Nunhead, unless you live locally, will register not a flicker of recognition on the average Londoner's expression. No Tube station, stadium, or shopping centre of note - in fact, there are few hooks to snag and categorise this modest area of South London. Except its jewel: Nunhead Cemetery.
Back in the early Victorian Era, London was expanding at an alarming pace. Centre of the British Empire and eye of the industrial storm, everyone and everything gravitated toward London. Commerce meant jobs and the ever-accelerating migration from a rural to an urban lifestyle, with the whole family off to work in the morning. More than anything else, business needed people and London's population like its footprint - was booming. Life expectancy however, was low, which created the straightforward logistical problem of too many dead bodies in the capital. Churchyards were unable to meet the demand and the unsavoury practice of corpse dumping, was having serious health repercussions via infected water supplies (from soil leaching). A parliamentary bill of 1832 ushered in 'private cemeteries' and Nunhead Cemetery (formerly 'All Saints') was one of the initial [magnificent] seven which formed a ring around the periphery of London at the time (Highgate Cemetery is another).
'Burial Grounds' had been introduced by non-conformists in the previous century (like Bunhill Fields, Islington) as alternatives and useful overspills to churchyard burial, which was every parishioner's right. Churchyards also rarely represented the scarcely-believable number of actual burials which occurred beneath their soil. It's estimated that over 70,000 people are buried in the diminutive 200 square-foot (living-room sized) churchyard space, of St Martin in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square.
Named after Sir Flinders Petrie, who held the UK's first chair in Egyptology and the most phonetically pleasing name for a Victorian, gentleman-adventurer, since Sir Rider Haggard. As a child he was disturbed to hear how a Roman Villa was excavated, by crude shovelling - offering his opinion that the earth should be pared back, exposing how the contents lay in their natural state. Lofty thinking for an eight year-old. In his early career he travelled to Egypt and investigated theories about the Great Pyramid at Giza's construction. Petrie produced a raft of practical principles and the basic data he recorded still provides much of the information about the site today. In addition he mentored successive generations of archaeologists in his methods, which later became de facto standards (including seriation: the dating of objects in a serialised manner). Seems obvious, but Petrie got there first - "in like Flinders", springs to mind. Howard Carter, who uncovered the tomb of Tutankhamun, was heavily influenced in his formative years by Petrie's close tutorship.
Most importantly, he rolled up his sleeves and got involved in the digging - an early adopter of a "back to the floor" policy of management. At an excavation of the New Kingdom site in Tanis, Egypt, he took over the role of foreman and removed the pressure on his diggers to find items as quickly as possible. As such, the earth was 'pared back', as his former, pre-teen self had precociously suggested. This made him popular with his digging crews. It's also pleasing to note that throughout the Petrie Collection in the museum, sepia photographs of his local digging supervisors are placed amongst the finds. He strikes you as someone who shared credit and responsibility among his workforce, rather than simply providing a chest to pin medals to. The chair at University College, London was created in 1892 and Flinders Petrie was the first to hold it. In 1913 he sold his collection to UCL, which is why it's now housed in The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology.
One of London's finest qualities is that whenever you're on the verge of thinking you've seen it all, a new part reveals itself - often down a passage you've walked past numerous times. For a five year period I worked in WC2, 7 days a week, odd shifts, day and night. It's an area which includes the Strand, Covent Garden, Leicester Square, Aldwych and many other busy West End districts. As a result, daily, I had hours to kill between shifts and being too far to return home and too tired to sit down for fear of falling asleep - I took to the pavements. There's hardly a street, or stretch of WC2 I haven't walked up, along, around about and back again. Peering over fences: very probably. Wandering into private forecourts uninvited. Guilty, m'lud. So it was a surprise to come across the Phoenix Garden, when I must have walked by its entrance on Shaftesbury Avenue hundreds of times down the years. It has a sign and everything.
Shaftesbury Avenue is a street of two halves. The south end runs into Piccadilly Circus and is ten-deep with pedestrians. An especially tourist-heavy, hot zone. If you were in the market to buy a Buckingham Palace snowglobe, or tea-towel with teddy bear dressed as a grenadier guard on it, you'd generally grub about down here. As you pass the Curzon cinema, heading north-east, you cross Cambridge Circus and the Shaftesbury Avenue on the far side, changes completely in character: leafy and light on foot traffic.
Ham House, just beyond the busy part of town, is one of few grand houses in London from the 17th century to remain intact. Beside the Thames, Ham House and Garden retain the timeless quality certain historic buildings manage effortlessly (Hampton Court is another), where it feels as if the former residents moved out a few hours earlier. Elizabeth Murray was the person who developed the house into the impressive spectacle you'll find today. A mover and shaker during the English Civil War and instrumental in the restoration of the monarchy, plotting, intrigue and general shenanigans emanated from this Royalist pile.
Elizabeth was a noted beauty and although the house was built at the beginning of the Stuart period, during James I's reign (for Sir Thomas Vavasour - Knight Marshall to the king), she was the one who breathed life into Ham House. Elizabeth inherited the property from her father and though she was no doubt intelligent and beautiful, she also possessed 'Lady Macbeth-ian' levels of political ambition and an unfetching, greedy glint in her eye. Elizabeth Murray married into titles which elevated her up the pecking order of British society. Love was never mentioned. After Charles II's ascension via the Restoration, she enjoyed considerable favour and influence in Stuart court life (she backed the winning horse, which always helps). To discover more about the Stuarts - see The Banqueting House in Westminster.