th century aerial warfare - even in its birththrows - was to be a theatre of the utmost cruelty.

If Mathy and his crew "got their eye in" by dropping 5 bombs on Golders Green, it wasn't their prime target. Flying over Westminster at 10:40pm, they were soon leaving a trail of havoc over the western part of the City, Holborn and Bloomsbury, dropping 15 explosive bombs and over 50 incendiaries on a stunned London.

Turning right out of Cowcross St I am soon outside 61? Farringdon Street where a plaque commemorates the night's events:


The whole in CAPITAL LETTERS for indignant emphasis. Now the building is again covered in scaffolding: even phoenixes need their wings made over from time to time; and flyposters have also chosen the upper case to make their pitch for a gig on the 11th September:


In the window of Telescope House, almost next door, there is a book MISSION TO SATURN (also in capitals) and a monster telescope. But it obviously appears to have been unattended on the 8th. Except that's unfair. A secret report to the admiralty showed that the airship had been seen. It was a failure in the reporting chain that had left London vulnerable. (Echoes, perhaps, of another September tragedy across the pond?) Of seven planes which were scrambled further back the chain, none found their targets and one pilot in Norwich was killed on landing with a full load of bombs.

Today the BBC reported that the latest Mission to Saturn, the joint US/Euro/Italian backed Cassini-Huygens spacecraft, has found, as well as an extra ring, a possible new moon, the first to be discovered since 1908. The object is just inside the larger orbit of the moon, "Pandora", and has been tentatively named after Hope, the last quality to emerge from Pandora's box. I prefer its scientific, if more prosaic, name: S/2004 S3. I wonder what WG Sebald (the god) would have made of this new information? My guess is that it might have involved going for a bone-crunching walk, silkworms, Joseph Conrad, the Taiping Rebellion, and a long spell of convalescence after a mystery illness, but I could be wrong.

In Roman mythology Saturn (the god) is identified with the Greek Cronus, often (so my OED tells me) regarded as a god of agriculture. His festival, Saturnalia, was re-branded as Christmas. Those born under the sign of Saturn are characterized by coldness and gloominess.

saturnine adj 1a of a sluggish gloomy temperament.

Which ofcourse fits me down to a T. Only I'm a scorpio. I'm usually up 4A party, though.

But, not for the first time, I'm digressing.

The L13's return route, at just over 60mph, via Newmarket and Norwich, reads like a route WGS might have taken on the ground through his adopted East Anglian home. If Mathy wasn't dropping literary pearls, both men were on business of high seriousness, and both, perhaps, were escaping.

From Farringdon Rd I take a left, heading now for Chancery Lane on a rather circuitous route via Hatton Garden and Leather Lane. I pass the curiously named "International Magic" shop on Clerkenwell Rd. It looks like the sort of place a shabby Graham Greene character would go to pass secrets to Moscow. Recipes for thunder and lightning among the dead men's fingers and plastic poop.

Sometime after 10:40pm a bomb was dropped in Theobalds Road, just to the north of the Inns of Court. From the corner of Theobalds Road, opposite the Yorkshire Grey I look west past the gardens of Gray's Inn and Holborn library and try to imagine my great uncle and his friends coming to survey the damage the following morning.

9 September 1915, Thursday

WAR: 2nd Year: 37th day

Had Jock, Aubrey, or Walter picked up a copy of the Times their eyes may have been drawn to the War Diary: a daily synopsis of The Great Adventure in bullet-sized pieces.

"Hostile aircraft visited the Eastern Counties and the London district last night and dropped incendiary and explosive bombs."

Perhaps because the story was just breaking, or perhaps because it was deliberately played down so as not to foster défétisme among the general population, the report gives no clue as to the scale of the damage. The next day's paper (10 Sept) does print the bare numbers of casualties (20 killed 86 wounded 14 seriously) but again the effect is muted: "Fires broke out, but were kept well under control."

