Memorable Stories and Ghosts Haunt Bodmin Jail in Cornwall

Memorable Stories and Ghosts Haunt Bodmin Jail in Cornwall

Bodmin Jail in Cornwall likes to call itself the most haunted place in England.  Considering the country has thousands of years of history with murder, mayhem and massacre galore (all of which could lead to ghost stories), this claim is pretty substantial. On the other hand, a woman I met had been to one of the paranormal evening events at Bodmin Jail where the leader brought out a ouija board.  As anyone who has seen any movie with a ouija board knows, it is always a bad idea to consult a ouija board (especially in a haunted place). Not surprisingly, the ouija board spelled out a random name that the lady recognised and it completely freaked her out.  We didn’t see any ghosts during our (daytime) visit to Bodmin Jail but we were left haunted by some of the stories of the prisoners the jail had housed.

Bodmin Jail in Cornwall claims to be the most haunted place in England

Bodmin Jail is a partially restored former prison which is now open to visitors.

The History of Bodmin Jail

Bodmin Jail in Cornwall was an operational prison from 1779 to 1927.  Like the Eastern State Penitentiary we went to in Philadelphia, it was built with lofty goals as a visionary forward-thinking place. For example, Bodmin Jail was the first British prison to hold prisoners in individual cells.  As the years went on, these lofty goals went by the wayside.

In 1869, when the law changed so that you could no longer be put in prison for being in debt, Bodmin Jail had spare capacity.  The jail gave a portion of its buildings to the Royal Navy to become a naval prison.  During World War I, the prison housed some British treasures such as the Crown Jewels.

Bodmin Jail in Cornwall claims to be the most haunted place in England

The thick stone walls meant the Jail was really cold.

Nowadays, Bodmin Jail is privately owned.  The complex is enormous and only part of it is open as a museum, restaurant, cafe and obligatory gift shop. It is open for daytime visits and the occasional evening event (ghost walks, parties etc.). You can even get married at Bodmin Jail.  I kid you not. You have a choice of a beautiful English countryside setting for your wedding or you can get married in a haunted jail.  Nothing so queer as folk.

Bodmin Jail in Cornwall

Bodmin Jail is only partially restored and the rest is still a crumbling wreck.

The Bodmin Jail Tour

The tour of Bodmin Jail gives you a good insight into how society worked in the 19th century.  There was a strict adherence to the letter of the law.  If you were a kid or an adult, stealing was considered stealing.  It definitely did not matter that you were stealing because you were starving. All that liberal compassion came later in history.

The stories at Bodmin Jail left you under no illusion that life was anything but brutal for the poor.  My children were shocked to learn that kids from those times were left homeless if their parents died.  They had never considered that being a street urchin was preferable to living in a workhouse or orphanage.

Bodmin Jail in Cornwall claims to be the most haunted place in England

The little kid on the right had to do hard labor for stealing celery.

There was a story of one 9 year old boy who was sentenced to death for stealing a tuppence (two pennies) worth of ink. He’d been living on the street since he was 6 years old.  He begged and stole for food until he was eventually caught.  Instead of the death sentence, he was sentenced to life transportation.  It didn’t say where but presumably Australia.

Exhibits within Bodmin Jail

Some of the exhibits are not-very-scary figurines showing prisoners and the day-to-day life of the prisoners.

For example, this guy Samuel Glasson from Truro was sent to jail more times than anyone else in Cornwall.  He spent a total of 11 years of his life in Bodmin Jail for various drunk and disorderly charges.  He had never actually committed a felony crime but was a miserable drunkard who refused to go home quietly when asked to do so by the police.

Bodmin Jail in Cornwall claims to be the most haunted place in England

Samuel Glasson had the distinction of eating 33 Christmas dinners in jail.

Some of the exhibits were more high-tech and involved holograms.  I felt the most powerful exhibits were the photographs, especially of the children, who just leaked bleak and hopeless.

Haunted Bodmin Jail in Cornwall

It was the general atmosphere that creeped the kids out more than this hologram.

Everyday Prison Life

Just because you weren’t executed, did not mean that you had an easy time in jail.

My kids were fascinated to learn that prisoners were only allowed to have a bath once every three months! Even they agreed that was gross.

Bodmin Jail in Cornwall claims to be the most haunted place in England

A standard prison cell

The food was basic and barely enough to keep people alive.  For the most part, the rations consisted of bread, gruel and cheese.  If you were serving hard labor, you might get a few more ounces of food.

Hard labor was supposed to make you a better person and teach you the error of your ways.  For example, women who were suspected of being prostitutes were put in jail and made to do hard labor.  The jail had examples of women who had been incarcerated for 2-3 months of hard labor.

At Bodmin Jail, they had a treadmill which prisoners would walk on to create power for the jail’s corn mill.  Prisoners would take turns – 15 minutes on the treadmill and 15 minutes picking apart old rope – for a total of 8 hours a day, 6 days a week.  This resulted in each prisoner climbing 10,000 feet per day!! Talk about glutes of steel. The treadmill was only abolished in 1898.

Bodmin Jail in Cornwall claims to be the most haunted place in England

This early day treadmill was a form of punishment. Now we use it for exercise!

