From Dissenters to High Church
Saturday, April 16th 2011
Even though we are on holiday, staying at home means that we still need to do the weekly shopping. Accordingly, we started off with breakfast at the Alpino in Chapel Market, then dragged the shopping trolley round to Sainsbury’s. The job done, we could afford to relax for a while.
In the afternoon we went for a walk around the Barbican. Along Whitecross Street, I discovered a point of interest. This area is also known as Cripplegate1, after one of the earliest London city gates and has connections with religious Dissenters – the Bunhill Fields Burial Ground is not far away. ( See Hill of bones.)
In an area of rather indifferent architectural achievement, this building stood out as something exceptional. Dated 1895, it bears a panel (the grey rectangle visible below the corner windows in the above photo) declaring it to be CRIPPLEGATE FREE LIBRARY.
The building was commissioned by Dissenters and, among other uses, provided a home for the library created earlier in the century by a Dr. Daniel Williams, for free use by Protestant Dissenting ministers, though I believe other users were also allowed access. The doorway is lavishly decorated and I show some of the details below.
The building is today occupied by UBS, though I do not know whether they own or rent it. At this point in the proceedings, I was challenged by a security guard but managed to see him off fairly easily, a story I may recount in a separate post. (See “No photos – the building is private!”)
From here we walked on down to the Barbican. In popular speech, the “Barbican” consists of a concert hall and arts centre attached to a huge residential establishment called the Barbican Estate – or is it the other way around? Either way, the site is huge and of striking appearance.
Architecturally, I find the design rather dark – dark colouring combined with great masses of concrete recall a bunker or a fortress (hence, no doubt, the name “Barbican”).
An intriguing feature of the Barbican’s design is that it allows views in all directions. Despite the pillars and supports, you continually come across views through the building whether horizontally or vertically.
We paused at one of the coffee bars in the Barbican (there are several) for coffee and cake and then we went outside onto the terrace.
The terrace is a rectangular open space including solid floor and water features (see pictures above and below) and is limited on one side by the Barbican building and on the three other sides by massive blocks of flats.
Fountains and stepping stones make an interesting topology where you can walk or sit. There is a large artificial lake or basin with a reed patch. More fountains decorate it and also oxygenate the water.
The basin has been brought alive by the presence of ducks and coots. One of each came to investigate us and were happy to receive some seeds as a gift.
Tigger had for some time wanted to have a look at the church of St Clements in King Square, Finsbury, so we set off thither after our visit to the Barbican.
It is quite a mixed and lively area which we should perhaps explore in more detail another time. We saw a number of intriguing or amusing sights along the way such as this shop, called “Tailoring”, with two clothed dummies standing outside.
Down one of the side streets we also had a distant view of the spire of St Luke’s Church in Old Street. We visited this church and I wrote a little about it in Two saints and a city farm.
St Clement’s was built in the 1820s but was then dedicated to St Barnabas. It was built because the population of the area had increased and an extra church seemed necessary.
In time the fortunes of the area changed, more churches were built, including one dedicated to St Clement. By the beginning of the Second World War, St Barnabas’s was considered redundant and was used as an ecclesiastical store. During the bombing raids in the war, St Clement’s was destroyed but St Barnabas’s, though slightly damaged, survived.
After the war, several parishes were combined into one and this church revived, now under the name of St Clement’s, to serve it. More details of the church’s history will be found on its Web site.
When not is use, the church is normally kept locked. (We were told this was less to prevent theft than to prevent people setting fire to it.) As we were taking photos, however, the vicar came by and kindly invited us to come in a take photos of the interior.
It was explained that this church operates in the Anglo-Catholic, or “High Church”, tradition, which is why the figures around the church (see “Church interior” above) are veiled. This is apparently customary during Lent.
It might also explain why the Stations of the Cross are indicated around the church, though I am less certain of that. These particular plaques have a pleasing elegant simplicity.
Though St Clement’s has a clock at the base of its pointed spire, this seemed not to be working.
