In Weavers’ Fields
Who can resist the appeal of the path worn solely by footsteps? I was never convinced by John Bunyan’s pilgrim who believed salvation lay in sticking exclusively to the straight path – detours and byways always held greater attraction for me. My experience of life has been that there is more to be discovered by stepping from the tarmac and meandering off down the dusty track, and so I delight in the possibility of liberation offered by these paths which appear year after year, in complete disregard to those official routes laid out by the parks department.
It is commonly believed that the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard invented the notion of “desire paths” (lignes de désir) to describe these pathways eroded by footfall in his book “The Poetics of Space,” in 1958, although, just like the mysterious provenance of these paths themselves, this origin is questioned by others. What is certain is that the green spaces of the East End are scored with them. Sometimes, it is because people would rather cut a corner than walk around a right angle, at other times it is because walkers lack patience with elegantly contrived curved paths when they would prefer to walk in a straight line and occasionally it is because there is simply no other path leading where they want to go.
Resisting any suggestion that these paths are by their nature subversive to authority or indicative of moral decline, I prefer to appreciate them as evidence of human accommodation, coming into existence where the given paths fail and the multitude of walkers reveal the footpath which best takes them where they need to go. Yet landscape architects and the parks department refuse to be cowed by the collective authority of those who vote with their feet and, from time to time, little fences appear in a vain attempt to redirect pedestrians back on the straight and narrow.
I find a beauty in these desire paths which are expressions of collective will and serve as indicators of the memory of repeated human actions inscribed upon the landscape. They recur like an annual ritual, reiterated over and over like a popular rhyme, and asserting ownership of the space by those who walk across it every day. It would be an indication of the loss of independent thought if desire paths were no longer created and everyone chose to conform to the allotted pathways instead.
You only have to look at a map of the East End to see that former desire paths have been incorporated into the modern road network. The curved line of Broadway Market joins up with Columbia Rd cutting a swathe through the grid of streets, along an ancient drover’s track herding the cattle from London Fields down towards Smithfield Market, and the aptly named Fieldgate St indicates the beginning of what was once a footpath over the fields down to St Dunstan’s when it was the parish church for the whole of Tower Hamlets.
Each desire path tells a story, whether of those who cut a corner hurrying for the tube through Museum Gardens or of those who walk parallel to the tarmac for fear of being hit by cyclists in London Fields or of the strange compromise enacted in Whitechapel Waste where an attempt has been made to incorporate desire paths into the landscape design. I am told that in Denmark landscape architects and planners go out after newly-fallen snow to trace the routes of pedestrians as an indicator of where the paths should be. Yet I do not believe that desire paths are a problem which can be solved because desire paths are not a problem, they are a heartening reminder of the irreducible nature of the human spirit that can never be contained and will always be wandering.
The parting of the ways in Museum Gardens
The allure of the path through the trees
In Bethnal Green, hungry for literature, residents cut across the rose bed to get to the library
A cheeky little short cut
An inviting avenue of plane trees in Weavers’ Fields
A detour in Florida St
A byway in Bethnal Green
Legitimised by mowing in Allen Gardens, Spitalfields
A pointless intervention in Shadwell
Which path would you choose?
Over the hills and faraway in Stepney
The triumph of common sense in Stepney Green
Half-hearted appropriation by landscape architects on Whitechapel Waste
A joggers path in London Fields
A dog-eared corner in Stepney
The beginning of something in Bethnal Green
Ragwort in Hanbury St
(The concoction of the herb is good to wash the mouth, and also against the quinsy and the king’s evil)
Encouraged to view the plaque upon the hairdresser at the corner of Puma Court and Commercial St, commemorating where Nicholas Culpeper lived and wrote The English Herbal, the celebrated seventeenth century Herbalist returned to his old neighbourhood for a look around and I was designated to be his guide.
Naturally, he was a little disoriented by the changes that time has wrought to Red Lion Fields where he once cultivated herbs and gathered wild plants for his remedies. Disinterested in new developments, instead he implored me to show him what wild plants were left and thus we set out together upon a strange quest, seeking weeds that have survived the urbanisation. You might say we were searching for the fields in Spitalfields since these were plants that were here before everything else.