Ghost Stories

The most famous ghost story involves a lady who killed her child.  She was unmarried with two children out of wedlock at the age of 28.  Her younger son was a cripple. She took up with a soldier who promised to marry her if she got rid of the younger son.  So she threw the crippled son down a mine shaft.  When the soldier was questioned, he was like all ‘huh??’  He claimed he had never promised marriage or asked her to get rid of her child. A jury took pity on her but a judge decided she should be put to death. She can be seen by children and pregnant women crying her way around the jail.

Bodmin Jail in Cornwall claims to be the most haunted place in England

We thought this sign saying paranormal activity was coming soon was hilarious.

Along with ghosts of prisoners, people have said they have seen ghosts of former wardens and prison officers.  Can you imagine coming back to haunt the place that you worked?  For example, you could be stuck in a cubicle for your entire life and your afterlife!

Not Such a Pleasant Childhood

My kids pointed out that there were a lot of child killers at the prison.  Without access to contraception, and limited other forms of recreation, children were a frequent occurrence in and out of marriage.  One man was executed for killing his illegitimate child born to a woman who was helping his wife while the wife was pregnant with their 8th child.

Bodmin Jail in Cornwall claims to be the most haunted place in England

A child’s room at Bodmin Jail

Children were kept in jail with their parents if they had nowhere else to go.  If they were old enough, they were put to work doing hard labor or sent out to the quarries.  The kids would get picked on by the guards and other inmates.  Prison rations were barely enough and so adults would steal food from the children.  It was just a battle for survival.

Hangings at Bodmin Jail

About 50 people were hanged at Bodmin Jail from 1785 to 1909.

Bodmin Jail in Cornwall claims to be the most haunted place in England

You can see the town of Bodmin from Bodmin Jail

Before 1868, hangmen had to bring their own rope!  Thousands of people would gather to watch a hanging.  After the hanging, the hangman would cut off little bits of rope to sell as souvenirs.  A hangman could make out very well when you added up his souvenir fees and his services fees.  For example, in 1840, 20-25,000 people came to see a double hanging of two bothers. Public hangings were a spectacle – reality TV without the scripting.

Haunted Bodmin jail in Cornwall in England

See for yourself if you think Bodmin Jail could be the most haunted place in England

Visiting Bodmin Jail in Cornwall

Bodmin Jail reminds visitors that it is an all-weather activity.  After all, in England the weather is never certain. We thought this jail was fascinating whether or not you go on a rainy day.  Like a lot of places in Cornwall, this attraction is dog-friendly. On the other hand, Bodmin Jail is not wheelchair accessible and I would find it very difficult to navigate a baby buggy through some of the staircases.


What You Should Know About Visiting St. Michael’s Mount in Cornwall

What You Should Know About Visiting St. Michael’s Mount in Cornwall

Did you know that there was a smaller twin of the famous Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy in France on the English side of the Channel?  Similar in shape to Mont Saint-Michel, St. Michael’s Mount is a rocky island topped with a castle. St. Michael’s Mount is one of the most famous sites in Cornwall, the southernmost county of England that juts westward into the Atlantic ocean. Although the family still have living quarters at the castle, the mount is now operated by the National Trust.

Tips for Visiting St. Michaels Mount in Cornwall

You can reach St. Michael’s Mount by walking along a granite sett causeway.

History of St. Michael’s Mount in Cornwall

Edward the Confessor, King of England from 1044 to 1066, gave St. Michael’s Mount to the Benedictine monks of Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy in the 11th century.  St. Michael’s Mount was under the control of Mont Saint-Michel until another English king took it back during the Hundred Years War with France.

Tips for Visiting St. Michaels Mount in Cornwall

When the tide comes in, the little island is completely isolated by the sea.

Even though the St. Aubyn family have lived on the island since the 17th century, the story of St. Michael’s Mount predates them.  The oldest part of the castle dates to the 12th century.

Tips for Visiting St. Michaels Mount in Cornwall

Cannons protecting this vital little island in the English channel.

My son was fascinated to learn that St. Michael’s Mount was swept by a tsunami in 1755.  It was caused by an earthquake in Portugal 1000 miles away!

The Castle, Chapel and Gardens at St. Michael’s Mount

The St. Aubyn family still live in the castle on a lease back from the National Trust which maintains the property. The co-manage taking care of the historic rooms open to the public.   As you would expect, the inside of the castle has lots of dark wood and traditional decor.  The views from the windows are fantastic.

Tips for Visiting St. Michaels Mount in Cornwall

Here’s the front door to the Castle. Yes, it’s that steep.

Tips for Visiting St. Michaels Mount in Cornwall

Corridors lined with family photos.

Tips for Visiting St. Michaels Mount in Cornwall

The cosy reading nook is just fabulous.

Tips for Visiting St. Michaels Mount in Cornwall

The grand dining room. I can’t imagine that little fire would keep this room warm when the wind whips off the Atlantic.

Tips for Visiting St. Michaels Mount in Cornwall

I love the detail of this fireplace hearth.

Tips for Visiting St. Michaels Mount in Cornwall

A statue of the Archangel Michael to whom the mount is dedicated.

Tips for Visiting St. Michaels Mount in Cornwall

Beautiful stained glass windows in the chapel.

Tips for Visiting St. Michaels Mount in Cornwall

The subtropical gardens are open when the gardens are in bloom.

Tips for Visiting St. Michaels Mount in Cornwall

The subtropical gardens pretty much hang off the rocky surface of the Mount.

