An illustrated guide to urban exploration in the Russian capital.
22 October 2015
There was a time when I used to hate London. I thought of it as a compound of tourist hotspots, rude locals and (admittedly quite useful) airports. Back then, I didn’t have much interest in graphic novels, either. My opinion on both has since reversed, and it’s in no small part due to the incomparable work of speculative historical fiction that is From Hell; written by Alan Moore, and brought vividly to life through the artwork of Eddie Campbell.
The following tour of London was inspired by the book – a gruelling 45-mile route visiting lesser known occult locations spread across the British capital, and connecting in its path a whole world of mythologies from Queen Boadicea to Jack the Ripper.
Jack the Ripper, Alan Moore & The Art of Psychogeography
From Hell is a retelling of the story behind the 1888 Whitechapel Murders – casting Sir William Gull, revered physician to the royal family, as Jack the Ripper. Even the name of the book is a nod to the letter that the Ripper supposedly sent to investigators, featuring the address line: “From Hell.”
Much like Stephen Knight’s 1976 book, Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution, the ritualistic nature of these killings is woven into a larger masonic conspiracy reaching as high as the royal family. Knight’s book has been largely dismissed by historians… but it makes for a great story, nonetheless. Alan Moore goes a step beyond the Victorian-masonic angle, though; incorporating a broader set of theories about the occult history and sacred architecture of the city.
Gull, as he is portrayed in From Hell, is a raging misogynist. He is a high-ranking freemason (as was his historical namesake), with an obsession for occult symbolism, and his ‘Great Work,’ the Ripper murders, are conducted as a ritual intended to perpetuate the enslavement of femininity to man’s rule; alluded to often throughout the book as the sun (or logical, masculine, left-brain) conquering the powers of the moon (the abstract, feminine, right).
By Gull’s own admission, he is merely feeding the magic laid down by past generations of architects and masons; men who arranged their occult creations – masculine totems, phallic obelisks – into powerful sigils across the city’s face to form a pentagram binding London. As Gull puts it, “The moon bound in stars, architects, Apollonians, harnessing subconscious energies to chain madness within forms of reason; conquering, subjugating.”
It is during the book’s fourth chapter that the grand design is revealed; a scene in which the Ripper takes his coachman, John Netley, on a tour of the capital while explaining the historic significance and esoteric power of the symbols that they pass. Sir William Gull leads the coach on a chaotic route around London – by way of monuments and obelisks, lost rivers, battlefields, temples and churches – before arriving at last at St. Paul’s Cathedral. Here he marks these destinations on a map, drawing lines connecting each, to reveal how they form a giant pentagram across the city: a five-pointed star with St Paul’s positioned in its perfect centre.
After travelling the pentagram (in an anti-clockwise fashion, which in hermetic tradition forms an ‘invoking’ pentagram), Gull feeds the stones with blood – the ritualistic murder of five prostitutes, by which deeds he’ll be remembered as Jack the Ripper.
Essentially, the result is an occult psychogeography of London; a study not of stones, but rather a very personal exploration of the meanings etched into them… and the subtle yet pervasive effect these have on the people who live in their shadows. “Encoded in this city’s stones are symbols thunderous enough to rouse the sleeping Gods submerged beneath the sea-bed of our dreams,” the fictional Gull tells us.
From Hell really is a phenomenal book; and a clear demonstration, if ever such were needed, that the graphic novel format is well capable of matching traditional publishing in terms of intellectual punch. Nevertheless, Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell were not the first to describe psychogeographical patterns within London’s occult heritage; and neither was From Hell the first book to speculate links between the Whitechapel murders and the layout of the streets on which they occurred.
Before the journey begins then, it’s worth considering first the architect whose name appears time and time again in conjunction with London’s occult monuments; a man who in the 18th century dominated London with his pagan aberrations rising from consecrated soil: the architect Nicholas Hawksmoor.
The Devil’s Architect
“Hawksmoor… That vast dark intricate cathedral mind, whose birdshit-coloured stones defined this century”
Alan Moore, From Hell
Nicholas Hawksmoor was an English architect – and active freemason – who rose to prominence around the turn of the 18th century. In 1680, at the age of 18, he was taken on as a clerk to the legendary architect Sir Christopher Wren; and Hawksmoor worked with Wren on notable landmarks such as Hampton Court Palace and St Paul’s Cathedral.
As his career blossomed, Hawksmoor would later become a leading proponent of the English Baroque style; designing halls, palaces and abbeys, as well as producing work for both Oxford and Cambridge Universities. Of all his masterpieces however, Hawksmoor is best known for his series of London churches.
In 1711, parliament passed an Act for the building of Fifty New Churches and Nicholas Hawksmoor was appointed as surveyor to an architectural commission established in response. Of the proposed 50, only 12 were ever finished – of which six were designed by Hawksmoor alone, and a further two by Hawksmoor in collaboration with a fellow architect, John James.
His churches are unusual, to say the least. They feature obelisks in place of steeples, pyramids for towers, imitation sacrificial altars appearing in stead of arches – a rich language of symbols that seem to contradict, perhaps even mock, the architectural vocabulary of traditional Christian churches. With a range of ancient, pre-Christian and pagan influences clearly demonstrated in his work, it wasn’t long before Nicholas Hawksmoor’s own religious beliefs were called into question.
“Hawksmoor was no Christian,” explains Sir William Gull in From Hell. “His pagan works perpetuate the occult teachings of the ancient Dionysiac Architects, his greatest influence.”
In his 1975 collection of poems titled Lud Heat, the psychogeographer Iain Sinclair interpreted the style of Hawksmoor’s churches to suggest themes of Theistic Satanism. Ten years later, Peter Ackroyd published a novel in which Hawksmoor himself is represented as a devil-worshipper, terrorising London with occult architecture. Even the very creed of these churches could itself be said to support an ideology of misogyny; they were built for the Anglican Church, a religious movement founded to validate the misdeeds of a murderous, womanising king.
It was out of such theories that Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell created From Hell, developing the idea of this ‘Devil’s Architect’ and presenting his work as the inspiration for Jack the Ripper’s series of ritual sacrifices.
Besides the unconventional styling of Hawksmoor’s work, the above authors – and others – have noted the arrangement of these churches within the city. Iain Sinclair drew a constellation between the buildings, to form an Egyptian hieroglyph that might have been intended by the architect to work some spell across the city it encompassed. Farfetched, perhaps… but also extremely Victorian in its painstaking subtlety.
There have been other maps drawn too, still larger patterns sketched out to link Hawksmoor’s churches to additional London locations with occult significance. A recently proposed map, for example, appears via Duane McLemore on Flickr and incorporates contemporary symbols such as the London Eye (which, thanks to its triangular supports and ‘eye’ symbolism, has been likened by some theorists to the esoteric emblem of the ‘all-seeing eye’).
Ultimately though, my own route had to be the pentagram featured in the pages of From Hell. This book was my introduction to the subject; so that more than just visiting the occult sites of London, I would be paying homage to one of my favourite works of literature.
I drew my own map, plugging the locations from Gull’s tour into Google to create a pinpoint route around the capital. They formed an accurate pentagram, just as the book had promised.
Before I set off however, I decided to set myself a couple of ground rules.
