Tigger had a day off from work today so we decided to make the most of it. We started by walking down to the corner of Pentonville Road with York Way. This area was once part of the Caledonian Wharf but has been refurbished to provide business accommodation of various sorts. Accessed by a passage is a courtyard, and this was our first stop.
In the courtyard is a branch of Camino, a Spanish cafe bar which serves Spanish food and at this hour of the morning, serves a range of breakfast dishes. For us, a desayuno vegetariano filled the bill.
Set into the paving of the courtyard is the plaque pictured above. It is a memorial to the industrial past of Caledonian Wharf. On the left, Bravington’s is mentioned and, on the right, a “Varnishing Works”. Right in the middle, we read the company name “Wilson Heywood & Clark”. There certainly was a varnishing works here which took up residence towards the end of the 1800s. However, I can find no reference to a “Wilson Heywood & Clark” but plenty to a “Wilkinson Heywood & Clark”. So I fear that whoever commissioned the plaque didn’t do his homework properly and got the name wrong.
That’s not quite all, however, as there is disagreement over other details. According to GLIAS (the Greater London Industrial Archaeology Society), “Original firm moved out c1910” (see here near the bottom on the page) but according to British History Online, “Wilkinson, Heywood & Clark remained in business at the wharf (also known as Caledonian Works) until the Second World War” (see here, about a third of the way down the page) – rather a discrepancy. Neither of these squares with the fact that the London Gazette on Jan 4th 1924 publishes an announcement of the firm’s voluntary liquidation and a meeting of creditors on Jan 15th (see here, third item down in the left column). It seems that confusion has entered the various narratives at some point.
Our intended destination was Covent Garden, and more particularly a museum there that we had been meaning to visit for some time. We found Covent Garden already dressed for Christmas with decorations, lights, baubles and colourful shop window displays. We had a quick look around while waiting for for the museum to open at 11 am.
The history of transport in London is of course long and complex. The London Transport Museum covers it well and in detail, presenting information in various forms, not least in the presence of historic vehicles, beautifully restored and many of them extremely rare.
It is hard to imagine London without buses or to convince ourselves what a novelty buses were when they first appeared in the form of a coach drawn by horses whose passengers were charged for the ride. At a shilling a ticket, most people would not have been able to afford the luxury.
Eventually, prices fell and the “omnibus” became, as its name suggests, transport “for all”. One of the problems faced by buses was the poor state of the roads which slowed the vehicle and gave passengers a rough ride. The tram, running on smooth rails, was intended to overcome this difficulty.
Another revolution occurred with the underground railway (much of which eventually ran above ground). The brass cylinder on the above loco contained gas to light the carriages.
In underground sections, smoke and steam caused problems that, despite many ingenious attempts at a solution, remained until the network was electrified.
Electricity and the internal combustion engine would transform public transport, making it faster and, in the case of buses and trams, able to climb previously inaccessible hills (not that everyone approved). Note that two of the men in the carriage are wearing the new “bowler” or “Coker” hat, which became popular after the demise of the once universal top hat or “stovepipe”.
While the history of transport is a story of continuous progress and improvement, there have been hiccups along the way. For example, consider this ill-fated vehicle.
Though the past obviously contributes the larger part of the exhibition, the present and, more interestingly the future, are also covered. For example, what do you think of the idea of whizzing along the roads seated on top of a single wheel?
The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, caused controversy by, among other things, requiring bendybuses to be replaced by conventional double-deckers. He has also commissioned a new design of bus. The result is an eccentric creation with a platform, a feature of buses long ago discontinued for safety reasons. Will this chimaera ever run on our streets?
There is much more to be said about the Transport Museum and you can spend hours there. Fortunately, all individual tickets allow unlimited visits to the museum for one year, allowing you to study the exhibitions as deeply as you wish.
As it was the middle of the afternoon, we decided it was time for a late lunch and went along to try Porters English Restaurant, which is also in Covent Garden. Many people, natives as well as tourists, are puzzled by this designation “English Restaurant”, not really believing there is anything that can be described as genuine English cookery. I would suggest that such sceptics betake themselves to Porters with a view to practical investigation. Our meal was, if not the experience of a lifetime, reasonably enjoyable.
Walking along the Strand and then into Fleet Street, we came to this gateway (dated 1748 on the outside and 1905 on the inside). It leads to the Temple Church and to two Inns of Court, the Inner and Middle Temple. This area belonged to the Knights Templar (hence the name) until the order was dissolved in 1312.
