Aldgate Pump | The story behind the City of London’s historic water pump
There has been a watering hole on the spot since at least the 13th century
Situated at the junction of Aldgate, Fenchurch Street and Leadenhall Street stands a historic water pump. Although not the first iteration of the pump, the Aldgate Pump has long been symbolic as the start of London’s East End. For years, it was famous for being the starting point for distances between the City of London into Middlesex and Essex. It takes its name from nearby Aldgate, one of the original Roman gates into the City.
There has been a watering spot at the site since at least the 13th century, initially as a well during the latter part of King John’s (1166-1216) reign. Historian John Stow (1524-1605) lived near the Aldgate well in the tumultuous year of 1549 and recalls witnessing from his own doorstep the execution of the Bailiff of Romford for alleged ‘rebellion’. Stow wrote in his 1598 book, ‘Survey of London’: “The Bailiff of Romford, in Essex, was one, a man very well beloved. He was early in the morning of St Magdalene’s Day, brought by the Sheriffs of London and the knight-marshall to the well within Aldgate, to be executed upon a gibbet set up that morning.” The well appears on Braun and Hogenburg’s London map in 1574, as well as on The Agas Map of Early Modern London in 1633.
By the 18th century, developments in engineering meant the Aldgate well had now become a pump to accommodate the booming London population. What is believed to be the first illustration of the Aldgate pump appeared in 1798, depicting it as an obelisk erected on a plinth, topped by a lantern, with further lamps on each side. The pump was served by one of the capital’s many subterranean streams. Read the rest of this entry
Hold fire! The story behind the cannon bollard on Bankside
Is this bollard really a captured French cannon from the Battle of Trafalgar?
While most of London’s street furniture has a purpose, you’d be surprised how many items have a special story or history behind them. Some items of street furniture – especially from the Victorian era – are often very attractive, such as the ‘Dolphin’ street lamps on the Thames embankments, or water fountains. However, when it comes to bollards, more often than not, they are pretty unremarkable. Bollards vary in design, from plain Georgian ones to modern electronic ones which can be lowered automatically on command.
Since at least the 17th century, bollards originated primarily as posts on a ship or dock for mooring boats. As mariners and shipyard workers would have easy access to old cannons, they would use them as bollards half-buried in the ground. The shaft would be blocked with either dirt or a large cannonball.
Today, most of the cannon bollards around London have been replaced with more modern offerings, although a few still remain. While today, a pier exists on Bankside for the Thames Clippers river boat service, in previous centuries, the Thames would have been heaving with boats and there would be a constant demand for mooring bollards. One of these original bollards on Bankside has sparked much debate about where it originated from.
Located a few metres from Southwark Bridge on Bankside, is a weathered black bollard, which has been linked to the Battle of Trafalgar. The story goes that after Nelson’s fleet defeated the French in 1805, the victors stripped the French boats. Although the Brits were able to reuse a lot of the French ships’ contents, the cannons were apparently too large to be retrofitted on British Ships. It was claimed the British decided to reuse the French cannons as street bollards in London as a way to flaunt their victory. Read the rest of this entry
A look at London’s post boxes from Queen Victoria to Queen Elizabeth II
The history of the Royal Mail’s post boxes and how you can tell each one’s age (roughly!).
The red post box is an iconic piece of British heritage, having been a familiar piece of the streets for nearly 180 years. Despite the public’s fondness of the post box, it isn’t in such demand as it used to be due to the rapidly changing world. The rise of electronic communication and the introduction of rival delivery companies to Royal Mail means the post box isn’t used so widespread as in previous years. A Royal Mail post box is said stand half a mile from over 98% of the UK population. There are around 155,500 post boxes across the UK, with a substantial portion of these situated in London.
Of the thousands of post boxes in the capital, some of them are listed. In 2002, the Royal Mail entered into agreements with Historic England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland respectively to retain and conserve all existing post boxes.