Let me admit, I did feel a responsibility not to disappoint the old man, as we searched the barren streets around his former garden. But I discovered he was more astonished that anything at all had survived and thus I photographed the hardy specimens we found as a record, published below with Culpeper’s own annotations.
Honeysuckle in Buxton St (I know of no better cure for asthma than this, besides it takes away the evil of the spleen, provokes urine, procures speedy delivery of women in travail, helps cramps, convulsions and palsies and whatsoever griefs come of cold or stopping.)
Dandelion in Fournier St (Vulgarly called Piss-a-beds, very effective for obstructions of the liver, gall and spleen, powerful cleans imposthumes. Effectual to drink in pestilential fevers and to wash the sores. The juice is good to be applied to freckles, pimples and spots.)
Campion in Bishop’s Sq (Purges the body of choleric humours and helps those that are stung by Scorpions and other venomous beasts and may be as effectual for the plague.)
Pellitory of the Wall in Hanbury St (For an old or dry cough, the shortness of breath, and wheezing in the throat. Wonderfully helps stoppings of the urine.)
Herb Robert in Folgate St (Commended not only against the stone, but to stay blood, where or howsoever flowing, and it speedily heals all green wounds and is effectual in old ulcers in the privy parts.)
Sow Thistle in Princelet St (Stops fluxes, bleeding, takes away cold swellings and eases the pains of the teeth)
Groundsel off Brick Lane (Represses the heat caused by motions of the internal parts in purges and vomits, expels gravel in the veins or kidneys, helps also against the sciatica, griping of the belly, the colic, defects of the liver and provokes women’s courses.)
Ferns and Campanula and in Elder St (Ferns eaten purge the body of choleric and waterish humours that trouble the stomach. The smoke thereof drives away serpents, gnats and other noisome creatures which in fenny countries do trouble and molest people lying their beds.)
Sow Thistle and Herb Robert in Elder St
Yellow Wood Sorrel and Sow Thistle in Puma Court (The roots of Sorrel are held to be profitable against the jaundice.)
Comfrey in Code St (Helps those that spit blood or make a bloody urine, being outwardly applied is specially good for ruptures and broken bones, and to be applied to women’s breasts that grow sore by the abundance of milk coming into them.)
Sow Thistle in Fournier St
Field Poppy in Allen Gardens (A syrup is given with very good effect to those that have the pleurisy and is effectual in hot agues, frenzies and other inflammations either inward or outward.)
Fleabane at Victoria Cottages (Very good to heal the nipples and sore breasts of women.)
Sage and Wild Strawberries in Commercial St (The juice of Sage drank hath been of good use at time of plagues and it is commended against the stitch and pains coming of wind. Strawberries are excellent to cool the liver, the blood and the spleen, or an hot choleric stomach, to refresh and comfort the fainting spirits and quench thirst.)
Hairy Bittercress in Fournier St (Powerful against the scurvy and to cleanse the blood and humours, very good for those that are dull or drowsy.)
Oxe Eye Daisies in Allen Gardens (The leaves bruised and applied reduce swellings, and a decoction thereof, with wall-wort and agrimony, and places fomented or bathed therewith warm, giveth great ease in palsy, sciatica or gout. An ointment made thereof heals all wounds that have inflammation about them.)
Herb Robert in Fournier St
Camomile in Commercial St (Profitable for all sorts of agues, melancholy and inflammation of the bowels, takes away weariness, eases pains, comforts the sinews, and mollifies all swellings.)
Unidentified herb in Commercial St
Buddleia in Toynbee St (Aids in the treatment of gonorrhea, hepatitis and hernia by reducing the fragility of skin and small intestine’s blood vessel.)
Hedge Mustard in Fleur de Lys St (Good for all diseases of the chest and lungs, hoarseness of voice, and for all other coughs, wheezing and shortness of breath.)
Buttercup at Spitalfields City Farm (A tincture with spirit of wine will cure shingles very expeditiously, both the outbreak of small watery pimples clustered together at the side, and the accompanying sharp pains between the ribs. Also this tincture will promptly relieve neuralgic side ache, and pleurisy which is of a passive sort.)
