A Wander Through Wartime London

Pen & Sword, £12.99

The first thing to note about this book is that, for sundry technical reasaons, although the authors are listed as Clive Harris and Neil Bright, much of the  reasearch for this book of walks. or at least for the Greenwich and Blackheath one, was done by none other than our very own Stephen of Blitzwalkers, who knows our area and its bombed-out years better than pretty much anyone. 

The book’s made up of five walks, three of which are south of the river, which shows how transpontine levels of devastation were just as bad, if not worse than some of the dreadful scenes in the East End that are usually wheeled out when the Blitz is mentioned. Actually, this book avoids the East End entirely; but there have already been so many of those walks documented that it’s worth treading a bit of new ground.

Marylebone, Bermondsey, Southwark, Bloomsbury/Holborn and Blackheath/Greenwich are covered and though I had a glimpse through the others, I homed in on the latter for obvious reasons.

Anyone who’s been on one of Stephen’s walks will probably be familiar with much of the material in this book. It starts in Blackheath, and wends its way over to Greenwich town centre via the Paragon and the heath itself, but it’s a nice companion to have if you’ve already done the walk, and carries clear instructions if you haven’t.

I like that it includes little snippets about things you’re passing that don’t really have much to do with the war, they’re just interesting, as well as the nitty gritty stuff about sites of bombs, bunkers, volunteer centres, first-aid posts, gun-slits and anti-missile defences, plus a whole bunch of facts and figures you’d never remember if you were just walking round. 

I particularly like the little anecdotes about incidents that may seem small enough now, but which would have been deadly serious then – like the ‘bomb’ in someone’s front room that turned out to be the nose cone of an anti-aircraft shell – alarming but not actually deadly. Not all the stories have as happy an ending as that one. 

The detail comes thick and fast when it reaches Greenwich; I personally would have liked a few more paragraphs, or even numbers so that I wouldn’t lose my place when walking, though maybe that would be dumbing down a little too much. Similarly, though perfect-bound makes a very handsome volume, perhaps a spiral binding would have made it more practical for walkers (I’m not sure how practical books like this are meant to be, though – are they indended to be taken out by hikers, or enjoyed by the fireside?) 

I cannot fault the sheer amount of detail and the way the style hovers squarely between ‘academic’ and ‘popular’ – it flows well, is a real pleasure to read and it has all manner of little snippets in it I didn’t know. For a second edition, my spectral tongue hangs out to know where all the incredible photos that stud the text were sourced – there are several that are absolutely jaw-dropping, such as the devastation on Weymyss Road and Burney Street, and I was absolutely delighted to see a photo of one of the famous stretcher railings actually in use as a stretcher during the war (John was telling me the other day that as well as the ones in Greenwich High Road, there was also a set of stretcher fences around the local authority flats in Eastney Street that, as a guide he used to point out to visitors – until the council replaced them with boring bog-standard versions, chiz.) I can make a guess as to where these incredible pictures can be found, but it would be good to be sure – perhaps a list at the end of the book would do it. 

All in all, a nice addition to the bookshelf. Hell – I might even try one of the walks outside Greenwich for a bit of a change. Now that’s Phantom approval…

If you’re all fired up for a nice wartime walk, Stephen himself will be conducting the first of this year’s batch on Sunday 6th March. As usual, the meet is outside All Saints Church, Blackheath at 11 a.m. and finishes in Royal Hill near the pubs! They’re holding our prices at last year’s prices, so 2 3/4 hours walk will cost you £7. Details can be found on the Blitzwalkers website above.

the attachments to this post:

a wander through wartime London
a wander through wartime London

7 Comments to “A Wander Through Wartime London”

  1. Ebspig says:

    Yes, can’t recommend the Blackheath/Greenwich Blitzwalk too highly. It even includes info on the bombing of the First World War, which Gre and Bla also suffered.

  2. Nick Martin says:

    Talking about small stories, my mother used to help the Air Raid Wardens in Greenwich (one of whom was her cousin), and her favourite story was about some sort of improvised incendiary device that was dropped in Maze Hill. Apparently this device was a large steel drum that had been filled with waste oil, and it had failed to go off. The steepness of the hill and the slipperyness of the oil made it almost impossible for either vehicles or pedestrians to get up the hill until it was cleared up. I wonder if anyone else recalls this incident, or if it was recorded anywhere ?

  3. The object you describe sounds like an Oil Bomb. These were a crude sort of anti-personnel incendiary bombs – a bit like an early sort of Napalm Bomb. Fortunately, more often than not, they didn’t explode with the sort of result you describe above. Potential date for this incident is 15th September 1940 – oil canisters found near Royal Naval College and Maze Hill area. This is recorded in Greenwich Civil Defence Incident Log.

  4. Nick Martin says:

    That sounds very plausible, Steve. My mother’s cousin documented his life on a site hosted by his son, if you’re interested….


  5. Nick Martin says:

    Ooops…. just noticed that the link may not work – if it doesn’t work, just go to greenseniors.typepad.com and then click on the photo of the chap in the orange shirt, and then scroll down to find his picture again. The link to the download will be below that.

  6. Nick – I’ve read this before and have it downloaded in PDF format. It is an invaluable record of those times. Is your Mum still around to talk about her experiences by any chance? I’m in the very early stages of researching a book on the borough during WW2 and these sort of personal accounts are just what we need.

  7. Nick Martin says:

    I’m sorry, my mum passed away in 1996. Good luck with your book.