On the SOAS campus in Bloomsbury is a small plaque unlike any other in London.

The building in Thornhaugh Street is the only one in London to bear a sign apologising for being built.

On the front, facing towards Russell Square, a plaque reads: “The University of London hereby records its sincere apologies that the plans of this building were settled without due consultation with the Russell family and their trustees and therefore without their approval of its design.”

UCL erected the building in 1988 as the Brunei Gallery – an extension to the School of Oriental and African Studies which operates as “an exciting venue in Central London…[hosting] a programme of changing contemporary and historival exhibitions from Asia, Africa and the Middle East”. On top is a Japanese roof garden.

All very unobjectionable, you might imagine. You’d be wrong.

The University is on land which is managed by the Bedford Estates, a trust which benefits the descendents of the aristocrats who bought up the vast empty fields of what would become Bloomsbury three centuries ago.

In 1669, the huge Bloomsbury Estate came into the ownership of the Russell family through marriage. Their land stretched from present-day Euston Road to the north, Tottenham Court Road in the east, and all the way down to Covent Garden to the south – a nice accompaniment to Woburn Abbey, which had been gifted to them by Henry VIII following the dissolution of the monasteries. The Russell family, who were given the title of Duke of Bedford shortly after they came into possession of the land, remain the owners of much of the area to this day.

Piecemeal building schemes continued throughout the centuries, but in 1893, the 11th Duke, Herbrand Russell (1858-1937), felt political and popular feeling was turning against the owners of the large London estates, living as they were in a manner which was entirely alien (and alienating) to most of the population. Worried that their visibility and proximity to the masses might make them vulnerable, he made the decision to sell the majority of the family estate to developers, although many of the pre-exisiting developments remained in the family’s vast property portfolio.

Herbrand Russell was for many years the President of the Cremation Society of Great Britain, and was credited with saving the native Chinese milu (or Pere David deer) from extinction by breeding them in Woburn Abbey, but his grandson, the 13th Duke, John Russell could find little positive to say about him: “a selfish, forbidding man, with a highly developed sense of public duty and ducal responsibility, he lived a cold, aloof existence, isolated from the outside world by a mass of servants, sycophants and an eleven-mile wall.”

One of the many institutions who bought land from the family in the 1920s was the University of London, in an era which saw the tone of the neighbourhood shift from the residential to the academic.

Throughout the twentieth century, the Georgian houses were taken over by publishing companies, who converted the decent-sized rooms into individual offices. On the other side of the road from the Brunei Gallery are the former offices of Faber and Faber, a blue plaque dedicated to one-time employee TS Eliot upon the wall.

While the Russell family have long been unable to prevent the British Museum and the University encroaching into their estate, as educational institutions were given the legal right to compulsarily purchase land when they needed to expand, one of the conditions of sale was that the Bedford Estate retained the right of approval on buildings which fronted onto certain viewpoints.

And one of the viewpoints they have approval on is when buildings – just like the Brunei Gallery – face onto Russell Square.

The Bedford Estates were consulted in the early days of the SOAS project, but, in their words, “the university slightly pre-empted the issue”, and the design was fixed without the consent of the Estate. Thus, when the University set about leasing the new building to SOAS, the apologetic plaque was demanded by the Bedford Estate, who specified the exact wording, size and materials to be used.

Underneath the apologetic notice is a plaque noting that the actual design of the building was never really an issue: it won a Civic Trust Award 1988. The Trust awards “do not simply reward good design, but also take into account the way in which schemes relate to their settings and to the people they serve.”

Essentially, the only reason the plaque is there is as a point of principle.

The current Duke of Bedford is the 15th, who succeeded to the title in 2004. Today’s Bedford Estate consists mainly of “residential property converted to office and small hotel use and private residential property.” It also includes lock-up garages and a number of squares, both public and private.

That list rather downplays the scale of his empire which the Sunday Times estimated in 2011 had given him a fortune of over half a billion pounds.

And, since 1988, a prime view of London’s sorriest building.

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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?

They are.

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.

There’s a strange synchronicity with second-hand books. Two days ago, I’d finished all the books I had on the go, so randomly picked out one I’ve owned for years and not read for ages: WH Davies’ 1908 The Autobiography of a Super Tramp. While I know he’s not using the word in the modern way, I love the idea he thought of himself as a “super tramp”, as opposed to just an adequate one.

Davies was a Welshman born in 1871. Regarded as a delinquent, with expulsions from school and trouble keeping jobs, he spent much of his early life living rough in America. While there, he lost a leg while riding the trains with a fellow tramp (in a foreshadowing of the loss of limbs, the other tramp’s name was Three-Fingered Jack) and for the rest of his life sported a wooden one.