When it comes to post boxes, there are two main factors which distinguish them from each other – their design and the royal cypher (or cipher). The roadside post box has existed since the reign of Queen Victoria, with every subsequent monarch’s cypher being immortalised on the front. By looking at the cypher, you can date the age of your nearest post box, although admittedly the ballpark for boxes erected during the reigns of Victoria and our previous monarch Elizabeth II are rather large! Of course, the shortest reign in recent memory is that of King Edward VIII. The eldest son of King George V only reigned for 326 days, before he abdicated the throne to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson in 1936. Despite his short time as head of state, there are 171 boxes with his cypher nationally, some of which are in London.
Ciphers of British monarchs and their reigns
VR – Queen Victoria : 1837-1901
ER VII – King Edward VII : 1901-1910
GR – King George V : 1910-1936
ER VIII – King Edward VIII : Jan-Dec 1936
GR VI – King George VI : 1936-1952
EIIR – Queen Elizabeth II : 1952-2022
CIIIR – King Charles III : 2022-present.
Walking around London today, a red post box is a frequent piece of street furniture. While the majority are round or oval, there are also hexagonal, wall boxes and other unusual sizes. Most free-standing post boxes feature a cap, which protects rainwater from entering the box and wetting the mail.
Prior to postal reform in 1840, mail was an expensive form of communication. The Uniform Penny Post was introduced, meaning the sender pre-paid the postal costs, rather than the recipient. The same year, the Penny Black adhesive stamp was released. It wasn’t until 12 years later, the first roadside Post Office pillar box was erected in St Helier, Jersey as a trial. In 1853, the first roadside pillar box was established in the mainland United Kingdom in Carlisle. In 1856, Richard Redgrave (1804-1888) from the Department of Science and Art came up with an ornate pillar box design to be used in London and other cities. Today, you can see one of Redgrave’s designs – which were bronze – at the Victoria & Albert Museum. From 1857, some post boxes were built into existing walls. Read the rest of this entry
Bedford Row water pump | A pretty piece of Georgian street furniture
The history of an old pump in Holborn’s legal district.
Long before the likes of Thames Water pumped water directly into our houses, Londoners had to rely on outdoor, public pumps for our essential utility. While these days, we have the luxury of running water inside, many of the outdoor pumps – mostly out of use – remain as part of London’s street furniture.
Located on Bedford Row – a predominantly Georgian road in the heart of London’s legal heartland – is one such remainder the early 19th century utilities. The road is named after the town of Bedford – the hometown of Sir William Harper (1496-1574), Lord Mayor of London in 1562. He bought 13 acres of land in Holborn in 1562, but later bequeathed the land to charities. The cast iron pump sits at the junction between Bedford Row and Brownlow Street, a few metres away from the Gray’s Inn – one of London’s four inns of court.
Built in 1826, the pump features intricate strapwork, two spouts, a handle and the arms of St Andrew and St George near the base. Back in the early 19th century, lawyers from the nearby inns and other locals would draw their water from the pump. Charles Dickens (1812-1870) worked as a junior clerk at Gray’s Inn in 1827-1828 so would have certainly used the pump at one time or another.
In the 20th century, the pump fell into disuse, with the local council adding a lamp to the top of it and surrounding bollards to protect it. It was Grade II listed by Historic England in 1951.
- Water Pump, Bedford Row (opposite Brownlow Street), Holborn, WC1R 4BS. Nearest stations: Chancery Lane or Holborn.
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London’s oldest public drinking fountain on Holborn Viaduct
The history of the water fountain outside St Sepulchre-without-Newgate Church.
With water taps now in every home and bottled waters on sale everywhere, there isn’t such a high demand for public drinking fountains these days. While public fountains are still found to be popular in places such as parks, leisure centres and museums, ones outside on the street… not so much.
Although these days we expect drinking fountains to be free and clean, back in the first half of the 19th century, it wasn’t so simple. Private companies had a monopoly on water so there wasn’t much regulation on quality, often providing contaminated water to the public. As a result, many people used to drink beer, which was considered a safer alternative to water. It was thanks to the work of physician John Snow (1813-1858), who traced the beginning of a cholera outbreak to a water pump in Soho, that authorities began to prioritise water quality. Following the passing of the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers Act 1848, it was made compulsory that water had to be filtrated. In 1859, MP Samuel Gurney (1816-1882) and barrister Edward Thomas Wakefield (1821-1896) joined forces to set up the Metropolitan Free Drinking Fountain Association, with the aim to provide free drinking water to the public. This later changed its name to Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association in 1867, to also include cattle troughs.
