Today’s program of visits was going to be a little mixed so it was essential to begin with a good breakfast. As we were going to the Southbank Centre anyway, we thought we would look for something there. We just missed a 341 that would have taken us straight to Waterloo Bridge so we hopped on a 19, and changed at Holborn. There we paused to take a look at one of the local treasures.
I refer to Sicilian Avenue, a pedestrian precinct lined with shops and restaurants, with apartments above. The paving has recently been refurbished, disrupting the avenue for several weeks, and it is good to see the place back in full use.
In the evenings, the restaurants have tables outside but it was still too early for that, except for the cafe at the end. Completed in 1910, Sicilian Avenue was designed by R.J. Worley in Italian Classical style. Although it harmonizes with the general style of the district, it also stands out as something distinct and special.
We walked down High Holborn, past the tube station, and caught a bus which, this time, delivered us to the end of Waterloo Bridge. From here we went down to the Thames and the Southbank Centre.
Under the bridge, the secondhand booksellers were just beginning to set up their tables for the day. Later, there will be many more tables and crowds of people rifling through the books, either seeking a specific volume or looking for something to catch their eye.
The upper walkway gives access to the Southbank Centre and Queen Elizabeth Concert Hall. The space underneath the walkway has been abandoned to skateboarders who spend long hours here practising their turns and jumps. They’re obviously not early risers as there was no one here at this hour, giving me the unusual chance of an uncluttered view.
Later, the rattle-rattle-clack will become deafening and you wonder why there are not more accidents as people rush around on skateboards with scant attention to safety. Skateboard jumping is surely dullest and least elegant sport imaginable.
We decided to go to Giraffe for breakfast. They do just about the best porridge in town, garnished with strawberries and sliced banana, and a choice of cooked breakfasts to follow, some suitable for us pesky vegetarians. Unbeknownst to me, while I was taking the above photo, someone was taking a photo of me!
(Yes, I know, I’m a scruff.) If you look below my camera and above my shoulder you can see a second me in the mirror. I don’t know what the blurry bit on my chest is – maybe a reflection in the lens.
Suitably fortified in body and spirit, we went to take a look at DEATH: SOUTHBANK CENTRE’S FESTIVAL FOR THE LIVING, associated with which was an event entitled THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX. (N.B. I am not sure how long these linked pages will remain extant as they are for events of limited duration.)
It was the “boxes” that we were interested in. As a matter of fact, I had no idea that people were manufacturing what might be called “fantasy coffins” for every possible fad and fancy. Nor is it a new trend, apparently, though the Web site of Crazy Coffins seems a bit coy as to the date when their first novelty coffin was completed.
There was a startling array of coffins on show. Most were made by Crazy Coffins, a subsidiary of Vic Fearn & Co Ltd, Nottinghamshire (no Web site). The ballet shoe above might do for a dancer or for someone with a passion for ballet, while the one below carries an accidental resonance with something I mentioned earlier.
The boundaries of design are apparently limited only by the imagination – and the purse – of the customer. As you might expect, a custom casket is quite expensive and takes several weeks to make. Then again, the dead are unlikely to become impatient and customers may even commission these boxes for themselves during their lifetime.
It’s rather fun seeing how a particular subject has been tackled and how the design has been arranged so as to accommodate the corpse, without doing undue violence to either. The Rolls was possibly my favourite, despite the fact that the steering wheel was broken off
(As an aside, although photography was allowed – for which I am grateful, of course – the exhibits were arranged in front of windows, making for lighting conditions that rendered good photography somewhat difficult.)
That is not to say that everyone wishes to adopt the missionary position for the final journey. The lady who commissioned this ovoid coffin chose the design because she wished to exit life in the foetal position in which she had entered it. That’s rather reminiscent of prehistoric urn burials.
The above example was the one that struck me as the most macabre, perhaps because the outline of the body is more obvious and perhaps also because it reminded me of stories of climbers on Mount Everest who routinely pass the corpses of those who have died on previous attempts. It also raises another question: how do you bury this one in a normal grave? I suppose the answer in this case is to remove the skis but others posed much more of a challenge to the gravedigger.