Firstly: No Tube. For complete authenticity, I ought to have tackled the route on a horse-drawn cart. With that option ruled out though, it would have to be buses. It was crucial that I travelled overground if I was to get a real sense of the streets, the stones, the spirit of London; the fabric by which each destination connected to the next. While the London Underground is a wonder in its own right, I have always felt that it kills dead any attempt to actually connect with the city as a whole, to understand it, or to get a feel for its true layout.
And secondly: No Distractions. I permitted myself no phone, no Internet, and no contact with anyone save for those I met in the course of my quest. I packed just two books with me; a London A-Z map, and my copy of From Hell. I wouldn’t enter buildings either, or get waylaid at any one location, but rather immerse myself completely in the external symbolism of these churches and obelisks and lesser-known sacred sites.
I would follow the Ripper’s path, as closely as was possible in a London 140 years removed, and in so doing I would painstakingly recreate Alan Moore’s greater ritual of the pentagram.
8.30 am. I tumbled off the tube at Bond Street, carried with the crowd. The commuter rush was a wall-to-wall mass of tie clips, smart phones and coffee cups; a veritable army flooding into Mayfair to occupy cubicles, shops and offices for the best part of the day. I wondered briefly where I would be by the time they finished their days’ labours – and then I was outside, carried into daylight by the wave of churning bodies.
The crowds thinned out as I turned onto Davies Street, passing between rows of bricks and railings before taking a right onto Brook Street. There was something I found grimly uniform about these houses; about Mayfair’s architecture in general. Clean, plain arches, the continuous black fence with its aggressive spikes, token shrubs and climbing plants placed here and there in pots in a vain effort to break up the monotony of overpriced bricks and columns. The place felt lacking, if not in character, perhaps just in imagination.
I found my target here: 74 Brook Street. This had been the home of Sir William Gull – both the historical figure, and Alan Moore’s character – and it was from here that he’d set out that day on his grand tour of London’s occult secrets.
The building was much the same as its neighbours; the only quirk of originality here being the semi-circular window above the door. I stood in the doorway, facing the street, and took a moment step into character.
Turning to walk back east on Brook Street, I passed plaques pinned up on walls: at number 23, the one-time home of Jimi Hendrix; George Handel’s house at number 25. Back on Oxford Street I met my carriage, the number 8 bus to Chancery Lane. It was a slow journey, the roads mired in traffic – the choked arteries feeding the heart of London. I noted, from my elevated seat, that almost every car had just a single occupant.
For now at least, I was able to follow closely in the path trodden by Sir William Gull and his coachman. I changed to another bus – and on Gray’s Inn Road I met the 45 to King’s Cross Station.
Eddie Campbell had rendered a beautiful illustration of the station, and the building’s exterior remains largely unchanged since Victorian times. The brickwork hulk, its twin, semi-circular windows, always put me in mind of a face, a giant peering out from beneath the streets of London. The ornate St Pancras Station alongside, with its Victorian take on the Italian gothic style, only seemed to heighten the strange effect of the King’s Cross barrow.
I headed around the back of the throbbing station, toward the canal. There’s another London curiosity here, a little known ice cellar tucked away beneath the contemporary London Canal Museum. I had visited the King’s Cross Ice Well on a previous trip to the capital… it would have been contemporary to Jack the Ripper, too, a part of the landscape I was studying, but there was no time for detours on this trip. I had already taken almost an hour to get from the starting line to my first destination, the rather mundane construction site that stood before me now: the former Battle Bridge Road.
Battle Bridge Road
9.15 am. This first real stop on my tour required more than a little imagination to bring it to life. In the book Gull had explained, “…these black tenements, these soot encrusted walls… ‘twas here that womankind’s last hopes and dreams were put to sword.”
He referred to the death of Boadicea; or at least, to a Victorian-era myth that had located it at this spot.
Relatively little is known of the historical Boadicea, queen of the British Iceni tribe; and what is recorded comes solely through the histories of the Romans, her enemies. Boadicea’s husband, the king Prasutagus, had ruled in Britain as an ally of Rome. In his will he left the kingdom to their daughters, but after his death the Romans ignored the request – they annexed his lands, had Boadicea flogged and her daughters raped. This displeased the Iceni queen, who subsequently led a brutal and bloody rebellion against them. Leading an army of 100,000 Celts she destroyed Camulodunum (now Colchester), as well as Verulamium (St. Albans) and the commercial centre at Londinium (London).
Eventually, however, the Romans were able to regroup, and at the Battle of Watling Street they finally put down the British rebellion. Boadicea herself is said to have died in either 60 or 61 AD: some historians claim it was suicide, others, a death resulting from illness.
During the Victorian era – at the time of Sir William Gull and Jack the Ripper – Britain saw a revival of interest in Queen Boadicea. A statue titled ‘Boadicea and Her Daughters’ was erected on London’s Victoria Embankment. Poems were written, ships were named after her, and new mythologies suggested that she may even have died in battle somewhere near King’s Cross. One dubious legend would later claim that the queen’s grave is buried between the 9th and 10th platforms of King’s Cross Station.
Battle Bridge Road, around the back of the station, took its name from the village of Battle Bridge that once stood here on the bank of the River Fleet. The village is long gone though, the Fleet itself forced underground to become one of London’s ‘Lost Rivers.’ The claim that this place was named for a battle between the Romans and Iceni though, is unsupported by any historical evidence.
Sir William Gull’s theory, placing Battle Bridge Road as an ancient site symbolic of the crushed matriarchy – of womankind’s last hopes and dreams put to sword – well, it was tenuous at best.
There really wasn’t much left to see here, anyway. No “black tenements,” no “soot encrusted walls,” only a narrow street now lost beneath scaffold and Harris fencing, men in overalls slowly burying the past beneath a new development of glass and steel. Nearby, Battle Bridge Court illustrated the finished effect: a row of neat and well manicured homes, model city dwellings whose inhabitants likely had no idea of the ancient history from which their address had been derived.
My next stop was London Fields, a park up in Hackney.
Gull and Netley had taken Essex Road to Balls Pond Road, then Greenwood Road as far as Albion Drive on their way to London Fields. Outside the front of King’s Cross station, I found a bus driver; stood behind the shelter, smoking a cigarette while waiting for his ride. I asked if he knew the best route to London Fields.
“What you want to do,” he began, “is take the 477 to Balls Pond, then the 276 to Greenwood.” Or at least, that’s what I thought I’d heard. Perhaps it was the 476 and then the 277 after that; either way I had no idea where these places were and he reeled them off, between coughs, too fast for me to locate them on my map.
“Thanks,” I said, unsure, and got on the next bus headed in the direction of Hackney. I got off again somewhere in Bethnal Green, once I realised that my finger, attempting to trace the bus’s route along the pages of my map, had already missed and overshot my target.
I wasn’t far though, so I resolved to navigate the rest of the way on foot. Near Bethnal Green tube station, I stopped at a Caribbean fast food stand to get a coffee – but the coffee tasted like weak tea, lukewarm dishwater served in a polystyrene cup. The cup itself had already begun to crumble apart, I noticed. There were crumbs floating in the brown liquid and I decided to ditch it.
Sitting in the bus shelter, I consulted the map again – due north from here, it told me, and a little bit west. I headed north through the backstreets and found my way onto Temple Street, Pritchard’s Road, then over the bridge where it crosses Regent’s Canal. Finally I doubled back west through Dalston to meet Albion Drive.