Above the door of what I took to be the vicarage was this mosaic of the saint to whom the church is currently dedicated, St Clement.
The vicar told us that St Clement was martyred by being thrown into the sea, tied to a weighty object, and that while some accounts say this was an anchor, others specify an anvil. This enables both sailors and blacksmiths to claim St Clement as their patron saint. These two objects are represented in the mosaic.
We felt we had taken up enough of the vicar’s time and made our way out to the City Road to take a bus up the hill to home. On the way I photographed the cattle trough placed there by the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association. We see this one nearly every weekday on the way home and it was the one that first sparked my interest in the Association and its installations.
According to an inscription, this trough, like many, was financed by a benefactor. In this case, the inscription reads “THE GIFT OF MRS LEIGH, SUMMERVILLE, HALIFAX, 1899”. Who the philanthropic “Mrs Leigh” was we shall probably never know, unless the information is still contained in the Association’s records. I did send an email about another query some while ago to the contact address on the Association’s Web site but the addressee never deigned to reply.
My last photos of the outing were of this building on the corner of Central Street with City Road. Any ideas as to what it might be? The notice just below the windows is the now barely legible board left by a roofing contractor. I am told that this was once a tube station (the run between Old Street and Angel is rather a long one for the city) but was discontinued and that this is all that is left, serving as a ventilation tower for the railway.
The bus came, we climbed aboard, went home and made tea. Home is, after all, the best hotel!
1There are various theories as to how the name Cripplegate was derived (for example, see here). In a word, we don’t really know.
The saint and the water fowl
Sunday, April 17th 2011
Today we are off to an ancient city, not far from London and easy to reach by train, that we visit twice or thrice each year because of its elegant appearance and historic atmosphere and because of a feature that we like very much – its lake.
The town is very proud of its Roman heritage and still displays its Roman name, Verulamium, for many purposes. The town, though, was already old when the Romans came and Iron Age structures are still to be found beneath the Roman and more modern layers. Some idea of this heritage can be gained by visiting the Verulamium Museum.
Today, however, the town is more commonly known by the name of the man who is said to be the first British Christian saint and martyr, St Alban. As is often the case with old (as opposed to new) saints, the story of Alban and the dates when he lived are not clear and it is likely that his story has been inflated and embellished during the ensuing centuries. It is generally believed that he was a citizen of Verulamium who converted to Christianity and was beheaded for refusing to do homage to the Roman gods. For a fuller account of his story, see here and here.
The train station is away from the town centre and you can either walk or take a bus. This time, we chose to walk. Along the way we passed in front of the smaller of the town’s two museums, the Museum of St Albans, and the almshouses, set in beautiful gardens.
We reached the main street, St Peter’s Street, at the corner where there is the War Memorial and, close by, the Church of St Peter, not to mention a couple of good pubs.
St Albans is, as you would expect, a market town. This is reflected in the broad main street with wide pavements to accommodate an impressive number of stalls on market days. It can also serve as the town’s bus terminus. In fact, the street is wide enough for trams, though I don’t know whether trams ever ran here. A tram service is being planned but I don’t think it is intended to run it in town.
There are already points of historical interest here, such as The Grange, built for John Osborn (died 1799) who was an Alderman in 1764 and Mayor of St Albans three times between 1768 and 1798. The front entrance is guarded by two wise owls.
This (modern) mosaic represents in synoptic form the history of St Albans. And, yes, I have printed it the right way round!
At the end of St Peter’s Street is this building, the old town hall, dating from 1831, designed in the classical style by George Smith. Today it accommodates the tourist information office, public toilets and a rather pleasant tea and coffee bar.
Traces of the original decor can still be seen, though partly obscured by the cafe installation. I did not try the coffee but the tea that I chose, Russian Caravan, was well served: loose leaf tea brewed in a glass tea pot. Cheers!
Being a clock lover, I am very fond of the clock tower and had hoped we might be able to go inside. It is worth visiting on its own account and in addition you get a fine view from the top. The tower was built around 1410 and is still in robust condition. Unfortunately, it was closed today for some reason. You will find some further interesting details here.
