It slipped my mind to mention this, but over the last year or so I have written a number of reviews for the excellent online theatre magazine Exeunt.

So far I have covered classical experiments, perambulatory music, spoken word and poetry-inspired theatre…

Click here to read the latest, my take on a Spitalfields Festival walking tour, Flow Forms, or check all my reviews here.

Underneath the shimmering steel and glass of Spitalfields Market, East London, two metres below surface level, a small group of urban explorers is gathered in the ruins of a medieval charnel house: a repository for bones that was once attached to the great Priory of St Mary Spital. This subterranean space – intimate enough to be a shrine – is surrounded by thick sandstone walls and the stumps of decorated columns. There is a strong smell of smoke or, maybe, of incense. Fine pebbles underfoot give it the impression of a beach, somewhere that might just vanish on the next tide. You could squeeze a volleyball court in here, I think.


London’s Golgotha

Last night I was letting my eye wander around the late sixteenth century Agas Map (as reproduced by the London Topographical Society in their handsome A to Z of Elizabethan London). I’m pretty familiar with the Agas, but I came across a mysterious feature I’d not noticed before.

See that hill to the right, directly underneath ‘CIVITAS’? It’s identified by Prockter & Taylor of the LTS – and subsequently by the online project MoEML – as Mount Calvary. I’ve never heard of this, or even of a hill being in that location.

Its location, if you believe the map, is between present day Goswell Road and Central Street, just north of the City. I guess you’d call this area Finsbury. If you look carefully, you can make out a windmill on its summit.

Some internet research on this mysterious hill comes up with the Chapel of Mount Calvary without Aldersgate, identified by John Strype in his 1720 updating of John Stow‘s famous 1598 Survey of London. As follows:

There is (at the farthest North Corner of this Suburb) a Windmil, which was sometime by a Tempest of Wind overthrown, and in a Place thereof a Chapel was builded by Queen Katharine (first Wife to Henry the Eighth) who named it the Mount of Calvary, because it was of Christ’s Passion and was in the End of Henry the Eighth pulled down, and a Windmil newly set up as afore.

Calvary, of course, is the Latin name for the hill outside Jerusalem on which Christ was crucified (Wikipedia). Its Aramaic name is Golgotha, meaning Place of the Skull. Its site, at least according to tradition, is underneath the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and is a major pilgrimage destination. Calvary is a common enough name for a church or chapel, especially in the Catholic tradition and especially on hilltop locations, such as the tiny chapel in Pollenca, Majorca.

Climbing to these high Calvary chapels is a form of pilgrimage, tracing Christ’s last journey. On Good Friday, Pollenca becomes a theatre for el Davallament, the Descent from Calvary, when a statue of Christ is carried from the chapel down the Camina del Calvari to the town.

There is evidently no Chapel in our Mount Calvary by the time of the Agas Map, but the name seems to have stuck. Nearby, to the east, lies Finsbury proper, and Bunhill Fields, with its famous nonconformist cemetery (where Blake, Defoe and Bunyan lie). Blake, no doubt, would have loved the London-as-New Jerusalem vibes of Mount Calvary. Bunhill is a corruption of an earlier name, Bone Hill, which appears to have been acquired after the deposition of bones on the fields in 1549 – to make room in St Paul’s charnel house. But it’s also worth noting that Finsbury Circus, to the south-east of our hill, is the site of a Roman burial ground, described by archaeologist Natasha Powers as an ‘odd cemetery’ with its marsh conditions, and its burials in crouched position and decapitated.

So… Bunhill is Bone Hill, and Mount Calvary – the Place of the Skull. This landscape is getting pretty morbid.

The clearest mention of our site I can find is a City of London deed for the block of land between Goswell Road, Seward Street and Central Street which corresponds with our hill (summary here). The deed appears to trace the City’s ownership back to 1530 and states:

Former names of this property were No Man’s Land, The Mount & Windmill Hill, & it was in the parish of St. Giles without Cripplegate up to 1733, & St. Luke [Old Street], Mx thereafter

Now, at least, I have some more names, some more leads.

At the risk of extending beyond the realms of intelligent speculation, I wonder if there might be a connection between our hill and nearby Clerkenwell (bottom-left of the Agas map thumbnail), where it’s known Mystery Plays were performed at the Skinner’s or Clerk’s Well. Perhaps a perambulatory Passion Play of the kind found in medieval York or present-day Pollenca might have culminated in an ascent of Mount Calvary?

