The story behind stretcher railings

While researching my previous post on London’s stretcher railings, I found the website of the company that actually made them, a steel fabricators based in the English Midlands which is still going – and, it looks like, busy! – today, called Steelway.

Through that, I found this cutting about how the stretcher railings came about. It was written by a local historian, Dr Carl Chinn, and published by the Wolverhampton Express and Star newspaper in 2010. I thought it might be of interest to stretcher railing fans:

(The link to a pdf version of the story is here: https://www.slideshare.net/steelway1/steelway-article-e-amp-s-280110-carl-chinn )

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Of a Viscount and Valour: A Thames boat trip with an unexpected bonus

This story (page 56)  in Towpath Talk newspaper reminded me about my own trip on a Dunkirk “Little Ship” a few years ago, although it was more by accident than design.

While I was working in London, I and my friend Janet decided it might be fun to take a leisurely “cruise” on the Thames – on a commuter ferry (aka ‘river taxi’).

The service, between Blackfriars Pier (near St Paul’s Cathedral) and Putney, was a tad sporadic – only a couple of trips each way, during the rush hours (and possibly none at all at weekends; I can’t remember).

MV Viscount at Putney

MV Viscount at Putney

On a balmy Friday evening in May 2012 we took one of those trips. The boat was characterful rather than glossy, and it chugged rather than glided along the Thames. Although it looked like there were seats inside, we took ours in the prow.

The journey west took us past familiar landmarks, from the Houses of Parliament to Battersea Power Station; even though we knew (most of) them so well, it was really cool to see them from a new, watery, perspective.

Almost all of our fellow travellers looked like commuters – proper ‘City’ types – and as we basked in the sun with the breeze ruffling our hair, we decided this had to be the coolest way of getting to work in London. The people around us seemed to be enjoying even more of a Friday feeling than us, though – sipping what was clearly alcohol from plastic cups. “Wish we’d thought of that,” we said to each other.

However, just as we were arriving at the last stop, we realised that our fellow passengers weren’t (always) nipping into the cabin to use the toilet, but to use the bar in there! “Drat. Wish we’d known about that,” we said to each other.

Wanting to make the absolute most of our experience, we let all the other passengers get off the boat before us, dawdling around until we were absolutely the last people on there. As we ambled – reluctantly – to the exit, I noticed on the wheelhouse a little brass plaque, almost hidden by a couple of lifebelts. “Dunkirk 1940” it said.

Plaque commemorating that Viscount is Dunkirk little-ship“This wasn’t at Dunkirk, was it?” I asked a member of the crew, completely expecting that it wasn’t; that the plaque meant something else. However, it turned out that the MV Viscount was indeed at Dunkirk, and was one of the “little ships” that so courageously rescued allied servicemen from the notoriously bloody beaches in World War II.

MV-Viscount Thames River taxi wheelhouseThe bloke’s pride in his boat glowed almost as much as the sun (although admittedly by this time said sun was heading towards setting) and he was clearly thrilled that we were so excited to be on his boat, and that we appreciated its history so much. I think Janet was as moved as I was to think about what had happened to and on the Viscount in 1940, and felt as honoured as I did to have travelled on her. Mind you, what kind of history graduates (as we both are) would we be if we’d greeted the revelation with a shoulder shrug “whateva”?

About a year later, we decided to repeat our brilliant boat trip. “Never go back,” as the saying goes – and in this case that proved correct. For we discovered that the Viscount had been usurped by the corporate Thames Clippers.

OK, so the Clipper service was technically ‘better’ in that there were far more boats and journeys were more frequent and faster, but it was the character of the Viscount (and its crew), and its history, that had been so special, so we decided not to bother.

I have taken Thames Clippers since, though. They’re very swish, and comfortable (new catamarans), and efficient, and crewed by staff in posh uniforms. But, well, the fact that the service is sponsored by ‘Big Four’ accountancy firm KPMG and the onboard coffee bars are run by Costa tells you all you need to know about the difference/s between the Thames Clippers and the Viscount.