Destitute, he returned to England, where he lived in large doss houses in south-east London (including Southwark’s infamous Salvation Army hostel, known as The Ark) and sold shoe laces, saving his money with one single purpose: to self-publish his poetry.

In 1905, he sent his book of poems, entitled The Soul’s Destroyer, to George Bernard Shaw. “I get a gift of minor poetry once a week or so,” Shaw grumbled, but “before I had read three lines I perceived the author was a real poet.” Shaw was puzzled by what sort of man Davies was.

There were no author’s compliments, no publisher’s compliments, indeed no publisher in the ordinary channel of the trade in minor poetry. The author, as far as I could guess, had walked into a printer’s or stationer’s shop; handed in his manuscript; and ordered his book as he might have ordered a pair of boots. It was marked “price half a crown.” An accompanying letter asked me very civilly if I required a half-crown book of verses; and if so, would I please send the author the half-crown; if not, would I return the book. This was attractively simple and sensible.

Shaw bought eight copies, and when they were reviewed in a London newspaper, he discovered Davies was a tramp. Noting the review mentioned Davies had a manuscript of an autobiography, Shaw wrote back and offered to read it through. He was amazed by it.

All I have to say by way of recommendation of the book is that I have read it through from beginning to end, and would have read more of it had there been more to read…another effect of this book on me is to make me realise what a slave to convention I have been all my life. When I think of the way I worked tamely for my living during all of those years when Mr. Davies, a free knight of the highway, lived like a pet bird on titbits, I feel that I have been duped out of my natural liberty.

Having read the introduction to the autobiography two days ago, I’d started wondering what Davies’ poems were actually like. Today, browsing a small pile of old books in one of Finchley Central’s junk shops, I found a 1946 hardback of his collected work. That’s 48 hours between my wondering about them and subsequently having them in my hand. There’s a strange providence with second-hand books – somehow they start to find their way to you.

In all, Davies self-published fifty volumes of poetry, and this book collects all 636 of his poems.

He’s largely forgotten today – but his work’s not at all bad. Befitting his preoccupations as a tramp, Davies writes about outside spaces, his nights spent sleeping rough in the woods, his desire to have a house, about rogues who “come this day to borrow / A sum that’s promised but not paid tomorrow”, and portrays scenes of life from the lodging houses he frequented. One poem concerns a sailor in a doss-house shouting at his parrot for it’s foul language.

With his autobiography a success, Davies was immediately accepted by London’s literary and artistic circles (albeit more for his unusual life story than his work.) He was painted by Augustus John and in 1916 had a bronze made of his head by Jacob Epstein.

WH Davies by Augustus John (National Museum of Wales)

In 1911, he was awarded a civil list pension of £50, which later increased to £100, and then £150. It meant he could live comfortably for the rest of his life and concentrate on his literary work. The same year, he coined his most recognisable (although often misquoted and rarely attributed) couplet in the poem Leisure:

What is this life if, full of care

We have no time to stand and stare…


A comfortable-looking Davies in 1913

In 1916, having lived for short periods in houses across London, Davies settled into a flat at 12 Great Russell Street (directly opposite the YMCA) with his pet toad, Jim.

He stayed at the flat until 1921 when he moved to 13 Avery Row, off Brook Street, in the smarter neighbour of Mayfair.

Davies’s flat in Avery Row was one of the dark brick properties on the left

During his time in London, Davies occupied himself by writing a second volume of autobiography entitled Later Days and giving readings of his work; fourteen of his readings for the BBC reside in their archives.

Marrying in 1925, Davies and his wife left London for Gloucester. He died in 1940, the doctors telling him that his heart was showing alarming signs of weakness, which they attributed to his dragging the extra weight of his wooden leg about.

In his introduction to the collected poems, his friend Osbert Sitwell called Davies an

extraordinary and memorable being, who, for all his humility, bore about him something of the primitive splendour and directness of the Elizabethan age: in which, as his appearance testified, he would have been equally at home. No one who knew him will, or ever could, forget him, even had he never written so many lovely poems, fresh and exquisite as flowers to keep his memory alive; and no one who knew him will ever be able to recall him without a smile of pleasure and regret.

Sir John Squire summed up his poetry with a lovely turn of phrase:

Mr. Davies is astonished at everything the rest of us take for granted. What to the rest of us is the first primrose of spring is to him the first primrose in all the world. In other words, he is pure poet.

Open editions of Davies’ The Autobiography Of A Supertramp can be read in full here.