This customer was no doubt an avid flyer of kites and wanted to be associated with the activity in death. But how would you bury this large contraption, unless you buried the coffin and disposed of the rest, nullifying the point of the exercise? Or perhaps you launch it from a cliff top with a stiff breeze blowing out to sea and hope for the best?
Most bizarre of all, perhaps, is The Corkscrew, representing the cork from a wine bottle (“Special Scented Reserve”) caught on the prong of the corkscrew. The dear departed will rest within the cork. I think, however, that this is more an exhibition piece than a work commissioned by an actual customer.
Also represented is a small collection of coffins made by the Ghanaian artist Paa Joe. The Mercedes above might be said to be a fairly conventional model (in terms of “crazy” coffins, that is) but some of his others have a more “African” feel.
Such, for example, is the cocoa pod coffin shown above, which refers to one of Ghana’s larger industries and is therefore quite a popular choice despite the expense. For some reason, it makes me think of a one-man submarine.
The lion, perhaps the archetypal animal of Africa, is often chosen as a symbol of strength and bravery and is apparently one of Paa Joe’s personal favourites among his designs.
Fascinating as these “crazy” coffins were (and I have shown you only a selection of what was on show), we decided it was time to move on and we returned to Waterloo Bridge.
With its low rails and lack of superstructure, Waterloo Bridge offers an uncluttered platform for views of the surrounding area. For that reason, it is a favourite location to watch the New Year’s fireworks displays provided by the Mayor of London.
When you cross Waterloo Bridge, you take photos of the river, the boats, the buildings along the banks, even if you have already done so hundreds of times before. How could you not? The scene demands it, as does the curving swathe of the river and the open expanse of sky. It is a place to gaze and to breathe.
After crossing the bridge, we turned along the Victoria Embankment to Temple Place. The latter strikes off diagonally, leaving space between itself and the Embankment for the Victoria Embankment Gardens. The first section is completely paved and reached by steps, giving a view of the river.
We had come here to make another assault on 2 Temple Place, after two previous unsuccessful attempts (see, for example, The last walk of the year). We were met by an unwelcome sight: there was a queue for admission! This was not altogether surprising as the house (built by Lord Astor and now the HQ of the Bulldog Trust) is hosting an exhibition entitled William Morris, Story, Memory, Myth, and tomorrow is the last day.
There was nothing for us but to wait in the queue otherwise we would miss the Morris exhibition. The queue wound through the gate and curved around the small courtyard. People were allowed to enter as previous visitors left, the object being to prevent the house from becoming overcrowded.
The queue was ably managed by these two gentlemen, members of the Corps of Commissionaires. They not only kept order and deterred would-be queue jumpers but also engaged us in friendly conversation while we waited. They kindly consented to be photographed. I was sad to hear that the Corps was under threat of being disbanded. That would be a pity as these men perform a very useful function and do so with tact and courtesy but also with necessary firmness. They would be greatly missed.
The wait was not too long and we entered a somewhat crowded house. In the vestibule, a greeter gave us a short verbal account of the layout of the house but we were told, as I expected, that photography was not allowed. I thus spent most of the visit with an itchy shutter-finger because the house is both interesting in design and beautifully appointed and decorated. It is well worth a visit for its own sake. Carved woodwork, stained glass, elegant proportions… an ideal location to show samples of the work of William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. Perhaps you can gain some impression of the house from this Introduction page, but it needs to be seen to be fully appreciated.
After the visit to the house, we walked across into Victoria Embankment Gardens. The section here is known, additionally, as Temple Garden, and is a pleasant spot to stroll or, in fine weather, sit on a bench.