We wanted to know how anyone could possibly carry food and basic necessities up to the castle.  It would be the perfect place for Amazon to drone drop their items.  The National Trust guide told us there is a Victorian train that takes necessities up to the castle.  You can see the train hidden behind the cafe near the base of the mount.  It’s not so much a train as much as a wagon.  On the other hand, it sure beats having to carry up luggage and groceries.

Tips for Visiting St. Michael’s Mount in Cornwall

Despite having read about visiting St. Michael’s Mount, we found we were not prepared for the actual visit.

The Easy Part of visiting St. Michael’s Mount:

I found that the things I worried about were actually really easy.

  • St. Michael’s Mount has a dedicated parking lot right in the little town of Marazion across from the causeway where you can park your car.  National Trust members receive discounted parking.
  • The walk across the causeway is very easy and takes about 10-15 minutes.
  • Don’t worry so much about the tides coming in.  Every National Trust member seemed to know the times of the tides for the day.  There are placards placed around the site reminding you of the tides.
  • There are places to eat and shop on St. Michael’s Mount.  After our trek up the hillside, we treated ourselves to some delicious ice-cream.  The Courtyard Shop has a well-curated collection of items I hadn’t seen elsewhere.
Tips for Visiting St. Michaels Mount in Cornwall

Tips for visiting St. Michaels Mount in Cornwall, the English counterpart to Mont St-Michel in France

Here’s what I wish I had known about visiting St. Michael’s Mount:

  • Make sure you wear comfortable walking shoes. Some of the stones underfoot really gouge into the soles of thin-soled shoes.
  • Dogs are allowed only at the base of St. Michael’s Mount. The area is charmingly called the village and harbor.  It is a more limited space than you would think because the walkway up to the castle is off-limits.
  • I can not emphasise enough how much you should wear walking shoes.  The path up to the Castle is NOT paved.  My kids thought it was fun hopping from stone to stone.  A well-dressed older gentlemen in front of us though went tumbling because his shoes did not have enough grip on the stones. We were lucky and went on a nice, dry day.  I would imagine these stones would be trickier in wetter weather.
  • The path up to the castle is pretty vertical.  There are not even any front steps for this castle.  You clamber up rocks to access it.
Tips for Visiting St. Michaels Mount in Cornwall

The castle looms over the mount.

  • Obviously St. Michael’s Mount is not wheelchair or buggy friendly from what I have said. Even toddlers may find it challenging though.  I know from my own kids that they when they were toddlers they just wanted to explore by themselves. You’ll need to keep a close eye on them because the stone pathways are not smooth.  Even inside the castle, there’s lots of stairs which could present a problem.
  • Right near the car park, there is a charming little playground for children to let off some steam.
  • Marazion is a charming little town in its own right.  It’s got restaurants, cafes and benches that overlook St Michael’s Mount.  With the sun glistening of the water and the rocks, it’s a view that you really can’t get tired of.
Tips for Visiting St. Michaels Mount in Cornwall

These men were out crabbing when the tide was out.

  • Like other places we found in Cornwall, St. Michael’s Mount is closed on a Saturday.

We thought St. Michael’s Mount was beautiful and lived up to expectations.  When the tide is out, the beach is flat and great for children to play.  When the tide is in, you can really see the beauty of the little isolated island castle.


One of the Magnificent Seven, Highgate Cemetery in North London

One of the Magnificent Seven, Highgate Cemetery in North London

On a cold rainy day, I visited Highgate Cemetery on a whim. I took a guided tour by a volunteer guide who regaled us with fascinating tidbits of history. Divided into two parts, east and west, Highgate Cemetery is one of the great monuments of London. It is Grade I listed by the National Heritage List of England (the highest architectural historical honour a monument can be given because they are of exceptional interest). One of the so-called Magnificent Seven, Highgate Cemetery in North London stands testament to the depressing fascination of the Victorians with death, mourning and keeping up appearances.

A Guided Tour of Highgate Cemetery in North London

One of the Magnificent Seven, Highgate Cemetery is renowned for its architectural history.

The Magnificent Seven Cemeteries

Prior to the early 19th century, all of London’s dead were buried in local parish churchyards. As the population grow, this method lead to overcrowding and unhygienic disposal of corpses.  People literally would just bury the dead in ditches near their homes.

Traditionally, wealthy people would bury their dead in their family cemeteries on their country estates.  Neither the poor nor the growing middle class had the luxury of this option.  So London was just getting more crowded until finally a cholera epidemic prompted the authorities to act.

In 1832, a Parliamentary encouraged the creation of private cemeteries in the outskirts of the city.  They were inspired by the famous Parisian cemetery, Pere Lachaise built in 1804.  Eventually seven such cemeteries were built – Highgate, Nunhead, Brompton, Abney Park, West Norwood, Tower Hamlets and Kensal Green. The term Magnificent Seven was given to the Victorian cemeteries in the 1980’s by an architectural historian.

A Guided Tour of Highgate Cemetery in North London

The Victorian architecture of Highgate Cemetery seems very grand to us.

A Guided Tour of Highgate Cemetery in North London

The tree lined paths of Highgate Cemetery would have been seriously posh for Victorian times.

Highgate Cemetery in North London

Highgate Cemetery was opened in 1839 and soon became a fashionable place to visit. Set in the beautiful countryside, the Victorians would make day trips to the cemetery to visit their dead relatives and picnic in the grounds.