The first public drinking fountain was built into the railings of St Sepulchre-without-Newgate Church on Holborn Hill. It opened in April 1859 and was funded by Gurney. The fountain is made of marble and stone, with two cups on chains to drink out of. It features three inscriptions, the top reading: ‘The gift of Sam Gurney MP 1859’. The bottom reminds users to ‘replace the cup’, while inside under where the water used to flow reads: ‘The first Metropolitan drinking fountain erected on Holborn Hill 1859 and removed when the Viaduct was constructed in 1867.’ Just eight years later after being installed, the fountain was relocated while the Holburn Viaduct was built, before finally being reinstated in its original setting in 1913.
The fountain was incredibly popular with hundreds of people using it daily – which I’m sure caused quite a queue of thirsty Londoners! As a result, the society built 85 more fountains around the city over the next six years. Public drinking fountains were heavily supported by the church and Temperance movement, and as a result many were situated near churches and opposite public houses. Now, the fountain still exists, but the water appears to have been turned off.
- The drinking fountain is set in the southern gates around St Sepulchre’s Church on the eastern end of Holborn Viaduct (near the junction with Giltspur Street), City of London, EC1A 2DQ. Nearest stations: City Thameslink, St Paul’s or Farringdon.
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Sit back and enjoy one of London’s best views | The swan benches on the Albert Embankment
I’ve previously blogged about the creation of the Victoria and Albert Embankments in the 19th century which coincided with the creation of the camel and sphinx benches, the sturgeon lamps and Cleopatra Needle’s sphinxes. However, there is another item of street furniture which appeared around the same time – the swan benches on the Albert Embankment.
In Victorian London, the rapidly expanding population were creating major issues including the disposal of waste and sewage, most memorably the ‘Great Stink’ in 1858. The local government recognised the infrastructure couldn’t cope with surge of people living and working in the city and established the Metropolitan Board Of Works in 1855. One of board’s biggest projects was the creation of the Victoria and Chelsea Embankments on the north bank of the River Thames and the Albert Embankment on the south. The MBW’s Chief Engineer Sir Joseph Bazelgette (1819–1891) oversaw the extensive project, which involved reclaiming marshland and making the river slimmer in that part of the capital. As well as creating a sewage system and new streets to relieve traffic congestion, a lot of slums on the banks of the river were cleared. In regards to the south bank, the creation of Albert Embankment was also designed to protect low-lying areas of Lambeth from flooding at high tide. The creation of the Victoria Embankment started in 1862, with work commencing on the Albert Embankment in July 1866 and was finished in November 1869. The Chelsea Embankment wasn’t finished until 1874. The embankments were named after the reigning monarch of the time Queen Victoria and her consort Prince Albert, who died in 1861.
In the typically Victorian way, the new Embankment needed to have suitable ‘street furniture’ to give London – heart of the British Empire – a look of prestige and style. George John Vulliamy (1817–1886) was hired as the Superintending Architect. Among one of his many projects in addition to the iconic London ‘dolphin’ lampposts, were creating benches for both sides of the Thames. On the north side, the benches’ panels and arms were designed in the shape of Egyptian sphinxes and camels – complementing Cleopatra’s Needle. On the south side of the river, there aren’t quite as many ornamental benches. However, on the stretch of Albert Embankment between Lambeth and Westminster Bridges are 15 benches featuring cast iron swan panels and arms. These benches were Grade II listed in 1981 and are established within Lambeth’s Conservation Area due to their aesthetic and historical significance. Although I am yet to find official confirmation, I would assume the swan benches have been similarly designed by Vulliamy and made by Z.D. Berry & Son of Regent Street. While the reason behind the Egyptian theme of the Victoria Embankment benches is established, the significance of the swans is not clear.
