Friday, 7 January 2011

Beamer, Mayblush, Ragsail, Nersha

My name is Sam Redlark. I am a carrier of the LonB gene which enables me to perceive parts of London that exist outside of the normal human sensory range. This blog is an account of the Capital as I experience it. I hope that my writing here will encourage those who find themselves in London, whether it is as a visitor, or as a resident, to seek a deeper appreciation of their surroundings. You don’t need to be a LonB carrier to experience the best of the city. All you need to do is open your senses to what is around you.

Beamer, Mayblush, Ragsail, Nersha


Over the Christmas holidays something made me take Whybrow’s Weather Systems of London down from the shelf.  A strange book; the core text was published by an amateur meteorologist - George Whybrow - in 1864 and was supplemented over a century later by one of his descendents – the literary agent Martin Whybrow. My copy is a hardbound, first edition of the 1984 version.

The book fell open naturally a few pages into a chapter describing the four winds of London. A shallow rectangular depression marked the top of the pages, where a bookmark had lain long enough to put down foundations. I sat with it resting on my lap and read the words of Whybrow Senior:

“Beamer blows from the north, stirring the dormant embers in the fire piles of Highgate and Hampstead  – the mounds of ash that fortify the heathland. Its bite is a reminder to all Londoners to guard themselves from the impending snows. In November the rekindled fires are carried down into the city to mark the onset of the metropolitan winter, when every household is advised to keep an extra flame against the cold.”

Underneath this fanciful passage there is a short piece by Martin Whybrow recounting the time when, aged 12, he was taken by his father to see the Beamer flame on the final stage of its journey through the city to The Guildhall. Here it is used to light a beacon whose ignition signifies the beginning of winter in the capital.  

After the lighting ceremony was over, Whybrow was taken to a pub across the road where he was given a Lemon Terry – a warming alcoholic cocktail, which he described as a syrupy yellow cough medicine in a martini glass. He awoke the following morning with Chicken Pox and claims the incident left him with a life-long aversion to alcohol.


A couple of days later I was standing on one side of a pedestrian crossing with Brian Borrie. We were waiting for the lights to change so that we could cross over Kensington High Street to Holland Park. A violently burst water pipe had flooded a small section of the road in front of us, obliterating the parallel double-yellow lines and showering the pavement with crumbs of black and yellow tarmac.

Along with Emma Priestnell, and myself, Brian is a co-founder of the London B Foundation. He is a carrier of the LonB gene in its rare accented form. People without the gene have difficulty seeing him. He is constantly having to sidestep oncoming pedestrians – a process made more awkward and ungainly by his vertigous height. Shoppers will often inadvertently push in front of him in queues and he finds it impossible to get served in crowded pubs.  

Brian’s condition is progressive. Like others before him, he will slowly fade from plain sight, slipping away into the dimension where the phantoms of London B enjoy a more tangible existence. Eventually even fellow carriers like Emma and myself will be unable to see him. He claims to have already been approached by people who have passed-over - A process that he likens to western attempts at contacting isolated tribes in remote jungle areas: 

“They leave me things – gifts I suppose. My house is filling up with objects that I can’t quite see or interact with. I know that they’re there but I can’t put my hands on them. It’s difficult to explain...”

Brian’s accented gene allows him to perceive far more of London b than Emma and I can.

“I see a lot of UFOs,” he once told me. 

We were eating breakfast in a workman’s cafe on Hester Road in Battersea. A woman in a business suit who was typing on a laptop on the next table glanced over her flat screen at the pair of us.

“Aliens?” I enquired, swallowing a greasy mouthful of fried egg.

“I don’t think they’re aliens. They’re more like... vestiges of living things in the process of leaving our dimension. They’re not really here anymore – they’re out-evolving to another plane of existence. The same place where I’ll probably end up.” 


At the pedestrian crossing the traffic lights changed bringing the conveyor belt of morning rush hour traffic to a halt behind a maroon taxi cab. We crossed over the road and entered Holland Park, following a broad tarmac path with tall trees and wooden benches on either side. A faint drizzle hung in the air. The shiny, wet brown leaves, curled over in the grass verges, trembled in the light breeze.

