Folklore is often stronger than Fact.

Boleyn Castle 01

Green Street House (Boleyn Castle)

Most of us are aware of folklore, enticing tales that pervade through the centuries be they global like the fabled lost cities of El Dorado or Atlantis. National folklore like King Arthur and Camelot, down to local folklore often based on local gossip and false rumour.

 

All such folklore tends to have the common characteristics of whetting peoples appetites of the unknown. At face value they all seem tangible even if  lack of known or credible facts, if any, exist at all. The absence of known facts usually tend to belie the truth of such stories. But so intriguing are some of these myths that individuals have felt compelled to spend their lives attempting to prove them and all without success as far as I am aware.

One such piece of local folklore I have been aware of for many years concerns the former Green Street House in Newham in London, which was subsequently dubbed the Boleyn Castle by locals due to a castellated decorative tower which formed part of the building. Locals believe Anne Boleyn once lived there  despite there being no evidence to show that she ever did. The myth goes on to say the building was festooned with secret tunnels emanating from the site that were used by Henry VIII for the purposes of secret romantic trysts with Anne Boleyn at a time when he was still married to Catherine of Aragon.

It is not quite known when Green Street House was built but there is however a detailed description of the building that was written in the mid-16th century. The building was demolished in 1955 and West Ham Football Club stands on part of its former land hence the name ‘Boleyn’ ground which refers to the club’s football stand.

 

Map 1777 Chapman & Andre - 03Depending on which version of local folklore is being related, the supposed secret tunnels run from Green Street House marked ‘A’ on the 1777 Chapman & Andre map, to either the Black Lion public house in Plaistow marked ‘B’, the Spotted Dog Inn in Upton Lane marked ‘C’ or, Saint Mary Magdalene Church  marked ‘D’.

While it is known the Black Lion Public House does indeed have a bricked up tunnel in its basement, the use of secret ‘Priest Holes’, (hiding places built for Roman Catholic priests during Henry VIII’s reign), cannot be discounted. In each case, digging a tunnel to any of these locations would have been a major feet of engineering and could hardly have been classified as secret. It would also not be unreasonable to question if Henry VIII as King of England would need to make his way from Hampton Court Palace presumably with the large entourage that normally accompanied him, and then clandestinely forage through lengthy dirty tunnels to engage in a secret romantic relationship with Anne Boleyn. I personally think this is most unlikely.

As for the tunnels themselves, Newham rapidly grew from a cluster of rural hamlets after the late 19th century into a heavily populated and industrialised area including London’s largest shipping docks. The earth was repeatedly dug up during building operations and not once is there any recorded evidence of a tunnel being uncovered.

No one who relates the tales of the tunnels has actually seen them, at best it is always some other unknown person that claims to have seen them, or it is a story handed down in the family through the generations. Even if during conversation the lack of any credible evidence is cited, likely local responses are, “You never know, something might still be down there” or, there must be some truth in the rumour otherwise so many people would not know about it.

Either way it tends to show that people are often more inclined to believe in folklore rather than fact.

The Life of a Road

]Every time we leave our homes we travel along them, be it by foot or by public or private transport. We use them for going to work, for travelling home, going shopping or for leisure. Sometimes we pause to admire the architecture of the buildings that line them but all to frequently, we overlook the road itself. Questions of why the road is there in the first place, how it developed or why a given road follows the line that it does? Like arteries, roads provide the vital lifeblood to every country and every community.

Most of our ancient roads started their life as foot tracks, wending their way normally by the easiest geographic route avoiding where possible hills, streams and rivers. With the progression of time and usage these tracks naturally widened into paths and primitive roads. Characteristically settlements began to appear along the lines of roads particularly where two or more roads intersected.

Map 1777 Chapman & Andre-2

1777 map of Essex by Chapman and Andre

The Roman Invasion of Britain brought the first proper road building programme to  Britain. With strategically placed strongholds throughout the country, good connecting roads became essential, being able to bear the weight of chariots, carts and marching legions. With a road network ensuring the rapid movement of troops, it was possible for the Romans to ensure their military governance of Britain.  Roman roads were built in the most direct line possible and the line of these ancient roads still exist in todays road network.

After the Romans left Britain little was done to the road system for hundreds of years but the routes the Romans established between locations continued to exist. Many areas of the country languished in something of a forgotten backwater, well-off the main road system and apart from a few small settlements considered of little worthy use.

One such area stretching north from the banks of the River Thames eventually became the boroughs of West Ham and East Ham before combining into the London Borough of Newham in 1965.

Much of this area to the south was marshland. The northern part of this area was more firmer land but contained little except the main eastern section of the Roman road from London which divided at Stratford. One branch leading into Essex and the Roman settlement at Colchester and the other towards Norfolk and further north, the settlement at Peterborough.

Until the 18th century, London remained a relatively small place consisting of the two separate cities of London and Westminster. This all changed with the advent of the Industrial Revolution when major British cities began to rapidly expand. As they grew so did the need for commerce which in turn meant the demand for more shipping and docks increased. The original London Docks were centred around the River Thames near the Tower of London. As London grew eastwards more docks appeared in the area of Millwall known as the Isle of Dogs. Ships at this time were still under sail and it was said that sailing by tacking to and fro into the wind around the congested river by Greenwich added another day to reach the Port of London.

The eastern growth of London along the River Thames was held in check at the then boundaries of the counties of Middlesex and Essex by the River Lea where no bridge existed. In 1809 an Act of Parliament was passed authorising the building of a bridge across the River Lea and the construction of a new road from the bridge to Barking where there was an ancient abbey.