The name Henry Doulton is stamped on the base on the benches. I admit I couldn’t find a definite answer (but would welcome anyone who knows to comment below), but perhaps Sir Henry (1820-1897) contributed to the funding of the Embankment. Sir Henry was a key player in the expansion of the family ceramics company Royal Doulton, which was founded by his father John (1793-1873). The company had factories on various sites in Lambeth over the years near the Embankment and had to give up some of their land to the MBW for the building of the riverside walk. Sir Henry’s brother Frederick (1824–1872) was a MP for the Liberal Party and a member of the Lambeth Vestry of the Metropolitan Board Of Works from 1855 to 1868. Today, the only remainder of the pottery industry which once stood there is the former Royal Doulton headquarters building on the junction of Black Prince Road and Lambeth High Street, a neo-Gothic building (built 1878) now renamed as Southbank House. Royal Doulton left the Lambeth premises in the 1950s for Stoke-on-Trent.
One possible link to the swans could a tribute to Old Swan Yard, a small yard full of housing off Fore Street – the road which ran along the Thames. Swan Yard and Fore Street were demolished to make way for the Embankment in the 1870s. Whatever the reasoning behind the design of the swan benches, today they stand elevated on a concrete plinth so people can sit and admire the fine view of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. Located so near to St Thomas’s Hospital, the stretch of Embankment and benches are popular with hospital patients and visitors.
- The swan benches are on the Albert Embankment, in between Lambeth and Westminster Bridges. Nearest stations: Westminster, Lambeth North or Waterloo.
For Metro Girl’s blog post on the Vulliamy’s camel and sphinx benches on the Victoria Embankment, click here.
Or for more on Vulliamy’s Dolphin lamps, click here.
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Having a gas | The last Webb Patent Sewer lamp in London
This street light down a Westminster side street is more important than you think.
Once a mainstay of Victorian streets, gas lamps have gradually been replaced by electric lighting and are a very rare occurrence today. However down one quiet London street, there is what is believed to be the capital’s only remaining sewer gas lamp. Halfway down Carting Lane at the back of The Savoy hotel, is an example of a Webb Patent Sewer Gas Lamp. The design was patented by Joseph Edmund Webb of Birmingham in the late 19th century in a bid to safely remove sewer gases from the sewers below. These gases, when built up, were hazardous and smelt dreadful. These lamps were mainly placed on slopes and hills – where sewer gases were more likely to collect. Carting Lane is a slope leading down towards the Thames from the Strand, with the sewers taking waste from The Savoy. With this in mind, it’s no surprise to hear the road has been nicknamed ‘Farting Lane’. In the 18th century up until the 1860s, the thoroughfare was known as Dirty Lane. This unfortunate name came as the lane was a cut-through for horse and carts to the nearby Salisbury Wharf. However, while the lamps removed sewer gases, they weren’t actually powered by them. The flame is lit by traditional town gas, while drawing up sewer gases from below and burning off any impurities along with the mains gas.
Unfortunately the lamp was damaged by a lorry in more recent years, but has been fully restored by British Gas engineers and can now be seen running 24 hours a day.
- The old lamppost can be found on Carting Lane (leading from The Strand to Savoy Place), Westminster, WC2R. Nearest stations: Charing Cross, Embankment or Temple.
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Step to it | The Duke of Wellington’s mounting stone
The history behind this street furniture in St James.
The 1st Duke Of Wellington is one of the country’s most famous soldiers and statesmen, having defeated Napoleon at the Battle Of Waterloo and serving as Prime Minister twice. Although there has been seven subsequent Duke Of Wellingtons since his death, it is Arthur Wellesley most of us think of when we hear the title.
Around London there are many monuments to the late, great Duke Of Wellington (1769-1852), such as the Wellington Arch in Hyde Park Corner, his sarcophagus in St Paul’s Cathedral and an equestrian statue of him outside the Royal Exchange in the City of London to name but a few. There are also many buildings connected to the Duke, such as Apsley House on Hyde Park Corner and Walmer Castle in Kent, where he died at the age of 83.
While Wellington’s belongings can be seen in museums and stately homes, one piece of memorabilia remains on a busy London street, with thousands passing it each day unaware of the significance. Sitting on the pavement outside the Athenaeum Club, on Waterloo Place near the junction with Pall Mall is a pair of unassuming granite stones. To those walking by, they may not even be noticed at all or simply dismissed as a plain old piece of London street furniture.