My guide book drew particular emphasis to this street. The word ‘Albion’ is Celtic, the oldest known name for the island of Great Britain. The poet, painter, and – according to Gull – prophet, William Blake, had invoked the name in his 1793 poem, Visions of the Daughters of Albion:
“Enslaved, the daughters of Albion weep; a trembling lamentation,” he wrote, and I found myself thinking back to the story of Boadicea.
Strolling down the pleasant suburban street, along its rows of shiny new automobiles, the local postman gave me a friendly nod in passing. He probably thought I lived here. I stopped for a moment outside a pub, The Albion… and then picked up pace, and followed the street until it met with my next destination.
11.00 am. Hackney takes its name from a 6th century Saxon settlement, that sat here on the banks of the brook: Haca’s Ey. Before that, during Roman times, these lands were marsh and forests. Rivers and streams, oak and hazel woods under the rule of the Catuvellauni Celts.
Hackney’s 17th century slums were largely wiped out by the Great Fire of 1666; the merchants moved in afterwards, and, as From Hell explains: “built suburbs that could not contain the overspill from the East End.” At its heart however, the London Fields remained exactly that: an empty, rural space that evolved from marshland to grazing pasture to urban park. The Hackney Brook meanwhile, now flows underground.
Besides historical interest alone, Alan Moore – via William Gull – had noted the significance here of “Hengest’s father, Ivalde Svigdur, murderer of Mani, the Teutonic Lunar deity.”
As such, it fit neatly into the developing narrative describing the suppression of the matriarchy, of solar, male symbols used in a rite to dominate the moon and femininity; as Gull states in the text, “‘Tis in the war of Sun and Moon that man steals woman’s power; that Left Brain conquers Right… that reason chains insanity.”
The Poetic Edda of Norse literature makes mention of ‘Máni’ as a personification of the moon; ‘Ivalde-Svigdur,’ meanwhile, makes several appearances in Donald Mackenzie’s 1912 collection of Teutonic Myth and Legend. When I tried to research the connection between these two characters however, I drew a blank.
Once again, I found the significance drawn about this place quite tenuous. “Here were goblets raised to toast the man who killed the moon,” the text claimed; just as they had presumably been raised in every other Saxon settlement in Albion.
I walked through the park, bought a coffee at a fast food stand – a real one this time – and sat for a while on a bench. London Fields felt pleasant enough, though somewhat underwhelming. Battle Bridge Road and Albion Drive had been underwhelming too; so far, I thought to myself, I hadn’t got anything from this tour that I couldn’t have learned simply by sitting at home and reading.
But the pay-off was yet to come… and I knew I had some treats in store, once I got to the Hawksmoor churches. I finished my coffee, and checked the map for my next destination.
Getting out of Hackney by bus looked to be just as messy as getting there had been; which is to say, probably not that difficult at all if you know the area. But unfortunately I did not, and so I opted to walk it. I retraced my steps, back through Haggerston, across the canal and through Shoreditch, overshooting the mark to loop down around Liverpool Street Station before turning back and heading north up City Road.
12.40 pm. After the chaos of Liverpool Street – the crowds that surged around the station entrance, the traffic streaming to and from the heart of the capital – it was with enormous relief that I turned a corner from City Road and found myself, quite suddenly, in the green embrace of the cemetery.
The name of this place is derived from ‘Bone Hill,’ and it is possible that its use dates back to Saxon times. The burial ground was greatly expanded in 1549 however, when more than a thousand cartloads of bones were moved here from the demolished charnel house at St. Paul’s.
It was not a dead space altogether; not a dead-end necropolis, an out-of-town repository of stone and mortal remains, but rather this city-centre burial ground felt very much connected to the city itself. Paths wove from one end to another, shortcuts connecting the surrounding streets, criss-crossing between the stones. Workers in suits and high heels, ambling tourists with backpacks, pedestrians passing slowly through with phones pressed to their ears; if Bunhill Fields was a place of the dead nestled amongst the buzzing high-rises of central London, then these passers-by were the living amongst the dead amongst the living.
At the centre of Bunhill Fields I came across the gravestone of William Blake. Alan Moore’s Gull had associated Blake with the moon – with lunacy, prophecy and intuition, the realm of the right-brain. “England’s greatest Holy Fool,” he called him, and had noted how the grave itself was towered over by another monument, the obelisk-tomb of Daniel Defoe. The obelisk, of course, is an ancient phallic symbol: a sign of sun worship and masculinity, this one supposedly styled upon the Egyptian monuments raised to the sun god Atum at Heliopolis.
In a near corner I stopped for a moment, too, by the tomb of John Bunyan. It seemed fitting to pay tribute here to the author of the Pilgrim’s Progress; as I set out on my own pilgrimage, ending at St Paul’s, my Celestial City.
I have always enjoyed the hush reverence of cemeteries, and the atmosphere in Bunhill Fields was serene; a true urban oasis. I wanted to stay longer amongst the stones and moss, the gentle murmurs of the pigeons, though I felt a need to press on. The morning was gone, the sun past its apex, and four stops into this tour of Hawksmoor churches I was still yet to see a church.
I left Bunhill Fields through the north exit, making my way towards Old Street and another obelisk.
St. Luke’s, Oldfield
1.00 pm. Four and half hours had gone before I reached my first Hawksmoor. But, when I did, it appeared just as it had to my semi-fictional guides – an obelisk, rising ominously above the trees and buildings up ahead.
The steeple of St Luke’s was a far cry from the traditional church steeple; nevertheless this obelisk was not so aggressively out of place that one would necessarily have stopped to wonder how it got there; not nearly so anachronistic as some of the later monuments I’d visit.
Of the eight London churches bearing Hawksmoor’s mark, St. Luke’s was one of two that were built in collaboration with his fellow architect, John James. Raised in 1733 it was the west tower, its wings and steeple that were designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor. The church was closed in the 1960s, though – this marshy land had a tendency for subsidence, and after being deemed unsafe the building was left abandoned for 40 years. It is only recently that the church has been restored by the London Symphony Orchestra, and now it serves as a concert hall, rehearsal and recital space.
Tucked back from the road, the place felt very much a community hub. Couples sat on benches around the grassy churchyard. The lawn was filled with noisy chatter and city workers splayed across the grass to eat their midday sandwiches. Even the pigeons here seemed plump, with glossy feathers and bright eyes – nothing like the club-footed sky-rats that scavenge around London’s high-vaulted transport depots.
The obelisk itself was not so strange. The Victorians erected plenty of obelisks to commemorate battles and war heroes… just not usually attached to the top-end of a church.
When Hawksmoor built this obelisk atop St Luke’s, there had been critics, questions; his response was that the design harkened back to an earlier, purer form of Christianity, the symbols and monuments of the 4th century church. It did however bear a clear and overwhelming similarity to the pagan obelisks, typically raised in sun worship. As Alan Moore puts it; “He built an obelisk: Another altar to the Sun, and Masculinity, and Reason, with its cold erection stabbing at the sky.” The lunchtime crowds didn’t seem to take offence at the phallic totem, though.
I didn’t linger long beside St Luke’s, heading on instead towards my next destination: along Old Street to Goswell Road, and from there on up to Northampton Square.
After the striking steeple in Old Street, the significance here was harder to detect; impossible even, had the book not spelled it out for me. The name of this square was taken from William Compton, the 5th Marquess of Northampton and a prominent freemason. This square, supposedly, had been built with masonic money while Compton’s own parish in Northampton was home to another Hawksmoor work: his Easton Neston House.
Later I’d read that the current, 7th Marquess of Northampton, Spencer Compton, himself did a spell as Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge of England from 2001 until 2009.
