A stroll along Ermine Street

Saturday, January 11th 2014

After breakfast in Pret, we once again took the little 394 single-door bus to Hackney and got off near the Geffrye Museum (see Rooms through the ages), though we were not visiting this interesting exhibition today. Our walk would take us northwards in an almost straight line from Hoxton, through Haggerston to Dalston, all districts within the London Borough of Hackney. The whole walk was along a section of the ancient thoroughfare called Ermine Street, though that name no longer appears today.

Ermine Street was originally a Roman road, probably based on earlier British roads, running from the heart of Londinium, today the City of London, to Lincoln and York. In this context, “Ermine” has nothing to do with stoats, fur or ceremonial gowns but is a corruption of its original name. I have seen two derivations of it, both of which seem plausible but are not without problems. Firstly, a Wikipedia entry claims that it derives from Earninga Straete, being named after the Anglo-Saxon Earningas tribe through whose territory it passed. Secondly, The London Encyclopaedia states that it was named after a specific person, “Arminius (or Hermann) the Saxon hero who routed Varus and the Roman legions at Winfield on the Weser, AD 9”.

I see problems with both of these. Firstly, “Earningas” does not resemble “Ermine” though the article does say that the tribal lands were later called Armingford, so I suppose the road could have come to be known as Arming Street, thence Ermine Street. With regard to Arminius, it seems that the London Encyclopaedia has its facts wrong. Aminius did score a victory against the Romans but this was in the Teutoberg Forest and at the Battle of the Weser he was actually defeated. On the other hand, both “Arminius” and “Hermann” are fairly close to “Ermine” and could be confused with it, especially as both would sound foreign (Latin and Germanic, respectively) to Anglo-Saxon ears. (For an alternative explanation of the name of the street, see the comment by grdtobin below.)

A view along Kingsland \Road
A view along Kingsland Road
Part of old Ermine Street

Whatever its derivation, the road gradually lost its name, different sections acquiring local names of their own. Our starting point was in what is now known as Kingsland Road and ended where it becomes Stoke Newington Road. Kingsland Road takes its name from the settlement of Kingsland, so called because it served the Tudor monarchs’ hunting grounds in what is today Stoke Newington. The forests in which the king galloped about his sadistic pleasures are, needless to say, long gone and replaced by roads and buildings.

Randall Cremer Primary School
Randall Cremer Primary School
A Victorian institution serving modern purposes

Before heading north, we made a little detour around Geffrye Street and Pearson Street and admired the rather splendid Victorian building called the Randall Cremer Primary School. This substantial edifice, with modern additions, is still serving its original purpose. Built in 1875, it was named after Sir William Randall Cremer (1828-1908) who was the Liberal MP for Haggerston for two terms, 1885-95 and 1900-08. Sir William’s renown goes further than this, however, and he was a noted pacifist and peacemaker, receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1903. (Further details here.)

A slight puzzle about this building is the tall chimney that obviously spoils its symmetrical design. I suspect that the chimney and the block beneath it must be a later addition.

Old St Columba's
Old St Columba’s
Parish church until 1975

On the corner of Kingsland Road with Nuttall Street, we find this large and, I think, rather ungainly Victorian pile. In contrast to the symmetrical poise of the Randall Cremer School, this building has no obvious shape at all. It looks more like several buildings crammed together which may in fact be the case. The original design was brought into being in the years 1868 to 1869 by architect James Brooks. A mortuary chapel was added in 1904-5 and, for all I know, may be what has complicated the exterior plan and made it seem shapeless.

The church, under the patronage of St Columba, served as a parish church until 1975 when falling attendance made it surplus to requirements and its parish was joined with that of St Anne’s which in consequence became known as the Church of St Anne with St Columba. (Well, you can’t kick the poor old saint out into the cold, can you? You have to find him somewhere to live.). The building today is occupied by an organization called Christ Apostolic Church (Bethel) UK or CAC, as they also refer to themselves. Information here, if you are interested.

