The Field of Forty Footsteps
January 17, 2012
The area between Bloomsbury and Euston is a strange part of London. The wide empty roads run between towering buildings set around a series of large, flat, featureless squares. Most are canopied by vast trees. With no shops or businesses along the road, and large silent academic buildings fencing the squares in on both sides, there aren’t often many people around. The squares are consequently unusually (almost eerily) quiet for a central London location.
The people in the squares are so unaccustomed to having company, they often look up as you wander in, stare suspiciously for a while and hesitatingly dip back into their books. Whenever I’ve been into one, there are only ever a couple of solitary UCL students sitting on a distant bench, or a runner briefly diverting through the grass before popping back on the road. Like me, many of them must half-wonder if the squares are private and just be waiting for someone to come over and angrily ask them how they got in and what the hell they think they’re doing. It’s the type of place you half expect to spot George Smiley whiling away the hours waiting for a contact to arrive.
Tavistock Square Gardens are much the same as the neighbouring seven squares, but the large statue of Gandhi in the middle means there are usually one or two Indian students hanging around at the gates, some of whom leave handfuls of fresh flowers at the base. A tree, planted by the then Indian Prime Minister Nehru in 1953, grows in the south-east of the square.
But close by the tree there’s something which doesn’t grow.
Long before the area was laid out as squares and terraces at the end of the 1700s, it was known as Southampton Fields. Unlit, undeveloped and on the far edge of seventeenth-century London’s sprawl, it was a popular haunt for lovers who picked plantain, a low growing herb, for it’s supposed aphrodisiac qualities.
The same privacy which attracted lovers also attracted those who had scores to settle away from the bright lights (and the justice) of the town. As the nineteenth century antiquarian John Timbs put it in The Romance of London, “the ground lay waste, and being on the edge of the great town, presented a ready arena for its idle and lawless dangerous classes…They were the resort of depraved persons, chiefly for fighting pitched battles.”
According to legend, two brothers, both soldiers in the Duke of Monmouthshire’s short-lived peasant army, met on the site of the present day Tavistock Square in 1695 to fight a duel. They had both fallen in love with the same woman “who would not declare a preference”, and as she coolly watched, the two brothers “fought so ferociously as to destroy each other; after which, their footsteps, imprinted on the ground in the vengeful struggle, were said to remain, with the indentations produced by their advancing and receding; nor would any grass or vegetation ever grow over these forty footsteps.”
In this unnatural act – brother killing brother – the very ground on which their blood had been spilled is said to have revolted. The scene soon became known as the Field of the Forty Footsteps, a phrase coined by one “Miss Porter and her sister”, who heard the story and used it as the basis for a romantic novel.
The poet Southey visited “The Brothers’ Steps” after a friend recommended he “take a view of those wonderful marks of the Lord’s hatred to duelling.”
We sought for near half an hour in vain…We were almost out of hope, when an honest man, who was at work, directed us to the next ground, adjoining to a pond. There we found what we sought…The steps are of the size of a large human foot, about three inches deep, and lie nearly from north-east to south-west. We counted only seventy-six; but we were not exact in counting. The place where one or both the brothers are supposed to have fallen is still bare of grass. The labourer also showed us the bank where (the tradition is) the wretched woman sat to see the combat.
Of course, with popularity came the reason why the footsteps were so apparent. As stated by A Book For A Rainy Day, the author mentioned that “the fact is, that these steps were so often trodden that it was impossible for the grass to grow.”
In 1800, the author of Commonplace Books, Joseph Moser, claimed the footsteps were built over as the terraces were erected.
June 16, 1800. Went into the fields…and there saw, for the last time, the forty footsteps; the building materials are there, ready to cover them from the sight of man. I counted more than forty, but they might be the footprints of the workmen.
Huge numbers of London books over the centuries have retold the tale – but none of the authors I’ve read actually bothered to see if these footsteps were still in Tavistock Square. So I went with my camera to see if they were.
And you know what?
I know – it’s silly.
I was looking for patterns. Look at the mud in any park you chose to go into, and you’d find similar shapes. The mind tricks the eye into seeing what it wants to see.
But whatever the real explanation is – mental suggestion, an ancient fraud, or some botanical fungus that kills those particular portions of grass – it sure looks to me like a row of man-sized footprints walking in a straight line exactly where the old books said they’d be.