In fact, the raid would prove to be the most devastating of the whole year causing some £530,000 of damage. That's almost as much as a studio flat in Bloomsbury. Except ofcourse, in today's money, you're talking £millions: sufficient wonga, in fact, to lay waste half of Baghdad, say, or to bankroll a medium-sized African coup.

A hail of incendiaries started at least 30 fires, mostly in the west of the City raising office buildings and warehouses to the ground. At Wood Street, between Cheapside and London Wall, 200 sq ft of warehouse space containing wool, cotton and silk was almost completely burnt out. The greatest single impact was caused by a 660lbs bomb intended for the Bank of England. Mathy and his crew watched as a "whole cluster of lights vanished" into a crater along with structures and paving, at Bartholemew Close just to the north of Newgate Street.

But if the bomb at Bartholemew Close was spectacular, the next was murderous. Mathy's assistant engineman, who miraculously survived the war, recorded the experience in a memoire written in the twenties:

"We dropped the rest of the load over a railroad station and had the satisfaction of seeing rails and ties and pieces of a depot and two big buses spouting into the air and then dropping back in a mass of wreckage. It was easy to see all this because we had dropped so many incendiaries and there were pools and rivers of fire all along the streets below."

Quoted in 1991, Wilbur Cross, Zeppelins of World War I, p37, London; New York I.B.Tauris

I'm not sure when the phrase "collateral damage" was first used but I doubt semantics would have been uppermost in the minds of the dead and injured who had been on their way home from work, returning from an evening at the theatre, or otherwise engaged in what contemporaries might have called their "doings" on an otherwise unremarkable autumn day. Seven were killed in the "spouting" buses at the west end of Liverpool Street.

If the papers were reticent in reporting the devastating effects of the raid, London itself, one can fairly assume, would have been buzzing with reports of the catastrophe. It is not unlikely that Jock and his friends had to negotiate glass-strewn streets and police cordons as they made their way the following day towards No 10 Stone Buildings, headquarters of the Inns of Court Officer Training Corps, a building itself badly damaged by a bomb landing in Chancery Lane a month later.

I leave it to the reader to determine the emotions running through the minds of Jock (17), Aubrey (18) and Walter (30) anticipating their appearance before the Central Selection Board on that autumn day. Excitement? Possibly. Nerves? More than likely. Duty? Resignation? Patriotism? Two, at least, had been touched personally by the war. Jock's cousin had been killed in Belgium in May, and Aubrey's brother, Richard, was already in France with the Royal Flying Corps.

A glance at any paper would confront the recruits with reams of casualties. The war - if not completely comprehended - was not a remote conflict and, for Londoners, since May 31st a key target of the German airships, the war was now very close to home indeed.

I've lost the plot now. Is this a blog post? A book? And what is this with Zeppelins? You're having a giraffe! It's awful. Really tedious. An HTML anorak, a, a, a, bloggerak.
Did people really fight a war so that you could loaf around all day, sounding off about your tedious perigrinations?

If this were a "real diary", which it isn't, I would probably - if I could be bothered to finish it at all - finish the walk in note form. Noises off: a passer by on the pavement hoicks up a large gob. Intermittent post-tidal traffic, the low rumble of the Northern Line below Fortess Road. A postal sniff and the Screwfix catalogue drops through the lettterbox. 10,000 trade products. Now you really are having a laugh. Nice catalogue though. I'll get my anorak. (OED Greenland Eskimo anoraq). It's autumn, already.


10 Stone Buildings: was the HQ of the Inns of Court OTC during WWI. I had a better photo but it had identifiable people on it, and I'm not keen on "ambushing" people in the name of "art". Actually, there's no reason art should be in inverted commas, is there? The security camera would not have been there on 9/9/15, otherwise the door is the one my great uncle and his friends would have walked through to take the King's shilling. Jock now had one week short of a year left to live.

St Paul's: Jock was working as a clerk for an East India merchant when he enlisted. (According to Dennis, the British North Borneo Company). Though I don't know for certain, I imagine him working in the City.