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Currently, there is a once in a lifetime chance to climb up and view James Thornhill’s astonishing painted ceiling at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich at close quarters. When you walk into Christopher Wren’s magnificent dining hall, you are confronted with an intricate silver structure of scaffolding filling the space and you ascend the staircase to enter another world. You discover yourself then suspended in the half-light of an arena tinged with a golden hue by the vast painting glowing overhead.
You crane your neck to make sense of the brushstrokes and, from the gloom, faces emerge peering back at you. Out of the depth of the shadows, figures become manifest where there was only miasma upon first glance. You are in the world of the gods and immortals. It is the greatest mixed metaphor in London – here are figures representing rivers and some representing seasons, while others incarnate abstract notions like ‘peace’ and ‘fame.’ And there are portraits of kings and queens, and the astronomer royal, and the first inhabitant of the naval hospital, a bearded gentleman who warms his hands by the fire in the embodiment of ‘winter.’
As you walk around with your eyes cast upwards, new images appear as others vanish generating an unavoidably surrealist experience. It is something like the disorientation of a dream or stumbling through a crowd drunk. There is no reference point to appreciate the relative scale of the figures hurtling towards you from heights above and the unexpected physicality of these larger than life bodies is startling when you find yourself confronted with a huge heaving cleavage or a monstrous pair of buttocks.
Fortunately, there are helpful guides on hand to show you photographs of the entire painting, thus permitting you to fit it all together in your mind and appease the prevailing confusion. They explain that once James Thornhill completed the murals in the dining hall, it was deemed too grand for the retired seaman who were the residents of the hospital and they were shunted off to eat their dinners in the undercroft instead. An alternative theory might be that this phantasmagoric vision with so much gratuitous nudity and chaotic action could hardly be conducive to the digestive process of the superannuated sailors who – at very least – would be in danger of contracting a stiff neck from gazing at the epic panoply overhead rather than contemplating their modest vittles in front of them.
Christopher Wren designed both the Royal Naval Hospital and St Paul’s Cathedral
James Thornhill’s next commission was to paint the interior of the dome at St Paul’s
William & Mary
In 1797, a mischievous painter engraved his name on Queen Mary’s chest
Old Father Thames
Portrait of the first inhabitant of the Royal Naval Hospital in the guise of ‘winter”
John Flamsteed, the Astronomer Royal, and his telescope
Flamsteed’s prediction of an eclipse in April 22nd 1715 was painted here over a year before the event
George I and descendants in the House of Hanover
James Thornhill’s self portrait
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Contributing Photographer Patricia Niven travelled a long way from Stepney to spend a weekend in the deep woods with celebrated East End Spoon Carver Barn the Spoon and members of his Green Wood Guild, and she sent me these pictures as a record of her pastoral adventure. ‘It was a beautiful place, wild and free, half-exposed to the trees and skies with a fire pit constantly alight to boil the kettle and a wood burning stove cooking delicious apple crumbles,’ Patricia recalled fondly, ‘And a memorable experience to witness Barn in his element, selecting trees, cutting them down and transforming them into beautiful spoons.’
Barn the Spoon goes in search of a tree
Barn spies a suitable tree
Barn selects a tree
Barn clears the undergrowth with his axe
Barn fells the tree
Barn examines his tree
Barn carries the tree back to camp
Barn carves a spoon with his axe
One of Barn’s spoons
Barn’s woodland spoon rack
Diverse spoons by Barn
The fire pit
Barn fries the bacon
Barn’s woodland fare
Sausages for all
Members of the Green Wood Guild dine in the open air
The cabin where Patricia Niven spent the night
Enfolded by woods
Photographs copyright © Patricia Niven
Barn the Spoon’s book SPON – A Guide to Spoon Carving & the New Wood Culture is published by Virgin Books on 24th May and his shop is at 260 Hackney Rd, E2 7SJ
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Men sleeping outside Itchy Park
“I felt Spitalfields was my home at one time, even though I was never resident there apart from staying at Providence Row for the occasional night.” admitted photographer Moyra Peralta when she showed me these pictures, taken while working in the shelter in Crispin St during the seventies and eighties.
“Every time I look at these, I see myself there,” she confided, contemplating her affectionate portraits of those she once knew who lived rough upon the streets of Spitalfields, “yet it doesn’t feel like me anymore, now that I am no longer in touch and I have no idea how many have died.” Despite its obvious social documentary quality, Moyra’s photography is deeply personal work.