The Victorian Fascination With Death

The Victorians had elaborate ceremonies for funerals and mourning.  The lead example of mourning was Queen Victoria who wore black mourning clothes for 40 years after the death of her husband.  There were even manuals that laid out the specifics for mourning etiquette (e.g., how long to wear mourning clothes for your first cousin by marriage twice removed).

The Victorian headstones are elaborate because they were a way to show who much grief and love they were feeling. A happy accident, of course, was that you were also able to flaunt your wealth and engage in a bit of pageantry. You had elaborate funeral corteges with black horses pulling carriages of mourners and the hearse.  There were also mourners paid to follow the hearse looking suitable sombre.

A Guided Tour of Highgate Cemetery in North London

No one is happy. Not even the angel. And even if the deceased were Scrooge incarnate.

In an age of prosperity where more people than ever were living longer than ever, the Victorians were really obsessed with the frailty of life.  Many grave monuments were carved to depict life being cut short – broken columns, draped urns, etc.  Besides, after the funeral cortege side-show arrived at Highgate Cemetery, you couldn’t just dump granny in any old grave.

A Guided Tour of Highgate Cemetery in North London

Lots of monuments each telling a story.

Victorian Tombs in Highgate Cemetery

I thought the Victorian tombs were beautiful, especially in the sombre light of the grey day. Notable people who are buried here include: Henry Gray, the author of Gray’s Anatomy (not the TV series!!), Charles Cruft, the founder of the Crufts Dog Show, Christina Rossetti, poet, and the parents and wife of Charles Dickens.

A Guided Tour of Highgate Cemetery in North London

We get it. Even the angels are weeping.

A Guided Tour of Highgate Cemetery in North London

This man loved his pet lion. No, really. He was in the circus.

A Guided Tour of Highgate Cemetery in North London

A cross? All you got me was a carved cross? Even the lion tamer got a lion.

The Victorians created Egyptian Avenue because interest in Ancient Egypt was very fashionable at the time. Its main feature is a giant cedar of Lebanon tree which had been in the manor grounds from which the land was purchased.

A Guided Tour of Highgate Cemetery in North London

Egyptian Avenue was meant to impress.

A Guided Tour of Highgate Cemetery in North London

The giant cedar of Lebanon looms over the graves.

Post-Victorian Tombs in Highgate Cemetery

Highgate cemetery now has over 170,000 people in 50,000+ graves.  The most famous person buried in Highgate Cemetery is Karl Marx (on the Highgate East side). I thought his tomb was one of the less attractive ones. The giant head looming over everything is, in fact, a bit disconcerting.

A Guided Tour of Highgate Cemetery in North London

Karl Marx, has a ginormous head stone, marking his last resting place.

You know what’s funny?  Marx being buried in Highgate which is full of the middle-class capitalists that he despised.  You would have to search hard to find any members of the proletariat like he intended (factory workers).  At least he is in the vicinity of the nannies, drivers, housekeepers etc. which can substitute for his proles and the wealthy champagne socialists that hire them.

I was surprised to learn that the cemetery still accepts corpses for burial. With the changing demographics of North London, it has become popular with the Russians. I saw the tomb for Alexander Litvinenko, the Russian who was poisoned using polonium in 2006 in what is widely believed to be a Russian-government ordered execution. He was buried in a lead-lined coffin so that the poison wouldn’t leak into the environment.

A Guided Tour of Highgate Cemetery in North London

The cemetery staff feed the pack of urban foxes who hang out in the cemetery.

Visiting Highgate Cemetery

You can book tours online for Highgate Cemetery directly at their website. You can only visit the Highgate West side (which is the most overgrown and architecturally interesting) on a guided visit.  I really enjoyed my visit which was fascinating and educational thanks to the excellent guide/volunteer who really knew his stuff.

A Guided Tour of Highgate Cemetery in North London

Something off the usual tourist path – A tour of the Victorian Highgate Cemetery.


Conscious Uncoupling:  What Does Brexit Mean for Visitors to Britain?

Conscious Uncoupling: What Does Brexit Mean for Visitors to Britain?

You’ve heard the acronym bandied about in the last few days – Brexit or a British exit from the European Union.  Another acronym that’s surfaced in the aftermath of the referendum held in Britain on Thursday the 23rd of June is Bregret – British voters regretting their vote for Brexit.  The British vote for Brexit came as a shock to many as the Establishment applecart was overturned.  The powers that be are still trying to retrieve the apples and there is an interim period of uncertainty.  So, what does Brexit mean for visitors to Britain in the short (to medium) term?

The impact of Brexit for tourists to Britain.

The impact of Brexit for tourists to Britain.

Political Uncertainty

The referendum calling for Brexit is non-binding, i.e., it is merely advisory.  Parliament needs to take action to make it legal.  Even though most of Parliament wants to stay in Europe, they would risk being undemocratic if they just ignored the Brexit vote.


Who’s Going to Deal with the D-I-V-O-R-C-E?

David Cameron, the UK Prime Minister, who wanted Britain to stay in Europe, has just resigned having decided that some one else can deal with the mess.  His successor will be picked in October.  The opposition party is likewise in disarray with calls for a change of leadership.  The upshot is that British politics has been turned upside-down.