As can be seen from the 1777 map of Essex by Chapman and Andre, Point A was the location of the new bridge and the roadway to Barking was constructed avoiding as much marshland as possible. The new road to Barking, (The Barking Road), connected with what is now Balaam Street, (point B), leading from the village of Plaistow, to Greengate Street, (Point C)), also leading from Plaistow, to Green Street, (Point D), and then on to the settlement at East Ham, later became High St North, (Point E), and the North Circular Road around London, before going direct to Barking across the River Roding at Point F.

As London continued to grow, the great potential of using the new bridge and road to construct newer and larger docks on the empty land on the north bank of the River Thames quickly became apparent. There were also profits to be made from this venture by shortening by at least a day the time it took ships to sail into the heart of London to unload their goods. Industry was quick to see the potential of the new route too and shipbuilding and industrial works quickly spread and lined the north bank of the Thames which became known as Silvertown.

The first of the new docks, (The Victoria), opened in 1855. This coupled with the burgeoning riverside industries created an insatiable demand for labour and in the area north of the new dock, cheap and often shoddy housing was rapidly built to accommodate the new workforce. This is how the areas of Canning Town and Custom House came into existence.

A new population also creates the need for shops, markets and leisure facilities. It was not long before the Barking Road originally constructed as a linking road, became a major shopping centre along most of its length and the hitherto vacant land between the old Roman Road, (Stratford High Street and Romford Road), and also south of the new Barking Road quickly became a dense housing infill.

To many residents the Barking Road and surrounding areas feel as if they have always been there although in historical terms they are relatively young. The Barking Road I know particularly well as I was based for many years at a local fire station which covered most of it’s length.

As for the future, the well known adage goes, “Nothing is forever”, and that is now starting to prove true for the Barking Road and its environs. Already the effects of gentrification are now being felt in the area of Canning Town with the building of high rise and high price residential apartments.Canning Town once seen as something of a deprived and run down area is now starting to be seen as a desirable living area by the Yuppie generation. Unfortunately as the process of gentrification brings new people and new money to an area, it usually has the effect of displacing existing communities through financial pressures.

It feels as if an existing community with all its social history is but like a grain of sand, soon to be swamped and washed away by the incoming tide of time.

Geoff Martin a long time local resident to the area has created a historical video photo montage of the Barking Road stretching back over one hundred years. It is perhaps one of the few ways of preserving the memories and history of this vibrant area.

It can be seen from the modern Google street map below how even the Barking Road has been by-passed by a newer road from Canning Town Bridge leading to quicker access of the  long vanished wilds of Essex.

I wonder if those Parliamentarians in 1809 could have envisioned what they started when the passed the act for a new Canning Town Bridge?

Map Barking Road -02

Modern map of Newham and the Barking Road Complements of Google Street Maps

Cadbury Castle – Home to King Arthur and Camelot?


Site of King Arthur’s grave, Glastonbury Abbey


I am fortunate to have an unbroken 180 degree vista from my home. One location I can see quite clearly is Cadbury Castle located alongside the picturesque village of South Cadbury. Cadbury Castle is an ancient hill fort with built up earthen ramparts similar to many others in the West Country. Excavations have revealed occupation since Neolithic times until the Roman invasion of England. In  keeping with similar sites, due to ideal military and defensive locations, the Romans took over these sites to aid their governance of England. Following the withdrawal of the Roman occupation, little or no documentation for this site exists until it was mentioned in a letter by John Leland in 1542 while undertaking a survey of England. The letter states that local folklore by villagers mentions King Arthur and Camelot. The site is also on part of what has become known as the Leland Trail, a 28 mile footpath that follows John Leland’s steps between Ham Hill Country Park in Somerset, (another hill fort), and King Alfred’s Tower in Wiltshire which is close to the source of the River Stour and nearby Stourhead.

It is unknown whether a King Arthur existed or not although much legend and myth pervades English folklore. If he did exist, it would have been in the period known as the Dark Ages due to the lack of documentary evidence and knowledge of that period. One of the earliest references to King Arthur is in the nearby Glastonbury Abbey where the supposed body of King Arthur was discovered and re-interred in the knave in 1278 in the presence of King Edward I and Queen Eleanor.

As an aside, many geographical locations take their name from the death cortege of Queen Eleanor when she died in Nottinghamshire. King Edward I transported her body back to London and at every location the cortege stopped for the night, King Edward I later erected an ornate stone cross. These crosses known as the Eleanor Crosses gave rise to such locations as Banbury Cross, Waltham Cross and Charing Cross to name but a few. The Abbey close to Waltham Cross is where King Harold who was killed by Norman invaders at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 is now known to have been secretly buried.

Although King Arthur is supposedly buried at Glastonbury Abbey, it is also thought possible the entire reburial exercise was part of a ruse to attract additional revenue and tourists in the form of Pilgrims.

The excavations at Cadbury Castle certainly revealed the presence of a former Great Hall and local place names like the River Cam which flows close to its base along with nearby villages of Queen Camel and West Camel help to reinforce the local legend of Camel-ot.  Other locations in England most notable Tintagel in Cornwall also lay claim to King Arthur. Whatever the truth, if King Arthur never existed then he certainly would have been invented as a necessity of historical prestige. Most countries of the world have their own King Arthur figures whether actual or mythological. It is however quite nice to sometimes fantasize that King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table in their shining armour once rode past my front door. The only problem with that fantastical notion is my home at that time would have been a wattle and daub hut.

Map picture

Site of Cadbury Castle

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