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London is awash with the relics of Empire. Great statues and monuments commemorating great men and greater victories. But it is not always the British Empire. There is the occasional Roman Wall. And then a couple of minor road signs and a plaque, which are all that remain of the London outpost of the Hanseatic League.

The League was an empire of trade which ran northern European commerce, and so much of northern Europe itself, for more than a century. Its offices stretched from Kievan Rus and Riga in the east to London in the west, with a sphere of influence that took in Greenland and Colchester.

The westernmost point of empire.

The English tend to know little of their history (relative to other occupants of these islands), and that which they do know is often somewhat heroic. Tales of kings and queens and splendid isolation. Something about being on an island, perhaps. Possibly something to do with Shakespeare: Richard this, Henry that. But also something to do with the compromises required if a “national” history is to be taught. Among the under-reported events is the Anglo-Hanseatic war of 1470-4, where the Hanse dealt such a spanking to the English navy that Edward IV was forced to Utrecht to sign a treaty which locked England out of trade in the North and Baltic seas and, essentially, ceded a chunk of prime territory in the centre of London to a foreign power. (The treaty also granted the Hanse the right to build a warehouse in King’s Lynn. It’s still there today, though now resolutely the property of Norfolk County Council). Utrecht firmed up the arrangements in London where a Kontor in one form or other had existed for centuries.


The Stalhof, on the bank of the Thames just west of London Bridge, controlled amongst other things the export of English cloth to much of Europe. It had its own currency, with merchants seconded from the major centres in Lübeck and Hamburg. But not many windows that faced outwards. “Rich German merchants” were targeted by Wat Tyler’s rebellion, and their presence was no more welcomed by the good Städtern of mediæval London.

Not cannon street.

The land under the steelyard was bought by the city in 1853 and turned into Cannon Street station, the site of the aforementioned plaque, and, aptly, right next to what is (I think) the last working wharf on the square mile. By then the great League was no more than a rump, subverted by rise of the Swedes and the Dutch and ultimately sunk by Bismarck. It was finally written out of history in 1862, but the memory persists (if only as a politicised ideal).

It is a bit of a shame that none of the Hanse architecture survives in London to rival the gables and conical spires that decorate Lübeck and Hamburg. But there is some historical resonance in a great trading empire parked in the square mile (even if the English once went to war against the free trade it offered) and it played its part in establishing modern London as the entrepôt that it remains today, if more for people than for goods and grain.

A working river.

There are loads of great histories of the Hanseatic League and its role in European history, though they are mostly in German – it isn’t a subject much covered in the English language. A friendly intro was written in 1891 by Helen Zimmern.


Written by alexconnor

June 6, 2012 at 01:41


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One of an occasional series.

Written by alexconnor

April 6, 2012 at 20:50

Posted in Not really Flanders., Steps

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The hyperbolic hotel.

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The primary television transmitter for northern parts of the Czech Republic was completed in 1968. It serves the city of Liberec, along with much of Bohemia, southern Germany and south west Poland. Uniquely for a mountain-top transmission tower, it is also a hotel. A hotel from another time.

Egg chairs.

Hotel Ještěd sits a kilometre above sea level, on the top of the highest peak of Ještěd-Kozákov Ridge. It is not, as you might imagine, built in the traditions of a medieval, turreted Bohemian castle. Ještěd is the height of middle-European 1960s luxury.

It is reachable by treacherous mountain road, a hike through an ancient forest, or, and this is preferable, its own dedicated cable car.


It stands proud, king of the mountain, and also of its own ski resort. Thirty metres across at its base, the tower rises as a circular hyperboloid.

It should feel like a lighthouse; it feels like a space station.


Unlike other mathematically-themed hotels, Ještěd isn’t very big. It has 12 proper rooms, with a further half-dozen ski-chalet bunks. The restaurant has nine tables. But mathematics can only take you so far. Ještěd is a triumph of design over all things. Built as a new summit to the mountain, the tower defeated nature long ago.

The interior is inch perfect, besting time and progress. From the egg chairs in the hallways to the banana splits in the restaurant, Ještěd lives and breathes 60s glamour. (Though I can’t imagine that the Liberec of 1973 was any more the Monaco of central Europe than it is today — the Manchester of Bohemia, the guidebook says.) There are drawbacks to perfection. The shape means that as the weather warms, chunks of ice fall from the top of the tower and clatter down the outside of the structure. The sound echoing through the minimalist rooms. The staff are, understandably, a little surly, shut away at the top of a mountain. Aside from the restaurant and some Czech TV, there isn’t much to do, at least for English speakers; this is very much a German beach. But, hyperbole to one side, what a beach.


Written by alexconnor

January 3, 2012 at 22:56

When I am older, I will have a stoop.

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Also, hopefully, some steps in front of my house that I can sit on.

lordship lane

Does the postman really go all the way up there?

Written by alexconnor

March 19, 2011 at 15:43

Posted in Steps

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