For Britain to trigger leaving the European Union, they need to do so under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. It’s sort of like serving divorce papers.  Then Britain and Europe have 2 years to sort out an agreement on how the split will work.  I can’t help but think Europe will be Divorce Barbie and Britain will be Divorce Ken.

It’s Not You, It’s … OK It’s You

Cameron has said that the new Prime Minister will trigger Article 50.  So papers aren’t going to get served until at least October and then the 2 year clock starts running.  Some of the EU have grumbled that if the UK wants to leave, then they should just pack their bags and go.

“Britons decided yesterday that they want to leave the European Union, so it doesn’t make any sense to wait until October to try to negotiate the terms of their departure… It’s not an amicable divorce, but it was not exactly tight affair anyway.”

-Jeane Claude Juncker, EU Commission President

Doesn’t that sound like what an upset ex would say? It was never serious, OK? I am NOT upset.

Let’s Just Be Friends

In any event, whenever Article 50 gets started, there’s still another 2 years of waiting in limbo while the details get sorted. After all, Britain is geographically in Europe and the EU is an important trading partner. There is 40 years of history and relationships to untangle.  It’s way more complicated than sorting out who gets to keep Great Aunty Hilda’s Grandfather clock.

What does Brexit mean for tourists to Britain?

The majority of London voted to stay in the European Union.

Won’t Someone Think of the Children?

Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to stay in Europe.  Scotland has already had its referendum to leave the United Kingdom and chose to stay.  Post-Brexit, they are saying they want to leave the UK and join Europe.  Northern Ireland likewise would join up with the Republic of Ireland so that it could stay in the European Union.

It’s like children in a divorce refusing to stay with the custodial parent.


Regrets I’ve Had A Few

The British people are waking up to the consequences of the Brexit vote.  Some applaud it, others don’t.  Some of it has gotten ugly with xenophobia running rampant but that shouldn’t affect visitors though.  You should remember though Britain has generally had a pretty peaceful democratic process.  People don’t go around beheading their aristocrats or staging a military coup when they don’t like their government.

So, what does it matter for international visitors to Britain?

Britain is on sale

Great Exchange Rates

The British pound is at the lowest exchange rate in decades.  With all the uncertainty in the market, rates are going to be good for the short to medium term.  An expensive country suddenly just got a lot cheaper.

Less Crowds

Experts predict that the UK will see less European visitors.  In 2015, if you looked at it by nationality, European visitors made up 7 out 10 visitors to Britain.  The tourist sites will be less busy.  Plus, there will be less people from nations with a less rigorous approach towards standing in line.  That alone will mean less stress at major tourist attractions.

A Jumping Off Point For Europe

Britain was never part of the Schengen agreement that governed European visa rules.  For Americans, this means you can visit Britain for 6 months out of every year.  You still need your passport to visit Europe as always.  If you are from this list of countries, you will still need a Schengen visa. Americans don’t need a Schengen visa and you can stay in one of the Schengen visa countries for 90 days out of every 6 months.

There will be lots of changes once the Brexit agreement is hammered out.  For example, those low-cost airfares throughout Europe from London may rise because all the low-service airlines will need to renegotiate their air service contracts.  Britain may become a less attract hub for visitors to Europe but that hasn’t happened yet.

Get thee onto an EasyJet or Ryanair flight pronto!

Europe is Cheaper

So the Euro is also sliding down in value.  Thanks to Britain being the first to make a break for the border, other countries are wondering if they too should bolt.  For example, polls show 61% of French voters dislike Europe. Along with Germany, France is a corner-stone of the European Union. Just like the far-right politicians in France, right-wingers in The Netherlands applaud Brexit.  With Europe facing internal and external pressure (those Syrian refugees haven’t gone away), the Euro will be weak for some time.

Now What?

In my opinion, there’s really no point in speculating what deals will be struck between Europe and Britain until it happens.  We have no idea of the impact of the referendum vote for Brexit in the long term.  In the short to medium term, Brexit means visitors to Britain can enjoy a cheaper holiday with less crowds.

Why post-Brexit is a great time to visit Britain

Why now is a great time to visit Britain

So, come visit Britain while the going is good.  Britain will be grateful for your tourist money (considering it has jacked up its own economy for no good reason).

5 Things You Need To Know About Primrose Hill in London

5 Things You Need To Know About Primrose Hill in London

Primrose Hill is one of my favourite neighbourhoods in London.  When we were house-hunting in the area, we were choosing between Primrose Hill and St John’s Wood.  In the end, we choose St John’s Wood because the houses were nicer and it was less of a so-trendy-it-hurts scene.  A disappointed Primrose Hill real estate agent told us that we were making a big mistake and that we would miss Primrose Hill’s vibrancy.  We didn’t.  But we did visit often as it was only across the park.  If you would like to experience a part of London that the average tourist does not frequent, I would recommend the Primrose Hill neighbourhood.  Along those lines, I’ve put together a list of 5 things you need to know about Primrose Hill in London.

5 Things You Need To Know About Primrose Hill

Colourful terrace homes in Primrose Hill

Where is Primrose Hill?

Primrose Hill itself is a large hilly park just north of Regents Park Zoo (and a part of the Royal Park of Regents Park).  The two parks are intersected by Prince Albert Road which connects crazy cool Camden with sedate upscale St. John’s Wood.  The Primrose Hill neighbourhood is in the middle picking up aspects of both of its neighbours.