As, indeed, does a comment I found on a blog or website or something when I was trying to plan our repeat trip. Basically, it concerned the time when London’s public transport system was in chaos because, if I remember rightly, there was a Tube strike. The poster described how the Viscount crew had actually slept on the boat, to make sure they would be there to provide their regular service to commuters during the strike. I wonder if the Thames Clippers crew, pleasant though they have been when I’ve taken the boat, would go above and beyond like that?River taxi MVViscount on Thames

It looks like it is still possible to travel on the Viscount, but it’s now an event boat rather than a river taxi/commuter ferry (although I doubt anyone attending even the wildest of these parties could have even half as much fun as Janet and I had on our river taxi trip!):
https://www.thamespartyboatsltd.co.uk/vessels/index

There’s more information about the general history of the MV Viscount here:
http://simplonpc.co.uk/Mears_Viscount.html

As a “little ship” here: http://www.adls.org.uk/t1/node/627

And some pages about the loss of the service:
https://www.bristows.com/news-and-publications/news/press_releases/bristows-advises-complete-pleasure-boats-on-their-winning-bid-to-operate-blackfriars-river-boat/

And some local blog pages about the closure of the service:

http://www.putneysw15.com/shared/conriverservice001.htm
http://www.putneysw15.com/default.asp?section=info&page=issueboatservice001.htm
http://www.putneysw15.com/default.asp?section=info&page=issueboatservice002.htm

And a “last hurrah”:
https://web.archive.org/web/20130815012937/http://www.thamesexecutivecharters.com/articles/farewell-putney-river-taxi-service-hello-thames-clippers.html
(as it’s on the wayback machine, I hope it’s OK to reproduce it in full here, in case it gets ‘lost’):

Fond Farewell to the Putney River Taxi service – Hello Thames Clippers
Posted on March 28, 2013 by Ann Hayes

Today, Thursday 28 March 2013, sees the very last run of the Thames River Taxi Service. This service has been running for over 10 years offering commuters from the West of London a leisurely alternative to tube, bus and rail.

The service was operated by two companies Thames Executive Charters and Complete Pleasure Boats until January 2012 when Thames Executive Charters had to pull out of the service. The routes were put out to tender and with the support of the family of commuters Ed Langley of Complete Pleasure Boats was granted a temporary licence to run the route, on a reduced timetable during 2012.

From Tuesday 2 April the route will be run by Thames Clippers offering a more frequent service. The service will continue to run Monday to Friday only and during commuter times. Oyster cards will be accepted on board.

So what does this mean? Well the free tea and toast offered on board the Henley and Viscount over the last years will not be on offer. Neither will the crew who knew all commuters by name and offered a “family” atmosphere on board. Nor the regular commuters who knew that their crew would sleep on boats when there were tube and rail strikes to ensure that they got into work to offer a service when other forms of transport couldn’t. Running in snow that stopped everything else and parochial with its form of personalised SMS messages to the regular users explaining if there was a problem with the service.

Gone will be the array of boats that would run up and down the river delivering the service, sometimes commuters not knowing if they would be on a passenger or a party boat until the boats showed.

I for one will be raising my glass to the Viscount and Henley crews, the owners Jane and Ed Langley, and the commuters that have supported, so loyally, the service to date. Progress brings change. However I hope that the new more frequent service brings more users to the river and recognises this amazing way of getting to and from the office!

A historical coup – for a science museum

Cover of booklet about Science Museum The Last tsar Exhibition.

Cover of booklet about the exhibition, featuring Nicholas II, the Tsarevich Alexei and Grand Duchess Tatiana.

Q: WHICH London museum is currently hosting an absolutely cracking exhibition about Nicholas II, the last Tsar of Russia?

A: The Science Museum.

“The Science Museum?”

Yep, the Science Museum.

OK, so I have to ‘fess up here, and admit that I went through something like 80 per cent of the exhibition, The Last Tsar: Blood and Revolution, completely at a loss to what it was doing in the Science Museum.

It was only in the final one-fifth, which covers the discovery, exhumation and identification of the remains of Nicholas and other members of the Imperial family, that the “Science” connection seemed to make sense.

Page on how the remains found at Pig's Meadow were confirmed to be those of the Imperial family.

Page on how the remains found at Pig’s Meadow were confirmed to be those of the Imperial family.

But as I was actually leaving the museum I picked up an information booklet, specifically about the exhibition I’d just seen. From that I learned that its theme is: “the role of medicine in the lives of the Imperial family”.

And then a lot more of the exhibits started to make sense. Such as the lilac maternity dress worn by Nicholas’s wife, the Tsarina Alexandra, when she was pregnant, in the hope of producing a boy to be Nicholas’s heir.