From Fleet Street, the ancient topography of the river valley reveals itself as you look across to Ludgate Hill climbing to the famous cathedral, presumably still London's tallest building in 1915 (actually, I've no idea, not beeing an architectural anorak: I'll have to get back to you on that).

Mathy (Zeppelins, remember?) had visited London as a tourist before the war, and used the famous landmarks to navigate his trail of destruction. This was a long time before so-called precision bombing (almost certainly should be in inverted commas). The Bank of England was untouched, but huge damage in Wood Street, and area NE of St Paul's (including the inappropriately named Love Lane) an area almost flattened in WWII.

Temple Bar: Christopher Wren's (?) arched entrance to the City, now being reconstructed in Paternoster Square, next to St Paul's. There is a nice story, if nice is the right word, about traitors' heads, which were for a long time placed on spikes on the top of Temple Bar in its original home at the W end of Fleet Street where it stood from 1670 to 1877. Said heads would occasionally topple onto passers by if there were a strong gust of wind. What are the chances of that happening?

I went to see the TB at its former home in Hertfordshire (it had been brought to Theobald's Park, near Enfield, by the brewer Sir Henry Meux in 1880) last autumn only to find it covered in scaffolding. I thought it was being cleaned.

Admiral Sir Hedworth Meux, who inherited the estate after the death of Lady Meux in 1910, has already been mentioned in these pages (you may remember) in the context of erm, Zeppelins. Enough said.

Austral House: Coleman Street also suffered in the raid. I took this photo of the "development opportunity" on 9 September 2004 and was struck by an eerie similarity to a picture of the Australian embassy in Jakarta, bombed, it is thought, by Jemaah Islamiyah, a group, so the stock-phrase goes, with links to al-Qaida, on the same day and published in the Guardian.

Bunhill Fields / Bad Trip: I detoured from strict Zepp hunting to pay my repects to William Blake…
And London…
"-continually building & continually decaying desolate."
Jerusalem 53.19

Enough. Really. Enough. Next month's posts will be essays in minimalism. Starting with a slide show next week.


15/9/04 Wake up Dead

"Don't you worry pretty baby
Honeychild don't you moan
When the dark night is over
There's gonna be a brand new dawn"

Brand New Dawn
Hans Theessink
From the album Bridges

Heard this on Paul Jones' blues show on R2 on 2/9 and it - naturally enough - made me think of "my" WWI poet:

"Yet slowly, surely darkness dies: and then,
Out of the deep night's menace, dawns the day!"

Night in War Time
B.E.F., France, 25 Jan 1917
Walter Lightowler Wilkinson

3 September 2004

I hadn't made the connection before, but I suddenly realised it's a blues song. The wretched but proud soul finding solace in the natural cycle of time. Stacking up the weight of previous experience against the unthinkable: one day - and, in the trenches sooner rather than later, you'll wake up, dead.

With some ironic timing the night of the 2nd/3rd inst. was a sleepless one. I had been eaten alive by midges in Epping Forest and had to get up to locate antihistamine, around 3:00 am, forty minutes after the Zeppelin had crashed to earth behind the Plough and whilst Captain de S… and his colleagues were driving through the north London hinterland towards the burning wreck.

At the same time Jock was wide-awake and facing down the devil from the muddy floor of his condemned cell under a thin layer of Picardy chalk. The morning would bring his first real test, if test is an adequate concept to describe massacre on such a scale as the Somme in 1916. And the eighteen-year-old was desperate, first of all, not to let anybody down. But, also, running a close second, he didn't want to die.

At 9:00 am I take a walk up Parliament Hill from where an AA battery had shelled, unsuccessfully, the intruder in its searchlights. I follow an avenue lined with plane trees beside tennis courts and a boule pitch (which I've only ever seen in use once). And up onto the hill past rosehips and hawthorn berries in the hedges and crickets chirping happily in the late summer sunshine.