5 Things You Need To Know About Primrose Hill

The popular press always talk about the celebrities that populate Primrose Hill.  In my experience it has been overrun with general wealthy City types.  The heyday of the celebrities living in Primrose Hill was in the 1990’s.  If the Daily Mail is to be believed Kate Moss, Sadie Frost and her husband Jude Law threw crazy house parties.  Adding music cred, the Gallagher Brothers also lived nearby (several ex-wives ago). Most of them have moved onto other parts of North London (mostly Highgate) which have more privacy, leafier gardens and better schools.  Yes, even the party kids have to grow up.

When the area was developed in the early 19th century, Regents Park and Primrose Hill were considered suburbs because London itself was much smaller.  Today it is fairly central and firmly within zone 2 of the Tube.

A Brief History of Primrose Hill

I’ve heard taxi drivers tell me that Primrose Hill was actually a plague pit from the 14th century.  Plague pits were where the bodies of people who died from the Bubonic Plague were dumped.  Almost 1/3 of the population of the City of London died from the plague and so the bodies were just dumped as quickly as they could be found in large burial pits. This story could potentially be true as there have been plague pits found nearby and the area would have been sufficiently outside of the medieval city to be a countryside dumping ground. No one has actually dug it up so we don’t know if it is.  Usually these things are  found when you are excavating for a tube line extension or similar.

Not much happened in Primrose Hill from the time of the supposed plague pit until the mid-19th century.  The rapidly expanding middle class in London needed somewhere to live.  Thanks to the British Empire, London was the most populous city in the world at the time.  So, enter the developers.

5 Things You Need To Know About Primrose Hill

An attempt to prettify the railroad bridge over the railroad tracks that delineate Primrose Hill.

In the early 19th century, architect John Nash, with the blessing of the king, was building villas for the ‘great and the good’ in Regents Park.  That scheme wasn’t as extensive as proposed because Nash was more creative than business-minded.  At the same time, St. John’s Wood was being developed as one of the first ‘suburbs’ of London with spacious villas and low-density housing.

5 Things You Need To Know About Primrose Hill

The semi-detached villas were built to accommodate a family and their servants.

Primrose Hill was likewise tagged for development but, along the way, it became less villas and more terraced houses.  Unlike the other two neighbourhoods, the railroad tracks (and their accompanying industrial elements) were too close for comfort for the aspiring middle-classes who wanted villas.  There were some villas built which housed single-families who were comfortably wealthy sufficiently far from the tracks.

5 Things You Need To Know About Primrose Hill

An idyllic sunday in the park when life is good.

So, what was a poor developer to do with rest of the land?  They crammed in housing.  Where there would have been a pair of semi-detached villas on a lot, they put about 5 terraced homes.  These terraces became homes for the working class with families taking an entire floor (or if they were really poor, stuck into one room).

The Primrose Hill of Today

Primrose Hill likes to think of itself as a village.  (Somewhat pretentious because it never was!).  When we were house-hunting, one of the things that put me off were all the AGA cookers.  If you live in the English countryside, you have to cook on an AGA cooker/oven.  It’s in the contract as soon as you buy a home in middle-codswallop-on-the-river.  Along with the subscription to Country Life magazine.  You really don’t need one in London other than to pretend you live in a little village in the middle of nowhere.

What are the 5 things you need to know about Primrose Hill?

Regents Park Road is the Epicentre

The main drag in Primrose Hill is Regents Park Road.  Although the area does not have chain stores (e.g., Pret a Manger, McDonalds), it does have branches of select stores.  Dahling, you have to shop rich to understand the difference.  For example, there is a branch of upscale Nicolas (a French wine store), Graham and Greene (boho-chic interior furnishings) and Mary’s Living and Giving (boutiquey thrift shops established by retail expert Mary Portas for Save the Children).

5 Things You Need To Know About Primrose Hill

One of the many great pubs in Primrose Hill.

I personally love Primrose Hill Books which is an independent bookseller which has a curated selection of books (written by locals as well as others).  Primrose Hill has a long history of leftist/liberal intellectual credentials with numerous famous locals having lived in the neighbourhood, such as Frederich Engels (philosopher), Alan Bennett (playwright) and the Milband Brothers (politicians).

5 Things You Need To Know About Primrose Hill

Thin and rich does not mean you have to be stupid.

Be Serious About Food…

Of course, Primrose Hill is home to a lot of foodies.  Or, foodies, if only they could bring themselves to eat carbohydrates.  Maybe they just smell the fresh aroma of good bread.  Anthony Delicatessen has great Italian food.  My son loves the parma ham it sells.  On Saturdays, there is a farmer’s market held in the neighbourhood.

5 Things You Need To Know About Primrose Hill

Do NOT come into this neighbourhood with plastic bags.

In terms of restaurants, Greenberry Cafe is popular with the ladies who lunch crowd with a well-deserved reputation for good food.  Lemonia is a local favourite Greek restaurant which has been there for ages.  People are always asking us to lunch there – it’s good but not great in my opinion. I much prefer Odette’s which has been around for a really long time as well and is consistently good. My children love Cachao which makes great sweet or savoury crepes.  The cafe being part of a charming toy store has nothing to do with their love.