And a section about how the Tsarina and two of her daughters, the Grand Duchesses Tatiana and Olga, volunteered with the Red Cross and earned praise for caring for injured troops during World War I. And the family’s travelling medical chest.

I’m no Romanov expert, but I’ve crossed paths with Nicholas II throughout my life. At primary school, thanks to a reading textbook, I got bewitched by the Fabergé eggs that Nicholas gave to Alexandra each Easter, and the sheer drama of a royal family that had met a mysterious fate (the remains had not been found back then).

At secondary school, the Russian Revolution was part of the History A-Level syllabus, and at university, Russia during WWI featured on the periphery of my (history) degree course.

Photograph of evidence about the murders of the Imperial family collected from the Ipatiev House, where the murders took place.

Photograph of evidence about the murders of the Imperial family collected from the Ipatiev House, where the murders took place.

Two decades ago I visited Yekaterinberg. I went to the site of the Ipatiev House, where the Imperial family had been executed, and Ganina Yama, officially recognised as the unofficial burial place of the Tsar (even though it isn’t). And two years ago, while writing up my visit for this blog, I learned the incredible tale of about how the remains came to be found and identified.

Like I said, all this in no way makes me an authority on the Romanovs, but it did mean that most of the ‘facts’ given in the exhibition were not new to me. Such as the political problems caused when the Tsarina, feeling failed by conventional doctors, turned to spiritual leaders, like Rasputin, for help. And how, when an heir finally came along, the Tsarevich Alexei, he had haemophilia, but this was hushed up, so as not to destabilise the country.

However, I had only ever considered these in terms of “political” history – how they affected the general course of events – before, and never really given much (OK, any) thought to the people involved. Say, how difficult it must have been for this woman who ostensibly had everything, to be beset by ‘health’ (ie, possibly mental health) problems, and how frustrated she must have been to have access to the very best doctors, yet even they were unable to help her.

An x-ray of Empress Alexandra's hand, showing rings and bangles

An x-ray of Empress Alexandra’s hand, made in 1898.

Or, given the upheavals of the early 20th Century for Russia, from the Russo-Japanese war to the unrest and pressure for change at home around the 1905 Revolution, how alarming it would have been for the Tsar to have such a very vulnerable heir.

Not only did the exhibition make me think more deeply about things I already knew, it also taught me something new as well: that there are near-contemporaneous accounts of the investigations into the fate of the Tsar and his family in our (UK) National Archives; expect more on them anon…

And now, despite the best journalist practice, where you’re supposed to get the ‘best’ bits in first (to grab the reader’s attention, and, especially during the glory days of print, so you don’t run out of room before you’ve had chance to include them) I have actually saved what I consider the highlight of the exhibition till last (and when you consider that exhibition includes two Fabergé eggs, that’s really saying something!). What I would possibly describe as the jewel in the crown of this exhibition about the Imperial family.

It is a selection of photographs taken by Herbert Galloway Stewart, English tutor to the Tsar’s nephew. They’re not formal portraits, but the sort of informal snaps that only someone close to the family could take: the children playing in the snow, family boating trips, that kind of thing. Even, if I remember rightly (photography isn’t allowed in the exhibition) Nicholas doing the carpentry that kept him occupied during his months under house arrest between his abdication in March 1917 and death in July 1918.

As far as I can gather, they’ve never been exhibited before, and, according to a post on the Museum website, they actually inspired the exhibition – after they were found in the Museum’s collection by a curator researching another show. It’s a pretty awesome story, and you can read it – and more information about the exhibition, here.

I could be wrong on this, but having read the blog post and the booklet, I’m wondering whether someone at the museum thought: “Hmm, we’ve got this amazing resource [the Stewart photographs]. We really have to use them. Now, how can we contrive something science-y to put them in?”

If that sounds like I’m criticising the museum for, in a way, engineering (‘scuse the pun), an exhibition, I’m sorry, because that’s the last thing I’m thinking; I’m just really grateful to the curator who found the albums, Dr Natalia Sidlina, and everyone else who devised an excuse for making them public.

Considering the amount and quality of the stuff in the room (Fabergé eggs, for goodness sake!) it’s surprising that entry is free. You’re supposed to book tickets in advance, probably so it doesn’t get too crowded. But while I was there, admittedly mid-week and almost closing time, the only visitors other than me were a couple who were munching their way through a family-sized bag of crisps (yes, really!) as they ambled along. I hope it’s busier than that as other times – it so absolutely deserves to be. (It’s so good I am seriously thinking about making another trip to London just to see it again.)