“How are things?” asked Brian.

“My liver functions are abnormal again. The doctor advised me to consider gene repression therapy.”

“We’re chalk and cheese the pair of us. Your immune system doesn’t recognise the LonB gene as being part of you. Mine is more than happy to look the other way.”

“So in my position would you do it?”

“The gene therapy? Given that you’ll probably die if you don’t, I think that it’s worth considering.”

“I wouldn’t be able to see you anymore.”

“As you point out, there are no end to the benefits.”

A low brown-brick wall to the left of us came to an abrupt end, giving way to an expanse of green parkland. In the distance we spotted Emma standing amidst an island of bulging supermarket carrier bags. Behind her lay Compass Pond, bordered at regular intervals by a quartet of copper-green trumpet sculptures on stone plinths. Small groups of tourists were milling around taking photographs and studying guidebooks. She waved at us as we left the main path and joined a narrower stretch of tarmac that cut across the parkland towards her.

“Hello you two!”

As she embraced Brian it occurred to me that this was probably the only close human contact he has anymore.

“I’ve picked up your shopping,” she said. “I got everything apart from the organic bananas.”

“Thanks. I’ll pay you,” he replied, reaching into the inside pocket of his suit jacket and retrieving his wallet.

When we agreed to meet here for one of Brian’s informal history lessons on London, I realised that even though I had walked past Holland Park on numerous occasions I had never been inside. While the pair were settling-up I studied our surroundings:

The pond was perfectly circular and about 40 feet in diameter, with the points of the compass marked out in brass inlays around its circumference. An armada of paper boats had congregated in the east, where some had run aground on the gentle slope down to the water. The pale, algae-dusted wrecks of previous voyages papered the bottom.

At each of the four principle compass points there was a marble plinth decorated with carvings depicting, respectively, scenes from a zoo, a day at the seaside, a fairground, and a parade of shops. The plinths were topped with green copper trumpets like the horns on a gramophone player, their flowering openings oriented away from the pond. At the base of the marble blocks there was a small archway connecting to a dry stone gully that ran down to the waters edge. I knelt down beside the nearest one and felt a steady current of air being funnelled towards the pond, where it spread bands of semi-circular ripples across the surface.
 “I know this is a formality but we’ll do it anyway,” said Brian regarding the paper boats that were shoaled together on the eastern side of the pond. 

He plucked an origami sail boat from the breast pocket of his suit, pushing his fingers inside sections of the model to make it three dimensional. When he judged it seaworthy he bent over and placed it on the surface facing west. Immediately the breeze tugged the small vessel around a full 180 degrees, after which it set off on a steady slanting course across the water until it had joined the other boats.  

“Nersha has it,” he said.

“These scenes on the plinths,” I said. “They’re aspects of London life. I mean that one’s obviously London Zoo - You can see the aviary...”

“They were intended as suggestions as to what one should do at the weekends depending on the direction of the wind. People used to take them very much to heart. London zoo would do a roaring trade whenever the Ragsail was blowing. They were all paid for by private money. Effectively they’re a very permanent form of advertising.”

“The fairground – where would that have been?” queried Emma.

“It was to the south of here, across the river in Clapham. It was quite a large area with semi-permanent structures – tents and a small menagerie. A lot of circuses used to winter there. They turned it into an airfield during World War II. When the war was over the owners sold the land and they put houses on it. The same old story really.”

“There was a nursery rhyme too wasn’t there?” said Emma. “I remember one of my grandmothers singing it to me.” 

“That was a slightly different thing. It dates back to the 1600s. I can’t remember how it goes now. There was something about hanging out your laundry when the Nersha blows.” 

“I thought Mayblush was laundry day.”

“The trouble is that there were many local variations, as well as few more risqué versions.”

The segmented metal band of Brian’s wrist watch slipped down from under the pink cuff of his shirt, so that it covered the top part of his hand. He paused while he pushed it back into place. 