The Knights Hospitallers then became owners of the land, some of which they leased to lawyers as a site for a hostel (the original meaning of the “Inn” in this context). Two Inns of Court were established here and remain to this day, the Inner Temple and the Middle Temple, respectively. When the Hospitallers were suppressed in 1539, the land reverted to the Crown. Later, James I gave it to the two Inns, in return for their agreement to maintain Temple Church.
In the centre of the court next to the church stands the pictured column. It was erected on the year 2000 and marks the centre of the cloister courtyard of the Knights Templar. It also marks the spot where the Great Fire of 1666 was finally extinguished. The figure at the top shows two knights upon one horse, a reminder that the Templars were originally too poor to afford a horse each.
We passed by the Inner Temple Garden, a pretty park that must be pleasant to sit or stroll in when the weather is warm and sunny. On the ornate gates, Pegasus rears up, perhaps about to take flight. Pegasus is an omnipresent symbol here, seen decorating doorways and façades wherever you turn. In particular, we find Pegasus above the door of Inner Temple Hall.
The ubiquity of Pegasus is in honour of William Charles Niblett (1856-1920). Called to the Bar of Inner Temple in 1882, he donated his Singapore properties to the Inn in 1915. This funding was used in 1932 to build Niblett Hall, over whose doorway stood the Pegasus emblem. The hall was demolished in 1992 and replaced by the above new hall, but the tradition of having Pegasus above the doorway has been preserved.
Continuing into Middle Temple, we saw the Middle Temple Hall, its fine stained glass windows softly illuminated by the lights inside the building.
We passed a garden with a fountain, looking slightly lonely at this hour on an autumn evening, and…
walked down Garden Court, coming out onto Temple Place where we discovered Number 2 Temple Place.
This building is obviously an interesting item on its own account. It apparently doesn’t have a name, though it clearly ought to have one, and is known simply as Two Temple Place. Owned by the Bulldog Trust, Two Temple Place is both a gallery and a venue that can be hired for events. According to Bulldog, it is “the first London venue to specifically showcase publicly-owned art from UK regional collections.” We didn’t tarry this time but we shall certainly come back another time.
As for the putti on the lamps, at first glance they look conventional enough. Do you notice anything slightly odd, though? I spotted it only by chance.
The pair to the left of the staircase are unremarkable but the other pair have graduated to modern technology: they are talking to one another on the telephone! A rather primitive version of the telephone, granted, but a telephone nonetheless. I have no idea who made these figures or when but I hope to find out.
From the Temple, we walked along Victoria Embankment. As the daylight faded, the electric lights were waking up and starting to create their colourful night-time display. Our destination now was Somerset House, a place with many points of interest.
Usually, we are confined to the ground and upper floors of Somerset House but today we were allowed to explore part of the labyrinth below ground level. This is because an exhibition, entitled Forgotten Spaces, was being held down there (which may explain why the door is wrapped in black plastic). A strange new world of corners, edges, staircases, and multilevel views is revealed.
In places we had views of the “normal” world, that of the courtyard above us, and in others we were in almost complete darkness, peering into unlit passageways…
…and up shadowy staircases where strange lights beckoned…
There were surprises too, such as this heap built from pieces of wood. Is it modern art or…
Under the shelter of a staircase, a “bug hotel” has been installed. Whether anyone was at home we did not stop to ascertain but hurried on.
(Yes, I used flash for the last two photos, something I don’t like to do and avoid whenever possible as I find it produces unnatural images. Here, though, the darkness would have made it impossible to see anything in the photo.)
We eventually came to this strange space, a kind of underground hall. Today it was displaying items of the Forgotten Spaces exhibition and can be hired for all sorts of events. Needless to say, its original purpose was quite different, as indicated by the name by which it is still known – the Dead House.
Somerset House has a long and complex – not to say complicated – history. At times, it has been a royal palace. In the 17th century, this hall or crypt was used for burials. In the above photo, you can perhaps see a dark panel on the right edge. That is one of the several gravestones. I didn’t make a complete inventory of burials but I am sure that such a list would contain some historically significant names. That one in particular caught my attention and it can stand as a specimen.
However, as I think the information I have collected about the occupant (Jacques d’Angennes) is too substantial to include in an already long post, I will write a separate article on the subject.
It was time for us to return to the upper world and think about returning home. I had often looked down into the basement but never thought to be able to explore it. Seen now, it has become more familiar though still with an aura of mystery.
Despite the darker moments in its history, Somerset House is today an entirely benevolent institution, interesting in its own right, worthy of admiration for its elegant beauty, but also a venue for the arts. There is also something worth seeing there.
For us, though, it was time to head home after what had been a long but pleasant day out.