For all these whispers of conspiracy and secret power however, the square itself was relatively average, pleasant and plain. A couple of men in high-visibility work jackets sat on a bench, sharing their lunch with the birds. Children played under the trees, on the grassy lawn that fanned out around a bandstand.
I exited the square through the southwest corner, heading down Wycliff Street, St. John Street, to Old Street, Clerkenwell then Theobalds Road, walking all the way into the heart of Bloomsbury before coming to a halt at an extravagantly Romanesque temple.
St. George’s, Bloomsbury
1.45 pm. St Luke’s had been an odd design for a church; but it wouldn’t have been hard to walk straight past without paying any attention to the unusual obelisk sat in place of a steeple. The same could not be said for St George’s Bloomsbury, however – an incredibly strange building that couldn’t help but command attention.
Bloomsbury is full of some very interesting architecture. The church stood just a few blocks from the British Museum, in a district filled with theatres, universities, monuments and a string of museums and curiosity collections. What made this structure strange, though, was its purpose – as it couldn’t have looked less like a church if it tried. The pillars that lined the front steps to the building, the off-centre pyramid that rose from one end of the roof; the figure of George I stood atop its peak, surrounded by lions and unicorns – the symbolism here was powerfully, overwhelmingly pre-Christian.
St. George’s was built from 1716 to 1731, the last of the London churches designed solely by Nicholas Hawksmoor. The peculiar design of the building owes in part to the odd-shaped plot of land on which it was built. A novel solution was required, which Hawksmoor found by aligning the church north-south (as opposed to the traditional east-west). The stepped tower above it was modelled on the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, in Ancient Egypt. Meanwhile the portico was based, allegedly, on the Temple of Bacchus at Baalbek, Lebanon.
Much like its sister back on Old Street, this church too had seen periods of decline. A £9.2 million restoration plan began only in 2002, re-glassing windows, laying new stone floors and bringing the building as close as possibly to its original design. Since 2014, the crypt of St George’s, Bloomsbury has housed the ‘Museum of Comedy.’
Beside the church, in a courtyard beneath the Egyptian pyramid and its grotesque, writhing beasts, a stall was selling coffee. It wasn’t until I sat down that I realised just how far I’d walked – from Bethnal Green to London Fields, back to Liverpool Street, To Old Street and from there to Bloomsbury – a distance of some six miles. My feet were growing tired, soles throbbing from relentless tarmac. The plan to travel this route largely by bus was not working out as planned; London buses don’t make a lot of sense to the uninitiated. The routes didn’t go where I wanted them to. More often than not, taking a bus would have meant waiting for an indeterminable length of time before travelling just a few stops closer to my destination – then walking the rest of the way. Hawksmoor’s churches may have been built to a pentagram plan, but London’s contemporary bus routes certainly were not.
Nevertheless, the next leg of the journey would simply not be walkable; and so I caught a bus from Bloomsbury to Oxford Circus, and from there another, this time headed west for Earls Court.
According to the book, this place had once been called ‘Billingswell’; itself derived from ‘Belinos’ Well,’ referring to a third century Celtic sun god. “Always the Sun!” my guide exclaimed. “Whether his name be Lud, Apollo… Helios or Atum. Be he Belinos or Bel… or Baal…”
Hopping off the bus outside the Earls Court tube station, I stepped right into a chaos of pedestrians – workers heading back from lunch breaks and tourists dragging heavy wheeled cases across the road, to and from the station’s entrance. I did note the blue police telephone box on the pavement outside – the only one of its kind left in the city – and joined the pair of smirking tourists who threw each other knowing grins as they photographed it from the far side of the road. It was no small task finding somewhere to stand, both road and pavement bustling as they were with passing traffic.
The place was a far cry from the sacred well the Celts had visited here all those centuries past; though I knew from previous visits that solitude could still be found not far off. I was just around the corner from Brompton Cemetery, one of London’s ‘Magnificent Seven,’ the grand Victorian burial grounds that would have been just recently opened at the time of Gull and Netley’s visit.
“These ancient stones awake in me a fearful appetite,” Gull had said on arriving in Earls Court. He’d eaten a kidney pie, so I too ate kidney pie; just over the street, at The Blackbird.
After lunch, I was back on the road. I caught a bus just outside the pub, the C1 headed eastward for Victoria. From the coach station it was another bus, up Buckingham Palace Road, past the royal residence and Westminster before meeting back with the Thames on the Victoria Embankment. The bus started and stopped, started and stopped, a heaving turnover of visitors and sightseers, Spanish students and Japanese families.
This part of town had been the first I’d ever seen of London, back on childhood visits: the tourist district. Riding through on public transport reminded how I’d gone so long with such little love for the capital.
Down by the riverside, following the pavement which mimicked the ancient curve of the water, I recalled a similar journey I’d made not long before. That time, however, I’d been some 10 feet below the street I now walked on; exploring cable runs that followed the course of the embankment.
I ought to have seen my next target long before I reached it, though the trees that lined the waterfront had conspired to keep it hidden; so that when I found myself looking up, quite suddenly, at a towering Egyptian monument, flanked by sphinxes at the water’s edge, it caught me entirely by surprise.
3.50 pm. Cleopatra’s Needle stands roughly 21m in height, formed from red granite and guarded by a pair of carved sphinxes. The needle first appeared sometime around 1450 BC, raised at Heliopolis and later inscribed with hieroglyphs praising the military conquests of Ramesses II.
The symbolism here was easy to read; a sun obelisk fashioned in worship of the Egyptian god Atum, the ‘Complete One,’ the Sun God of the Heliopolitan creation myth. From Hell makes a big fuss over the difficulties in getting the stone to London, and there’s the ring of the classic Egyptian curse myth about it.
In 1819, Egypt’s ruler gave the monument as a gift to the United Kingdom, commemorating British victories at the Battle of the Nile and the Battle of Alexandria. It would take 60 years to get it there. After nearly 2000 years buried in sand, the needle was eventually placed in a floating cylinder to be dragged to London behind a ship. Hitting a storm though, the floating cargo became uncontrollable – six volunteers drowned while trying to secure the monument. The cylinder was abandoned to the waves for four days, before finally being retrieved and erected beside the Thames in 1878.
In From Hell, Gull mentions the time capsule buried in the pedestal. It contained, among other things, a razor blade, coins, a map of London and twelve photographs of what were considered the best-looking English women of the time. Drawing connections here with the occult psychogeography of London, with misogyny and with the ritualistic throat cutting, the symbolic coin-arrangements of the Ripper crimes, takes little effort.
There are stories of ghosts here too, of a phantom that runs naked to the Thames before jumping in. The place has a reputation for suicides, allegedly, while other supernatural enthusiasts have suggested that the distant screams sometimes reported here are the voices of drowned sailors.
I noted nothing of the kind during my visit; there were tourists taking photographs. An unfortunate slumped in the corner, with his can of special brew. Across the river, meanwhile, the London Eye peered back at us. I stepped back to admire this all-seeing-eye flanked by Egyptian sphinxes; an Illuminati conspiracy theorist’s wet dream.
My next stop on the tour would take me south over the Thames. For the first while, at least, I’d be on foot. Down nearby Waterloo Bridge I went, and made the brisk 20-minute walk to Lambeth North.
