Saturday, March 2nd 2013
We started our day by going down to St Pancras station to look for breakfast before moving on to somewhere else. One of the first things that grabbed our attention was this magnificent tiger.
Made out of the material of 300 plastic milk bottles, this fiercely beautiful cat was on show to advertise a three-week event at St Pancras station, Tiger Tracks (March 1st to 21st), organized by the Born Free Foundation. There will be all sorts of events intended to entertain as well as to inform and to bring to the notice of the public the precarious state of tigers in the wild. With only some 3,500 tigers left in the wild, we are in real and imminent danger of losing this magnificent and iconic species.
Surprisingly few people are aware of how close we have come to witnessing the demise of wild tiger in our own lifetime. Organizations like Born Free are working hard to stop this slide into extinction, but they need the concerned awareness – and, of course, the financial support – of the public in order to work effectively. Hence the Tiger Tracks event which both entertains and educates as well as raising money for essential work to protect habitats, prevent poaching and, not least, find ways in which tigers and indigenous human communities can live together without undue friction.
We enjoyed a pleasant conversation with one of the young ladies hosting the Tiger Tracks event and then went off in search of breakfast. Out of habit more than anything, we went to the upper level as we used to but as the Camden Food Co cafe is now but a shadow of its former self, we did not tarry.
We went next door to King’s Cross station and had our breakfast at Pret A Manger. The setting is functional rather than elegant but the food is reliable and not overpriced.
After breakfast we took a bus to Hackney. Hackney is, I think, quite an interesting place, well worth visiting from time to time. Like any London Borough, it has posh bits, less posh bits, shops, amenities and vestiges of an interesting history. It is, after all, a place where people live and work and lead their lives. It is a lively borough with a lot to interest the visitor.
Among other attributes, Hackney is the proud possessor of the Hackney Empire, built as a music hall in 1901 and the venue, since then, of many kinds of entertainment, including TV broadcasts. Its architect was the well known designer of theatres and music halls, Frank Matcham, and it is today a listed (Grade II) building. See here for more about its history.
Also in Mare Street and nearby is a doorway. The wall tiling and the floor mosaic indicates that it is a pub called The Old Ship (though the word “Old” is missing from the floor mosaic for some reason). Apart from that, there is no sign of the usual pub façade. Tigger proposed going in for refreshments but I was dubious about this slightly unpromising-looking place until she reminded me we had been here before.
The door admits you to a long, bare passageway. My guess is that this was once an open-air alley. If this seems a strange way to arrange the main entrance to a pub, the answer is that this turns out not to be the main entrance. The pub is “the wrong way round”, as we shall see.
The interior is quite pleasant though the character of the original pub (which has been here since 1877) has been carefully expunged. The modern style might be described as “minimalist with luxury fittings”. The reason for this will become clear when I tell you that many of the tables were already prepared for diners and that as well as being a pub restaurant, The Old Ship is a “boutique hotel”. (Not having viewed the hotel accommodations I cannot say whether the appellation is justified.)
Unlike the normal pub, the staff greet you as you enter to enquire whether you wish to have a meal or just a drink, and then lead you to the appropriate area. They were polite enough but there was a lack of affability. There was even a suggestion that our business might not have been to their entire satisfaction, as we shall see…
I ordered black tea and was pleased when it turned out to be properly brewed in a tea pot from loose leaf tea and was accompanied by a tea strainer, just as tea should made. But do you notice something else on the table to the right of the tea pot? Yes, a reserved notice. Hardly had we sat down when one of the members of staff came and put this on the table, a none too subtle hint that we should not stay too long.
“They don’t like the cut of our jib,” remarked Tigger, and that was certainly one possible interpretation. Then again, it might have been because they were awaiting the lunchtime rush and didn’t want us taking up space that could be occupied by customers shelling out for a whole meal. Either way, it was rather rude and unwelcoming.
To leave the pub, we turned our backs to the way we had come in and went out by what might intuitively have seemed to be the back entrance. In this case, however, it was the front entrance, and this is in a narrow street called Sylvester Path. That perhaps explains the long passageway: the pub is actually in Sylvester Path, a back street, but the original owners wanted it to have a presence on the main road in Mare Street.
We went for a ramble around the back streets where there is always something interesting to see. When I saw the high front doors of these Georgian houses I asked Tigger how she would feel about hauling our shopping trolley up those steps, but answer came there none!
We also had a visit in mind so turned back towards the Town Hall. We found it dressed all over in plastic sheeting, pending refurbishment, and not fit to be seen. So…
…I took a photo instead of this fine looking palm tree, one of a pair in the Town Hall garden. Despite the winter weather they look to be flourishing, along with the flowers around their bases. This is just one indication of how Hackney takes pride in itself and in its appearance.
