Tag Archives: history

Remembrance, Now and Then

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I’m always acutely aware of the history that surrounds my North London street, but never more so than a couple of weeks ago, when I walked into my lobby to find a bunch of old sepia-tone photographs of my building in the early 1900’s on display. A sucker for historical compare and contrast collages, I took a similar picture of my building today – amazing how the physical structure stays the same, but the people, fashion and modes of transportation are from two entirely different worlds.

History has also been on my mind this Remembrance Sunday, having spent all week reading about commemoration events on across the country, but also about how Britain plans to mark the centenary of World War I next year. I’ve fallen silent every Nov 11th since I can remember (yes – this happens in Canada too. I’ve never encountered the ‘do Canadians all live in igloos?!’ question, but I have been met with incredulity on several occasions when explaining that yes, we have Remembrance Day too. I digress…) But one thing that’s striking in London is how many physical reminders of the war remain – no town unscathed, no resident untouched. It sometimes seems you can hardly turn a corner without a bit of war history, and this is literally the case on my street.

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The above pictures, taken across the street from me, show how the residents of the borough of Islington chose to commemorate the fallen. On the site of what used to be part of a hospital (and is now residential flats), they erected the Islington War Memorial, and inscribed the names of their 1,307 neighbors who made the supreme sacrifice. A new ward was built for the hospital, as an additional – and practical, as is the British way – tribute to the dead.

DSC_0050The new Casualty Department lasted until 1992, when it was closed along with the rest of the hospital (excellent history here). But a beautiful facade remains, in what otherwise might be an unremarkable neighborhood park:

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Royal Northern Gardens, which replaced the Royal Northern HospitalDSC_0049Memorial wall built with masonry and stones from the hospitalDSC_0044Mosaic put together by local school kids, depicting different aspects of medical life

And so we remember – that they fought so that we could play.

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Shelter Here

This morning I decided to take advantage of the sun peeking out behind the clouds by doing one of the infamous London Walks. I think I got my Vitamin D for the day, though by the end, not going to lie, I couldn’t feel my extremities. Spring has not yet sprung in the land of London.

The ‘Old Westminster – 1000 Years of History’ walk is one I’ve been meaning to do for a while, mainly because I wanted to know more about my work neighborhood. The area is such a head-scratcher – one minute you’re being swept along in a sea of DSLR-toting tourists, and the next you’re in veritable silence, framed by the most picturesque block of Georgian flats you’ve ever seen.

One of today’s discoveries in particular underscores how many bits of history London has hidden in plain sight for anyone to find. Our guide Graham took us down Lord North Street, off Smith Square – a road I’ve wandered down many times on my lunch break. On the right below, you can see St John’s, which Charles Dickens described rather hilariously as ‘some petrified monster, frightful and gigantic, on its back with its legs in the air’. Hahahaha. Sorry St John.

View of St John's, Smith Square, aka the overturned monster

View of St John’s, Smith Square, aka the overturned monster

Anyway, Graham brought to our attention that if you look a bit closer, you’ll see this:

Shelter this way

Shelter this way

Today, this person’s flat/potted shrubs marks a vault that used to double as an air-raid shelter during the Second World War. Just your casual WWII remnant, hidden around the corner from the office. A reminder to keep my eyes wide open (and that however stressful my day, I can thank my lucky stars that the only use this site has today is acting as someone’s basement).