There's a 2/3 daytime moon over the hill and one or two clouds. The city is protected by a blanket of mist. Gerkhin, Nat West Tower, St Paul's, are camouflaged and cloudcoloured, recogniseable only in outline and imagination.

I see rooks and magpies and can hear blackbirds, pigeons and - I think - a chiffchaff. Sound too of a silverlink train rattling past the southern edge of the hill, and a pneumatic drill on the Highgate Road where they're replacing Victorian water mains.

"Live today. Forget the cares of the past" exhorts the caption on one of the numerous memorial benches. But I detect doublethink: if you really believed in carpe diem, why put up a constant reminder of the past? The park is revealing its Victorian origins. Not a place of hedonism, but self-improvement both temporal and spiritual. Walking is a duty.

Sat on a bench at the top of the world, I scan the ground at my feet, the detritus of an Indian summer's night. Silver bottle-tops trodden into the earth like soldier's buttons, orange peel and fag-ends, pistachio shells and an oasis bottle, its neck strangely pupae-like. Immediately below my feet is a chillum, presumably lost in the twilight zone between dusk and dawn. For a moment I wonder whether the misty city somehow makes more sense after a pipeful of Afghan Black. I decide that it might, possibly. But it obviously doesn't help you see in the dark.

Another bench is still covered by the remains of an impromptu bed. A carefully folded out cardboard box which recently contained demi baguettes, a genuine French product, from Delice House, 149 Brent Road, Southall.

A Heath worker is setting out an orienteering course for schoolchildren as I head for home and more news of the Russian school siege, reflecting that my uncle was really not much more than a schoolboy when he was killed at the terrible Beaumont Hamel, probably shortly before, or just after, 8:00 am, on this day, 1916.


8/9/04 Islands in the Stream

Took advantage of fine weather this time last week to go and check on "my plum tree". Actually neither mine nor, in fact, a plum. Some hybrid damson affair which, this time last year (rather: a little later) was spectacularly laden with unpicked and oversoft velvet fruit in varying stages of alcoholic decomposition.

Sun 28 Sept 2003
Yesterday nice but quite knackering circuit in the forest. Lunch at the Owl, Lippits Hill. Tea at the hut near the King's Oak. Detour to "wild plum" tree. Birds had got there before us. Mental note to check earlier next year. Loughton Brook was dry.

But there was no plum tree, and the insects it had supported every year were making do with blackberries. Technically, ofcourse, the tree had, I suppose, belonged to the West Essex Golf Club. The rich fruit were clearly a menace to golf buggy wheels and an invitation to the wrong sort of sportspeople to linger longer than strictly necessary on the narrow corridors between the links. Or perhaps it just died.

With hindsight, the golf balls I had seen earlier in my walk, placed at intervals of a couple of hundred metres or so in Cuckoo Brook, were clearly preparing me for the worst. Local folklore has "pot-boilers" dredged from the streambed: burned pebbles used by early humans to heat water (Ken Hoy Getting to Know Epping Forest) but all I saw were these strangely dented and compressed Cuckoo eggs, and - appropriately given their aquatic name - a few crab apples forcing the current to move sideways on its journey down to join the Ching Brook below Connaught Water.

I was disappointed, but the journey home was full enough of surprises and more than lifted my spirits. Yardley Hill is the forest's most westerly point, fifty metres above the floor of the Lea Valley and, according to KH (op. cit.), the most southerly point reached by the ice-sheet during the last ice age. Here the chalky boulder clay left by the retreating ice favours more varied flora than in other parts of the forest. One typical plant being wild clematis VN "old man's beard" or "traveller's joy".

But what most impressed me was the sight of an elegant grass snake which posed just long enough to ascertain that it didn't have any zig-zag markings but not long enough for me to reach for my camera. It slithered off between supersize parasol mushrooms into a pile of rotting hawthorn branches.

Grass snakes lay eggs, which apparently makes them extra vulnerable here. Not least, presumably, from the sideswipe of an ill timed 9-iron, or a misplaced stiletto.