Where we were going was the Hackney Museum. We have been here therefore but it is a museum that is worth revisiting, firstly because you cannot absorb everything on a single visit and secondly because the museum also mounts exhibitions that change regularly. It is a well organized and well kept museum with what I think is the right balance between features of interest to children and plenty exhibits and information to entertain and educate adults. They have avoided the “dumbing down” that too often afflicts “child friendly” museums. The staff member on duty was very helpful and ready to talk about all sorts of matters regarding Hackney and its history.
There are plenty of real objects such as this 19th century fire engine and the remains of an Anglo-Saxon boat (difficult to photograph because it is protected by a transparent panel the reflects the lights. Incidentally, photography is allowed in the museum as long as its not for “publication”. When I asked for a definition of “publication”, I was told that posting pictures on the blog would be acceptable. This enlightened attitude is one for other museums and galleries to emulate.
There is, quite rightly, an emphasis on local history, not just “big name history”, but the history of local events and the lives of ordinary people, which I have represented by my picture of the pie and eel shop lamp. There is also on display the front of the shop and, similarly, machines and tools rescued from an old print shop.
There is also a nice tribute to Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe and sometime inhabitant of nearby Stoke Newington, who was put in the pillory in 1703 for criticising religious intolerance. His bust is accompanied by his gravestone, originally placed in the Bunhill Dissenters burial ground. It shows his name as he would have written it – Daniel De Foe.
As well as intriguing and often moving stories of ordinary people and their lives, the museum hosts a collection of more general exhibits such as this photographic equipment which, though we now regard it as “antique”, was cutting edge technology in its day. How these early photographers would have loved to get their hands on the marvellous cameras and accessories that we take for granted today. Even so, what they produced with their own tools is remarkable for its quality and artistic flair. Many of the photos they considered simply as everyday products have come down to us as precious historic documents. There is something very touching about the portraits of couples and families.
In addition to the permanent displays, Hackney Museum also holds exhibitions which, I believe, change every four months. The current one of called Creative Journeys and is described as “An exhibition of visual and audio art of the creative journeys taken by those who have suffered severe and enduring mental health issues”. The art works on display covered many genres and were for the most part individualistic and complex. The photo below shows just one of the many works on show.
This work by Karen Eliot, called 1001 Ways Of Letting It Go, consists of a flock of paper birds, whose shadows are cast on the stark white screen by the spotlights. Unlike the other works which are finished and static, this one grows. On a writing desk nearby are a typewriter, paper and instructions for folding the paper to make paper birds. People can write or type their fears, concerns, etc. on a sheet of paper and then fold this to make a bird. The bird symbolizes letting go of one’s concerns. These birds will eventually be ceremoniously thrown into the local river and will float away. The paper is biodegradable so as not to harm the environment.
We caught a bus in the general direction of London Fields and took a few photos here and there but the time came when I needed the loo again, so we looked for a place where there would be pubs or cafes. We thus chanced upon Broadway Market. Markets are held in many towns and their popularity varies. I can say that this one seems extremely popular. It was so crowded that we found it hard to move along the street.
We found a cafe with a toilet for customers (most cafes do have them these days, I am glad to say, which was not always the case in the past) and ordered drinks. Then we decided we might as well stay for lunch. The pace was quite busy but the service was efficient and friendly.
We set off again towards London Fields and in Croston Street spotted this unusual house. Its beautiful green tiled ground floor suggests that it was built (or converted into) a pub in the Victorian or Edwardian eras. The panels painted cream may well once have borne the name of the pub and the name of the ale that it sold. (It would have been nice if at least the pub name could have been preserved as is often done these days.)
As we approached London Fields, almost the first thing we saw was an artist at work. I didn’t want to distract or annoy him so I contented myself with a discreet photo from the back! When we passed this way again a little later, he had disappeared.
London Fields is today a large park and public space, too big to capture with a single photo. Perhaps the artist has a better chance of expressing its essence than the photographer who can only render it piecemeal. It is a varied space with trees and metalled paths but also with lots of grass and it is the grass that symbolizes its history.
A feature of the park is a cement and pebble sculpture by Free Form Arts (1988) representing a pair of flower sellers and some sheep. This alludes to the fact that London Fields was originally common land where local people could graze their cattle and also part of the drover route to Smithfield. Market traders would also come here to sell their wares. All these activities ceased long ago and London Fields today is a place of amenity and recreation.
We left the park and walked along Lansdowne Drive to find a bus stop where we could catch a bus home. Quite close to the railings we saw a crowd of what I at first thought where crows. I was surprised as I had never seen so many together at once, at least not in town. I later decided that they must be rooks and that someone had left food in the grass. The pigeons were also very active.
The rooks were nervous of people and of the fact that I was taking an interest in them, and they soon flew away, all except one brave individual who was not in the least fazed and continued feeding among the pigeons, occasionally calling loudly to his companions. (Probably cussing the nosy photographer!)
Our bus came and we boarded, bringing our Hackney adventure to an end, at least for today. I will leave you with a self-portrait as I have not posted one for a while. When I caught sight if myself in a mirror in Hackney Museum, I couldn’t resist…