Süleymaniye Camii
Mosaic Main entrance
Süleymaniye Camii
Serving the Turkish community

Further along on the corner of Laburnum Street, and staying with the religious theme, we encounter the Süleymaniye Camii or Suleyman Mosque. Its most notable feature, of course, is the very tall minaret which can be seen for miles around and makes the building a little hard to photograph in the relatively cramped conditions of the streets. You no doubt get a wonderful view from up there though I think you would persuade me out onto those tiny balconies only with great difficulty! Designed by Osman Sahan and built between 1995 and 1999, this is the first of the Turkish mosques of our walk. There is a sizeable Turkish community in the Hoxton-Haggerston area, as may be deduced from the size and splendour of this place of worship, which is in Ottoman style and shares a name with the second largest mosque in Istanbul. I have not been inside but it is already impressive from the outside alone.

Shoreditch Health Centre Shoreditch Health Centre
Shoreditch Health Centre
Originally a Maternity and Child Welfare Centre

My eye was caught by the plaque above the door of this building which shows a woman holding a child. At first sight I assumed this to be a religious picture – a  representation of the Virgin and Child – but it tuned out in fact to a satisfactorily secular image. Now known as the Shoreditch Health Centre, the institution was founded, as the lettering around the plaque indicates, under the name “Borough of Shoreditch Maternity & Child Welfare Centre”. I had not come across this organization before but found a succinct account of it on the Heritage Explorer site and hope they do not mind me quoting their description:

This Health Centre, formerly the Shoreditch Maternity and Child Welfare Centre, was built in 1922-23 by Francis Danby Smith. It was a pioneering experiment in public healthcare providing one of Britain’s first anti-natal and infant care outpatient clinics. It was built in response to the campaigns of the Maternity and Child Welfare Movement spearheaded by George Frederick McCleary from 1915 onwards. The cost of the work was paid for by the Carnegie UK Trust which also paid for the building of three other model centres at Liverpool, Birmingham and Motherwell.

(I think they mean “ante-natal”, not “anti-natal”, a small but important distinction.)

Old Haggeston Public Library Old Haggerston Public Library
Old Haggerston Public Library
A Passmore Edwards library

Where philanthropy for the public good is concerned, the name of John Passmore Edwards is justly honoured. Public libraries, drinking fountains, art galleries, convalescent homes, etc. flowed from his generosity. My personal bias causes me to notice libraries especially and so this one jumped out at me. It was officially opened on May 10th 1893 by the Duke of Devonshire. A second inscription on the front of the building seems to imply a paradox: it states that the foundation stone was laid by John Passmore Edwards in… 1896. How could the building be opened in 1893 if the foundation stone was laid only three years later?

The mystery is solved when we learn that the building was originally put up in 1880 as a dwelling house and consisted of that part that runs from the entrance porch to the left. The library was first accommodated in this part and three years later the building was extended in the original style to the right. It was for this new part that the benefactor himself laid the foundation stone in 1896. This also explains the unusual design of the building for a Passmore Edwards library. This is probably the only example of a Passmore Edwards library done in the classical style. The building is no longer a library, alas, but has been converted into an apartment block. The exterior appearance at least has been protected by a Grade II listing.

Wall painting
Wall painting

We ventured into a side alley and saw this wall painting. It’s certainly colourful and, er, interesting. OK, moving swiftly on…

Bridge House
Bridge House
Well placed for the Regent’s Canal

Kinhgsland Road crosses the Regent’s Canal and the number of wharfs along this stretch of the road suggests that this was once an important place from receiving and perhaps shipping goods. I was fascinated by this little building which I suspected was once a pub but I now think that is unlikely. The decorative spikes on top of the window bays suggests that this building acted as the public face for some company or other. It might once have been a warehouse or a workshop and office. It is an unusual Victorian design and I believe an application has been made to have it listed. Today it is occupied by a company called Tack Press.

Regent's Canal
Regent’s Canal
Looking west from Kingsland Road

Kingsland Road forms a bridge over the Regent’s Canal which presents a peaceful scene on this sunny afternoon.

Haggerston Railway Bridge Working on the bridge
Haggerston Railway Bridge
Workmen climbing

Looking east, we could see the Haggerston Railway Bridge crossing the canal. Some work was in progress on the bridge and two men in hi-vis clothing and hard hats were hanging from climbing ropes like a couple of orange spiders.