After a good lunch at the Peahen at the top of Holywell Hill (there is an ancient well and it can be visited but we didn’t do so this time), we continued wandering, looking and taking photos. In George Street we find one of those contrasts which abound in St Albans, in this case a modern Thai restaurant in what appears to be a genuine Tudor building.
Continuing on down George Street brings you to an area called Romeland where you find these stairs, well used but no longer leading anywhere. Here too, you receive your first glimpses of the Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban.
The Cathedral is of course famous, and a lot could be written about its architecture and history. I will skip that and refer you to the Wikipedia entry for general coverage and this “Virtual Visit” for the usual pictures.
Oh, all right, then, here’s just one of my photos of it:
Our wanderings may seem random, but all the while they were leading us to a specific place. In preparation for our arrival there, Tigger was carrying a big bag of seeds suitable for our feathered friends.
First, you come to St Michael’s Ford and Bridge and then the entrance of Verulamium Park. This green and open space is a lovely place to go on a sunny day. There is grass and there are benches to sit on, and room for kids to run about but, best of all is the huge lake, full of water fowl.
You would have to go a long way to see so many different birds and such a population density anywhere else. The birds are used to people and so you can get close to them. There are…
We spread our picnic rug on the grass beside the water and Tigger got out the bag of seed. The geese and swans were not very interested and in some cases even seemed not to understand what was being offered. The ducks and coots and pigeons, on the other hand, were content to gobble up everything we gave them.
Later we walked right around the lake and sat for a while on a bench. There we fed a different but similar clientele. We also watched the herons who were nesting in trees on an island in the lake. We counted several pairs, with youngsters on the nest in some cases. They were too far away to get good photos of them but we watched them bobbing about in the tree tops or flying to and from the nests.
It took a while to use up all the seed but when the bag was at last empty, we decided it was time to start back. There is a bus stop near St Michael’s Ford and Bridge and we went there to wait for a bus as we had done on previous occasions. After a while, however, we realised that that route does not run on Sundays. Oops!
A call to travel information produced directions to another stop where, they assured us, buses were running. The directions turned out to be hard to follow and we found several bus stops but without being sure which was the right one. Tigger selected what she felt was the right stop. Here we waited for the best part of an hour in a state of uncertainty as to whether any buses called here and whether they would take us where we wanted to go. At last a bus came, vindicating Tigger’s instinct. At the station we soon had a train back to London.
St Albans is a picturesque and interesting town with plenty to see and is worth visiting again and again. This time we concentrated mainly on the lake and birds in Verulamium Park, but there are other aspects of the town to explore such as the museums, the clock tower, the market and all the back streets with all manner of old and historic buildings. We shall certainly return.
Pimlico, Millbank and St Paul’s
Monday, April 18th 2011
Today is to be an in-town day and we shall wander wherever whimsy takes us.
One of the advantages of holidaying at home is that you know where to find the good places to eat. There is no need to take pot luck and risk disappointment. So for breakfast we went to Cafe Maya in Mount Pleasant, where we chose the Vegetarian House Breakfast with grilled haloumi cheese.
After breakfast, we went for a stroll along Exmouth Market. Like Chapel Market, this is a street of shops and eateries which also hosts street market stalls. However, this one seems fairly quiet these days, in contrast to the livelier Chapel Market.
We took a bus into town and stopped off at the grand old Victoria station, where we had coffee on the terrace of the Wetherspoon’s pub there, which allows a good view of the bustle of the station.
Close to the station is the Apollo Theatre which has some rather fine decorative panels on the outside. I am not sure of the date of these, but their style looks like that of the 30s to me.
They seem to allude to the cinema rather than to the theatre, and their silver colour perhaps agrees with this. The audience, however, sits and stands around in a much more free and easy way than in any cinema I have ever attended. This panel depicts a stabbing and the reactions of the audience are studied carefully but also with humour.