“It’s difficult to overstate thing how popular Compass Ponds like this were. In the 1920s and 30s they were all the rage. If you had a garden, the chances are that you would have your own miniature version of this. Periodically they come back into vogue. I saw an article about them in The Guardian a few years ago. The thing is that a lot of people probably have them in their gardens but don’t have a clue as to their original purpose.”

“Which was mainly ornamental,” I said.

“Well yes, admittedly.”

“So is this the original?” said Emma.

“The earliest surviving example is an Elizabethan zodiac wheel in Clerkenwell. It was a bit different to this; it’s actually described in writing from the time as a Rain Dial. Fortune tellers used to consult it. There was one lady called Edna Westwick who used it to predict the date of the great fire of London, 40 years before it happened. A  Catholic school owns the property now. They’re not too happy about having an occult artefact in the playground and were very on getting rid of it. They even said they’d pay to have it moved. In the end they were told they couldn’t, so they covered it over with wooden decking.”

A dark haired girl in her early twenties, holding a guidebook and wearing a bulky grey and pink backpack approached us.  

“Excuse me,” she said, addressing Brian in what I took to be a Swedish accent. “What is this?”

 “It’s a compass pond. It tells you which way the wind is blowing. You see these paper boats...”

“It’s very old?”

“Its fairly old. I would say about 120 years.” 

“In the guidebook it says 100 maybe?”

“Oh well, there you go.”

The girl regarded Brian for a moment.

“You are almost not here,” she said. “It is like you are a ghost but solid. It is very strange.”


“Mayblush gusts from the east, reddening the apples in the orchards of Plaistow. The swaying heads of the Harebells, that rise-up in the shadows of the boughs, warn of oncoming storms. In the livestock markets at Barking the grooms take their Stable Lyres down from the rusting hangnails to calm the horses. Down by the docks they call it a ‘Whinnying Sipper’ because of the noise it makes, like a panicked mare, as it moves between the strings of tugboats.

“In Autumn, when the Hagshead Moth eclipses the porch lantern and the Hymnal Bug hangs humbly from its sackcloth cocoon, it stirs the brambles that climb the trunks, husking the sooty fruit on the common land beside the railway tracks”. 

~ George Whybrow

“My father used to bring me here,” said Brian gesturing in the direction of the pond. “His surgery was on the second floor of one of the Georgian terraces on Palace Gate, opposite Kensington Gardens. 

“I would go there after school and do my homework in the waiting room. His secretary was a spinsterish woman in her 50s called Miss Bearman. She would grudgingly clear one corner of her desk, next to the telephone, so that I had some space to work on.

“There were a couple of days each week when my father would hold evening consultations. I preferred those because Miss Bearman would leave at five. Then I would have her desk to myself and I could spread my books out on it.

“On those evenings it wasn’t practical to get the train home so we would stay overnight in the surgery. There was a small alcove in the hallway, which was actually an under-the-stairs cupboard with the door taken off. You could still see the hinges. There was a foldaway bed inside it. I would sleep on that with my head in the alcove and my legs protruding out into the corridor. My father would either fall asleep at his desk, or he would lie down on the examination couch in his office.

“In the morning we would wash in the sink. He would iron my uniform. Then he would walk me to school. We would always leave very early. Often it was still dark. On our way we would stop and have breakfast at a cafe which used to over there, where those young ladies are standing.”

He pointed to a pair of women with pushchairs who had paused to talk on a barren expanse of crazy-paving adjacent to the footpath.

“It was a wooden building like a crooked Tudor house, although I don’t expect it was that old. I recall that it had a stove chimney, with a little conical lid, poking out through the timber roof. I think that may have been its undoing in the end because it burned down. My father had some kind of business arrangement with the Jewish brothers who ran the place because we never paid for our meals there. I remember it being very popular with taxi drivers.”  

“You went to Saint Dominic’s didn’t you?” said Emma.

“For my sins.”

“So what house were you in?”

“I was House Captain of Nersha in my year.”   

“I was in Beamer. Sam, I went to Saint Dominic’s sister school Saint Felicity’s.”

“Unless I’m very much mistaken you were head girl,” commented Brian.

“Yes, well one doesn’t like to boast.”   