Hercules Road & Old Bedlam
4.30 pm. Bedlam was perhaps one of the worst places in Victorian London; and William Blake once claimed that here the “mad had locked away the sane.” Founded in the 14th century as Bethlem Royal Hospital – a corruption itself from ‘Bethlehem’ – this place had served for hundreds of years as a lunatic asylum. The hospital isn’t there any more… in 1936 the central portion of the building was reopened as the Imperial War Museum.
Aside from the obvious gothic sensibilities of the place, there were deeper threads that linked this place to the narrative of my tour. It tied in nicely to this concept of a battle between sun and moon – a patriarchal institute for lunatics.
Around the side of the building, I took a moment to admire The Soviet War Memorial; something I’m more used to finding in Eastern Europe, here dedicated to the USSR’s sacrifices made in the fight against fascism during WWII.
Before I left Lambeth behind – another bus, south again – I stopped by Blake’s old house. Or at least, I tried to. Hercules Road has changed a lot since William Blake once lived there. It was significantly different to the Hercules Road of William Gull’s era, too. The house at Number 13, as best as I could tell, had once existed where there now stood a row of workshop units. This was the place where Blake had received his visions, where he had sat listening to the cries from Bedlam as he penned some of the finest works in English literature.
“Their language speaks direct to our unconscious mind,” Gull had said, and it reminded me also of H. P. Lovecraft; of Cthulhu and his dread elder gods, imprisoned for aeons and speaking directly to the dreaming minds of artists, poets and lunatics.
Blake’s legacy was almost entirely erased from this place, however – just one mention caught my eye, as I made my way back towards the bus stops. I passed by red brick apartment blocks, behind iron railings and neatly mown lawns. On the end of the nearest, a sign read William Blake Estate.
5.20 pm. Next up was the southernmost point of Sir William Gull’s pentagram; to a part of London I’d never been before.
Herne Hill most likely takes its name from the Old English word ‘hyrne,’ which meant ‘corner.’ A more creative origin, however, ties it to the figure of ‘Herne the Hunter’: a ghost of English folklore who seems to have first appeared in Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor. Shakespeare described the character as a lone figure with “great ragg’d horns,” which hunted through Windsor Forest and, “shakes a chain; In a most hideous and dreadful manner.”
This myth of Herne the Hunter became popularised in Victorian times, and so it makes sense that the fictional Sir William Gull could have made the connection. The figure of Herne as an antlered hunter offers a clear parallel to Diana, the Roman goddess of the hunt. Gull describes a Lunar goddess usurped, by, “a male pretender to her female throne.”
He made mention here of another subterranean waterway, and this time it was one I had seen for myself; the so-called Lost River Effra, that flows from here to its meeting with the Thames. Gull ties it to the narrative: “A thousand years ago, when it still knew the light of day, Canute sailed down it to attack the city from downstream.”
Anyone familiar with the legend of King Canute should grasp the significance there: the king who’d tried to control the tides, and thus to steal the powers of the moon.
Herne Hill itself – the conurbation, the busy street where I alighted from the bus, the nearby train station, the beer gardens and garages and hair salons – was unexciting at first glance. What history this place might once have had of horned men and Lunar gods seemed all but buried. As usual though, street names offered a tantalising lead: I noted the sign for ‘Half Moon Road’ as I alighted from the transport.
The streets of Herne Hill seemed flatter than the name might suggest; there was a hill nearby however, the grassy rise of a rolling, tree-dotted park that opened adjacent to the train station. I wondered if this incline had been Herne’s actual hill – and so I wandered through Brockwell Park, into the green and away from the noisy streets.
6.10 pm. By the time I came back down the hill I decided to stop for a swift half-pint in the Half Moon pub. Even without looking, I could feel the blisters growing inside my boots and I was eager to give my feet a moment’s rest.
I was pleasantly surprised to find the building so similar in appearance to Eddie Campbell’s illustration; inside, however, I didn’t sense a particularly warm welcome. There were flocks of office workers in suits, their ties loosened, shirts freshly unbuttoned, talking on mobile phones or shouting noisily about workplace politics. The air was filled with business jargon, the bar area heaving with elbows and hair gel and gold rings. Taking my half pint, I looked for a quiet corner to sit – but the quiet corners were still filled up with the last of the breakfast drinkers.
Instead, I took to hovering outside in the pub’s miniature beer garden – the only space left to me – but the traffic sounds and second-hand cigarette smoke conspired to deny me any comfort. I took it for a message; this was not to be a day of relaxation, and the path ahead of me wasn’t one of comfort. My Great Work was calling; besides, I was so lost by now in street names and stones, that I was struggling to keep myself grounded in the present. My head was spinning with gods and goddesses, an overwhelming sense as if I were stood on the brink and staring into the abyss of an impossible, ancient conspiracy – I worried perhaps I was driving myself slightly insane – and it was a struggle to converse with normal people.
I had enjoyed Brockwell Park, its trees and open spaces, but the testosterone-charged atmosphere of this pub was too much. I knocked the drink back in one, and headed out to find my next bus.
On Half Moon Road I took a number 37 to Hanover Park, somewhere in the vicinity of Peckham. There I waited maybe 30 minutes for the next one – sat outside a supermarket watching the single mums with pushchairs, school children smoking round a plastic bin, a fight that nearly broke out between two young men, then didn’t, then almost did again, before they left the Morrisons forecourt arm in arm and laughing.
At one point an elderly woman asked me a question about the bus timetable. I tried to speak, couldn’t, shrugged then managed a quiet apology. She looked disappointed and I decided that I wasn’t handling Peckham very well.
The soles of my feet, meanwhile, were now throbbing with pain; they felt loose and puffy, like tender meat sponges, sending tremors of pain up my legs with every step. I wanted to take my boots off there in the bus stop – but I was scared I’d never fit my bloated, burning feet back into them.
My bus pulled up at last (a 78), and I swiped my Oyster card as I shuffled on past the driver. He didn’t look at me. I didn’t look at him. I got off the bus again at Druid Street.
Druid Street, I thought to myself, and smiled. You couldn’t make this stuff up.
St John Horsleydown
7.30 pm. St. John Horsleydown was another of Hawksmoor’s collaborations. It was built from 1726-33 and much like the other joint effort between these architects, John James had designed a simple, square body that Hawksmoor then topped with a highly unorthodox spire. Here the steeple took the form of a tapering column, finishing in a weathervane shaped as a comet.
Gull had described St John’s Horsleydown as, “An obelisk to loom above the bridge, streets, and lives that teem therein.” Sadly, though, this next church on the tour was long gone by the time I arrived. It had caught a German bomb in 1940, during the London Blitz; only its base survived. Since then, a red brick shell had been slapped on top of the stone foundations: the London City Mission, an organisation with bases spread right across the capital offering a Christian outreach program to bring the gospel to London citizens “living in poverty, on the margins of society or those from other cultures.”
“Because London needs Jesus,” explains the tagline on their website.
Deprived of the full effect of St John’s Horsleydown, I headed around the back to see what remained of the graveyard. There I might at least immerse myself in some green space, in something natural and timeless that would allow me the illusion of authenticity if just for a moment.
There were cracked memorial stones embedded into the church foundations; old gravestones pulled up, and leant in stacks against a far wall of the space. Dog-walkers crossed the lawn and the red bricks of the mission building, such a very different style to the original church, seemed to dominate the space with their own presence. I could sense no magic here.