John Stuart Mill, the philosopher and author of On Liberty (a book that is widely acclaimed but whose precepts are widely ignored, most notably by political parties with “Liberal” in their name) is celebrated here by a statue (by Thomas Woolner, 1878) and so is the philanthropist and promoter of temperance, Lady Henry Somerset, represented (appropriately enough) by a drinking fountain. This is topped by the figure of a child carrying what some say is a begging bowl (though her careful stance suggests it might be a bowl of water). The original sculpture was the work of George Edward Wade (1897) but it was stolen and replaced in 1999 by a replica. (For more details, see a nice post on this work on Caroline’s Miscellany.)
Another notable is represented by a statue by Henry Richard Hope Pinker (1889). This is William Forster, remembered for “Forster’s Education Act”, more precisely the Elementary Education Act of 1870. I cannot help wondering how he would view the decline of education in our own age.
My favourite object in the garden, however, was the “bug hotel” pictured above. You might easily miss it, thinking it was garden detritus waiting to be disposed of. All the better, as it is less likely to be interfered with. I hope the smaller members of our community get good use out of it.
Heading towards the Strand, we walked up Surrey Street. Near the top, you come across this disused Piccadilly Line tube station. If you peer through the glass door next to the gate labelled “ENTRANCE”, you see a sign bearing the name ALDWYCH. Continuing around the corner into the Strand…
…you come to another dead Piccadilly Line tube station, this one called STRAND. Another one? Surely, a train of normal length would reach from one station to the other – how can there have been two so close together? The answer, of course, is that these are but two entrances of the same station. It sits at the end of a spur of the Piccadilly Line running from Holborn. Opened in 1907, it was closed in 1994. The excessive cost of repairing or replacing its ancient lifts was avoided by simply closing it down altogether. War historians will remember that it was one of the tube stations that were used as night-time air raid shelters during the Second World War. This usage no doubt saved thousands of lives by the war’s end.
We walked along the Strand, passing the Church of St Mary le Strand, designed by James Gibbs and built 1714-17, one of the 50 new churches built as a result of the Act of 1711. (The original church was demolished to make way for Somerset House.) Today it is the official church of the Women’s Royal Naval Service.
The church is now somewhat isolated on an island in the middle of the road and, risking life and limb by walking on the narrow pavement along the southern edge of the church, one finds on the wall this intriguing tablet telling us that
The PUMP-WELL is XIX Feet South from
this Stone, and VIII from the Surface.
Its diameter VII and depth XXVIII Feet.
Re-opened and a Pump erected
ANNO DOMINI, MDCCCVII
The location described is now where the road passes and so the pump-well, if any traces remain, is buried deep under the tarmac.
From here we turned right into Montreal Place, to which a sad story attaches. It was here, on Friday, December 13th 1991, that an off-duty police officer, DC Jim Morrison, finally caught up with a presumed bag snatcher and was stabbed and fatally wounded. Despite ongoing investigations and public appeals, his killer has not so far been apprehended. A stone memorial marks the spot.
The top part of Montreal Place was renamed India Place on January 26th (India’s Republic Day) in 1996. India House stands here and beside it this bust of a rather youthful-looking Jawaharlal Nehru. Often referred to as Pandit Nehru (“pandit” being a title of respect accorded to a learned man), he was the first prime minister of a newly independent India, 1947 to 1964.
Beside India House stands this tree, a koelreutaria paniculata or Pride of India. It is looking a little doleful at present, perhaps missing the warmth of its native land, but it will no doubt revive and burst into life anew when spring comes. A plaque informs us that it was ceremonially planted on the 125th anniversary of Mahatma Ghandi (November 25th 1994) “to mark Indo-British togetherness”. We sincerely hope that this togetherness will continue to unite our two countries as warmly as when the tree was planted.
Before we left India House, I of course took a picture of one of a pair of tiger faces above the door (well, you would have expected me to, wouldn’t you?). You can’t have too many tigers or photos of tigers, I always say.
We crossed Aldwych to a handy bus stop (you can see India House on the left) to catch a bus home. As you can see from the photo, it was a pretty dull day but we had enjoyed it and, as usual, spotted a few interesting and curious sights. Staring down the road, looking for the-bus-that-never-comes (the 341), however, what was uppermost in our minds was getting home for a nice hot cup of tea!