“They didn’t have houses or team points at our school,” I said. “I think the teachers came to the conclusion that there was enough violence and division already without encouraging any more rivalry.”


“Ragsail – the turmoil of the south – breaker of anchor chains on the river Thames - turns the big ships around on their moorings. Pokes and prods the Rat Hawks, borne aloft on the beery thermals of the twin chimney stacks at Yareham’s brewery. In the bleary ether of a grey London morning it stirs life into the wind looms on Mitcham common: Wooden skeletons, their autonomous clacking, trailing yards of Streatham Rag like grey banners.”

~ George Whybrow

“The Ragsail blew for the last time at some point in the mid 1930s. It was during this decade that urbanisation in the southernmost part of the city altered the topography to such a degree that the wind was effectively rendered extinct. The south wind that blows through London today is an interloper that creeps in across the borders of Sussex and Kent.

“Streatham Rag was a low quality cloth that is still used to this day to make cheap suits and school uniforms.”

~ Martin Whybrow

From somewhere nearby we could hear the muffled, repetitive electronic beep of an alarm clock. A short distance from us the Swedish tourist began unpacking her rucksack, rifling through layers of dirty clothes and screwed-up plastic bags from different European countries, the stifled beeping growing louder as she neared its source.

 “The factories,” said Brian “by which I mean the big mills, were all oriented to catch the wind although very few managed to do it effectively. The most successful was the Templeman Mill in Isleworth. When the Ragsail blew the machinery would more or less operate itself and they would immediately lay-off half the workforce.”

“The football clubs used to do a similar thing,” I said. “Fulham won an awful lot of games through their strategic manipulation of the wind.”  

“Well there was a time when every football club in the city would have one of the four winds displayed very prominently on their crest. The pitches would be oriented so that the wind blew from the home end towards the away stand. The architecture of the stadiums was designed to channel the airflow in that direction and amplify the effect. When the teams changed ends at halftime they would shut-off the valves and close the doors so that their opponents wouldn’t have the same advantage. They’re not allowed to do it anymore. As you rightly said, Fulham had a very well designed stadium...”


“Nersha rises in the west, born of flea marsh, lamb fen and leaf thrash. Fickle, by turns a brash monsoon – the barnstorming onrush from Hounslow - or sunlit whisper that stirs the pinwheels in the gardens of Mervish Court and whitens the sheeny hulls of Thames tugboats with salt dust from the mainland.”

~ George Whybrow

“The Nersha has the dubious honour of being the official corporate mascot of the London Sewerage Company. It is commemorated by a seashell mosaic depicting a merman, which can be seen above the enamelled outflow of the Redless Sewerage Treatment Works in Twickenham.”

~ Martin Whybrow

The wind had picked up, stirring the paper boats which shuddered against each other as if sensing an oncoming storm. A sudden gust prised the collar of Brian’s shirt from underneath his jacket, so that the tip grazed against his cheek.

“Now this is what a farmer would call a north-westerly winnow,” he said. “A threshing wind.”

To the east, the broken arc of a rainbow dipped down over the city.

“It’s raining somewhere,” I said.

“Blackheath, maybe,” mused Brian as he gathered his shopping bags, distributing their collective weight evenly between both hands.

Shortly afterwards the three of us departed from Compass Pond, each going their own way. One of us was in perfect balance, while two were wildly off-kilter.

Emma Priestnell strode confidently north, to the boutiques and cafes of Hampstead.

Brian Borrie went west to Chiswick. I watched him go, meandering between the other pedestrians who were mostly oblivious to his presence. After a while even I could not see him anymore.

I dawdled around Holland Park for a further ten minutes, before setting off on a long foot journey east. 

For a while the rainbow seemed to be embedded in the spire of a distant church. Later, when I joined the Thames embankment, it alighted periodically on one of a slow moving procession of buses that were crawling across Waterloo Bridge. By the time I had reached Tower Bridge it was a faint multi-coloured smudge, gnawed away by low cloud, arcing wanly over Greenwich.

I turned my back on it and headed for home.

NEXT... The Pigeon Pilgrimage