By this stage in the day, the sun grown fat and lazy in the low sky while my body ached, my feet throbbed, I considered quitting my route prematurely. After my outlying point at Herne Hill, I was headed back towards the city centre – towards familiar sights and streets. I was headed back amongst the welcoming tube stations too, with their promise of swift and painless relief, an exit from the endless walking on busy London streets.
I thought about taking a break, going back home and finishing my pentagram another day. I had been at it almost 12 hours now, and most of those on foot – it seemed a fair effort.
Whatever I decided though, the next stop would be worth reaching first. I slipped into a stream of tourists and passed across Tower Bridge. I was tired, and it wasn’t until I reached the northern bank of the Thames that I realised I had deviated from Gull and Netley’s route: they had crossed at London Bridge, hitting the Monument before working clockwise around to the Tower of London; Instead I reached the Tower prematurely, and had to loop back round if I were to feature the Monument as well.
8.05 pm. The Monument to the Great Fire of London was finished in 1677, to commemorate the heroes and victims of the fire that ravaged the city the previous decade. It’s said to be the tallest free-standing stone column in the world, and was designed by Sir Christopher Wren: Hawksmoor’s tutor. During Sir William Gull’s lifetime a number of people jumped from the top of the tower in acts of suicide – leading to the installation of a mesh cage around the upper viewing deck, which remains in place to this day.
Charles Dickens once wrote of the place: “If the day were bright, you observed upon the house-tops, stretching far away, a long dark path; the shadow of the Monument.”
The Monument lies in a fold of pedestrianized streets behind Eastcheap, and here the neighbouring pub had spilled its patrons out to stand and drink and smoke among the stones. This crowd seemed much like the after-work drinkers back at the Half Moon in Herne Hill; yet visibly more affluent. They stood straighter, their suits looked more expensive. When they spoke, they pronounced every letter in the words.
Limping through the noisy gathering with a tripod under one arm, I felt severely out of place.
I watched a noisy young man in a shiny suit stub his cigarette out on the base of the monument; and I turned to leave.
The Tower of London
8.30 pm. The Tower of London was founded in 1066 by William the Conqueror, and since then it has served both as a prison and a royal residence. It once featured an exotic menagerie, a chapel, and served as the site for countless executions. The Tower also has a long heritage of reported ghost sightings, from phantasmic bears to a roaming, headless, Anne Boleyn.
It is said that William the Conqueror had ordered bull’s blood to be mixed with the mortar; a magical sacrifice by which the Tower might last forever. By 1066, this concept was nothing new – the ancient druids of Britain had nourished their sacred architecture with sacrifice, with blood rituals and by mixing human blood with mortar. Hawksmoor would later be accused of doing something similar himself, building his churches upon the sites of mass graves.
Here in From Hell, Sir William Gull referenced the story of Brutus the Trojan. Brutus was a worshipper of Diana, the moon goddess, and according to the myth he defeated the island’s resident giants to become the first King of Britain sometime around 1,130 BC. Brutus gave his name to the island, and was buried at ‘Bryn-Gwyn,’ the ‘White Mound,’ on which the Tower of London stands today.
The Celtic King Bran the Blessed is also connected to the tower. The name ‘Bran’ comes from the Welsh word for ‘Raven’ – the Raven King – and following his death, Bran’s head was buried beneath the mound, facing France, to ward off invaders.
Bran’s birds still inhabit the tower, and an old superstition tells that should the ravens ever leave, London would be ruined. As I cut back from Monument to Tower, beneath the battlements and around the manicured lawns, I saw no ravens here today; I wondered if I should take it for a bad omen.
I passed around the back of the Tower of London, along wooden walkways and past the yawning entrance to Tower Hill Station; a transport terminal named for the hill that had been a popular place for public executions. These days, it’s the starting point for countless Ripper Tours headed for the East End and Spitalfields.
Beyond the Tower, to the south, glass and steel rose up above a stone horizon. The Shard broke through the battlements like an angry, electric spear, London’s newest landmark towering over one of its oldest. As the setting sun brought out the yellow in the ancient stones, and cast a blue-white glow down the distant, glistening tower, I found the juxtaposition of these two icons strangely comforting.
I looked back to the station entrance, with its promise of home – then turned once more to face the tower, the glass steeples, the millennia-old mystery of London. I would do it, I decided, I would finish this pentagram no matter what. I staggered past Tower Hill Station, on towards the East End.
From here the Highway reached east ahead of me, following the course of the Thames through East London’s docklands. Once, this was known as the Ratcliff Highway: one of three main roads leading out of London. In the 19th century, this place was dangerous and dilapidated, a maze of decaying tenements and winding, unlit alleys. In Wapping, the Highway passes the former ‘Execution Dock’: where pirates were hanged from a gibbet above the water line, their bodies left for the birds until their third high tide.
Sometime around 9pm I stopped at a petrol station; buying three energy drinks, some plasters, a box of paracetamol, a scotch egg and an ice cream. I ate as I walked, I numbed the pain and I topped myself up on liquid caffeine… it wouldn’t be long before I reached my next target, another Hawksmoor, his St George in the East.
St. George in the East
9.15 pm. Compared to Old Street’s sun obelisk or the pyramid tomb at Bloomsbury, this church – Hawksmoor’s St. George in the East – had more the look of a fortified temple about it. The white stone rose into battlements, pillars and domes.
The church was built from 1714-29, though later gutted by bombs during WWII; the walls and towers survived while the interior would be restored by the 1960s to continue serving the needs of the local congregation.
In Lud Heat, Iain Sinclair frames these Hawksmoor churches as focal points of evil, beacons to attract the very worst of human cruelty. In this instance at least, a notable example could be found; as this church had once been witness to a bloody murder mystery.
On 7th December 1811, an unknown assailant entered a nearby draper’s shop on Ratcliff Highway sometime around midnight. The owner and his wife were battered to death in their shop, using a heavy maul. Their young apprentice was found at the foot of the stairs, his skull smashed open – his brain was pulverised before being smeared about on walls and counters. Upstairs, their 14-week-old son was found lying in his crib, his face crushed and head almost severed from his body.
These four victims were buried beneath a monument at St. George in the East, while the local River Thames Police began an extensive investigation.
Twelve days later, another murder occurred – this time a publican, his wife and their servant, at the King’s Arms on nearby New Gravel Lane. There were striking similarities to the first murders; skulls smashed in with a heavy weapon, throats slit down to the bone.
The police would come up with several suspects in the case, eventually settling on John Williams, a 27-year old sailor. While the case against Williams was inconclusive, he was shown to have had access to the murder weapon and to have come into money shortly after the killings. He also lacked an alibi, and was seen in a torn and bloodied shirt on the night of the second murder.
Williams was arrested, though on 28th December he hanged himself in his cell. On New Year’s Eve his corpse was paraded down the Ratcliff Highway on a cart. As they passed the site of the second event, the coachman paused to whip the body of John Williams three times across the face.
Finally the procession passed St George in the East, and on to where a grave had been dug at the crossroads between New Road (now Commercial Road) and Canon Street Road. The corpse was bundled into the hole, and a wooden stake hammered through its heart.
Some theorists have suggested a masonic nature to the murders. The maul that was used in the first attack, a shipwright’s hammer, was not dissimilar to the mallet that appears amongst the symbolic ‘working tools’ of the freemasons; used to “correct irregularities and create uniformity within a structure.” Using such associations, Moore’s Sir William Gull speculates that the murder spree had been a false flag operation. The events had led to the establishment of a dedicated police force in the area, bringing order to the chaos of Ratcliff Highway; the murders had been orchestrated then, he supposed, as part of a masonic plot to tame and control the citizens of London.
