Lesley Thomson grew up in west London, close to the banks of the muddy Thames. Her detective novels are inspired by that childhood. As she visits London for the day, walking and travelling on the Underground from the Old Bailey to Richmond, she reflects on how London has always been a chameleon city.
I was born in London and now live in the country. When I return, granite kerbstones, the warm dusty smell of the Underground, the Festival Hall reflected in the Thames, tell me I’m a Londoner. Yet I’m also a visitor, astonished by the Shard, excited by the Houses of Parliament and the bright lights of Shaftsbury Avenue.
Busy and brash; quiet and contemplative, past and present, London is a chameleon city.
This visit I begin at St Paul’s Cathedral on Ludgate Hill, sitting peacefully amidst the thronging sightseers. St Paul’s has survived bombings, a symbol of endurance for Londoners. It’s visible across the capital. Five miles away in Nunhead cemetery, a bench has a sightline to Sir Christopher Wren’s cathedral.
It’s the weekend and the City of London is quiet. Cheapside, London Wall, Threadneedle Street. Bristling CCTV and soaring blocks of glass and steel, deserted it’s somehow timeless.
I walk to the Old Bailey, scene of notorious trials over the centuries. East End gangsters, the Kray Twins got life here in the sixties. In 1981 Peter Sutcliffe (the Yorkshire Ripper) was found guilty of thirteen murders. Capital punishment abolished, they didn’t follow Dead Man’s Walk, a tiled passage beneath the courts, to be hung at Newgate prison. The passage isn’t open to the public, the prison is gone, however London is about what you imagine as well as what you see.
In 1887, painter George Frederick Watts memorialised ‘heroic sacrifice’ in Postman’s Park. Ceramic tablets (many by Royal Doulton) list those who died saving others:
‘Elizabeth Boxall aged 17 of Bethnal Green who died of injuries received in trying to save a child from a runaway horse, June 20, 1888.’
‘Arthur Strange Carman of London and Mark Tomlinson on a desperate venture to save two girls from a quicksand in Lincolnshire were themselves engulfed. Aug 25 1902.' Postman’s Park offers a slice of London history that few people know about.
At the Museum of London, I visit an exhibition of the Underground, another London. In my novels, my character Jack, drives a District line train, and then walks the pages of London’s A-Z atlas. I take his train to one end of the line to Richmond. I use my own ‘A to Z’ to walk to Richmond Park. I see deer grazing and have tea at Pembroke Lodge, once home to philosopher, Bertrand Russell.
Then I walk along the Thames towpath to Kew Gardens, international hub of botanical discovery, where I see explorer and scientist, Marianne North’s paintings. The atmosphere is votive; a place of ghosts. I decide to set my next novel here.
At the Palm House, a magnificent Victorian iron and steel structure in Kew Gardens, designed by Decimus Burton to accommodate the exotic palms being collected and introduced to Europe in early Victorian times As I pass the statues of the Queen’s Beast – griffins in pugilistic pose, I’m reminded of my teenage self, watching David Cassidy on television in 1973, he strolls in sunshine on the terrace outside the Palm House singing ‘Daydreamer’.
Hammersmith Bridge, another feat of Victorian engineering. The plaited waters below indicate treacherous currents. On the handrail is a plaque, a link to Postman’s Park, it enthralled me as a child. 27th December 1919. Charles Wood, an airman, leapt off here and saved a drowning woman. Wood died later.
High tide. The causeway to Chiswick Eyot is submerged. Researching my latest novel, The Detective’s Secret, I didn’t notice the fast filling river and was nearly stranded there. It pays to respect the Thames, London’s unchanging life-force. Charles Dickens would recognise the viscous mud banks, baked to clay on a summer’s day.
Lesley Thomson latest book, The Detective's Secret, is out now and is available in hardback and ebook.