My next steps will be to research those alternative names – ‘No Man’s Land’ and ‘The Mount’ – and of course to visit the site. Are there any traces of the hill left, or has it been entirely obliterated by the modern city? Google Streetview certainly thinks so – the skyline is dominated by the high-rise Thistle Barbican hotel, and the area looks flat at best.

If you have any information that can help identify this enigmatic hill, London’s Golgotha, please leave a comment below or email me directly on info (at) pennedinthemargins.co.uk – I’d be most grateful for any help in tracing this strange London locus.


ADDENDA (02.10.12)

Lots of great feedback and ideas on my original post, many via Facebook and Twitter. Thank you all.

Firstly – and I can’t believe I didn’t spot this the first time round – there’s a tiny street called Mount Mills within the bounds of our site (map).

The archaeologist Heather Knight (MOLA) has alerted me to her excavations on Seward Street EC1, from which she identifies the site as a 15th century windmill mound made of dumped rubbish. Her results are published in The Transactions of the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society (59, 2008) which I am going to find and read ASAP.

This webpage has lots of interesting information about burial sites in our area. The author, with some help from Peter Ackroyd’s London, identifies plague pits on Seward Street and Mount Mill.

Finally, Dr Anthony Bale (Birkbeck) runs a fascinating blog about Calvary chapels and late medieval European re-imaginings of Jerusalem.



John Finn, via London Historians, says:

Tom, I can’t add much to your research from the time of the map, but I’d always assumed that in the next century, during the Civil War, it may have been incorporated into the Lines of Communication, the massive earthwork thrown up around London to protect it from possible attack by a Royalist army. The defence work, built by 20,000 Londoners, was strongest on the north side in anticipation that the attack would be from that direction and the biggest works, ramparts and bastions were on the section in Islington, across Goswell Road and St John’s Street. There was a great bastion at Mount Mill alongside Goswell Road, where today, behind the Ivy pub at Seward Street, the road is still called Mount Mill and leads to a slight though visible rising in the ground. After the Royalist danger had passed, the earthwork was torn down by Cromwell afraid that it might be used against the Parliamentarians by City men who were changing sides, as the War began to eat into their fortunes. So that great landmark might have partly disappeared then. I think I read that it was also later a plague pit and a dung hill!

It would certainly explain why what was a significant hill in the fifteenth/sixteenth centuries is no longer visible.

This webpage from English Heritage backs up John’s suggestion:

Fort Number 6 of London’s Civil War defences was located at what is now the land between Goswell Road and Central Street, north of Seward street. According to Lithgow this was the earliest of the defensive works. The common council resolution called for a battery and beastwork, but Lithgow described it as a central, circular redoubt within a lower, outer earthwork of five angles. A description of this fort in 1643 is the only other contemporary account of the defences. Rocque’s map of 1746 shows that three large mounds still remained in 1746, and indicate that the fort had a side 300 metres long. One of the bastions of the fort stood at the junction of Sebastian Street.

Bloody Cromwell…

Belatedly, some words on my departure from London Word Festival

2011 was a frantic, exciting and, ultimately, exhausting year. For a start, I tied the knot with Sarah, my girlfriend since university, over two beautiful days in May (a Muslim nikkah at her family home in North London followed, a week later, by a Roman Catholic wedding at St Etheldreda’s, Ely Place). I then spent an incredible and varied three weeks in North India (ending with a nasty bout of illness), followed by a further month producing a show at the Edinburgh Festival.

But before that, I made the tough decision to resign from my position as Co-Director of London Word Festival.


Last year’s festival was the biggest and most challenging yet – and the fourth since I founded the company with Marie McPartlin and Sam Hawkins in 2007. Looking back, I am extremely proud of the work we put in to all four festivals. It was humbling working with such talented and committed colleagues, and when I think about where we all were at the start and where we are now, it’s clear that we’ve learnt a huge amount.

Some of the events we presented will stick in my mind for years – audio-rigging a medieval tower in the middle of Hackney with Iain Sinclair, for instance, or selling out Cargo for US poetry phenomenon Saul Williams. Not to mention the extra-curricular fun, such as the infamous 2010 “rave” in the leaky Festival shed-cum-office on Boundary Street. There were lows too, of course – mid-gig technical problems, audience complaints (yes there were a couple), endless budget sessions with our old friend Mr Excel, and the time Marie and I had our laptops nicked from Shoreditch Church.

