Our photographer friend Brian Benson has graciously given us passage into his view of London. He is a noted photographer in London. He has numerous credits to his name, people on the street know his name. He is known throughout the city and well beyond. Brian was put in charge of the photography for a book called “The Traditional Shops of London”, it caught our attention a year ago because of our interest in historic retail. We now have a chance to see London through his eyes. The book is a pictorial glimpse of stores and shops that have been open for more than a hundred years. We feel that the ensuing years will prove this book to be a timeless record of the shops that have endured over the ages, some of which are nearing the 400 year mark! Brian did not take his charge lightly when working on this project. His photography is a reflection on commerce and trade throughout the centuries.
A seven hour plane ride and 50 minutes on the tube (subway) and I blink, I find myself shaking his hand and he is offering to give us a tour of his London, little known and seldom seem. We meet at the British Museum (with which we are quite familiar) We both agree that Great Britain and the museum got a head start on pillaging many of the great wonders of the world long before other nations. We love the museum and it has drawn us back again and again.
We don’t tarry at the museum because of our familiarity with it. Out the gates we head toward Shaftesbury Ave. towards the Arthur Beale Chandlery, they’ve been in business for 400 years outfitting ships and supplying rigging lines for theaters since Shakespeare was a lad. Every thing is solid brass, pulleys, hooks and cleats, they are experts in all things rope and line. The turks head knots on the display in the window attests to their expertise. The store is not decked out to be historic….it just is! Its an operating chandlery not particularly suited for tourists. I’ve got a bit of a background in sailing (windsurfing-smallest of all sailing crafts) so I visit with Steve an employee of the Arthur Beale Chandlery, we talk rope and line. 200 years ago the store was located on Fleet River a small tributary emptying into the Thames. It was considered backwater and eventually it was filled in to make room for greater density in London. He smiles when I tell him about the United States Windsurfing Association (of which I’ve been a board member). Then he glances over at the hawser rope/line, this line is used to moor ships, it is perhaps three inches in diameter. We have the sparest things in common….. but he is gracious. Steve tells us he spent a short time in Hawaii thinking he had found work, disappointment ensued and he returned to London. He is glad to work for a business that has centuries of experience.
A couple streets over on New Oxford Street we spy the James Smith & Sons, its a Walking stick company……a natural history museum of woods that are suitable for proper English walking sticks and canes. Every conceivable type of appropriate wood can be found in this store. They custom fit each walking stick to the customer and it is fitted with a brass or silver ferule to finish it off. James Smith also specialize in Umbrellas and quirts, quirts are those tiny little whips used to prod race horses. Lest you think this might be a marginal business, consider that they have been pursuing their trade since 1830. While we are there a man comes in and goes bee line to a particular walking stick, I suspect he has looked at it before. The equivalent of $250.00 changes hands and he leaves with a modestly priced James Smith walking stick. They have the most authentic and beautiful store front I’ve ever encountered. Their motto? “Outside every silver lining is a big black cloud”.
Our time with Brian is limited (he’s a busy chap!) so we don’t tarry. We leave only to immediately get side tracked and head thru a curious alley called Neil’s Yard, this is a brightly colored & eclectic place that Monty Python spent some in his formative years. Opp’s we’ve got to stay on focus so we head toward St. Martins in the Field, a James Gibb church from 1722. We duck in and get to hear a string ensemble of world renown, there has been a dedication of a new stain glass window . I soon realize that we are doing more than the “Traditional Shops of London”! I slowly come to realize that we are seeing London through the eyes of an experienced and professional photographer. We are in the realm of Trafalgar Square, a place of serious historic consequence to British History. We wend our way to St. James’s Park and dodge horses on parade. We slow down and a special vista reveals itself, it is a view that includes the park, the Royal Horse Guards and in the distance is the Thames and the London Eye. The London Eye presents itself as an arc on the distant skyline, postcards are made of this.
We cross the Thames to South Borough Market, it is a place of vibrant cottage industry. The people here are selling breads, produce, candles, fabrics, mushrooms and above all….its a meat market! My first impression is the pheasants and hares that hang before us are taxidermy display items to draw the customer into their selling spaces. The ponding blood on the floor makes me reevaluate my display ideas, everything here is food fresh from the fields. The space is thick with friendly people that would love to sell you a rabbit, pigeon/squab or squid. We settle for some granola and sour dough bread to take along for sustenance. Our time in London is an exercise training session, we walk 5 to 10 miles each day.
We walk many streets, narrow and twisting, to the contours of the London landscape. After crossing the Thames a time or two, we tippy toe deep down a narrow, narrow stairway that seems to have light at the bottom. There is no need for a hand rail because our shoulders almost touch each wall on our descent. Our eyes acclimate when we reach the bottom and it reveals itself. Casks of wine line the wall behind the three meter bar (no beer-this is a wine cellar). It is catacomb like and half the seating is directly below the old London streets. Brian graciously asks if we would like to sample a glass of wine. The ceilings are to low to actually stand up….so we hunch over and find a table that will allow us to be seated in an upright position while enjoying a glass in the depths of this wine crypt. Perhaps forty five people are enjoying this establishment. I start to realize that I am privy to special, special places as seen through the eyes of this London photographer Brian Benson. Coal dust from the 1840’s still cover the bricks that surround our dining area. We toast our tour guide and then head toward the blinding light of the street level, we enjoy seeing the city through his lens.
So much of inner city London is completely accessible on foot and Brian has measured our walk to encompass an incredible amount of this beautiful city. We are indebted to him.
Photo by Brian Benson www.bbphoto.co.uk