Quebec Wharf
Quebec Wharf
Once a tram company feed store

The old wharfs have now been converted to other purposes such as office blocks or residential properties and it’s beginning to be hard to see what their purposes were in the days when they flourished as wharfs. Some, however, still carry vestiges of their previous existence. For example, the Quebec Wharf, pictured above, has a plaque whose lettering is still almost as crisply defined as when it was first installed. It reads

NMT Co
1878

The cipher “NMT Co” is that of the North Metropolitan Tramways Company who used this property from 1878 as a store for forage or feed for the tram horses. It was later used as a spice depot but I think it has now been turned over to offices. Oh yes, and it’s a Grade II listed building.

Che Men Cafe
Che Men Cafe
Recognize the hat?

We stopped off at a Turkish cafe called Che Men. We sat in the comfortable settees at the back. That made it a little hard to get started again…:)

Kingsland Fire Station
Kingsland Fire Station
Closed

The picture shows Kingsland Fire Station that has hitherto served the Haggerston area. It is every inch a modern fire station with its training tower at the back. Unfortunately, its appearance is spoilt by notices bearing the word “CLOSED”. The Fire Service is trying to save money by closing fire stations and this, naturally enough, is causing disquiet among residents. In a recent fire in Haggerston, it was reported that an appliance from this station arrived within 2 minutes whilst one from the next nearest station took 6 minutes. Fire stations are like insurance policies: when nothing goes wrong you are tempted to feel that the expense is a waste of money but when things do go wrong, that’s when the expense is justified.

Metropolitan House
Metropolitan House
One of London’s lost hospitals

Further along is a fairly large building of which only the decorative main entrance is shown above. It is today called Metropolitan House but was originally the Metropolitan Hospital. The institution was founded in 1836 in Stepney by Joseph Fry, son of Elizabeth Fry, as the Metropolitan Free Hospital. After several  moves, it came here, to purpose-built premises on the corner of Kingsland Road and St Peter’s Way. The building was completed in 1886, the date shown on the façade, though it had already started admitting patients the year before. Intended to serve the poor, the hospital ran into financial difficulties and started charging a subscription, dropping the word “Free” from the name. The Metropolitan became an NHS hospital in 1948 but eventually closed in 1977. Today it is an office block.

We continued along Kingsland Road to Dalston, where it becomes Kingsland High Street before losing the “Kingsland” altogether and calling itself Stoke Newington Road. This is quite a long stretch but I found it relatively uninteresting visually and took no photos. In any case, Tigger had picked up the pace and was heading determinedly for a destination. She did not say where it was, but I made a guess and it turned out that I was right.

Evin Cafe Bar
Evin Cafe Bar
A good place for lunch

Thus we arrived at Evin, a Turkish-run bar restaurant that we have visited several times before and is a good place to have lunch. For example, they serve vegetarian meze, consisting of several hot and cold dishes, light but also filling. On the menu is “Pot tea”, a slightly puzzling description. Is it “a pot of tea” or perhaps “tea made in a pot”? It turns out it is the latter, Turkish tea served in a tall glass cup – without milk, of course – but made in a pot. Apparently, Turkish tea (tea is grown in Turkey, as well as in India and China) is made by the slightly complicated samovar method, similar to Russian tea. The cup is half-filled from the pot and topped up with hot water. However they make it, it is far better than the awful tea-bag concoctions masquerading under the name of “tea” served in the majority of cafes and restaurants these days.

Does Evin mean anything, or is it just a name? To be honest, I don’t know. I should have asked. I will – next time. I do know that evin is the genitive of ev, meaning a ‘house’, but not where that gets us, if anywhere. The eye symbol is easier to understand. This is the nazar boncuğu, also called the Blue Evil Eye, and is a symbol, made into room decorations and jewellery, intended to ward off the effects of the evil eye. It is apparently not necessary to be a witch or magician to put the evil eye on people and thus blight their lives: ordinary people suffering from envy or resentment can allegedly do this unconsciously. So next time Paddington gives you a hard stare, wave your nazar boncuğu bracelet at him.

