Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Somerset House in London

I have been past Somerset House in London hundreds of times and yet I know very little about the place. In fact all I know is that it used to house the records of Births, Deaths and Marriages and the general public could go there to access the records. The General Register Office where those records were kept moved out of Somerset House in 1970, having been there since 1836. The only other thing I knew is that in winter there is a public ice skating area in the fountain court; I went along one year, not to skate but just to watch.

Edmond J. Safra Fountain Court -

Very recently I learnt that Somerset House used to be a palace for 3 queens. I also found out there are free tours available. I went along for a tour, only to find there was no guide that day, but I was given a self guided leaflet.

See the official site for the complete history and old photos and pictures. Here is a short history -
1547 Edward Seymour, Lord Protector and Duke of Somerset, started building a palace for himself on the banks of the Thames. He was executed at the Tower of London 5 years later and ownership of the almost completed palace passed to the Crown. The palace was actually closer to the Thames than the present building.

Princess Elizabeth moved to Somerset House in 1553 and lived there until she was crowned Queen Elizabeth I in 1558.

3 queens then lived in the palace -

1. Anne of Denmark, wife of James I of England (James VI of Scotland). During her time the house was renamed Denmark House in her honour. The Treaty of London which ended the 19-year Anglo-Spanish War, was negotiated and signed at Denmark House in 1604. The famous architect Inigo Jones redesigned parts of the building for Anne, until she died in 1619. Inigo Jones died in the house in 1652.

2. The next queen to live there was Henrietta Maria of France, wife of King Charles I. In the 1640s the house was taken over as the headquarters for the Parliamentary Army during the the English Civil War. The war ended in 1649 and Charles I was executed. Charles II was crowned king and his mother, Henrietta Maria returned to Denmark House in 1660. In 1665 when the Plague raced through London, Henrietta Maria moved back to France where she died in 1669. A year after the plague, in 1666 the Great Fire of London destroyed much of the City of London, but stopped just short of Denmark House.

3. The last royal to live in the house was Catherine of Braganza, wife of Charles II. She stayed there until 1693 and during that time, Sir Christopher Wren was responsible for more construction and renovation work.

That was the end of the royals. From the 1700s Somerset House was used as offices, apartments, stables etc. In 1779 The Royal Academy of Arts moved into the North Wing, followed by the Society of Antiquaries a year later. The south, east and west wings were then added. The Navy Board and Stamp Office moved in. The latter taxed newspapers and printed documents. The new Somerset House was complete by 1801.

The Royal Academy and Royal Society both moved out later, also the Admiralty, and the Inland Revenue moved in.

In recent decades The Courtauld Institute of Art moved in, and by 2000 the river terrace was open, and the first ice rink was made. The place has been used for London fashion week and other art groups. The Inland Revenue, now known as HMRC moved out in 2011.

Today Somerset House is used as an arts centre.

Looking from the North Wing towards the South and the West (right) wing. The King George III statue is hidden behind the lamp post, and Father Thames sits below the king.

The West Wing -

Looking towards the North Wing and The Strand entrance -

Entrance to the South Wing and Seamen's Hall -

The Seamen's Hall was the entry to the Navy Office. The Nelson Stairs led up to the Navy area and were frequently used by the Nelson brothers. The stairs were restored after bomb damage in 1940 -

Looking at the entrance to the South Wing from the Victoria Embankment terrace -

Maybe next time I go to Somerset House will be in the winter to watch the ice skating again.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Gulls moving to the city

For years now, it has been common to see gulls in London and in many other towns and cities in England. Commonly, but wrongly known as seagulls, these birds should, as the name suggests, live by the sea. So I was interested to read a recent article on BBC website, 'have seagulls abandoned the sea'.

There are gulls all over London, especially in the centre. One vivid memory is arriving at Heathrow airport early morning in 2009, taking the underground to Leicester Square and as I came out of the station at 7 am I could hear and see lots of gulls flying around. There seem to be more in the city than in the suburbs.

The most common gull is the herring gull. It has a snowy white head and body with grey wings and a yellowish beak. I don't seem to have any photos of gulls in London. Herring gull at Canterbury :

There are still gulls at Brighton. On the pier, they hang out by the fish and chips cafes and other eating places

In the town, they cool off in the fountain

A gull in Portugal,

In Canada

And in Alesund, Norway

Read more on BBC Magazine 2012 "Who What Why: Why are there so many seagulls in cities?" and ITV News 2016 "Seagulls causing north London residents' lives hell".

Some towns are now using birds of prey to try and tackle the seagull problem, especially where seagulls "attack" humans for food, e.g. people who come out of chip shops and the gulls attack. See Yorkshire Post 'Birds of prey to tackle Yorkshire coast's problem gulls'. Plymouth and Bath also use birds of prey. In Bath, people want the gulls culls as the gulls carry harmful bacteria.

Looks like gulls are taking over!!!


Shortly after posting this blog, I went to the Tower of London. The Tower is quite well known for the ravens that live there, there is a rumour that if they ever leave, the Tower and the country will 'fall'. Consequently the ravens are well looked after. So I was amused to see a solitary gull eating some meat that was put out for the ravens. As there was only one, I wonder if they normally get chased away.

2nd UPDATE -

BBC Blog Springwatch 26 July 2017 has an interesting article, There's no such thing as a "sea gull". It says that Britain has six of the world's 50 species of gull :
herring gulls
lesser black-backed gulls
great black-backed gulls
black-headed gulls
common gulls

And it is the herring gull that is most common and are now drawn to our towns and cities due to an abundance of nesting sites and food and relative lack of predators.