Saturday, February 16th 2013
Today we ventured south of the river, into that region where, it is rumoured, black cabs do not go. Fortunately, we had no need of black cabs, choosing instead to take the train.
We took a bus to St Pancras station where we intended to have breakfast before catching our train. A disappointment awaited us. We always go to the Camden Food Co cafe on the upper level but today we found that they had shut the cafe, reducing the premises to a tiny enclosure with hardly any seating and lacking the array of foodstuffs for which they are famous – quite a loss to us and other travellers. We went next door to AMT which, though small, has a sort of balcony or gallery where you can sit and eat. It was from this gallery that Tigger photographed me at the counter below.
After breakfast, we went down to the lower level platforms to take a train south to Catford. We would have to change at Blackfriars. There was no need to buy tickets because Oyster cards can be used for travel on all public transport – buses, tubes, trains and tams – within the Greater London area. We have become so used to this efficient system that when we are in other cities it seems hopelessly clumsy that buses have to wait while people pay the driver for their tickets. Let’s hope that plans to implement a nationwide card scheme for public transport will come to fruition soon.
Blackfriars station has been the subject of a long process of transformation and even though the new platforms are open for business, the work is not yet complete, as witness the barriers screening off part of the station and narrowing the platforms. The reason for the work is that trains were becoming over-crowded and the only way to alleviate this was to make the trains longer. This, in turn, requires longer platforms on stations. Blackfriars has been lengthened and the platforms are now actually on the bridge that carried the railway across the Thames. When the barriers are finally cleared away, you will have good views of the river while waiting for your train.
From Catford station, we set out on foot. We had come to meet our friends in a local cafe. We walked along Catford Broadway, whose name suggests that it was once a more important street than it is today. Nonetheless, it has a lot of shops and seems to be a good place to do your shopping.
We cut through the Catford Centre to regain the main road and at its front entrance is a huge fibreglass model of a cat. This, the Catford Cat, has become a local landmark and something of a symbol of the neighbourhood.
As the name suggests, Catford grew up on a river ford, the river being the Ravensbourne. But what about the Cat? Where did that come from? No one seems to know or, rather, there are many rival explanations, some less likely than others. Some say that the ford across the Ravensbourne was frequented by wild cats who then gave their name to the town. Others suggest that during the witch hunts, black cats, thought to be witches’ familiars, were drowned at the ford. Yet another story has it that the local landowner, for reasons that remain obscure, was accorded the nickname “The Cat”. Whatever its origin, the name has been used since 1254, which probably invalidates some of the wilder theories.
On the main road, which is here called Rushey Green, we observed this sculpture. It is by Oleg Prokofiev (1928-98), a Russian artist who lived in the area from 1974 to 1998. Why this is called “Chariot” is beyond me because there is nothing of a chariot about it. As I have said before, modern abstract art does nothing for me. If you cannot tell the meaning of a work by looking at it, then you have to accept the artist’s own declaration. In other works, the meaning is not in the work of art but is attached to it externally like a label. If Prokofiev had called this sculpture “Windsor Castle” or “Greyhound” or “Depression”, we would have had to accept his title and meaning. But if a work can take any meaning you care to ascribe to it, then it has no meaning at all. We, the public, are too accepting of what artists foist upon us and often refrain from commenting because we think we are not clever enough or knowledgeable enough to understand the work. That is nonsense. The art work should speak to you of its own accord. If it doesn’t, then you have the right to say so. If more people did this, then perhaps artists would be tempted down from their ivory towers to engage with life and reality.
We found the corner cafe where we were to meet our friends and ordered mint tea. Am I still supposed to be “going easy on the caffeine” after my operation? I am not really sure but I tend to alternate caffeine and non-caffeine drinks just in case. That being so, mint tea has turned out to be a useful stand-by as most cafes and restaurants serve it. Strictly speaking, of course, what you usually get is not really mint tea but something called peppermint. Real mint tea is exactly that: fresh mint leaves steeped in hot water, with or without the addition of lemon and sugar. Peppermint is altogether different, a mixture of who-knows-what in a tea bag, though it is very popular in France where people believe that it is good for soothing an upset stomach.
After parting from our friends, we took a bus to Greenwich. We had a possible goal in view but were willing to change our minds or be distracted by something else. The first distraction was lunch. Our breakfast in AMT seemed a long way away and when we saw that the Green Cafe had vegetarian items on the menu, the only question was whether there was a table free. There was. Sorted.