This panel, cracked unfortunately, shows a calmer moment – perhaps a romantic interlude – and the gestures and stances of the audience reflect this. What shocks us today, though, is the gentleman luxuriously puffing out smoke from his cigarette. Here is a closer view:
This dates from a time when smoking was seen as an elegant habit rather than a health-destroying addiction. The panels also give us some indication of the costumes and hair-styles of the day. If you look carefully, you can see the same people in the audience in both panels.
Across the road, a golden ballerina dances atop the dome of the Victoria Palace, rather like the fairy on top of the Christmas tree.
We took a bus to Pimlico and walked along the Thames. Here we had a rather hazy view of Battersea Power Station on the opposite bank. It is a long time since it generated any power and its future still seems uncertain, caught between conservationists and would-be developers.
Nearby were tugs pulling barges laden with containers, up to three barges each. They had to manoeuvre like articulated lorries but also taking the flow of the river into account.
Several narrowboats went by on some mysterious mission, looking rather vulnerable bouncing past on the broad, choppy river instead of the flat waters of the canal.
We found a pleasant little park called Pimlico Gardens which contained two pieces of sculpture.
The first is called The Helmsman and is by Andrew Wallace. The other represents William Huskisson, the statesman, but I do not know the name of the sculptor. He is rather pretentiously dressed as a Roman.
We found the Crown Reach Riverside Walk, a pleasant place for a stroll beside the water.
There was art here too, though I can’t say this piece does anything for me.
The people who live here have a good view and pleasant surroundings.
Though it makes them a tad possessive. I suppose that’s understandable.
While we were in the area, we thought we would carry on along to Millbank and visit the Tate Britain – an art collection that can really lay claim to a “sugar daddy”.
However, barely had we entered the Clore Gallery (yes, photography is allowed) to see the Turner collection when the fire alarms went off and we had to leave the building. The staff were naturally unable to say when we might be able to re-enter the gallery, so we decided to move on and come back another day.
We took a bus back to town and had an omelette lunch in a sandwich bar at Charing Cross.
We then headed in leisurely fashion towards St Paul’s, with a goal in mind. Many interesting sights along the way held us up, though. Such as this, the Hall of the Worshipful Company of Cutlers, one of London’s ancient livery companies.
It is remarkable for, among other things, the wonderful frieze by Benjamin Creswick, of which a detail is shown above.
We passed through Postman’s Park, which I have already written about (see A walk around St Paul’s).
People often write about the Watts memorial to heroic men and women and forget the other charms of this little park, such as the beautiful flower beds and the pond with goldfish and a fountain.
Outside the park is a drinking fountain dated 1870 (I think that’s the date – the inscription is rather eroded) which is still working. Quite a surprise when we tried it.
We passed by the premises of the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths whose golden lion graces their gates, and…
… stopped for tea at The Red Herring.
Dawdling, dawdling all the way, we eventually reached St Paul’s and the destination we had been heading for – the Guildhall. We had for some time had it in mind to try to visit the clock museum there.
Unfortunately, we had dawdled too long and the Guildhall and its Art Gallery were closing. We had to content ourselves with photos of the outside and of the busts of some of the Great and Good, such as Pepys and Wren.
And, of course, Dick Whittington, possibly the most famous Lord Mayor of London, and his cat, looking rather plump in this rendition.
By now, shadows were beginning to lengthen and London’s spires and domes were turning into silhouettes against the evening sky. It seemed good to catch a bus back to Islington, and home.
A good day out? Assuredly. From breakfast to supper we had kept moving, revisiting favourites and discovering new things. London is a magic treasure chest that can never be emptied for the more you take out, the more there remains to be found.
Tuesday, April 19th 2011
Yesterday was an in-town day and today we are going further afield. We are starting in leisurely fashion because we cannot use the network card for cheap train tickets until 10:30 on a weekday. This gives us time to have breakfast at Giraffe in Essex Road which currently has a £5 breakfast offer.