Here’s an interesting footnote: the exhibition is sponsored by JSC Russian Railways, the state railway of Russia. During Soviet times, of course, it was the state that tried to pretty much airbrush out of existence the fate of the former Imperial family – so much so that the people who found the remains had to keep their discovery to themselves until the end of the Soviet era. Now the state is sponsoring a major – and very public – exhibition about their untimely deaths. How times change, eh?

The Last Tsar: Blood and Revolution runs until 24 March. More details and booking info here.

(ps. Go see it! You’ll kick yourself if you don’t!)

Get carried away by a fence that isn’t a fence

Take a look at this…

“Why? It’s just a fence,” you say. “A boring fence. And a pretty battered one at that.”

Ah, but the thing is, this fence had a life before it became a fence, and it’s actually a rarely-recognised relic of World War II London.

For in its first life, this “fence” was a stretcher, and it and hundreds of thousands like it were used by the ARP (Air Raid Protection) officers to carry casualties of the bombing raids of the Blitz.

After the war someone had the bright idea of turning them into fences, sometimes to replace railings removed as part of the war effort (they were supposed to be melted down and made into weapons and materiel).

The stretchers went un-noticed and unappreciated for decades – some were even removed and destroyed – but now a group of people are working to raise the profile of the “stretcher railings”, and to get them protected and preserved.

They’ve set up a website: https://www.stretcherrailings.com/ (which is where I got the picture above from), which has more information about the stretchers in their original form, and the campaign to save them now they are stretcher railings.

After looking around the website, I realise that when I worked in London a few years ago, I must have gone past one particular set of stretcher railings countless times, and thinking back, I do remember seeing – without actually looking at – a “fence” when the bus would get stuck in traffic on that part of the route.

However, having just checked out Streetview, it looks like they’ve been removed, and only in the last couple of years. I’m just so gutted I didn’t know about stretcher railings when I was in London, as it would have been really cool to appreciate them when I went past them.

It’s so wonderful that someone has realised just how important the stretcher railings are, and why they are worth preserving; what a vital part they must have played in saving Londoners’ lives during the War, and what their re-use (upcycling?) tell us about the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the “Waste Not, Want Not” post-War generation.

They might not be your conventional tourist sight like Buckingham Palace or the National Gallery or Covent Garden, but next time I’m in London, seeking out some stretcher railings will be top of my list of things to do.

My visit to Ganina Yama, Romanov burial site, Yekaterinburg

November 2001

“That’s where the Tsar was buried,” K had told me.

“That” was a simple wooden Russian Orthodox cross set among snow-sprinkled trees. It was late 2001 and K and I were on the outskirts of Yekaterinburg, the city notorious as the place where Tsar Nicholas II and almost his entire family were wiped out during the Bolshevik Revolution.

Simple wooden cross in the trees, marking the site of Ganina Yama.

Ganina Yama, or ‘Ganya’s Pit’, in November 2001. Just visible through the trees, between the cross and the tree with the plaque is the pale outline of a simple building that could be the beginnings of the monastery built to commemorate the murdered Romanovs.

I took a picture of the cross but I didn’t find out where it actually was. So nearly 15 years later it was still uncaptioned in the album. If I was going to do a proper job of writing up this trip, I decided, I really should find out where that picture was taken. I did, but I found out, too, a little about how Russia has changed in that decade and a half.

I started by doing an internet search for the burial place of Nicholas II. The top result was Ganina Yama, or “Ganya’s Pit”. There were lots of pictures, and countless reviews on the likes of TripAdvisor. But that couldn’t be the place where my photograph was taken. Sure, there was a plain wooden cross, a slightly different style to ‘mine’, but seeing as wood rots it could easily be a replacement for the one in my picture. However, everything else was different too. Behind the cross in my photograph there is a low metal fence and beyond that, under the snow, what appears to be a depression in the earth. Around that are some slender trees, and just visible through them a shadow of what could be a largish building. There are no people in the picture because there was no one else there with us, nor did we see anyone on the road leading to the burial place.