Shepherd’s Foods is a little supermarket along the lines of Partridges in Sloane Square which in turn tries to be the cooler version of Fortnum & Mason.  Not surprising since the same family (Shepherd) own both Shepherds and Partridges.  Just like Partridges, you will find a selection of American brands at Shepherds.

5 Things You Need To Know About Primrose Hill

One of several fabulous wine places in Primrose Hill

But Not So Serious As To Be More than a Size Two

The fashionistas will also be happy in Primrose Hill.  I love Anna, a store that has been there for years and has great sales.  For children, there is I Love Gorgeous which sells charming (if expensive) girls’ dresses.  Elias and Grace is a great store for children’s clothes for both genders.  On the less expensive side, you also have Fara Kids (a charity store which sells hardly-used and brand name hand-me-downs from local rich kids).

Must Love Socialising

There are side streets nearby which has more stores, restaurants and pubs.  For example, Gloucester Avenue was one of the roads that unluckily backs onto the railroad tracks on one side. On Gloucester Road, we really like The Landsdowne Pub and, just down the road, The Engineer. The Lansdowne Pub has a great restaurant upstairs (with a roof terrace overlooking the railroad tracks).

5 Things You Need To Know About Primrose Hill

The Engineer has a great outside courtyard area to hang out in the sunshine.

The Engineer has a charming courtyard in the backyard.   In between the two pubs, there’s Primrose Bakery which is a neighbourhood favourite.  Across from The Engineer, next door to high-end deli Melrose and Morgan you can take a nice stroll along the canal towpath.  One way will take you to funky Camden Town Market and the other way will take you to the genteel prettiness of Little Venice.

In my experience, the pubs in Primrose Hill are always packed.  It’s a good thing then that they are great places to hang out!

Must Love Dogs

You have to understand that the people in Primrose Hill love dogs.  Not only is the park nearby, having a dog is part of that English country living thing.  You can’t take a long bracing walk over the rolling hills of the English countryside with a cat, can you??

5 Things You Need To Know About Primrose Hill

One lucky doggie riding in style.

Visiting Primrose Hill

Primrose Hill really is a walk across Prince Albert Road from Regents Park.  From the top of the hill, you will get fabulous views across London.  It is easily accessible by tube as well (Chalk Farm Tube Station).

I think the nicest way to visit if you are a tourist is to take in the very pretty Regents Park and then have a lunch/dinner/drinks in Primrose Hill. As soon as you leave the Baker Street area, the crowds that characterise tourist-central-London melt away.  London’s charms are much easier to appreciate if you are not constantly being jostled by people.  You will definitely find yourself hanging out with the London locals (and possibly a celebrity).  After Primrose Hill, it’s a short walk to visit Camden Town  (maybe via the scenic canal path route near Melrose and Morgan?) and its market mayhem. Be forewarned, you will once again find yourself with the throngs having left idyllic Primrose Hill behind.


Seven Things I Learned on a Street Art Tour of Shoreditch

Seven Things I Learned on a Street Art Tour of Shoreditch

Having always admired the street art in the Shoreditch area of London, I was excited to take a tour with Alternative London Tours.  These tours had been recommended by my friend, Sheryl of Hot Chiu Sauces who had previously taken the London Walking Tour by this company.  A group of us booked a private tour and workshop through Alternative London tours where we were able to have a street art tour followed by a hands-on workshop.  Having been in the neighbourhood previously, I was familiar with the area’s street art.  I learned so much from my street art tour of Shoreditch, however, that I have a new-found appreciation for it.

Street Art in Shoreditch

The Shoreditch area has become synonymous with young creatives in London. Located in East London, the area was taken over by people priced out of rapidly rising costs in more traditional areas of west London.  These newcomers, of course, priced out the locals who lived in the area – the working class and Bangladeshi immigrant communities.  Along with the young trend setters, you got the boutique hotels, hip bars, art galleries and great restaurants.  All this gentrification provides plenty of wall space and hoarding to put up street art.

street art in the trendy area of Shoreditch in London

You can find the most street art in any area of London in Shoreditch.  Everywhere you turn there is something to catch your eye.  Some of the works are put up with the approval of the owners of the property who think it will attract people to check out their businesses.  Permission also allows the artist to spend time putting up a more complicated piece of work. The works without permission have to be put up quickly because vandalism is a crime.

The Street Art Tour of Shoreditch

By its ephemeral nature, he actual street art in Shoreditch is ever changing.  On the other hand, you know there will always be plenty of it to see in Shoreditch.  Although our tour took about 2 hours, we did not actually go very far because there is so much packed into a small area.

street art in the trendy area of Shoreditch in London

Street art appears in lots of different mediums.

I’m used to street art being painted like the murals I saw at the Berlin Wall or Batman Alley in Sao Paulo in Brasil.

Shoreditch is like a giant open air art gallery or art fair.  You get such variety in the works – stencils, paste-ups, tags etc.  Just like any art gallery, not all of the work is great quality.  I saw some stuff that looked like it could have been a 70’s era velvet painting.  Who knows?  Maybe, it’s retro chic and I just missed the hipster irony.

street art in Shoreditch

This is the work of Benjamin Murphy who uses electrical tape.

street art in shoreditch

A work by Dr. Cream – paper stuck onto a wall.

street art in Shoreditch

Citizen Kane works with resin.

street art in Shoreditch

This guy likes to put polyfilla mushrooms on top of buildings.

street art in shoreditch

Gregor is a French artist who casts his face into sculpture and then sticks the result on walls around the world.

street art in shoreditch

This artist just adds his work onto street signs.

street art in Shoreditch

Jones makes bronze sculptures that fit specifically into holes he finds around the city. This piece is plugged into the hole on top of a street pole.

