Our visit to Westminster School proved so popular we had to split it into two. There was so much to see, such as the huge hall, known simply as 'School' which was once the monk’s dormitory and Headmaster Dr Busby's Library.  The highlight though was Ashburnham House, a building teeming with history. Once the London home of the Earls of Ashburnham, it was acquired by the school in 1882. 

You get a hint of its past as you go through the front door and see a picture of Elizabeth I, a patron of the school, on the wall. This is a copy but the original is in the Headmasters study – so pupils would have to commit serious misdemeanours to see it. These days Ashburnham houses activities like IT and mathematics but it once contained the unique Cotton Library built up by the redoubtable Sir Robert Cotton from books he rescued from monasteries after the Dissolution. Some were lost during a fire here in 1731 but three quarters were rescued and became the basis of today’s British Library. 

But the gem of the place is the small garden where you can still see the original wall of the monk’s refectory which has a strong claim to be the origin of Parliament because it was the site of some of the earliest meetings of what became the House of Commons. The lawn would have been the floor of the refectory. The building on the left, somewhat bizarrely houses several Fives courts of recent origin. We are most grateful to Elizabeth Wells, Archivist of the school for giving us a fascinating tour. 
The wall of the monastic refectory - the origin of Parliament

With thanks to the Purcell Club singers, prodominantly members of the Westminster Abbey Old Chorister's Association, for a wonderful evening of music and history.  We have already put our name down on the waiting list to go again in 4 years time ! 



Gathering in what was the old wash-house, adjacent to what were the Great Smith Street public baths, we were introduced to the building. Opened in 1995 and housing Westminster's parish, council, church, school and business records, some dating back to the 1450's, they are still accepting items of importance.  With the resurgence in interest, via the Find My Past website, visitors most popular searches are the records of Births, Marriages and Deaths, the Adoption Indexes, Electoral Registers and Censuses. Particular building searches are also popular although most of the original planning records did not survive the LCC clear-out, but Victorian surveyors added drainage details to plans and these can be viewed for thousands of properties.  They have some 7,000 digitised images which can be accessed via their online catalogue WestCat and cabinets full of microfiche and an extensive library.

We first visited the busy Conservation Studio, where work was underway cleaning old maps delicately with special rubbers, carefully removing crumbling mounts and remounting on handmade Japaneese acid-free paper.  The Studio and volunteers had just finished restoring what is the largest public collection of Victorian West End theatre programmes.

Then we were treated to a special selection of Thorney Island material in the Search Room.  Maps, watercolours, etchings, books, photographs and plans.  What a treat and we spent a good amount of time studying closely these fascinating items.  We finished our tour in the Strong Rooms and were shown the oldest item in the Archives, a Henry III Charter of 1256, granting "...the Abbey of Westminster a weekly market every Monday in Tothill, and an annual fair for 3 days...". 

Many thanks to the staff of the Archives for their time, enthusiasm, knowledge and this very special tour.

Letters Patent under the Great Seal of Henry III 1256

Millbank Street before Victoria Tower Gardens c1863

Faithhorne Map 1658

Bomb damage to Old Pye Street and St Matthew's Street 1940

Grant of Arms to the City of Westminster 1601

View of Millbank and Vauxhall Bridge from the Horseferry on the Lambeth shore

Tour of Westminster Archives - June 2018


We had an enjoyable visit to the handsome Institution of Civil Engineers at 1 Great George Street. This year they are celebrating the two hundredth anniversary of their founding, by eight civil (as opposed to military) engineers at Kendall’s coffee house in Fleet Street. As the Institution grew they moved premises several times. The last move, which was caused by the demolition of their building for the construction of the present Treasury Building, was across Great George Street, where the present stone-clad building was completed in 1913, incorporating the very fine wooden panelling from their old headquarters, only finished in 1986.

We were lucky to be able to see all the ground floor rooms, in which the earlier panelling was installed. These are often used for conferences, and are each called after a distinguished early engineer and feature many portraits of past presidents – there were many familiar names: Brunel, Stephenson and Telford among them. We then proceeded up the magnificent stairs to the first floor, where there is a lecture theatre and a very sumptuous reception room, previously used for engineering examinations and their annual ball, as well as the old library in which the Institution puts on exhibitions open to the public. We were also taken upstairs to their excellent modern library, which is much used by their 90,000 members.

On the way the portrait of a past president was pointed out: Mr Brodie, who was president from 1920 to 21 and solved the problem of disputes over whether football goals had been scored or not, by proposing the attachment of nets to the back of goals! A good example of the wide-ranging problem-solving that engineers are trained for.

The main entrance, staircase and exhibition room are open to the general public, Monday to Friday and are well worth a visit, especially to view their bi-centenial "Invisible Superheroes" exhibition. 



Walking through Saint James’s Park will never be quite the same again after an illuminating session with Royal Parks Arboriculturist Greg Packman who extolled the secrets of many trees we have been walking past for years without really noticing. 

He started off with a Judas tree near the war memorial in front of Horse Guards Parade. It is a lovely looking tree with beautiful crimson flowers and we were amazed to learn that botanically it is part of the Pea family and in Asia is pollinated by bats.

Next, a bit further down in front of Duck Island was the sprawling Medlar which arrived with the Romans. It looks as though it is hundreds of years old but turns out to be as young as 60 years. It looks as though it is on its last legs but there is a younger one nearby if anything happens to it.

Among other specimens which stood out were a Caucasian Wing Nut tree. Its leaves make you think it is an Ash but actually it’s a member of the Walnut family. We were intrigued by the Weeping Beech on the southern side of the bridge by the lake which is only weeping because of a past mutation or graft. If you planted seeds from it they would grow up straight but any cuttings would produce a similar Weeping Beech.
We were delighted that a maximum of 21 people attended and we are very grateful to Greg who has kindly offered to do further walks for us in future. One option would be The Green Park which he says is much more interesting than it seems at first sight. We will look forward to that and, hopefully, many other walks in future.
In the shade of a Weeping Beech