Aziziye Camii
Aziziye Camii
Mosque and butcher’s shop

This area is quite a lively one and the streets and cafes were busy. There was also a street market and lots of Turkish shops and businesses. Before catching the bus home, we walked up the road to photograph, as we always do, the Aziziye Camii, the second of our mosques today. It is unusual in having a butcher’s shop within it. Decorated with domes and beautiful Ottoman style tiles, this striking building was converted from one that had a very different purpose. It was designed by Stanley Burdwood and built in 1913 or 1914 as a cinema called the Apollo Picture House. It changed its name a couple of times, becoming the Ambassador Cinema and the Astra Cinema before closing in 1983. Once you know its origin, this appears quite obvious but I think the transformation has been successful, though a perfectionist might perhaps quibble at the rather intrusive shop front.

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Ugly but fascinating

Sunday, January 5th 2014

The Barbican complex is as fascinating as it is ugly. Much can be said of this conglomeration, both in praise and in denigration but no one can claim that it is beautiful. The Brutalist concrete finish, bad enough in itself, has invited the city grime to cling to it in layers and the weather has added its own streaks and patches. Yet it exercises a strange attraction that brings us back again and again.

The Brutalist concrete...
The Brutalist concrete…
…covered with grime and weather stains

When it is seen from the road, the name “Barbican” seems apt, for it resembles a castle or fortress, built like those of the Normans to impress and subdue the native population.

Rough texture...
Rough texture…
…and jagged edges

Apart from its sheer mass and bulk, the overbearing impression is of rough texture and jagged edges. Balconies jut out from tower blocks like the teeth of a saw.

Massive shapes...
Massive shapes…
…and scenes of desolation

When you enter the complex you find there is space. Open areas have been left, presumably for people to stroll and sit. However, for a long time now, building work has been going on that has gradually spread and gobbled up more and more space, closing off areas with barriers. Yet whenever we go there, no activity seems to be taking place. The scene is one of silent desolation.

Dancing dolphins
Dancing dolphins
A grassy oasis

The occasional oasis is still to be found, such as this fountain, set on a small lawn and featuring a pair of dancing dolphins. The fountain still functions and is kept clean.

The Conservatory
The Conservatory
Open on Sundays and occasional other days

The Barbican divides, roughly speaking, into two parts, the residential Barbican Estate that is not open to the public, and the Barbican Centre that performs the roles of theatre, concert hall, cinema and exhibition galleries. One of the nicer parts of this is the Conservatory. When we first came here, there were few other visitors, but its fame seems to have spread because today it was relatively busy. It opens on Sundays and on occasional other days.

A naturalistic pond
A naturalistic pond
Complete with fish

Here there is a wide variety of tree, shrubs and plants, some of which bear flowers, and they seem generally well cared for. There is also an aviary, which I didn’t photograph this time (pictures of the aviary from a previous visit are here and here), and it too seems well kept and the birds look healthy. Their activities drew the attention of visitors.

Big fish...
Big fish…
…in a small pond

There are at least two ponds and there may be more, as they tend to be hidden away among the foliage and are difficult to see. In the smaller pond, I was able to photograph these two impressively large fish.

Rock pool Turtle
Rock pool…
…with a turtle

As you mount the stairs to the upper level, you see a kind of shelf containing a rock pool. There is little in the rock pool in the way of plant life but you may spot what at first sight looks like a rock but on closer inspection turns out to be a turtle. I assume it is a real turtle, and alive, because I have seen it in different places on different visits, though I have never actually seen it move. The turtle’s shell has accumulated a ring of algae.

Arid area
Arid area
With cacti and succulents

While the lower level of the conservatory is warm and damp, the upper level is arranged as an arid area with cacti and succulents. Many different species are on display, including some quite large specimens. They all look healthy and some of the plants are in flower.

One reason for coming to the Barbican today was to visit the Curve gallery and the exhibition of works by Ayşe Erkmen. The exhibition was entitled Intervals and today was the last day.

Ayşe Erkmen, Intervals

This exhibition has a feature distinguishing it from the typical art exhibition. In these, the art works are usually static but in this case they move up and down.

Ayşe Erkmen, Intervals

Each art work is notionally a backdrop for use on stage during the performance of a play. I say “notionally”, because these are not actual backdrops and have never been used as such, but are made in the manner of backdrops. Though designed by the artist, I understand that they were actually painted by other people, including professional scene painters.