However, to those who take a closer look, these stones are in fact a mounting step to get on and off a horse. During the Duke’s tenure as Prime Minister (January 1828 – November 1830), he was a regular at the Athenaeum Club, of which the original building still stands today. Designed by architect Decimus Burton (1800 – 1881), it is one of the country’s most famous gentlemen’s clubs, with Charles Darwin, Winston Churchill, Joseph Conrad, Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy among its prestigious alumni of past members. As the transport of choice for many in the 1800s, the Duke used to arrive at the club on horseback. In 1830 – six years after the club was founded – Prime Minister Wellesley suggested the club should erect some mounting stones to assist in getting on and off horses. Then in his 60s, the Duke would not have been as amble as he once was so the stones would have encouraged a more graceful dismount.
Over 180 years later, the stones remain on the kerb, although these days unused. On the inward facing side, a rusty plaque reads: ‘This horseblock was erected by desire of the Duke Of Wellington 1830.’
- The mounting stones are on Waterloo Place, just south of Pall Mall and outside the Athenaeum Club, 107 Pall Mall, St James, SW1Y 5ER. Nearest stations: Charing Cross, Piccadilly Circus or Green Park.
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Revisiting the now-restored Georgian water pump on Cornhill
The historic pump outside the Royal Exchange was restored in 2013.
Less than two years ago, I blogged about the sorry state of the old Georgian water pump on Cornhill in the City of London. I’m happy to say, it has since been restored and repainted a completely different colour. This post will revisit the history behind the Cornhill pump, which has long stopped providing water, but is now an attractive piece of London’s street furniture and a protected piece of our heritage.
Cornhill is a road in the heart of the City of London, known for its bustling offices and designer boutiques. Located a stone’s throw from the Bank of England, the name Cornhill comes from it being one of the city’s three hills – the others being Tower Hill and Ludgate Hill.
While demand for public wells has ceased over the past 100 years, the staggering history and aesthetics of the City’s old street furniture means many of these pumps can still be seen today. The Cornhill pump is outside the Gucci store at the Royal Exchange, just a minute’s walk up from the junction of Cornhill and Leadenhall Street, the location of ‘The Standard’ – the first mechanically pumped water supply in London. Constructed in 1582 on the site of previous hand-pumped wells, it was discontinued in 1603. As well as being a source for water, The Standard became a meeting place and also the mark from which distances from London were judged, before this later moved to Charing Cross.
Although The Standard pump was discontinued in the early 17th century, back down the hill outside Gucci, the current pump was erected nearly 200 years later. Following the Great Fire of London in 1666 and the rapidly expanding population of the developing city, there was a growing demand for water pumps in the 17th and 18th centuries. In 1708, the Government passed the Parish Pump Act, ordering that every parish in London must have a water pump and designate men to extinguish fires.
In the late 18th century, two of the City’s big players of the time, the East India Company and the Bank of England, together with the local fire stations and the bankers and traders who worked in the area, jointly funded the cast iron pump (it is believed adjoining granite trough is likely from a later date). It was designed by architect Nathaniel Wright, who built St Botolph Aldersgate in Postman’s Park and was the surveyor to the north district of the City of London.
The inscription on the road-facing side of the pump reads: ‘On this spot a well was first made and a House of Correction built thereon by Henry Wallis Mayor of London in the year 1282.’ It continues on the Royal Exchange-facing side: ‘The well was discovered much enlarged and this pump erected in the year 1799 by the contributions of the Bank of England, the East India Company, the neighbouring fire offices, together with the bankers and traders of the Ward of Cornhill.’ As well as the inscriptions, the Grade II-listed pump has fire insurance emblems on each side at the top – Royal Exchange, Sun, Phoenix and County. The base facing the Royal Exchange reads ‘Phillips & Hopwood, Engine makers, fecerunt’, which was practically invisible when it was previously painted in black until the restoration. Philips & Hopwood were a Blackfriars-based firm co-owned by Samuel Philips and James Hopwood, who made pumps and fire engines, which existed between 1797-1811. Fecerunt is a Latin term, meaning ‘to put in place’.