After breakfast we crossed the road to the bus stop and took the 341 to Waterloo station. So far, it is a bright sunny day with an early morning chill which will, I hope, lift as the day proceeds.
We usually go on our out-of-town jaunts at weekends and it was interesting to notice the differences between weekend London and London in the week. There was more traffic in the streets, so that the bus made slower progress, but on the other hand, there were not the huge crowds at the station that sometimes make weekend travel uncomfortable. (We had of course missed the rush hour.)
We bought day return tickets to Portsmouth and left aboard the 10:45. As we roll south, the sky is blue, only lightly streaked with cloud, and the strong sunshine promises a warm day. Our train terminates at Portsmouth & Southsea, not at Portsmouth Harbour, as is more usual, but that suits us for what we plan to do.
The first thing we have in mind is lunch and so we search for somewhere suitable, i.e. cheap but not tacky. Fagins (sic) Cafe fills the bill with omelette and chips, served by an amiable and friendly waitress.
After lunch, we started walking towards our next goal. Even here, three miles away as the crow flies, the Spinnaker Tower was clearly visible. It is tempting to call the Spinnaker “Portsmouth’s Eiffel Tower” though it is only just over half the height of its French rival (170m as opposed to Eiffel’s 300.5m).
Along the way I was interested to discover this cattle trough (“collecting” these troughs has become something of a hobby of mine). This one was presented, not by the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association for once, but by the RSPCA. The date is a little hard to read but I think it is 1881, or possibly 1891 – see the dedication plate below.
An interesting feature of this trough is that the maker’s name is given: A. Dench. As the trough, including the round-topped wheel fenders, so closely resembles the typical trough donated by the Association, I wonder whether Mr Dench supplied all of them, though he could just have been working to a supplied pattern here, I suppose.
The trough stands at the beginning of a road called Old Commercial Road, part of which, as is shown by a faded old street sign, was previously known as Mile End Terrace. Dickens fans will know that the house that was once number 1 Mile End Terrace is the birthplace of Charles Dickens, today a museum owned and run by Portsmouth Council. This was our goal.
The Dickens family lived here only a short while before moving on. Very few items in the house are possessions of Dickens or his family. There is a bookcase and the couch on which the author died at Gads Hill Place. The rest are articles that were around at the time and were like those the Dickens family would have owned. Soft furnishings have been made to contemporary designs. The house thus gives an impression of what it might have looked like around the time of Dickens’s birth and no more than that can be expected at this late date.
Despite the almost complete lack of genuine Dickensiana, photography is not allowed so I cannot show you the interior.
The above photo shows Old Commercial Road today from near Dickens’s birthplace. Would John Dickens and his wife still recognize it? Probably not, as it will have changed over the decades. For example, the foundation stone of the Methodist chapel on the right was laid in 1884, long ago by our standards but 33 years after the death of John Dickens and 14 after the demise of the famous author (1870).
Looking back from the Commercial Road end, we see what appear to be old tram lines (the rail on the extreme right has disappeared, perhaps removed when that part of the road was resurfaced). I am guessing that this was a terminus and that the trams never entered Mile End Terrace.
From Dickens’s house, we walked to another museum, the main Portsmouth Museum. Once an army barracks, the museum building has turrets like a castle and is rather striking in design. It is set in pleasant gardens where one can sit and enjoy refreshments bought in the museum cafe. Entry is free but, again, photography is not allowed.
There were two exhibitions here. The first, A Study in Sherlock, subtitled Uncovering the Arthur Conan Doyle Collection, gathers together a substantial collection of memorabilia related to Conan Doyle’s famous fictional character. There is also a repeating video showing in episodic form the mystery The Doctor of Portsmouth, and dotted about are clue cards, so that you can play the sleuth between episodes.
The second exhibition is one on women’s clothing entitled Little Black Dress. We didn’t visit this (neither of us wear little black dresses) but spent time on the Sherlock displays and the picture gallery that features works both on the local area and by local artists.