Ayşe Erkmen, Intervals

The canvases are are large enough to stretch right across the narrow Curve gallery. Each is raised and lowered and when a canvas descends, you cannot proceed. You have to wait until it is raised again before you can move on. You sometimes find yourself confined to a “cell” with a lowered canvas behind you and a lowered canvas in front of you. There is no pattern to the movement: the canvases are raised and lowered in random order.

Ayşe Erkmen, Intervals

There were eleven canvases and I have just shown a representative sample above, though the adjective “representative” should be taken with caution as the different backdrops were all very different in subject and style. You can find some more details about the exhibition on this page on the Art Fund site.

Admission to the exhibition was free and, as you see, photography was allowed. If you have not already seen the exhibition then, sadly, you have missed it. I don’t know whether it is planned to show it elsewhere.

Murals
Murals
Dorothy Annan

While we were at the Barbican, we thought to go to see the ceramic murals by Dorothy Annan. Commissioned in 1960 for the Farrindon Street elevation Central Telegraph Office, the murals were moved here when that building was scheduled for demolition.

Mural
Mural
(Detail)

Taking as their theme modern (1960s) technology, particularly in the field of communications, the panels reflect the optimism and technological excitement of the period in an artistic style which, though new and fresh at the time when they are made, has now been left behind as artists pursue new forms of expression. There is some information here and, if you can bear the small print, here.

Barbican cafe area
Barbican cafe area

During our visit we took refreshments in the Barbican’s cafe area which was still decked with Christmas decorations. The cafe displays the Costa logo but don’t wave your club card at them because they are not a genuine Costa, only a franchise.

Golden sculpture Golden sculpture
Golden sculpture

We went for a little walk, explored a few corners, visited some old friends (see above) and…

Lighted windows
Lighted windows

…peered inquisitively in at some lighted windows (and commiserated with people who have to work on Sundays) and then turned for home.

Despite its doleful external appearance, the Barbican always offers the visitor plenty to see and do, from live performances to exhibitions. Once you are inside and acclimatized, the physical appearance becomes less obtrusive and in fact, the bewildering vistas of shapes, textures and angles of view take on a magic of their own.

Vistas of shapes, textures and angles of view...
Vistas of shapes, textures and angles of view…
…that take on a magic of their own

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Rooms through the ages

Saturday, January 4th 2014

Today was a dull day, as they are apt to be in January, and so we went for a warming breakfast at the Angel Inn (which is a cafe, despite its name), and discussed what we should do next. Neither of us felt like wandering about in the open and so indoor activities were indicated.

The Geffrye
The Geffrye
Museum of the Home

We walked down to the clock tower and boarded the 394. This little bus (unlike most in London, it has only one door for both entry and exit) follows an intricate route, threading its way along narrow streets among tower blocks until it eventually emerges in Kingsland Road in Hoxton. This is where we find a beautiful institution that likes to call itself simply “The Geffrye”. Once a set of almshouses built in 1714 by the Ironmongers’ Company, it takes its name from Sir Robert Geffrye whose bequest provided for its foundation. It was sold to the London County Council in 1911 and the Grade I listed building now serves as a Museum of the Home.

Admission is free, photography is allowed, and there is a cloakroom with lockers and locking coat hangers, whose use is also free of charge. While the basic plan remains the same, the displays change with the seasons and we always like to visit to see the various rooms appropriately arranged for Christmas.

A hall in 1630
A hall in 1630

Each display shows a family living room from a particular period, starting with a 1630 “hall” and continuing up to modern times. Information boards situate the room in the context of the age. For example, this hall, or day room for the family, would also have been used for entertaining guests. Placed on the first floor, with business premises on the ground floor, it would have been furnished and decorated both for family use and to impress visitors.

A parlour in 1745
A parlour in 1745

The only problem with the Geffrye is that the passage leading from room to room in the earlier section is narrow and when the building is crowded, as it tends to be at weekends, movement is likely to be a little hampered. If you want to take photos, you may have to wait patiently for your opportunities.

A drawing room in 1830
A drawing room in 1830

Each room is meticulously furnished and decorated according to its period. While everything is clean and tidy (I do not care even to think what their cleaning bill must be!), the feeling is created that you are looking into a room whose occupants have stepped outside (perhaps to welcome a visitor), leaving the room momentarily unattended. A book may have been left open beside a comfortable chair, playing cards may be laid out on a table or children’s toys scattered on the floor.