The cafe is in Greenwich High Road and the above photo is a view along that road. The improbably tall clock town belongs to a late 1930s building shaped like a shoe box and originally intended as Greenwich Town Hall. Today it is called Meridian House and is the home of Meridian College. Greenwich, or rather, Greenwich Observatory, is famously the origin of the zero longitude line, otherwise known as the Meridian. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the word “meridian” turns up quite a lot in the names of buildings and shops, etc. in Greenwich, to the point where it is something of a cliché.
We passed the Church of St Alfege but didn’t go into it or the grounds this time as we had visited it before – see Queen Square to Greenwich for some pictures and a bit about its history. What struck me about these sculptured reliefs in front of the church was how miserable to faces looked. They seem seized by some awful disaster.
Quite by chance, the picture looks as though I took it in monochrome. I didn’t, of course. I am not one of those photographers who claim to believe that black and white photography is somehow superior or “more artistic” than colour. If it were, how come every painter you can think of – El Greco, Rembrandt, Monet, Manet, Picasso, etc, etc – painted in colour, not in black and white? Black and white was something photographers used before colour became a practical possibility. Unfortunately, it seems that modern photography is as infected with hokum as modern art.
Greenwich Market is usually an exciting and interesting place to visit. The market place is surrounded by shops and I imagine that both shops and stalls help bring in the customers that both profit from. The stalls are quite closely packed and the place was crowded, making it hard to move around and virtually impossible to get good photos so we gave up on it. Another time, perhaps.
We did, however, visit the local branch of Nauticalia. On a corner site, it holds an extensive range of stock and is usually full of people who, like us, are just there to look, not to actually buy anything. The shop presents as a ship’s chandler’s and maybe, in the distant past, that’s what it was. Today it is a shop that sells upmarket toys, clothes and knick-knacks, all vaguely on the theme of ships and a life on the ocean wave, to the poseur sailing fraternity. For all that, it is fun to visit, and if I am to be strictly honest, there are one or two things I might be tempted to buy if I had more money than sense.
In a courtyard, I spotted this sculpture. I must say it fascinated me. It looks as if someone has tried to make a wayside shrine out of a disembowelled shark. I could not see any plate or label as the courtyard was private and the gate was locked. This was a camera-poked-through-the-railings shot.
Continuing, we came to the ornate gates of Greenwich Park and entered in. The place is in a bit of a mess as a result of being used for the wretched Olympics. A lot of London’s beautiful places have been despoiled in order to use them to stage parts of the Games. The damage is supposed to be repaired and everything put back as it was but, as is usual in such cases, those responsible are a lot quicker to cause a wreck than to put it right. I hope Londoners remember this if and when the next attempt is made to con us into believing that hosting the Games is somehow to our advantage.
We had come to the National Maritime Museum to see an exhibition. The Museum is of course always worth a visit though there is a huge amount to see and a lot of information to absorb so you need to make sure you have plenty of time. We didn’t by now have a lot of time left. We had intended to see the exhibition Ansell Adams: Photography from the Mountains to the Sea. When we joined the queue at the ticket counter, we saw there was only one assistant on duty. He had clients but was busy on the phone. Nothing moved; we grew impatient; and in the end, we gave up. Maybe we can go back another time as I would like to see the exhibition.
We caught a bus to Blackheath and changed buses at a place called Blackheath Royal Standard, named, as is often the case, after a pub. The gardens and the commodious houses show that this was once a fairly posh area, developed in the Victorian and Edwardian eras.
The houses, some standing in their own grounds, suggest a grander past when they were inhabited by affluent families, perhaps with servants. Today, they are divided into flats or have been converted into offices.
Elegantly dressed strollers perhaps once frequented the central gardens which now serve as a bus terminus, and stopped to take a sip from the drinking fountain.
The drinking fountain, assuming that it is in its original location (councils often move them around and use them to decorate otherwise empty corners), has been standing here since 1889. The inscription is now quite hard to read though I think I deciphered the date and the fact that it was erected by public subscription – a fact that says something about the area and its inhabitants at the time.
Our last visit of the day was to Age Exchange in Blackheath village. This is a unique project which seeks to improve the quality of life of the elderly by “valuing their reminiscences” (see here for more details). It seems to me that the concept of an exchange is a good one: older members of the community can come here to revive memories of their lives and the events they witnessed but their own reminiscences also contribute to forming a body of interesting historical information for scholars to tap into. It is a welcoming place with a cafe and a gallery of pictures and exhibits. There is also a library: Lewisham Council decided that it needed to close the local public library because of the cuts but this vital facility has happily survived through the good offices of Age Exchange which now hosts it. Much more goes on behind the modest façade than might be obvious at first sight!