From the museum we took a bus to the sea front and spent some time examining and photographing the war memorial. This is huge and consists not only of a tall spire but also of a grand enclosed court, like those in funerary complexes in Ancient Egypt.
Stationed around the court are four slightly larger than life-size sculpted figures of service personnel, representing those killed in the wars. They are very striking and possess a mythic quality, suitable to the symbolic role that they play. They are human but other-worldly at the same time. The emphasis on ships and sailors reminds us that Portsmouth is an historic naval town.
As time was getting on, we set out towards the centre, looking for somewhere to have dinner. On the way we passed this impressive structure, built in 1861 as a private house, and later turned into a hotel. The Web site provides a brief history of what is now the Queen’s Hotel. Imagine having this as your own house!
We eventually settled on an Indian restaurant, The Jewel in the Crown, that had a vegetarian thali on the menu. As a bonus they also served lassi. The meal was a little disappointing, though, as the food was bland and unexciting. We were fed but we will not return.
We took a bus to the curiously named Hard, once called the Common Hard. This is a road that runs along the seafront near the Historic Dockyard. Here you can see across the water to Gosport (where Tigger was born), watch the ferries coming and going, and admire HMS Warrior, permanently moored here as a museum ship.
There are good views of the Spinnaker from here, of course, and of the waterside pubs.
There are plenty of these in what is, after all, an old navy town where there was good money to be made from thirsty sailors and dock workers. There are stories too of landlords betraying their drunken customers to the press gangs.
A flock of black-headed gulls were swooping, calling, perching and squabbling as they are wont to do. They are skilful fliers and I love to watch them. I tried to photograph them which was difficult as they are suspicious of people and in the low light, fast shutter speeds were not available.
Every time the gull looked away, I took a step forward, getting closer and closer. Eventually, he spotted me, of course, and gave me the hard stare before flying away.
My last photos in the failing light were of this sculpture commemorating the ‘mudlarks’, children of poor families who used to scramble and dive in the mud under the bridge to the station and to the Gosport ferry for coins thrown down for them by passers-by. The practice was finally brought to an end only in the 1970s with the building of the new bus terminal.
We had spent the day in Portsmouth but had seen only part of it. The old naval town has so much to offer that you need several visits or a longer stay. You could spend the whole day in the Historic Dockyard looking at the exhibitions and visiting HMS Victory and HMS Warrior; or enjoy the shops and restaurants at Gunwharf Quay (where the Spinnaker is sited) and while there watch the Isle of Wight ferry dock in an inch-perfect manoeuvre despite a nasty turn to enter the mooring; or explore the town and visit its museums, as we did this time. It is a town to return to again and again.
Vegetarian cafe and museum of childhood
Wednesday, April 20th 2011
We are having an in-town day after our trip yesterday to Portsmouth. We started the day in leisurely fashion and then went out to catch the 394, the small bus that traces a very complicated route from the Angel to Bethnal Green. Tigger was keen to revisit the Gallery Cafe, a vegetarian and vegan eatery that we had seen on a previous ramble. We found it and had brunch there.
It was an interesting experience and I would like to be able to compliment a pure vegetarian establishment, but there were just a few too many “toos” for wholehearted approval: service too slow, food too cool, price too high for the quality of the food. While I appreciate that a specialized outlet has to tread a thin economic line, especially in an area that is not very affluent, we shall probably not return.
We moved on to our next destination, which is quite nearby. We had come to visit the V&A Museum of Childhood. I have seen other museums on the topic but none as large and impressive as this one and we spent several hours there.
Run by the Victoria and Albert Museum, it is sited in a huge building that is worth seeing for its own sake. I don’t know what it was originally designed for but it consists of one great open space with a basement and side galleries which run around three sides of the building, open to the main hall. The ground floor accommodates the museum shop, the information desk and the museum cafe. And yes! unrestricted photography is allowed!
Just inside the entrance to the museum was an exhibition dedicated to the colourful and fascinating artwork of Tapan Das, a rickshaw painter from Dhaka.