At home in 1890
At home in 1890

Fashions change through the ages and rooms become more charged with furniture and decorative objects or the decor becomes simpler. After the exuberance of the high Victorian era, a desire for plainer settings manifested itself, though there was still a desire to be surrounded by beautiful things, both for one’s own enjoyment and to impress the visitor. The 1890 room is one of my favourites, perhaps because when I was a child, many people’s homes still resembled this style.

The Chapel
The Chapel

In the middle of this section of the museum, behind the main entrance, is the chapel. Occupants of almshouses were usually required by the regulations to attend services regularly, including twice on Sundays. This chapel seems to be a fairly austere example of its kind but when in use, it might have looked somewhat different.

Bell Dedicatory plaque
Bell and dedicatory plaque

Dedicatory inscription

The door of the chapel corresponds to the main door of this wing of the building (see top picture). Above the door I noticed a fairly large bell but I don’t know whether this is a rather elaborate door bell used to announce visitors or whether its purpose was to call residents to services. On the wall facing the entrance is an elaborate plaque acting as a memorial to Sir Robert Geffrye and his wife Dame Percilla, both of whom were interred in the chancel. By clicking on the image on the left you can read the dedicatory inscription, written in a typically florid script of the era.

Entering the new wing
Entering the new wing

Continuing on, you pass through doors into a new wing that has been added in modern times. There is a cafe, a shop, where you will find an interesting collection of books on buildings and architecture, and some more display rooms. A sweeping staircase leads down to a basement area, where there are study rooms and displays of information – currently an exhibition about people researching the history of the houses they live in.

Edwardian period room Edwardian period room
Edwardian period room

Here we find more modern rooms, starting with another of my other favourites, the Edwardian period room. Though you cannot see this in the above photos, this setting allows us a glimpse through the living room door of the hallway and the front door. I always find this scenario slightly strange because it is both “modern” and “old fashioned” at the same time. The room is characterized by a mixture of Arts & Crafts and Art Deco designs but despite the passage of a hundred years, this setting feels familiar, if lacking a few of the modern “necessities”, such as a telephone and a TV set.

Chair designs Chair designs
Modern chair designs

As well as room settings, other displays show items of furniture and decorative or useful objects. The stand above shows a range of modern chair designs. Another building project is under consideration and if this goes ahead, it will interesting to see what exhibits and facilities it provides.

The Station (1930)
The Station (1930)
Lilian Gladys Tickell

In addition to the above, there are also paintings or various ages and styles. The two I have selected as examples both come from the 1930s and both are by artists who seem not to be very well known. The one above is by Lilian Tickell and is here entitled The Station but referred to elsewhere as Cheltenham Station. It is a lively, if slightly naive, portrayal of the bustle at a busy railway station in the days of steam. Today, it is easy to attach a feeling of nostalgia to the picture but such a feeling would not have been present when it was painted as it shows life as it was then.

View of an interior, showing the arrival of the Jarrow Marchers (1936)
View of an interior, showing the arrival
of the Jarrow Marchers (1936)

Thomas Cantrell Dugdale

I liked this picture because of the somewhat ironic contrasts that it embodies. It is both a serious painting and a political cartoon – almost a lampoon – at the same time. In the foreground, we have a couple of obviously affluent socialites, dressed for an evening’s jollity, while outside are the Jarrow Marchers who have just arrived. One can make out scarcely any detail of them but the movement and the hubbub are easily imagined. The woman is interested enough to look out at what is going on but we cannot see her face and therefore do not know what she thinks, whether her expression would be of bewilderment, sympathy or disdain. The man’s attitude, in contrast, is all too obvious: blowing smoke rings, he is completely unconcerned, lost in his own no doubt trivial thoughts.

The staircase (yes, again!)
The staircase (yes, again!)

Yes, another picture of the staircase. I am fascinated by staircases. But you knew that…:)

The Geffrye is particularly attractive at Christmas when the rooms are decorated and the atmosphere is festive. It is well run and the staff are welcoming and helpful. Whether you want to engage in serious study of the domestic interior or browse “homes through the ages”, the Geffrye is always worth a visit.

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