4 Mar 2015

London's hidden gems: the plague pits

The London Evening Standard has a competition to find 'hidden gems' for tourists to London. Here's mine:  
The Plague Pits
'The terrible outbreak of bubonic plague that swept through England in 1425 did not spare the capital's citizens.  The scenes of death and suffering are hard to imagine, but a few vestiges remain.  Dotted around London are various ‘plague pits’ where those who died from the plague were hastily buried en masse. Thousands of bodies were interred in these burial sites, to be covered over, filled in, and gradually forgotten.

The bubonic plague bacillus, however, is a living organism that can survive for several centuries in a dormant state. Very occasionally, fresh building work will uncover a medieval plague pit - at which point the medical authorities immediately take control of the site, putting the workmen through a rigorous quarantine. Thankfully bubonic plague can now be treated with drugs, but the dangers of it rapidly spreading through London’s population, aided by the tube and bus network, are all too apparent.

Most of these rediscovered plague pits are pronounced safe by the authorities, but a few where the live bacillus was detected have been sealed off with concrete and covered over again. There is one just behind Holborn station, another opposite the London Eye fairground, and a third (probably the best known) at the North end of Leicester Square.

A ‘safe’ plague pit can be seen up on Hampstead Heath, alongside the bathing ponds. It is quite small and takes some finding, since it is not signposted, but locals should be able to direct you. A visit to see ‘the pit’ makes for an interesting detour if you are visiting the Heath.'

Extract from my book 'How Not to Be a Tourist in London'      

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