There is nothing that fills me with quite the same amount of Not Taking Part despair as the London Marathon. No matter that I had no place nor trained even one step, I knew that on the morning I would be filled with longing, tears maybe, as would my friend Alice. What to do? A private booking with Secret London Runs, In the Shadow of the Shard tour, to the rescue. It is an idea sooo clever, I really really wish I had thought of it myself! Founded by history buffs and experienced runners, Amy and Vanessa, they organize runs in London that include a good dose of history and great deal of fun.
My first outing with SLR was on their Jack the Ripper night, a few weeks ago. A short run, in teams, through Spitalfields/WhiteChapel/City in pursuit of clues on the identity of Jack the Ripper. Actors (or long-suffering friends?) were scattered along the route, dressed in Victorian costume, ready to answer questions and direct or mis-direct inquiries. This should have been so my kind of thing. But at the very last minute, my only teammate and above mentioned Alice had a childcare crisis and couldn’t join me. When I finally arrived at the starting venue, a pub just off Petticoat Junction, the only other single runner was a woman who told me, but only once we were outside in the freezing cold!!, that she couldn’t run. Oh dear. Suddenly my running attire seemed woefully inadequate to cope with the weather. Because we walked. Slowly. It was bloody cold. I did try to get into the spirit of it as much as possible and, as we were now not really competing against other teams for times, I felt free to chat away to the Victorians as much as I liked. We were hardly going to get less cold or be any slower. This is how I know that the policeman at the Tower is from Ventura, CA and that pretending to sell oranges in front of the old Billingsgate Market is a cold and lonely prospect indeed.
We didn’t guess the correct villain, but I did get some lovely photos of London at night, never can have too many of those, and had my circumstances been different, it would have been a fantastic night. I had to try again.
So that is how Alice and I found ourselves greeting Amy half way across London Bridge, such an alluring place to meet, feeling slightly sorry for ourselves that we weren’t traveling on to Greenwich with the other marathoners….but a few minutes on London Bridge cured that. Just look around in all directions, Amy encouraged us. To the north the City, still the financial heart of the capital, and to the south, Southwark. Once a dangerous and filth filled area of town. Now, with the Shard, the tallest building in Europe (for the moment), a symbol of new wealth and power, looming of the southern bank, a respectable, trendy and expensive part of London. But yet, touches of its dirty days still remain, and those are what we came to see.
One of the first stops was the ruins of Winchester Palace. London history can be dreadfully confusing, both chronologically and geographically. This is a good example. The Bishop of Winchester had his palace, not in Winchester (about 70 miles SW of London) but here on Bankside, between Southwark Cathedral and Clink Prison. The Bishops, down the ages, would have allowed prostitues to ply their trade in the area, but for a sizable fee. Extracting money from the desperate has always been a reliable money maker for those in power. But when they died, these same women were not given final rest on consecrated ground. Instead, they were buried at the Cross Bones Graveyard, along with plague victims and the general poor. A literal dumping ground for the unloved. A final insult to lives filled with injury.
The land was closed to burial in 1853 on health grounds. It retreated into folk-lore and was then forgotten. Until London Underground started digging around in the 1990s. And historians realized what they had found: a tip filled with the unwanted of ages past. A garden of sorrow, if ever there was. Now the gates are covered in ribbons and it has become a quasi-shrine to remember the outcasts and unwanted of society, though increasingly it has become a place for people of all traditions to show respect and remembrance. Today, many of the ribbons are for people who are deeply loved and painfully, achingly missed. A baby, a young mother, a son. It is a wall of collective grief atop bodies for whom no grief was shown. With the iconic Shard looming overhead. Circle of life at its most theatrical.
And that was just the start….for about an hour we ran, at a very nice pace, chasing tales. Listening to Amy’s stories of misery and dirt and death (I do love a bit of grim) and the subsequent transformation to…well, the café and art gallery filled Bermondesy Street we know today.
By the time we finished, many, many photos later, Alice and I had rather forgotten about the Marathon. We couldn’t get the rejected women of Cross Bones out of our minds. And the fact that running history laden streets with a knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide like Amy is a pretty perfect Sunday morning.
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