Street artists are moving online.

French street artist Invader has his own app (Flash Invaders) where you can search for his work and win points when you find them. Think geocaching for street art.   He has put his distinctive work in about 65 countries.  His work refers to the early pixelated video games of the 80’s such as Space Invaders.  The highest scorer on the Flash Invaders game has found over 1000 pieces of art. This guy is prolific!  (No cheating – the sites you enter are checked by GPS so that you can’t just pretend to have found his work!).

street art in Shoreditch

Invader has a signature style based on 80s video games.

British urban artist, Insa, creates “gif-iti” which is a term he coined to describe his works.  He puts hand-painted art up on the street, and then when you view them through his app, they become animated gifs.

street art in shoreditch

A small version of Insa gif-iti

As stated on his website, his gif-iti become “...slices of infinite un-reality, cutting edge art for the tumblr generation.”

Check out his work on tumblr (a natural choice as the home of the gif).  His website, Insaland, even has a store where you can buy his works.  (What did Napoleon say about Britain being a nation of shopkeepers?)  Even a British avant-garde urban artist has an online shop.

Street artists are not all youngsters.

This poignant piece of work was created by Citizen Kane in memory of his son who killed himself.  He was making sculpture out of foam and Fimo in the 1980’s so you figure he’s got to at least 35 years old.

street art in shoreditch

A work by Citizen Kane entitled portal.

Our guide told us that he had been to a recent birthday party for Australian street artist, Jimmy C.  A little digging (ok, Wikipedia) reveals Jimmy C was born in 1973 making him currently 41 years old.  By the way, this work took 8 hours to do (which obviously required the cooperation of the building’s owner).  I’m impressed at how fast he could do this work!

street art in Shoreditch London

A work by Jimmie C

Shoreditch has street art from artists around the world.

I was surprised by how much of the street art in Shoreditch is from artists around the world.  For example, Roa is a Belgian street artist whose works also appear in other major cities like New York, Berlin and Paris.

street art in shoreditch

Roa’s work involves monochromatic wild animals.

street art in Shoreditch in London

Another grayscale animal by Roa.

Street art can convey subtle political messages.

Thanks to the anonymity of street artists it encourages freedom of expression.  And, not all of it has to have the hit-you-over-the-head messages from the Berlin Wall.

Check out this work by French graphically-trained urban artist Zabou who now lives in London.  She, too, has an online store on her website.

street art in shoreditch

A work by Zabou about children and war (paint).

Stik is a home-grown talent who likes to paint these distinctive stick figures.  It’s amazing how much emotion can be conveyed in a simple stick figure.

shoreditch street art

This stick man is definitely giving the neighbourhood the side-eye.

Street artists may choose to work with the establishment.

French urban artist, Invader, mentioned above, collaborated with NASA to send a piece of contemporary art into space to put in the International Space Station.

British artist, Ben Eine (say it fast – get it??), has had a series of gallery shows around the world.  His work has been bought by the Obamas and hangs in the White House.

street art in shoreditch

Ben Eine is known for his colourful work using typography.

street art in Shoreditch

Art under an over pass.

Perceived value is everything.

There’s about a half-million in difference in price between these two pieces of art. The top one is by British street artist superstar Banksy and is covered in a plastic protective cover.  The second one is by Bambi, another British artist.  She has been hailed as a female Banksy but has yet to achieve the astronomic prices. By the way, here’s a comprehensive list of Banksy street art you can still see in London.

street art in Shoreditch

Banksy street art protected by a plastic covering.

street art in Shoreditch

You can see the similarities between Banksy and Bambi.

This piece is by Frenchman Thierry Noir who is believed to be the first person to have painted a mural on the Berlin Wall.  This work is located right next to the Banksy work shown above but is not covered in plastic covering.  It sits behind trash bins and you can see the effect the constant banging of the bins has had on the work.

street art in shoreditch

A work by Thierry Noir partially hidden by bin.

Create Your Own Street Art Workshop

Wow! I learned quickly that spray can artwork is a hard medium to master.  I have new found respect for street artists who can quickly throw up a piece of art in a matter of minutes.  Apparently it takes 7 minutes from being spotted to having the police show up to disrupt your creativity.

I won’t embarrass myself with the work I produced.  Currently hanging in my daughter’s room, my piece has pink and green stars and a black unicorn.  It’s very Taylor Swift and she loves it.

This photo is of my friend who is a real artist – which no doubt you can tell by how great her first effort at spray painting came out.

street art in Shoreditch

Lost in creativity.

Details on the Street Art Tour

Alternative Tours London runs tours in Shoreditch regularly covering a variety of topics including street art.  I found our guide knowledgeable and enthusiastic.  A street artist himself, he could have spent hours talking about street art.  The workshop, held in Hackney near Columbia Road, was also a lot of fun. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would because I am terrible at creating art.  My forte is definitely more art appreciation than art creation.  In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I’m thinking of doing a workshop with my daughter.

This post is linked with City Tripping.

Wander Mum