When I first spotted the pump in 2012, it was in a sorry state. It was painted in the City of London’s light blue colour, just like the Old Police Telephone posts. However, the paint was peeling, rust was setting in and it generally looked neglected amid the flashy surrounding buildings of the City. The pump had actually been Grade II-listed by English Heritage in January 1950. Fortunately, at some point in 2013, the pump was restored and repainted. It now stands shiny and bright, in cream and white paint, complementing the nearby boutiques of the Royal Exchange. The inscriptions have been painted black so are now clearer to read. Unfortunately the granite trough has gone and has been replaced by a small wrought iron railing – presumably to protect the pump from potentially bad parking or drivers! However, the missing trough means you can now read the architect’s name across the road-facing base.
As a little side note, the pump in it’s original blue state can be seen in the climax of the first Bridget Jones’s Diary movie, where Renee Zellweger’s Bridget enjoys her first kiss with Colin Firth’s Mark Darcy after he buys her a new diary from the Royal Exchange.
- The Cornhill pump is located on the north side of Cornhill, outside Gucci (9 Change Alley), City of London EC3V. Nearest station: Bank.
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Read more about the City of London’s street furniture and the Royal Exchange
Swiss glockenspiel in Leicester Square | The last survivor of the Swiss Centre
Have you spotted the Swiss clock in Leicester Square?
Anyone who grew up in London in the ’80s and ’90s would have been probably been excited by the Swiss glockenspiel in Leicester Square. Situated on the outside of the Swiss Centre, the clock used to play music, ring bells and feature moving figures dressed in Swiss costumes. I used to love standing and looking up at the glockenspiel in action as a young child. When the Swiss Centre was demolished in 2008 to make way for the W London hotel and M&M’s World, I was sad to see the glockenspiel go.
The Swiss Centre, a piece of Modernist architecture designed to showcase Swiss culture and encourage tourism, was built just west of Leicester Square in the Sixties. Opened in 1968, it consisted of a two-storey podium against a backdrop of a 14-storey tower block. The podium included a totem pole featuring Swiss motifs and adverts. On the Leicester Square facing side of the podium featured a Carillon – a musical instrument made of 27 bells set alongside 11 moving Swiss figures (carved by Fritz Fuchs in 1968). In 1984, the glockenspiel was added as a gift of friendship from Switzerland and Liechtenstein, making the Swiss Centre a popular stop for tourists and Londoners passing between Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square. On the hour, the clock would chime, the bells would ring and the figures would move around the curved wall.
However, the Swiss Centre never lived up to its expectations. The complex included the Swiss Tourist Board and other Swiss companies, including banks and restaurants. As time went on, non-Swiss businesses came and went, including nightclubs, tacky tourist shops and an art house cinema. In 2002, Westminster City Council concluded the Swiss Centre was failing as a building. It didn’t complement its neighbouring buildings and its Swiss theme in such a touristy part of the West End was confusing to many. In 2006, the council agreed to its demolition and by 2008, it was headed for history with the W London hotel built on the site. While there weren’t likely to be many sad about the removal of the Swiss Centre, plenty were lamenting the absence of the Glockenspiel. While the building is now a distant memory, its name lives on in Swiss Court – the name of the pedestrianised path leading from Leicester Square to Wardour Street.
In November 2011, the Swiss Glockenspiel was returned to Swiss Court, just metres from its original location. Derby clockmakers Smith of Derby worked with Swiss artists to redesign and restore the musical clock. Now a free-standing version, the 10 metre high Glockenspiel was officially inaugurated at a Swiss-themed ceremony. The clock is now wireless and controlled from Derby, while the Glockenspiel now plays new music written by London’s Royal Academy of Music and the University for Music and Art in Berne. A couple of metres away, stands a flag pole featuring the Confederation’s 26 state flags, which also used to stand on the Swiss Centre.
– Check out this YouTube video of the Glockenspiel on the Swiss Centre, filmed by David Gachechiladze shortly before demolition in 2007.
- The Swiss Glockenspiel stands on Swiss Court, Soho, W1D. Nearest stations: Piccadilly Circus or Leicester Square.
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photo credit: Tim@SW2008 via photopin cc
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