Recalling the days when she and her partner, Rodger, studied under Jorge Lewinsky in the sixties, Moyra revealed the basis of her vision. “It opened up the mental apparatus to see photography not as an amateur hobby but as something fundamental to life. And it was doing the Soup Run that triggered off the urge to record. At first, I couldn’t believe what I saw, because in the day you didn’t see it. At night, you see a lot of things you wouldn’t otherwise see – hundreds of men sleeping at the back of a hotel in Central London, when there was no sign of them by day because they went to the day shelter.”
Forsaking her chosen path as a teacher, Moyra spent more than a decade working in shelters and on the street, befriending those with no other place to go and taking their pictures. “I started out as a volunteer on the night Soup Run, but once I got to know the men individually, I thought – that’s it, I don’t want to be anywhere else. I realised they didn’t lose their soul, and that spirit was what turned me from a volunteer into a full-time worker at Providence Row,” she confessed.
“Our children were exposed to the scene and spent every Christmas with us at the night shelter where we volunteered. We used to have people home for the weekend as long as they didn’t drink, but I think they found it quite a struggle to stay sober for two days. I could quite understand why people would drink, when it’s so cold you can’t sleep and you’re scared of being attacked by ‘normal’ people.”
Gerry B. in his cubicle at Providence Row – “Gerry sent me a letter containing only a few lavender seeds and a one pound note – the significance of which I shall never know, for Gerry died a few days later. He always had been so very kind and I never quite knew why. Like many before him, his remains were laid in a pauper’s grave.
I remember, above all, his intervention on my first evening at work, when men in the dormitory had planned a surprise to test the reaction of the greenhorn on the night shift. Forewarned is forearmed, and the equanimity with which I viewed a row of bare bottoms in beds along the dormitory wall stood me in good stead for future interaction.”
“The women’s entrance at the corner of Crispin St & Artillery Lane, where Sister Paul is seen handing out clean shirts to a small group of men.”
Dining Room at Providence Row.
“The two Marys, known as ‘Cotton Pickin’ and ‘Foxie,’ making sandwiches at Providence Row for the daily distribution in Crispin St.”
Providence Row Night Refuge, Crispin St.
Men waiting for sandwiches outside Providence Row Night Refuge, 1973. “Established in 1880, this refuge offered free shelter and food to those who needed it for over one hundred years.”
Market lorries in Crispin St.
White’s Row and Tenterground.
Charlie & Bob outside Christ Church. “Charlie was a well-known East End character and Bob was my co-worker at the night shelter.”
Charlie, Bob & J.W. “Charlie rendering ‘Danny Boy’ to his captive audience.”
Charlie & Bob.
Sleeping in a niche, Christ Church 1975. “The crypt was opened in 1965 as a rehabilitation hostel for meths and crude spirit drinkers.”
Mary M. in Spitalfields.
“In Brushfield St beside Spitalfields Market, Dougie is seen having his lunch at ‘Bonfire Corner.’ Traditionally there had been a fire on this corner since the fifties.”
Sylvia, Tenterground 1978. “This homeless woman slept rough but accepted meals from Providence Row in Crispin St.”
Brushfield St, 1976. “Discarded vegetables at the closing of each market day proved a godsend to people on low incomes.”
Painter, Providence Row.
The bonfire corner at Spitalfields Market, 1973. “There had been deaths here from market lorries reversing. Ted McV., however, died of malnutrition and exposure. “
Old Mary, seventies.
John Jamieson, Commercial St 1979.
John Jamieson smiling.
J.W. with harmonica
J.W. & Pauline in Whitechapel, eighties
Pauline in Whitechapel, eighties.
Willie G. in pensive mood, rolling a fag in Whitechapel, 1976.
Gunthorpe St, 1974
Michael, Cable St 1973
Moyra & her partner Rodger in Spitalfields, late seventies.
Photographs copyright © Moyra Peralta
Signed copies of ‘NEARLY INVISIBLE,’ including these photographs and more by Moyra Peralta plus writing by John Berger & Alan Bennett, are available directly from Moyra for £5 plus £2 postage. Email email@example.com to get your copy.
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