Once I ascended hills, brushing my hands through lavender or tempted by strawberries. I gathered berries along the row by the heath. I walked by rivulets and stepped over streams, feeling the clay under my feet.
When the invaders came, I walked on in the shadow of the stockade as it rose then burnt and fell then rose again over and over until the timber was replaced by stone.
I walked inside walls as they rolled outwards like ripples; one built after another to encompass the paving as it sneaked cobble by cobble across fields and mud.
The rivulets flowed on, trickling with waste from the tanners and butchers and chamber pots into the sludge and churn of the river.
Sometimes, I crossed the river’s waves in rocking boats or followed up in darkness to the watergate. On its southern shores, I walked among bawdy, gaudy folk as they spilled out of theatres and taverns. Women, painted with lead, carmine and disease called me to join them but I walked on.
They covered Tyburn Brook and I walked, tracing its invisible path with my eyes to avoid seeing my surroundings. Sometimes the blood trickled at pace with me and feet jolted feet above me, as I stepped aside from the innards on the path. But I kept my head down, never looking up in case pecked out eyes from unbodied heads should be watching.
Later, death stalked. Flea laden rats scurried across my feet but my feet did not stop. And too soon afterwards, as stone walls burnt and timbers trembled into ash and multi-coloured windows exploded, I still walked on.
I walked east. People lived like lice, huddled and swarming; boiling, roiling in dark, damp rooms. The children’s bare feet hop over filth and then drank of the river though stank and lethal. I walked west. People lived like gilded gods; demanding, beautiful, finger-clicking, bell-ringing. I was wallpaper, disposal.
Under my feet, down in the clay where once I trod, engines started run through tunnels, snake like, engorging and disgorging. And I walked on, my shoulders rubbing another generation of strangers, belongings slung over their shoulders, as they stumbled into overcrowded rooms.
The last of the rivulets were bricked up and channelled, their trickle echoed in the naming of streets above them. And some of them ran through channels of brick and bore away the waste and contagion and others seeped. I plodded on.
Sometimes, my mouth is choked with fog and I cannot see more than my feet plodding from pool to pool of filtered lamplight. The air is oily. In the east, a different death now stalked the gaudy women. Whitechapel stained red and I walked in the shadows out of sight.
And then the pyrotechnics of terror: the skies flashed and buildings fell. The earth exploded into craters under my feet so that I clambered over brick and rubble, brushing the dust from my shoes.
Now, in clear skies, above me leviathans rear from the ground into impossible monoliths of glass and steel and I walk and walk as I have always walked. Invisible.
My toes remember the squelch of the marsh. My hands recall the lavender and my tongue the strawberries although now the fields grow nothing but pavements and terraces.
No one asks me what I see, what I know. I am nothing. A shade.
I look down at my feet treading on the pavements lain over cobbles, lain over straw, lain over mud, lain over bones: hidden or forgotten, lain over dreams and forgotten faiths, lain over five thousand years. And they will remember the rich and the powerful, the bookmarks in history but they will not remember me. My feet have been every colour. I am local, incomer, foreigner, slave. I am the spirit of every servant who walked, unseen, unnoticed but seeing, noticing; head down, feet tired.
And so will I continue, going about someone else’s business; walking over hidden histories and forgotten streams as pride and empires rise and fall. Until eventually the monstrous edifices return to dust. Till the marsh reeds burst back through the paving. Till I can run my hands through lavender and pick wild strawberries once more.
Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission
This was prompted by walking up Lavender Hill near Clapham Junction and trying to imagine it when it was fields and not urban. It’s impossible to do justice to the history of London in 700 words, but here are the changes I’ve tried to reflect:
c. 4500 BC: Evidence of settlement
43 AD: Roman settlement
… c. 61 AD: Roman settlement destroyed when the Iceni tribe, led by Queen Boudicca burnt it to the ground…
c.100 AD: Roman Londinium built to replace Colchester as the capital of the Roman Province
c. … 450 AD-950 AD decline of London after the collapse of Roman rule and during repeated Viking invasions….
c. 1066 AD London once again the largest town. William the conqueror builds Westminster Abbey and Tower of London…
c. 1196- late 17th C: public executions at Tyburn
… 14th C AD: Black death – London loses a third of its population…
16th C AD: In Southwark, William Shakespeare builds the Globe theatre. The south bank with its theatres and stews is generally disapproved of.
… 17th C AD: English civil war…
1665 AD: Great Plague
… 1666 AD: Great Fire of London…
1848-1866 AD: Cholera epidemics leading to building of sewers…
1858 AD: Joseph Bazalgette was given the go ahead to start creating a system of sewers, the direct result of which was to clean up the Thames and stop the cholera outbreaks.
… 1863: First underground railway
… 1939-45 AD: Bombing killed over 30,000 Londoners and destroyed large tracts of land and buildings.
… 1952 AD: The Great Smog – perhaps 12,000 people died from pollution as a result of which the Clean Air Act was brought in which ended the ‘pea-souper’ fogs for which London was notorious…
Modern day: The development of Canary Wharf, building of landmark buildings like The Shard etc
Subterranean rivers of London: as London developed, tributaries were covered over and now run in culverts. Fleet Street and Holborn for example are two streets named for the streams and brooks which run (or once ran) underneath them. If you like modern adult fantasy, there is a great series of books by Ben Aaronovitch imagining the lost rivers of London with personalities of their own and a whole world of magic in the modern day city hidden in plain sight.
Generally: the constant influx of immigration over centuries, including refugees and economic migrants, slaves and servants from Europe and beyond which make up the cultural melting pot which is a modern city.