At the entrance to the church, a gang of children were kicking a ball around. I hobbled through their midst, dodging a pass, to reach the graveyard gates. They were locked; but peering through the bars, I was able to see the monument marking the place where the Marr family – victims of the first Ratcliff Highway attack back in 1811 – had been buried.
From Hell also suggested a mistake in the alignment of St. George in the East; Hawksmoor had asked to demolish neighbouring shops, in order to better position his church in line with others. The commissioners had denied his request though, and so it was forced to lie slightly off-route. I checked my own map, and saw that it was true.
After St George in the East I wandered further east still. I followed the Highway through Wapping, past the Tobacco Dock; turning back onto Commercial Road just level with a sign for the nearby ‘Half Moon Theatre.’ I laughed – out loud, I think – and looked up to see a half moon hovering in the sky above me like a winking eye.
St. Anne’s Limehouse
10:00 pm. It was with an incredible sense of relief that I finally stumbled across the next tower, that of St Anne’s in Limehouse. This was it, the furthest point on the map. Even if I simply turned around now, headed all the way back to my lodgings in Putney, I couldn’t help but pass the two remaining locations on my way. I had basically succeeded already, I told myself… provided I didn’t collapse somewhere along the way and end up sleeping in a doorway.
St Anne’s Limehouse was completed in 1727, consecrated in 1730. I remembered reading about this parish in another of Alan Moore’s graphic novels: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, again set in Victorian London. The way he’d told it, Limehouse was a dirty confusion of Chinese gangsters, docks and opium dens. It looked a little different these days, however. Cycle paths, an auto-repair shop, billboards and construction sites. Traffic lights and bus stops and bins and iron railings; this place felt overwhelming generic.
The road passed over the Limehouse Cut, then curved round the former Town Hall; which, completed in 1881, would have been brand new around the time of the Ripper murders. I was close to the Isle of Dogs… and not far from the abandoned Millennium Mills, where I had once explored level upon level of ruined warehouse spaces, grain chutes, Victorian lift mechanisms and open dockland rooftops.
Sir William Gull hadn’t made much of the location, other than to lecture on the history of the Isle of Dogs; where the king’s kennel-masters had once bred and trained the royal hunting hounds. The church was only a few streets from Billingsgate Market though – and I wondered if this place too had belonged to the Sun God; to Belinos.
Over the road from the church, an interesting synchronicity: the building on the opposite corner was once the local Sailor’s Mission. Here, the Situationist International – the original flâneurs – had held their conference back in 1960. These were the pioneers of self-aware, academic psychogeography, and I couldn’t help but wonder what Guy Debord would have made of my current mission… or whether he too, on visiting Limehouse, had stopped to experience himself in relation to Hawksmoor’s church.
I was looking at the church through metal railings, across a lawn overhung by a heavy canopy of branches; but it was late, and the gate was firmly locked. Instead I walked around the block, ducking back into a side street near the head-end of the church. Tucked away behind the high street, an alleyway led up to the entrance to St Anne’s. A Victorian-style lamp burned bright above the spikes of a wrought-iron gate, lighting the church from beneath: and giving its domes and pillars the appearance of some candlelit shrine.
Limping down the cobbles to the barrier, I pushed the gate and found this one open. There was music coming from the church as I wandered past and into the roadside graveyard.
Jesus Christ stood looking at me from the far end of the garden, a bronze figure with right arm raised in salute. Beside me, under the trees, a stone pyramid spiked up out of the grass. There were words carved onto it: “The Wisdom of Solomon.”
Masonic ritual has a lot to say about the Wisdom of Solomon. Their central myth is focussed on the architect of Solomon’s temple, Hiram Abiff. Some of the more exotic theories – including theories cited by Sir William Gull in From Hell – suggest that this ‘wisdom’ included working systems of sacred architecture; employed by the architects of Solomon’s Temple, of the Great Pyramids before that, and even – some will tell you – the ancient architects of Atlantis.
“Can I help you?” a voice asked, and I looked up suddenly from my pyramid. The music from the church had stopped, and a group of shadows were moving out of the church in single file; bearing cases shaped like stringed instruments in a variety of sizes and shapes.
For a moment I considered asking what they knew about the pyramid; then I decided against it. It was a quarter-to-eleven and here I was, hiding in the shadows behind the church, eyes wide from caffeine drinks and searching for occult symbolism in the graveyard.
“No,” I said, and tried to smile my least threatening smile. I wandered painfully back up to the main road, and hopped on a bus headed west: down Commercial Road and into Spitalfields, to the very streets where Jack the Ripper had stalked his victims.
Christ Church, Spitalfields
11:10 pm. In Campbell and Moore’s From Hell, his characters made it to Spitalfields in time to watch the sun set. I was lagging several hours behind them however, and by the time I reached Commercial Street it was night already.
The atmosphere was lively, metropolitan, a mass of noises and languages and colours. But then, Spitalfields has long been a melting pot of different cultures. In the 18th century it saw a large influx of Huguenots, French Protestants who, settling just outside the City of London, with their arrival introduced the word ‘refugee’ to the English language.
Today, Bangladeshis are the largest minority population of Spitalfields; there are Islamic study centres and halal food shops along Commercial Street, while the parallel Brick Lane features an almost endless parade of curry houses. Back in 1888 however, the area was home, most notably, to a large number of Jewish settlers. It was a hotbed of crime in those days too, with pickpockets, cutthroats and prostitutes all working these streets at night.
My target here was perhaps the most dramatic of all Nicholas Hawksmoor’s works: his Christ Church. (Or, as Gull puts it, “his creed of terror and magnificence most forcefully expressed.”)
I came up Commercial Street to find the church, a bone-white steeple rising like a sharp incisor from black gums; a gothic tower, Tuscan columns, the English baroque style in all its understated glory. Evening crowds bustled by without looking up at the monumental forms above them. Its geometry was profound to behold, a stone isosceles flanked between quarter-circle supports, a pantheon of pillars below that.
It has been speculated by some historians that Christ Church Spitalfields, erected between 1714 and 1729, was placed here as a symbol of oppression; a powerful emblem of the Anglican Church to remind these Protestant refugees where they were.
Sir William Gull had echoed this, describing the way in which Christ Church’s “tyranny of lines enslaves the nearby streets,” and how soldiers had been barracked inside the church while suppressing the 18th century Huguenot riots.
The effect was undeniably potent. Against the chaos of traffic, the crowds and advertisements, the noises and smells of the modern-day East End, this church appeared like a timeless glyph, its powerful shapes standing clear and distinct and overwhelmingly anachronistic; it looked more drawn than built.
Hawksmoor built his Spitalfields Christ Church above a plague pit, a mass burial site; not that there was any shortage of those in London, by the end of the bubonic plague epidemic. For sustenance, the roots of Christ Church dug deep into the mass graves of London’s damned.
It was in Spitalfields, too, where Sir William Gull offered a blood sacrifice to the stones of London and thereby entered into his own mythology… or at least, Alan Moore’s Gull did.
In 1888 five women, prostitutes, were murdered in the streets around this church; throats slashed left to right, innards dragged out, some with wombs removed. I won’t stray too far into the Ripper story here (I’m saving that subject for an article of its own), but as Iain Sinclair noted back in 1975, and as had certainly been the case at St George in the East, this Hawksmoor church stood at the centre of a notoriously violent spree of murders.
