Messengers – A walk from Harrow-on-the-Hill to Maida Vale, January 2014


IMG_3460“Cloudy in the west and it looks like rain”

Detective Inspector Wye of S Division took the witness stand:

“I was off duty and had been in Pineapple Nursery buying ranunculus bulbs with my wife when I heard a clamour and went out into the Edgeware Road to investigate. A two-wheeled chaise was being driven furiously towards London. I saw Constable Clouds lying a hundred yards from the turnpike, moaning. As I ran to help him the chaise ran in to the back of another vehicle which was dashed to atoms and the occupants thrown in to the road. The two-wheeler then collided with an omnibus which had just passed through the gate coming the other way – the driver and conductor being thrown under the horses’ feet. By coincidence, Dr Foster of Gloucester had been visiting Mr Leslie at 12 Pineapple Place. He went to assess the injuries of the others whilst I comforted Const. Clouds as best I could.

Const. Clouds was drifting in and out of consciousness and said many strange things. He said that Suetonius was too late. London was already f****d. I didn’t really understand to what he was alluding to. Then he said: “We are the sky: we all breathe four gallons of air a minute. Our lungs are constantly converting oxygen to carbon-dioxide and water va … .” These were the last words that he said. His soul left his mortal envelope at five and twenty past one of the clock opposite Paddy Power. In Const. Cloud’s right hand I found a crumpled piece of paper. It was my opinion that it was torn from his notebook. It had one word written on it in pencil: “CHIAROSCURO.” I believe the facts of this case would perplex Mr Sherlock Holmes himself. There is a restaurant of a similar name in Holborn, your worship.

The weather was fine apart from some cumulonimbus to the west. The road was dry. It was my opinion that the chaise was not attempting to brake when the collisions took place.

DI Wye, S Division

My walk started at Harrow-on-the-Hill. Tomorrow’s political elite in homuncular form clutching straw boaters and tuck. Rain sodden playing fields. Dead poet. Long views to the Chilterns – and back over London – obscured by mist. The sun broke through once or twice and a clump of snow drops in St Mary’s churchyard spoke, I thought, of better days ahead.

In summers during the 1820s John Constable used to sit with his friend and first biographer, Charles Leslie, on the porch of Leslie’s house in Pineapple Place, just off the Edgeware Road in what is now Maida Vale. Constable would drink a dish of tea and look across unbroken hay fields as the sun sank behind Harrow-on-the-Hill. I was, I supposed, returning his gaze. The hill looms in the distance of many of his Hampstead paintings. His favourite view in this part of the world was west from the top of the Heath.

I am often amazed how many fields are left – though my walk today, which began along the Capital Ring, was calibrated to maximise them, so perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. I photographed sheep in front of Wembley Stadium, saw a boy and a man fishing the pond on Barn Hill, and wild geese at the Welsh Harp (which my OS Map insists on calling, “Brent Reservoir”). Later I would see pigeons fucking on a shop sign in Cricklewood Broadway and a man skyed by a people carrier. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

In January 1829 Constable, recently widowed and desperately anxious about the health of his eldest child, received a commission to paint a mermaid for a pub sign in Warwickshire. He wrote to Leslie: “This is encouraging, and affords no small solace after my previous labours in landscape for twenty years.” He drew a sketch but the sign, for The Mermaid at Knowle near Solihull, was, for unknown reasons, never made.

By the time I reached Cricklewood my feet were as wet as a mermaid’s tail. Staples Corner sapped any strength I might have had and the sun disappearing behind Carpet Warehouse or some other murder-barn had been replaced by twilight and a blanket of ominous cloud.

Constable had an insider’s knowledge of clouds. He was the son of a miller: the weather was money. In Leslie’s memoir, Constable described the phenomena – often seen in spring – of small clouds passing at speed beneath much larger clouds: “These floating much nearer the earth may perhaps fall in with a stronger current of wind, which, as well as their comparative lightness, causes them to move with greater rapidity; hence they are called by wind-millers and sailors, messengers, and always portend bad weather.”

There is a copy of Thomas Forster’s Researches About Atmospheric Phenomena (1815) in the Constable family archive with the painter’s own annotations. Constable made over a hundred cloud studies, partly as preparation for his 6-footers and partly one suspects for their own sake: a love of the science and the artistic challenge of capturing constantly changing skies. The studies were rapidly sketched in oil on Hampstead Heath. Many of them are dated and have weather notes written on the reverse. For those which have incomplete notes, dates have been suggested by looking at contemporary weather reports.

I returned to the Edgeware Road the following day but almost immediately saw a man rise above the bull bars of a 4×4 with his arms flailing like a broken windmill. The rest of the walk took on a dream like quality. I hardly noticed Cricklewood and Kilburn. But the skies cleared at Maida Vale and I was able to draw enough enthusiasm to get home under my own steam.