There were lots of people in the pictures of Ganina Yama, though, lots and lots of people. There were some trees around the cross, but far fewer than in my photograph. There was also a depression, clearly visible, but running round the edge of it was a covered walkway, a rather substantial, obviously permanent structure. There were pictures, too, of the seven churches at Ganina Yama, one church for each murdered member of the Imperial family, who were canonised as saints by the Orthodox Church in exile in 1981.

Nah, no way was that the place I had been to. So I (pardon the pun) dug a little deeper. I learned that, while the Orthodox Church still officially regards Ganina Yama as the place where the bodies of the Tsar and the people murdered with him were dumped and burned to nothing, it has now been established that this wasn’t the case. The remains, of the Tsar, members of his family and a couple of retainers, were indeed deposited at Ganina Yama within hours of the killings, but they were not cremated there. (Attempts may have been made, but burning 11 bodies to ash is almost impossible, especially in a wood in the middle of nowhere and without fuel to aid the blaze along.)

Within less than a day it was decided that Ganina Yama was just too public, too easy for the people of Yekaterinburg to find, so the bodies were moved to a place just a couple of miles away but less obvious, called “Pig’s Meadow” or “Piglet’s Meadow”. This fact was established in the mid-late 1970s by three local researchers, but they kept their discovery secret until the Soviet Union had collapsed and the political climate changed. The site was subsequently excavated and the remains comprehensively tested to confirm their identities. In 1998 the bones of the Imperial family members were re-interred at St Peter and Paul Fortress in St Petersburg, in a formal and very public ceremony. However, senior clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church boycotted the event, as the Church was still insisting that the Romanov bodies had been burned to dust at Ganina Yama.

So, it must have been Pig’s Meadow that K had taken me to. But while there were countless pictures of Ganina Yama, there were hardly any of Pig’s Meadow, and most of what few there were dated from around the time of the killings and the first investigation into the fate of the Tsar. Eventually, though, I unearthed some modern(ish) pictures of Pig’s Meadow. The only marker was a simple cross, but in some kind of black stone. The immediate area was bare of trees – and any possible depression in the earth – and bore no trace of any fence, present or past. Plus, the topography was nothing like that in my picture, unlike that of Ganina Yama.

After a lot more searching, I found an article on a Russian Orthodox Church news website. It was about the then-Patriarch visiting Ganina Yama in October 2000 (ie a little over a year before my trip to Yekaterinburg) to give his blessing to the foundation of a monastery to honour the “Holy Royal Martyrs”. Apart from all the people on it, the cross and the setting looked just like those in my picture.

September 2000: Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexei II blesses foundation of the monastery at Ganina Yama, surrounded by scores of people.

September 2000: Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexei II blesses foundation of the monastery at Ganina Yama. Spot the difference between this cross and the one in my pic? You won’t – there isn’t one!

So my photo had been taken at Ganina Yama after all! Yet a decade and a half after I was there the place was all but unrecognisable.

It’s almost impossible to comprehend the change in attitudes towards the Romanovs in Russia over just, say, 25 years. For decades the mere existence of the Imperial family was such a sensitive subject that it was only in 1989/1990 that the discoverers of the remains in Pig’s Meadow had felt safe enough to report their discovery to the authorities in Moscow. Yet now, in 2015/16, Ganina Yama is an officially-recognised, openly-visited, substantial shrine to them. (Even if the bodies were only buried there for a matter of hours – despite the official Orthodox Church line.)

Of course it wasn’t just the Romanovs that the Soviets had a problem with – they weren’t too keen on the Church either, seeing it as a challenge to the ethos and authority of Communism. Put it this way, there’s a reason why the Romanovs were canonised by the Russian Orthodox Church “in exile”. Now, though, in the 20-teens, Vladimir Putin is bezzie mates with the Russian Orthodox Patriarch, and tourists are posting selfies from the churches of Ganina Yama.

