This weekend (Oct 21-23), Bloomsbury is celebrating the Bloomsbury Festival with all sorts of events, included guided tours of various interesting places, some of which are not normally open to the public. We thought we would go along and join one or two of these.
The name of Bloomsbury, which rolls luxuriously off the tongue, has nothing to do with flowers. It is thought that it derives from Blemondsbury, the manor held by one William Blemund, whose family originally hailed from Blémont in France. Early in the 20th century it was the stamping ground of Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group of writers and intellectuals. This perhaps accounts for the still prevalent belief that it is the quartier of artists and writers.
The area was greatly developed in the 18th century, providing a legacy of fine Georgian houses and other buildings that can still be admired (and used) today. The population is now quite mixed but the area retains a character all its own and, as the existence of the Festival shows, a strong community spirit. The British Museum, originally founded upon Sir Hans Sloane’s house and collection, resides here as do parts of the University of London. One third of the population is said to be contributed by students.
Our first port of call was here, the Brunswick Centre, between Marchmont Road and Brunswick Square. When we arrived, stalls were buying set up for the sale of goods and take-away food. The word “Centre” does not quite give the flavour of the place. Part of it is the open rectangle lined with shops, cafes and the Renoir cinema. The other part is two long apartment blocks running in parallel down two sides of the space. It was these that we had come to see.
Conceived in the 1960s to replace several streets of run-down terraced houses, this radical design by architect Patrick Hodgkinson was a way to produce high-density housing without exceeding the LCC’s height limit for the site of 80 feet. Built between 1967 and 1972, the two blocks are based on the shape of the letter ‘A’ (imagine the letter ‘A’ running through a stick of rock), each row of apartments above the first is set back from the row beneath it. The result is unusual and – depending of your architectural tastes, of course – not without a certain elegance. The main fabric is concrete, painted cream as a tribute to the area’s Georgian housing whose typical colour this would have been.
Going inside is like entering a sci-fi closed city. There are long vistas of corridors running beneath overarching concrete pillars. To me it felt uncomfortable, as though I were in a huge factory or power station, a place of danger where the public should not be. This no doubt came from the “brutalist” style. I am told, however, that the residents are by and large happy with the place and that there is an active residents’ committee working to maintain and improve the place. Probably, then, I would get used to living there and perhaps come to like and admire it as many do.
The building’s history has been troubled and the architect quit before it was finished. However, he has recently come back (some 40 years later) to oversee completion of the work as originally conceived – this includes painting the concrete as originally intended but not done until now. The apartments have also been modernized in the meantime as standards have advanced since the block were first planned. Some friction is caused by the fact that the building is listed Grade II, this prohibiting certain changes, such as double-glazing the windows.
The apartments are “single-aspect”, that is, all daylight and the only view of the outside world, comes from the front. At the back is only a blank wall punctuated by a small frosted widow. I imagine the terraces with their greenery give some relief from the claustrophobic corridors. They also provide space for in-house activities.
The terraces also overlook the open space or square, helping to give an open and airy feeling. There were plans to build a bridge between the two blocks but these did not materialize. For more information on the building and history of the Brunswick Centre, see Wikipedia article, Brunswick Centre, and Steve Rose’s 2006 Guardian piece, Scrubs up beautifully.
We were not shown an apartment so I cannot comment on what they are like. The concrete structure is said to provide good sound insulation providing you are not actually drilling into it in which case the sound is heard along the whole length of the building! My abiding impression, perhaps biased by viewpoint, is of the corridors and stairways, where distant vistas dwarf people who seem like insects.
Despite these vistas, because the apartments “look the other way”, you feel you could be mugged here and that no one would see or hear a thing. Or perhaps I am letting my imagination run away with me, though…
During the visit, I tried hard to imagine myself living here and feeling comfortable in this environment of concrete pillars and beams, long corridors and surprisingly narrow staircases. In the end, though, the sight of our exit to the street was a relief. I just wish I had been able to see inside a flat in order to complete the experience and perhaps obtain a fairer view.
Our next visit was to St George’s Garden. Today, it looks as you see it above, a green and pleasant space, agreeably decorated with trees. Its ancient purpose, though, is revealed by a number of tombs that have been left in situ and headstones arranged around the edge.
As well as the above drinking fountain, there is a quite attractive piece of sculpture. It looks as if it is modelled on a Classical work but there is no ascription or information plate so I do not know who made it or what it represents.
The garden originated as two burial grounds, for St George’s, Bloomsbury and for St George The Martyr, Holborn, respectively. Designed by Nicholas Hawksmore, they were opened in 1715 and continued in use until a government Act closed city burial grounds in 1855.
Between 1884 and 1889, the combined grounds were transformed into a garden, leaving some of the grander and more historically interesting tombs in place.
The guide was a very knowledgeable gentleman and told us many interesting facts. For me, though, especially as we had just come from another tour, it was all a little too much and I became bored. So…
… I went to see and photograph some pigeons. I had some biscuits to share so of course we got on very well. Until, that is, the tour group moved in our direction and the pigeons flew off into the trees.
We worked our way back to St Pancras and had lunch in the station at one of those lunch-in-a-cardboard-box places. This one was called Chop’d. I was not impressed, especially in view of the prices which were in my opinion too high for the quality of the food. This included a “soup” that appeared to be half-cooked vegetables floating in hot water.
After lunch, we went to Malet Street to see this striking Art Deco building. Generations of students will recognize it as Senate House. the administrative centre of the University of London and the location of its famous Senate House Library, membership of which is a must for the local academic community.
Designed by Charles Holden and built between 1932 and 1937, Senate House was intended to be part of a larger plan for the University but this was never completed. Its height of 210 feet (64m) and its 1930s styling make it seem (to British eyes at least) an American skyscraper in miniature. It has of course appeared in films and TV productions. In the TV series Jeeves and Wooster (starring Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, respectively), it was featured as the hotel building occupied by the pair when they were supposedly in New York.
We had missed the organized tours but were allowed to explore on our own and take photographs in part of the south block. It is a light and airy building, elegant but comfortably proportioned for the human frame.
I am sorry to have missed the tours as it would have been interesting and pleasurable to see more of this fine building. The above photos provide a sample of what we saw in the public area where everything was consistent both in design and in quality of finish.
That was not quite the end of our outing as we saw a few more things associated with the Bloomsbury Festival, such as…
A Co-operative store with balloons around the door and…
this strange installation in South Crescent. I have no idea what it is.
Then, when we were nearly home, something else turned up, showing that the curious mind never gets a chance to relax!
This is the building currently occupied by the Crafts Council in Pentonville Road. I pass it nearly every day but today Tigger noticed something extra. Because of the slanting sunlight it was possible to see the outline of old lettering above the top central window. There were just two words: Claremont Chapel.
I had never noticed this before and didn’t know there had ever been such an entity as a Claremont Chapel. Of course, I looked it up but the information I found was tantalizingly little. The chapel was built in 1819, as "a place of worship for Independents" (John Gorton, A Topographical Dictionary of Great Britain and Ireland, 1833) and closed in 1899, though it continued to be used as a mission until 1902. I have no idea what happened to it between then and it being occupied by the Crafts Council in recent times. Homework for the approaching long dark evenings!