For someone so antipathetic to war I spent a long time researching it but it was always the odd things that sparked my interest: often stuff that wasn’t really concerned with the war at all. I can remember very vividly one such spark. I was at Kew researching Zeppelins and gazing out across what was then a building site to a fenced nature reserve on the riverbank. The reserve protects the two-lipped door snail: a fussy customer that now only lives at certain places on the tidal Thames – mostly in Greater London. Anyway I digress. And Zeppelin folders are full of unexpected interest and poetry so reading them isn’t really a chore. But suddenly I came across a letter. Attached to it was a chart showing black and white photographs of clouds and, in another column, some examples of the height at which the particular cloud might expect to be seen. Strato-cumulus, for example, was illustrated with a small line drawing of Mont Blanc and stratus with drawings of St Paul’s, the Eiffel Tower and Snowdon.

The letter was in a file marked “Cloud formations: notes & corres re cloud formations & their height with a view of assisting artillery & small arms in combating hostile aircraft.”

But I didn’t follow it up. Other things seemed more important at the time. Anyway the letter was dated December 1917. My interest in the war tails off rapidly after April 9th. But I was reminded of it recently when I read Constable’s biography. I suddenly realised that there was a link. Not one that would worry a historian. But meat and drink to a miller, a sailor or a dog biographer.

Leslie, the son of a Philadelphia clock maker, was born in Clerkenwell in 1794. His family returned to America a few years later. He began to make a name for himself as an artist and returned to London to pursue his career. His speciality was literary genre art – one of his paintings, of Uncle Toby and the Widow (from Sterne’s Tristram Shandy) hangs – at giraffe grazing height – in the V&A today. Leslie is interesting because he seemed to know everybody in the artistic and literary London of his day. One friend was the American writer Washington Irving. Leslie illustrated an edition of Irving’s essays and short stories: The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon (1820).

I’m not sure how familiar Irving’s writing is to today’s British readers. Everybody has heard of Rip Van Winkle. Film buffs might attach the author’s name to The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. I’m guessing fewer people would be familiar with the text. But you might know one of his stories better than you think. Robert Louis Stevenson was, by his own account, mortified when he realised that he had – he thought – inadvertently lifted a great chunk of Treasure Island from an Irving story which he had read twenty years previously. Stevenson incidentally was a bit hard on himself. No one has copyright on a stranger arriving at an inn. If the stranger has a sea chest: what was he supposed to put his belongings in? And if the stranger can be seen looking out past the creaking inn sign to the comings and goings of ships in the harbour … but you get my drift. Some stories, or parts of stories – riffs – told once immediately become part of a common landscape. Imagine only one blues singer catching a train. One cheating country song. You don’t have to sink an illegal well to draw stories like that. They bubble up from the cultural aquifer, unbidden. But I’m digressing again.

The letter, from Croftdown Road, NW5, just off Highgate Road, was signed Richard Inwards and gave permission for the relevant authority to reprint his cloud diagram for their own purposes.

Inwards had travelled the world as a mining engineer but his chief interest was above ground. He was a President of the Royal Meteorological Society and a joint editor of its Quarterly Journal. The cloud diagram came from his book, Weather Lore (1893), a collection of proverbs, sayings and rules which he had collected over several decades and continents. In the Journal, which he edited for twenty years, he enjoyed debunking weather fallacies and exposing the colourful quackery of self-appointed weather prophets like Dr. Merryweather whose “Tempest Prognosticator” used live leaches in glass water bottles to ring a bell when bad weather was imminent.

It seems that Constable, a century earlier, had a better understanding of meteorology than the military authorities of 1917, or at least the gun teams positioned around the capital – including one on Parliament Hill. But perhaps a knowledge of clouds was not so relevant to defending against Zeppelins which needed good weather to fly and almost always attacked at night.

Washington Irving’s old lodgings in Bartholomew Close were destroyed in a Zeppelin raid on the night of the 8th/9th September 1915. I announce the fact with great confidence, although I can’t now remember where I read it. It doesn’t really matter: he described the medieval streets to the north of St Paul’s in the Sketchbook. He lodged there or thereabouts. His account is semi-fictional anyway. And much of what was left by the Zep raid was flattened in the next war. The church of St Bartholomew-the-Great, the oldest parish church in London, survives and a handful of historic buildings – some 17th century houses which survived the Great Fire and both world wars, and some nineteenth century warehouses: but mostly it is the street plan which contributes to the historical feel of the area. It forces the imagination upwards – and backwards.

Irving’s antique book sellers and the cheesemongers plying their trade from fragments of old family mansions were already long gone – so too the apothecary with his stuffed alligators and bottled snakes, the burial societies and the yearly gipsy party to Epping Forest.

Did the previous occupants of his lodgings really sign the bow window of his sitting room and adorn it with indifferent poetry?

Perhaps I should fess up. I find Washington Irving intensely irritating. Or rather I find Geoffrey Crayon intensely irritating.

Either way almost every single window in Bartholomew Close – including, perhaps, Irving’s – was shattered by the blast from the biggest bomb of the war so far. A cab-driver in the Close was cut in two, a policeman was mortally wounded near Liverpool Street Station when the wall of the stable block fell on him. The raid killed 22 and injured 87.

In a laboratory on the third floor of St Bart’s hospital a medicinal leach emitted a bubble as the tube around it shattered. No bell rang to announce a hundred years of bad weather had just come down the pipe.


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