Ash Wednesday

Today is Ash Wednesday, churches and cathedrals will change their altar frontals to purple for the start of lent. Some cathedrals will also cover the reredos, the screen behind the altar for the duration of Lent. The colour of altar frontals changes for each season of the Church’s year. Purple is for Advent and Lent, red for Holy Week and Pentecost and days when we remember the martyrs of he church. White or gold is for the celebratory seasons such as Christmas, Epiphany and Easter. Green is used for ‘Ordinary ‘time.

Lent, is the season of the Church’s year leading up to Easter, a time of confession and penitence, fasting, prayer, study and drawing closer to God in preparation for the great celebration of Christ’s resurrection. The season of Lent began in the early days of the Church as a time of preparation for those seeking to be baptised at the Easter Vigil. The forty days of Lent refer to our Lord’s time of fasting in the wilderness; and since Sundays are not counted as they are always feast days because every Sunday we celebrate Christ’s resurrection, Ash Wednesday is the beginning of the Lent. Many Christians will receive a cross of ash on their forehead today as a symbol of repentance at a special service today. Throughout the Old Testament ashes are a sign of sorrow and repentance.

Visit St Mary Magdalene Church Paddington on my Best Churches in London tour #TourLocal

Shrove Tuesday

Shrove Tuesday is the day before Ash Wednesday which marks the start of Lent which is the period of 40 days leading up to Easter and the remembrance of Christ’s death on the cross and the celebration of his resurrection. The word ‘shrove’ comes from the old practice of being ‘shriven’ – meaning to confess one’s sins and receive absolution from a priest. The shriving bell would be rung on Shrove Tuesday to call people to church to confess. Lent is a period of penitence and abstinence from eating rich foods. This is why people in many countries have traditions of eating up rich foods on Shrove Tuesday. Here we eat pancakes to use up milk, butter and flour and perhaps other luxury ingredients, in Venice they eat little doughnuts called fritole, in Estonia hernesupp a mix of yellow split peas, and pork is eaten, in Rio de Janeiro they eat feijoada a black bean stew with pork and beef. Eating of meat and dairy was forbidden during lent. Today some Christians give up a particular food they enjoy for lent as a form of discipline.

In some countries they still celebrate shrove Tuesday and the period leading up to it with carnival which was traditionally a kind of letting your hair down before the austerity of Lent. The word carnival comes from Carne Vale meaning to remove meat. Notting Hill in London hosts a carnival but it is divorced from shrove Tuesday tradition and takes place in September.

Normally in the City of London and in some villages and towns on Shrove Tuesday there is a pancake race. Dating from around 1445, legend has it that a local woman heard the shriving bell while she was making pancakes and ran to church in her apron, still clutching her frying pan.

Blue Plaques

When you are walking around London look out for Blue Plaques on buildings. They mark the buildings were a notable person lived or worked. The first one was erected in 1875, commemorating Lord Byron, it was put up by the Royal Society of Arts, later the authorising of Blue Plaques passed to London County Council and its successor the Greater London Council and now English Heritage is in charge. Around 20 new plaques are added each year. 20 years has to have passed from the death of the person or a hundred years has to have passed from their birth. London has the highest number of Blue plaques,around 950, but you can find them all over the country.

Lord Byron’s house was demolished in 1889 and his plaque is now on the John Lewis Department store which stands on the site but it is not the original plaque so the oldest surviving plaque still in situ is the one on the house where Napoleon III lived. He was Napoleon I’s nephew. He was exiled from France after the Battle of Waterloo, on his return to France in 1840 he was imprisoned for life but managed to escape and fled to England taking a lease on this house. He was fully welcomed into London society. He later returned to France as was crowned Napoleon III. His plaque is the only one to have been installed during the lifetime of the person commemorated. If you book my St James’s walking tour I will show you where it is.

Since the early years of the 20th Century the public has been able to put forward the names of those considered worthy of a Blue Plaque and the Blue Plaques Panel, a collection of experts in a wide range of fields, makes the final decision. The Plaques commemorate people who have achieved a wide variety of impressive human endeavours, there are many politicians, statesmen, artists, theatrical people, musicians, writers and scientists and inventors as you might expect but there are also some rather more unusual reasons for commemoration recorded on some London plaques. There’s Luke Howard, the Namer of Clouds ( he named the three principal categories of clouds – cumulus, stratus, and cirrus), there’s Willy Clarkson, theatrical wigmaker, Joseph Grimaldi, King of Clowns, and Edward Johnston, Calligrapher who gave his name to the Johnston typeface which was developed for London transport in the 1930s and still used by Transport for London its successor.

It has been found that the presence of a Blue Plaque doesn’t actually add to the property’s value although it does make a good topic of conversation over dinner and it does increase the interest in a property when it is for sale as people like a sense of history. Blue Plaques have also played a role helping to protect buildings under treat of demolition. The homes of Oscar Wilde in Chelsea and Van Gogh in Stockwell, for example, were preserved because their Blue Plaques drew attention to their historical association.

Some houses have more than one plaque. Chatham House boasts not just one Prime Minster but three. William Holman Hunt, Pre-Raphaelite artist and Cetshwanyo king of the Zulus lived at different times in the same house in Holland Park as did George Bernard Shaw and Virginia Woolf in one in Bloomsbury. There are 18 houses in London with two plaques.