If you’re interested, the potted history of how the bodies came to be in Ganina Yama and Pig’s Meadow in the first place goes something like this:

At the time of the killings, in mid-1918, Russia was in the throes of what amounted to a civil war. The main protagonists were the Bolsheviks, or ‘Red Russians’, and the ‘White Russians’, who wanted change in Russia, but nothing as drastic as that sought by the Bolsheviks (some White Russians were actually monarchists). The Tsar abdicated in March 1917 and he and his family were taken into custody by the Bolsheviks. After several months the family was moved to Yekaterinburg. By July 1918 White forces were closing in on the city, and the Bolshevik leaders decided that rather than risk having the Tsar and his family ‘rescued’ by the White army, they should be disposed of. Which is what happened in the cellar of the Ipatiev House on 17 July. Within days the White forces had taken Yekaterinburg, and a magistrate, Nikolai Sokolov, was tasked with establishing what had happened to the Romanovs. Just a few months later, though, the Bolsheviks re-took Yekaterinburg and Sokolov was forced to flee – but not before he had amassed a whole heap of evidence, which he managed to get out of Russia before he left the country in 1920. Although Sokolov never actually found physical proof of the fate of the Romanovs, the earlier story about the remains being totally destroyed at Ganina Yama stuck and no one sought to question it – especially as even mentioning the deaths would probably have led to a trip to a Gulag during Soviet times.

Despite the dangers, in the 1970s two local geologists, Alexander Avdonin and Michael Kochurov, and a filmmaker, Geli Ryabov, and their wives, set out to establish once and for all what had happened to the Imperial remains. Using the material Sokolov had gathered during his investigation, and a contemporaneous account of the murder and subsequent disposal of the bodies, they eventually located the real burial site – Pig’s Meadow.

(In 2007, two other sets of remains were uncovered in Pig’s Meadow. Tests confirmed that they are of the missing children, the Tsarevitch Alexei and his sister Maria, but as of October 2015, they had yet to be recognised by the Russian Patriarch.)

Simple cross and chapel marking the site of the Ipatiev House.

Yekaterinburg: Cross and chapel marking the site of the Ipatiev House. This was taken in November 2001.

Ganina Yama isn’t the only site around St Petersburg that demonstrates how much attitudes to Russia’s Imperial past have changed. My picture of the site of the Ipatiev House – where the Romanovs and their courtiers were murdered – features a simple cross and a tiny wooden chapel. In 2016, while the cross appears to have gone, the chapel is still there, but now it is dwarfed by the newly-built, gleaming white Church on Blood, which commemorates the dead Romanovs. That said, I suppose the cross and chapel of my picture marked progress even in 2001: it was only a quarter of a century earlier that the house had been razed to the ground to prevent it becoming a place of pilgrimage for royalists. (The demolition was ordered by the then-Chairman of the local Communist Party, Boris Yeltsin, although he claimed later he only did it because he had been told to by the Politburo.)

Note: I’ve re-published this blog to mark the Centenary of the deaths of the Tsar and his family. There are more posts about my trip along the Trans-Mongolian Railway on the Trans-Sib tab on the header menu.

An unexpected treat: St Pancras Old Church, London

“Hmm, I wonder what’s up there?” I thought to myself as I walked from King’s Cross to the Carreras Cigar Factory in Camden.

“There” was a flight of steps, stone, characterful and obviously old, probably something like a couple of hundred years or so old, flanked by mature trees – and totally out of keeping with their surroundings.

I decided to take a quick detour. And found myself in the lovely grounds of the lovely St Pancras Old Church. From the outside, the church looked vaguely Saxon or Norman, although as the stonework looked in good state it probably couldn’t actually be that old.

And when I went inside and read the information boards I found out I was right. It looks like there has been a church on the site for more than 1,000 years, maybe even 1,500, but it has been rebuilt or restored several times, and the current building dates from the mid-19th Century. That said, there are some bits of the earlier buildings still visible inside.

The interior is nice enough, but it’s the churchyard that’s really remarkable. Not only is it a little haven of peace – it’s easy to forget you’re in a busy part of a busy city – but it contains some really interesting tombs and/or tombs of really interesting people.

One is that of the architect John Soane. Not only is he famous in his own right, but his tomb – which he designed himself – gave Giles Gilbert Scott his inspiration for the famous red telephone boxes.

There’s also a sundial that’s a monument to people who were originally buried in the churchyard but whose remains were moved when part of the churchyard was made into a public park and also when the Great Northern Railway to/from King’s Cross station was built on part of it.

Which brings me to this, the “Hardy Tree”:

It’s named after Thomas Hardy, who, before he became a famous novelist, worked as an architect, and supervised the works to clear the churchyard to make way for the railway.

You can read the story here:

Plaque about Thomas Hardy's work at St Pancras, which included moving bodies to make way for a railway line.

And you thought Thomas Hardy was ‘just’ a novelist?