It couldn’t have been much closer to the action, in fact, considering Christ Church’s neighbour was the pub where the Ripper’s victims met to socialise. The Ten Bells was a popular local drinking hole during Victorian times and it was here that many of the prostitutes of Spitalfields had spent their hard-earned coins.
Stood, swaying slightly, in the overwhelming bone-white presence of Christ Church, I was more than tempted to investigate the pub – and enjoy a hard-earned gin of my own. The hour was late though, and I had but one more stop on my tour: the grandest of all London’s temples.
My final ride was a night bus to St Paul’s Cathedral. It wouldn’t have been far on foot, and by now I was back in familiar territory – an easy walk. I was exhausted though, and could feel my blisters shift and bubble with every awkward step. I felt delirious, numb, my head filled with dates and symbols, my stomach with more caffeine-based products than could possibly be healthy.
So I limped down Commercial Street, to Whitechapel High Street where I boarded a double-decker outside Aldgate East Station. We passed Mitre Street on the right; leading to Mitre Square, where the mutilated body of Catherine Eddowes had been discovered on 30th September 1888.
A group of young girls got on at the next stop, tourists, laughing and speaking in – what sounded like – Korean. As I slumped in the seat, head knocking against the glass window, I suddenly wondered if they were laughing at me. I probably looked like a drunk.
The bus stopped right beside St Paul’s Cathedral, and I tried to disembark; but a searing pain shot up my leg the moment my tender foot connected with the pavement. I stumbled, rather than stepped, into the street, staggering forwards and almost landing on my face. As the doors closed, I saw the Korean girls laugh again, hands held over their mouths.
St. Paul’s Cathedral
11:45 pm. The cathedral never fails to impress me. Its history, mythology, its supposedly occult symbolism, all these things serve to strengthen the appeal; though even without them, the sheer physical presence of St Paul’s is awe inspiring.
It towered over me from the far side of the road – not the front entrance with its steps and columns, but rather I saw the tower from behind – an intricate white barrel, the dome above illuminated blue. The building is so elaborate that it’s hard not to wonder at the devotion, the sheer effort of construction that went into it. There couldn’t have been a better end point for the tour: my academic satisfaction was merged with metaphysical wonder, so that reaching the finish line was a treat for my eyes and soul, not just for my sense of stubborn perseverance.
Backing myself into a corner near the bus stop, I set up my tripod for a photo. The shutter clicked, a 20-second exposure, and I slumped into a doorway as I waited. A group of revellers passed by, dressed up smart, and noisy from alcohol. Someone saw me there, sat alone at midnight, in a stone doorway that smelt of urine. They nudged their friend and gestured; both laughed. I said nothing – I waited for them to walk on out of the frame and then I reset the camera, tried another shot.
There is a stone inside St Paul’s Cathedral, recessed into a back wall, which claims to come from the Temple of Solomon. Coupled with the checkerboard floor reminiscent of a masonic temple, St Paul’s is a banquet of symbolism for the conspiracy theorist. I noted, too, that in freemasonry the pentagram is sometimes referred to as the Star of Solomon (to contrast with the six-pointed Star of David); and here it was, a piece of Solomon’s own temple at the heart of a vast pentagram of stones and symbols.
I wanted to see inside the cathedral itself; it was not to be, however, as the temple had long-since closed its door to visitors. Instead, this was where my journey ended: in a piss-stained gutter looking up at the house of God.
Of course, this had been a different god’s house, once. Sir William Gull suggests it was a shrine to Diana up until 610 AD; that same Roman lunar deity who had – in Gull’s imagination – been brought to London by King Brutus, then later usurped by Herne the Hunter.
In 1081 AD, after the coming of the Normans, the site was burnt and rebuilt, dedicated to Christianity and to Paul the Apostle. Rather appropriate, considering Paul’s dramatic clashes with the worshippers of Diana at Ephesus (Acts 19:20-41).
More than simply anti-Diana though, Gull, in the book, declares St. Paul as anti-women altogether; a profound misogynist. It’s not a uncommon claim. Many Christians will argue that by 1st century standards, the Apostle Paul’s attitudes towards marriage were remarkably egalitarian (“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her”; Ephesians 5:25). He also said some pretty awful stuff, though – such as: “But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence” (Timothy 2: 11-12).
Monument to misogyny or not, sitting there in the blue-white light of the glorious cathedral, I felt a sense of elation at having seen the journey through to completion. My guide had called it, “This pentacle of Sun Gods, obelisks and rational male fire, wherein unconsciousness, the Moon and Womanhood are chained.”
As much as I enjoy the mythology of From Hell, I didn’t feel I’d exactly done much to contribute towards the ‘chaining of the moon.’ Perhaps I simply needed to finish the ritual properly: indeed, after that point Alan Moore’s fictional rendition of Sir William Gull went off to hunt his fallen women, committing acts of human sacrifice in order to feed the mystical workings of ancient London; and earning the nickname ‘Jack the Ripper’ in the process. Personally, I was content just to have a chicken jalfrezi and call it a day.
The Star of Solomon
Looking at maps later on, I worked out that I must have travelled around 45 miles as I drew the pentagram. And, thanks to one-way streets, road works, irregular bus times plus my limited knowledge of London’s public transport routes, roughly 15 miles of that was on foot.
As Father Ted once said, “that may be alright for Will Self or one of those fellas”; but my poor, soft feet simply hadn’t been prepared for what I put them through in those 16 hours, and it’d be a few days yet before I was walking again like a normal human being.
It’s fair to say that Hawksmoor’s churches are pretty strange. It’s also strange that they often seem aligned in deliberate form. While the full pentagram, I believe, is a largely forced reading (London Fields, Northampton Square, Herne Hill – which actually has no historical connection to Herne the Hunter – and a few others seeming somewhat desperate associations) it wouldn’t surprise me if there was in fact a greater plan at work. Nicholas Hawksmoor took such great care in the arrangement of lines and shapes within his work, would it be so strange to imagine he’d paid attention to those around his creations too?
Hawksmoor was a freemason, a lover of symbols, and who knows? Perhaps even a secret occultist. But even without his efforts, it’s not as if London isn’t full enough of occult history.
There are plague pits, burial grounds and sacrifice sites wherever you care to look. An alternate constellation might have been drawn from the co-ordinates of: the druidic site on Parliament Hill, Freemasons Hall on Great Queen Street, the Temple of Mithras, the mystical River Fleet, the London Stone, the Embankment monument of Queen Boadicea, the burial place of King Lud at Ludgate, Highgate Cemetery with its mythology of ghosts and vampires and magical duels; even Temple Church, the former English headquarters of the Knights Templar. Then of course, there are Hawksmoor’s other churches: his St. Alfege’s Church, Greenwich, and St. Mary Woolnoth.
The truth is, London has enough esoterically-significant locations that I could probably have signed my own name across its map, just by connecting one site to another.
The tour did somewhat sap me of the ability to speak in normal words to normal people – I would be gibbering nonsense about stones and street names for days to come – but I don’t think it’s necessary to turn to mystical hermetic processes in order to explain such an effect.
All said and done, it had been an incredibly intense exploration of London’s occult symbolism; and while I had dipped into the subject in the past, the act of touring all these sites in one day – no matter in which order, or arrangement – offers an incomparable immersion into the history, the horror, the mystery and unrivalled strangeness of the British capital.