Many of the artists who graced LWF stages have gone on to great things. Inua Ellams, Hannah Silva and 1927 spring to mind. And we were privileged to work with a number of already well-established acts such as Robin Ince, Phill Jupitus, Christian Bok and Josie Long. The vision was always to combine comedians, writers and poets, musicians and theatre makers on one gloriously bonkers programme. We aimed to create fun and engaging events that didn’t patronise audiences, but brought new and established artists from a wide variety of backgrounds together on an accessible if quirky platform. Some of the Festival was very clever. Some of it was downright silly. There was never a  ‘superannuated chef’ (to borrow one journalist’s phrase) in sight at this literary festival. Some of the work we produced was very small and discrete, and some (like Josie Long’s online self-improvement project One Hundred Days) enthrallingly sprawling.

As we developed as festival producers, we began to focus more on commissioning new works that would receive their premiere at the Festival. Chris McCabe’s spoken word play Shad Thames, Broken Wharf was one; folktronica musician Leafcutter John’s Briggflatts Rewired another. Last year, my big project was site-specific murder mystery The Crash – written by a team of four, and performed over three shattering but brilliant days in a mysterious office block in Central London. I made some new friends in the shape of Edinburgh indie mavericks FOUND and their beautiful mechanical wardrobe Cybraphon, and I blackmailed Ross Sutherland into developing an essay he wrote for my book Stress Fractures into a 50 minute documentary.

It was inspiring, too, to see where my co-programmer Marie’s interests were developing – last year she moved the festival’s programme further towards experimental theatre, working closely with Chris Goode, Ant Hampton and others. Each year we would start with a blank sheet of paper and over the course of several months, we’d make hundreds of connections, talk to scores of artists and venues, and finally a programme would emerge. Only once it had been through Sam’s exacting hands (a unique and talented copywriter) did something coherent begin to emerge. At the start we had practically no budget whatsoever and took a laughably small salary, but over the years we were lucky enough to receive the support of both the Arts Council and, through their Breakthrough Award, the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, enabling us to produce higher quality work and ensuring our survival for the short-term at least.


I will miss the Festival and what it represents. According to this message, it won’t be happening this year. But Sam and Marie are carrying on the good work as a pair, and I’m assured (and am sure!) some exciting new projects will emerge before the year’s end.

As for me, I felt my time with the Festival had come to a natural end, my own interests, artistic vision and working practices beginning to diverge from the Festival’s. I have returned to my sole trader status, and am concentrating 100% on Penned in the Margins. You can expect to see, not only a development of my publishing programme, but also events, tours and productions that build upon my time at London Word Festival.

To sign off, here’s some of the work I commissioned for LWF over the last five years. You can explore more at the Festival’s website.





Indy, cover your heart!

Yes, I am involved in co-organising this brilliant and brilliantly silly homage to Indiana Jones – celebrating this year its/his 30th birthday.

It’s Saturday 22 October, from 7pm.

Jazz star Gwyneth Herbert will open the show with a rendition of “Anything Goes” from Temple of Doom, poets including Jack Underwood and Kirsty Irving will perform new Indy-themed work, Richard Sandling will give us some historical VHS context, Siddhartha Bose will do something very dark in the basement, we will restage the giant boulder scene from the start of Raiders and much, much more.

Tickets are a fiver if bought online in advance.

My own contribution is a particularly florid poem which I will perform accompanied by music by Youth Lagoon (thanks Spotify!) and some mashed up clips of Temple of Doom. Fun!

Hope you can be there, dear reader(s).

Honeymoon reading

I got married, then jetted off to India for 3 weeks. Here is my reading.

Josie Saramago, The Gospel according to Jesus Christ *
R.L. Stine, Indiana Jones and the Curse of Horror Island **
Peter Ackroyd, The Clerkenwell Tales
Ian McEwen, Solar
William Dalrymple,
In Xanadu
Rough Guide to Rajastahn, Delhi & Agra

I did aim for more, but considering the final week of the honeymoon was a write-off due to food poisoning, it aint bad going. The McEwen was extraordinary.

* Picked this up in a guesthouse in Tabo, Spiti
** A present from Nathan Penlington, who is currently developing a show about Choose Your Own Adventure stories