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A London Inheritance & The Bug Woman

May 29, 2021
by the gentle author

It is my delight to publish excerpts from two favourite alumni of my HOW TO WRITE A BLOG THAT PEOPLE WILL WANT TO READ course.

There are a couple of places available on my next course on 20th & 21st November. You are invited to spend a weekend with me in an eighteenth century weaver’s house, learn the secrets of Spitalfields Life, enjoy delicious lunches catered by Leila’s Cafe and cakes baked to historic recipes by the Townhouse, and learn how to write your own blog.

Click here for more details. Email to book



A LONDON INHERITANCE, a private history of a public city


Walking Brunel’s Tunnel from Rotherhithe to Wapping

I have always been fascinated by what is beneath the surface of London and I can trace this interest back to the seventies when I read one of my father’s books Under London, A Chronicle Of London’s Underground Life-Lines & Relics by F.L. Stevens, published in 1939.

In this book were chapters on the Fleet Drain, Tube Tunnels, Roman London, Crypts and Vaults, Rivers, Wells and Water, and Tunnels under the Thames. There was also a final chapter titled [London Takes Cover’ which at only ten pages looked to be a last-minute addition and began “Queer things are happening under London to-day” before describing preparations being made for Londoners to seek shelter underground from terrors on top. I wonder if they could have imagined what would happen over the next few years and what those terrors would be?

The chapter on Thames Tunnels starts with Brunel’s tunnel connecting Wapping and Rotherhithe, not only the first tunnel driven under the Thames but also the first tunnel under any river.

I learnt of an opportunity to walk this tunnel during closure of the line for maintenance work and joined the queue at Rotherhithe station. Once inside, it was only a short flight of stairs and walk along the platform to reach the entrance to the tunnel.

The Rotherhithe-Wapping Thames Tunnel was not the first attempt at a tunnel under the Thames. In 1799, a tunnel between Gravesend and Tilbury was begun, given up as a bad job and then started again a couple of years later. A shaft was sunk and the tunnel reached within 150 feet of the other bank of the river before it was again abandoned.

A Thames Tunnel was badly needed. It is a four mile circuit between Rotherhithe and Wapping, via London Bridge, and ferries carried 4,000 people across the Thames every day at Rotherhithe. Marc Brunel was convinced that a tunnel could be built and originated the concept of a shield to protect the men digging at the face of the tunnelling work. At a meeting of investors on the 18th February 1824, Brunel was appointed as engineer.

The shaft was begun in March 1825 and all appeared to be going well until January 1826 when the river broke in. Yet work pressed ahead and, by the beginning of 1827, the tunnel had reached 300 feet. As work progressed, there were all manner of problems including strikes, mysterious diseases (the Thames was London’s sewer at this time), and explosions from ‘fire-damp.’ The river continued to break in. On Saturday 12th January 1828, six workman were trapped and drowned and, despite the hole being filled with 4,000 bags of clay, the project was abandoned due to lack of funds. The tunnel was bricked up. No further work happened until seven years later on 27th March 1835 and it carried on for a further eight years.

In March 1843, staircases were built around the shafts and Marc Brunel led a triumphant procession through the tunnel. Marc’s son Isambard worked with his father and was appointed chief engineer in 1827, however his work with the Great Western Railway took him away during the later years of construction. Marc Brunel worked on the tunnel from start to finish.

As one of the sights of London, the Thames Tunnel was a huge success. Within twenty-four hours of the tunnel’s opening, fifty thousand people had passed through and a total of one million visitd within the first fifteen weeks. The Thames Tunnel was purchased by the East London Railway in 1866 and, three years later, became part of the underground railway system.

At the Rotherhithe end of the tunnel, large pipes with the sound of running water descended below the level of the tunnel. According to our guide, if these pumps that drain the water failed then the tunnel would flood within a matter of hours.



THE BUG WOMAN, Adventures in London

Because a community is more than just people


Magpie Wars

Dear Readers, ever since I have been putting live mealworms in the garden I have been ‘adopted’ by a pair of magpies. Goodness, what pirates they are! They terrorise the collared doves by swooping into the tree in a menacing way though I have never seen them actually attack one. I do suspect that they sometimes take an unsuspecting tadpole but so far the starling fledglings have gone unmolested.

Then yesterday there was a ridiculous amount of noise coming from the front of the house, I walked out the front door and almost locking myself out. Two pairs of magpies were facing off on the roof opposite. I remembered that when magpies are in a tree, the most dominant – which often has the longest tail – sits at the top. So I wondered if this was the case here too, with one pair claiming the roof line.

As I watched I concluded that the roof line was maybe the boundary between their territories. My pair seemed much happier once the other pair had departed. After all the cackling and chuckling, there was a return to calm as they popped back to check out the mealworms again.

I have been reading about magpies’ territorial behaviour. A resident pair will be challenged by non-breeding males on a regular basis. Often, as soon as battle commences, a great flock of other magpies will turn up to watch the fun. Apparently, this gives them an opportunity to review the strength of the combatants without putting themselves at risk. If a male fancies his chances, he will be back later. This makes me wonder if what I was seeing was not a fight between two pairs, but between a pair and two males, one fighting and the other watching.

In towns, magpies’ territories tend to be smaller because there is more availability of food, especially for an omnivore who eats everything from tadpoles and mealworms to chips and Kentucky Fried Chicken.

I suspect my garden has the advantage of availability of food but the disadvantage of cats and humans. Yet birds can inhabit territory for as long as eight to ten years, so it looks like the magpies and I have plenty of time to get to know one another.





This course will examine the essential questions which need to be addressed if you wish to write a blog that people will want to read.

“Like those writers in fourteenth century Florence who discovered the sonnet but did not quite know what to do with it, we are presented with the new literary medium of the blog – which has quickly become omnipresent, with many millions writing online. For my own part, I respect this nascent literary form by seeking to explore its own unique qualities and potential.” – The Gentle Author



1. How to find a voice – When you write, who are you writing to and what is your relationship with the reader?
2. How to find a subject – Why is it necessary to write and what do you have to tell?
3. How to find the form – What is the ideal manifestation of your material and how can a good structure give you momentum?
4. The relationship of pictures and words – Which comes first, the pictures or the words? Creating a dynamic relationship between your text and images.
5. How to write a pen portrait – Drawing on The Gentle Author’s experience, different strategies in transforming a conversation into an effective written evocation of a personality.
6. What a blog can do – A consideration of how telling stories on the internet can affect the temporal world.



The course will be held at 5 Fournier St, Spitalfields on 20th-21st November, running from 10am-5pm on Saturday and 11am-5pm on Sunday.

Lunch will be catered by Leila’s Cafe of Arnold Circus and tea, coffee & cakes by the Townhouse are included within the course fee of £300.

Email to book a place on the course.


2 Responses leave one →
  1. May 29, 2021

    Kudos to you on your (obviously) successful blog-writing course. I so enjoyed these entries – both very fine examples of personal writing and observation. Well-done!

    I was overdue to find out more about magpies, since I frequently encounter them when I go to Taos New Mexico to give art workshops. When we are on-site, the magpies seem to take EXTRA pleasure in circling the mixed-media artists below and swooping down, claiming a (ahem) “found object” from someone’s art table. The birds make a wonderful racket, and I’ve often coveted a magpie feather as a talisman to take home. Alas, I learned that it is illegal to possess the feathers. I always leave there awash in memories and sensations, yearning for
    the “next” trip.

  2. Kelly Holman permalink
    May 31, 2021

    Really enjoyable and informative reads. Lovely to hear the passion of the writers.

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