1/9/04 Last Orders at The Plough Part II

I cross Home Wood on a public footpath and, reaching a pill box at the wood's most N point, backpedal S parallel to the interestingly-named Carbone Hill.

In the 13C Roger Bacon, a Franciscan monk, wrote, in code for fear it should fall into the wrong hands, a recipe for "thunder and lightning" (Glenys Crocker, The Gunpowder Industry). The text, though open to interpretation, probably specifies saltpetre (potassium nitrate, formed by the decay of organic matter and the action of certain bacteria), charcoal, and sulphur, in a ratio of 7:5:5. A contemporary of Bacon's, Albertus Magnus, gave the proportions as 6:2:1. The ingredients, finely ground on a marble slab, were to be placed in paper cases: long for "flying fire" and short for "thunder". Similar instructions appear in a collection, published c.1300, with the catchy title: Book of Fires for the Burning of Enemies.

Soon after entering Great Wood Country Park, the Heavens open. I take shelter under an old oak tree and watch the wood fill with steam, rain fizzing on a plank bridge, and new fallen brown leaves twitching like dead chickens in an abbatoire. For a moment I enjoy the simple pleasure of standing still (I often forget to stop while I'm walking) but the pleasure doesn't last as long as the deluge, so I hunch my shoulders against drips, and strike out manfully across the changed landscape.

H Division (Whitechapel) recorded the reaction from the ground as the stricken craft fell to earth behind the Plough:

"A number of persons who had assembled at their door-ways watched the craft, on seeing it burst in to flames they raised vociferous cheers. There was no undue excitement or disorder."

Some efforts were made to put out the fire with water from a nearby pond, but little could be done to prevent flames from consuming all but the metal frame, guns and propellers.

The first witness to speak at the inquest, held at the Plough on the 4th, was Captain Rene D Savigny (?) of the 1st Eastern Rifles South Africa, attached to the Royal Flying Corps 39th Squadron. He described what he saw from Squadron HQ in Woodford Green, Essex:

"There was a lull in the (AA) guns for 3 or 4 minutes, then she suddenly burst into flames and dived down. I saw the navigation lights of an aeroplane, also the lights from a "Very" pistol."

The Captain and his colleagues drove to Cuffley and took charge of the crash site, which was soon ringed by police.

At first light what was left of the bodies of sixteen airmen were recovered from the wreckage. None were identifiable, though some personal articles, including the commander's coat and a watch, were found among the debris. Even the most gung-ho of constables must have balked at the site of the gruesome human remains.

The inquest concluded:

"Sixteen unknown German airmen were found dead in a wrecked German Zeppelin ship near the Plough Inn, Cuffley.
The Zeppelin was brought down by the fire of a British warplane manned by a pilot, Lieutenant Robinson, Royal Flying Corps.
The cause of their deaths was injuries, the result of the destruction of the Zeppelin, the same sixteen Germans at the time of their death were male persons, airmen in the service of the German Government."

I make my way to the N side of the wood and follow a mostly dry streambed in search of swallow holes. I risk the drips to photograph - erm - drips, actually, caught on a spider's web. After walking round in circles, spinning my own web, I find my route back onto Carbone Hill and - rather tired by now - repeat the process in Home Wood. At least the rain has stopped and, regaining the ridge I sit on a bench and photograph (see Pt I), more successfully this time, thick clouds scudding past the Plough over basinal London, sink hole No 1.


Words & Music

North/South/Orphaned Lyrics 2003

24/9/04 Signing On

15/9/04 Wake up Dead

8/9/04 Islands in the Stream

1/9/04 Last Orders at The Plough PartII

18/08/04 Last Orders at The Plough Pt I

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Signs & Wonders

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Mission To Saturn

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10 Stone Buildings

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St Paul's

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Temple Bar

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Austral House

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Bunhill Fields

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Bad Trip

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Rosebay willowherb, Epilobium angustifolium


Somme Visitor Centre

(Daily Telegraph News Article 24/09/2004)

Thiepval Charity Site

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