Yes, I know my pictures are a bit tat (and all of the same thing), it’s just that when I took them I took them just for me – I didn’t intend to write about them or anything. But then I thought why not? Someone looking for an interesting, peaceful place in a busy part of London might just find it useful.

There’s more information (and more pictures than my lamentable ‘selection’) on the church’s own website: http://posp.co.uk/st-pancras-old-church/.

Ganina Yama, Romanov burial site, Yekaterinburg

November 2001

“That’s where the Tsar was buried,” K had told me.

“That” was a simple wooden Russian Orthodox cross set among snow-sprinkled trees. It was late 2001 and K and I were on the outskirts of Yekaterinburg, the city notorious as the place where Tsar Nicholas II and almost his entire family were wiped out during the Bolshevik Revolution.

Simple wooden cross in the trees, marking the site of Ganina Yama.

Ganina Yama, or ‘Ganya’s Pit’, in November 2001. Just visible through the trees, between the cross and the tree with the plaque is the pale outline of a simple building that could be the beginnings of the monastery built to commemorate the murdered Romanovs.

I took a picture of the cross but I didn’t find out where it actually was. So nearly 15 years later it was still uncaptioned in the album. If I was going to do a proper job of writing up this trip, I decided, I really should find out where that picture was taken. I did, but I found out, too, a little about how Russia has changed in that decade and a half.

I started by doing an internet search for the burial place of Nicholas II. The top result was Ganina Yama, or “Ganya’s Pit”. There were lots of pictures, and countless reviews on the likes of TripAdvisor. But that couldn’t be the place where my photograph was taken. Sure, there was a plain wooden cross, a slightly different style to ‘mine’, but seeing as wood rots it could easily be a replacement for the one in my picture. However, everything else was different too. Behind the cross in my photograph there is a low metal fence and beyond that, under the snow, what appears to be a depression in the earth. Around that are some slender trees, and just visible through them a shadow of what could be a largish building. There are no people in the picture because there was no one else there with us, nor did we see anyone on the road leading to the burial place.

There were lots of people in the pictures of Ganina Yama, though, lots and lots of people. There were some trees around the cross, but far fewer than in my photograph. There was also a depression, clearly visible, but running round the edge of it was a covered walkway, a rather substantial, obviously permanent structure. There were pictures, too, of the seven churches at Ganina Yama, one church for each murdered member of the Imperial family, who were canonised as saints by the Orthodox Church in exile in 1981.

Nah, no way was that the place I had been to. So I (pardon the pun) dug a little deeper. I learned that, while the Orthodox Church still officially regards Ganina Yama as the place where the bodies of the Tsar and the people murdered with him were dumped and burned to nothing, it has now been established that this wasn’t the case. The remains, of the Tsar, members of his family and a couple of retainers, were indeed deposited at Ganina Yama within hours of the killings, but they were not cremated there. (Attempts may have been made, but burning 11 bodies to ash is almost impossible, especially in a wood in the middle of nowhere and without fuel to aid the blaze along.)

Within less than a day it was decided that Ganina Yama was just too public, too easy for the people of Yekaterinburg to find, so the bodies were moved to a place just a couple of miles away but less obvious, called “Pig’s Meadow” or “Piglet’s Meadow”. This fact was established in the mid-late 1970s by three local researchers, but they kept their discovery secret until the Soviet Union had collapsed and the political climate changed. The site was subsequently excavated and the remains comprehensively tested to confirm their identities. In 1998 the bones of the Imperial family members were re-interred at St Peter and Paul Fortress in St Petersburg, in a formal and very public ceremony. However, senior clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church boycotted the event, as the Church was still insisting that the Romanov bodies had been burned to dust at Ganina Yama.

So, it must have been Pig’s Meadow that K had taken me to. But while there were countless pictures of Ganina Yama, there were hardly any of Pig’s Meadow, and most of what few there were dated from around the time of the killings and the first investigation into the fate of the Tsar. Eventually, though, I unearthed some modern(ish) pictures of Pig’s Meadow. The only marker was a simple cross, but in some kind of black stone. The immediate area was bare of trees – and any possible depression in the earth – and bore no trace of any fence, present or past. Plus, the topography was nothing like that in my picture, unlike that of Ganina Yama.

After a lot more searching, I found an article on a Russian Orthodox Church news website. It was about the then-Patriarch visiting Ganina Yama in October 2000 (ie a little over a year before my trip to Yekaterinburg) to give his blessing to the foundation of a monastery to honour the “Holy Royal Martyrs”. Apart from all the people on it, the cross and the setting looked just like those in my picture.

September 2000: Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexei II blesses foundation of the monastery at Ganina Yama, surrounded by scores of people.

September 2000: Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexei II blesses foundation of the monastery at Ganina Yama. Spot the difference between this cross and the one in my pic? You won’t – there isn’t one!

So my photo had been taken at Ganina Yama after all! Yet a decade and a half after I was there the place was all but unrecognisable.

It’s almost impossible to comprehend the change in attitudes towards the Romanovs in Russia over just, say, 25 years. For decades the mere existence of the Imperial family was such a sensitive subject that it was only in 1989/1990 that the discoverers of the remains in Pig’s Meadow had felt safe enough to report their discovery to the authorities in Moscow. Yet now, in 2015/16, Ganina Yama is an officially-recognised, openly-visited, substantial shrine to them. (Even if the bodies were only buried there for a matter of hours – despite the official Orthodox Church line.)

Of course it wasn’t just the Romanovs that the Soviets had a problem with – they weren’t too keen on the Church either, seeing it as a challenge to the ethos and authority of Communism. Put it this way, there’s a reason why the Romanovs were canonised by the Russian Orthodox Church “in exile”. Now, though, in the 20-teens, Vladimir Putin is bezzie mates with the Russian Orthodox Patriarch, and tourists are posting selfies from the churches of Ganina Yama.

If you’re interested, the potted history of how the bodies came to be in Ganina Yama and Pig’s Meadow in the first place goes something like this:

At the time of the killings, in mid-1918, Russia was in the throes of what amounted to a civil war. The main protagonists were the Bolsheviks, or ‘Red Russians’, and the ‘White Russians’, who wanted change in Russia, but nothing as drastic as that sought by the Bolsheviks (some White Russians were actually monarchists). The Tsar abdicated in March 1917 and he and his family were taken into custody by the Bolsheviks. After several months the family was moved to Yekaterinburg. By July 1918 White forces were closing in on the city, and the Bolshevik leaders decided that rather than risk having the Tsar and his family ‘rescued’ by the White army, they should be disposed of. Which is what happened in the cellar of the Ipatiev House on 17 July. Within days the White forces had taken Yekaterinburg, and a magistrate, Nikolai Sokolov, was tasked with establishing what had happened to the Romanovs. Just a few months later, though, the Bolsheviks re-took Yekaterinburg and Sokolov was forced to flee – but not before he had amassed a whole heap of evidence, which he managed to get out of Russia before he left the country in 1920. Although Sokolov never actually found physical proof of the fate of the Romanovs, the earlier story about the remains being totally destroyed at Ganina Yama stuck and no one sought to question it – especially as even mentioning the deaths would probably have led to a trip to a Gulag during Soviet times.

Despite the dangers, in the 1970s two local geologists, Alexander Avdonin and Michael Kochurov, and a filmmaker, Geli Ryabov, and their wives, set out to establish once and for all what had happened to the Imperial remains. Using the material Sokolov had gathered during his investigation, and a contemporaneous account of the murder and subsequent disposal of the bodies, they eventually located the real burial site – Pig’s Meadow.

(In 2007, two other sets of remains were uncovered in Pig’s Meadow. Tests confirmed that they are of the missing children, the Tsarevitch Alexei and his sister Maria, but as of October 2015, they had yet to be recognised by the Russian Patriarch.)

Simple cross and chapel marking the site of the Ipatiev House.

Yekaterinburg: Cross and chapel marking the site of the Ipatiev House. This was taken in November 2001.

Ganina Yama isn’t the only site around St Petersburg that demonstrates how much attitudes to Russia’s Imperial past have changed. My picture of the site of the Ipatiev House – where the Romanovs and their courtiers were murdered – features a simple cross and a tiny wooden chapel. In 2016, while the cross appears to have gone, the chapel is still there, but now it is dwarfed by the newly-built, gleaming white Church on Blood, which commemorates the dead Romanovs. That said, I suppose the cross and chapel of my picture marked progress even in 2001: it was only a quarter of a century earlier that the house had been razed to the ground to prevent it becoming a place of pilgrimage for royalists. (The demolition was ordered by the then-Chairman of the local Communist Party, Boris Yeltsin, although he claimed later he only did it because he had been told to by the Politburo.)