A prolific – even compulsive – painter, Tapan Das paints not only rickshaws but practically anything else that comes to hand. Previously a painter on metal surfaces, Das has been influenced by his stay in Nottinghamshire and has started painting on canvas as well.
This set of vignettes, of which I have enlarged two, show Das’s style and use of colour. His work, it seems to me, admirably combines a popular “naive” style with a sureness of touch that brings his subjects alive.
Perhaps because this museum attracts families with young children, the greater part of the stock is kept safely behind glass. This is predominantly a glass-case museum but in my view, none the worse for that. There are a few play areas and hands-on exhibits for when the children start getting bored. Reflections on the glass do sometimes make photography a little difficult, though.
The first gallery, a little higher than the ground floor and accessible by steps (though there is a lift serving all floors), exhibits children’s toys from about the 1800s, with a few earlier items, to modern times. These are divided into a number of large sections by type.
The next gallery is about childhood. This means that in addition to some more toys there are also pictures relating to childhood, costumes – both actual costumes worn by children over the last 2 or 3 centuries and play costumes, e.g. nurses’ and bus conductor outfits – and other objects loosely connected with the theme.
In comparison with the others, the topmost gallery is the least furnished. Perhaps it is still being developed. I recall that one theme there is Food, glorious food. There were also other temporary exhibitions such as one on Judith Kerr’s The Tiger Who Came To Tea and another about Living with autism.
During our visit, we stopped for tea in the cafe area and there observed this 1851 sculpture by John Bell, entitled The Eagle Slayer. Quite apart from its gruesome theme, it doesn’t seem particularly relevant to children or childhood and I wonder why it is there.
Today was the warmest so far and it was very hot in the museum. There is no air conditioning though we did discover an electric fan in a corner and stood in front of it for a while!
Because of the heat, we needed to make frequent pauses as we explored the museum, either on seating provided for general use or in the cafe.
Emerging from the museum around 3:30, we felt that in view of the heat and the tiredness from our busyness of the last few days, we had done enough for today. Accordingly, we took a bus to Liverpool Street and changed there to a bus to the Angel and the best hotel – home!
Beautiful gates at Bevis Marks, The Restaurant
Thursday, April 21st 2011
Today’s outing started with a ride aboard the 205 to a station from which a famous fictitious bear took his name. His effigy in bronze graces the inner precinct where there are shops and cafes. Here we went up the escalators to the top level and breakfasted on porridge, croissants and coffee at EAT.
Then we joined the queue for tickets and bought day returns for Reading. We have both been to Reading, or through it, many times, but we haven’t yet explored the town itself. Today its turn has come. So far, it is a sunny day but with a grey overcast. It is hazy too, distant views being veiled and lacking sharp detail. Our train is a fast one to Swansea and its first stop is Reading.
From the station, we started walking and exploring. One of the first sights that claimed our attention was the relatively modest exterior of the Harris Arcade.
Shopping arcades reached their heyday of splendour and luxurious decoration in the Victorian era and many of these still exist today to cause us wonder and pleasure. Even later and more modest ones are often worth a visit, however, as one is never sure what treasures one might find within.
We were not disappointed because although the decor was plain, the walkway, narrow and with bends and mirrors, had a mysterious feel to it. The contrast between the dark interior and the light flooding in from the entrances at either end, heightened the drama.
Then, continuing with the mysterious (or should that be “lugubrious”) theme, we found a Goth shop, complete with black dresses and obligatory skulls. (Sorry about the reflections on the glass.)
Further along was this very Churchillian bulldog (with modestly placed hind legs) fronting a shop selling smokers’ requisites and novelties (an umbrella with clip-on ashtray?).
Not least was this old fashioned milliner’s shop, decorated with period photographs and selling men’s as well as women’s hats. The elegant arrangement of a relatively small interior was quite striking.
In an old town like Reading, there are vestiges of past times wherever you look. I was intrigued by this building, named in a scroll decoration on the façade as “W.I. Palmer Memorial Building” and over the door as “West Street Hall”. I have no idea who W.I. Palmer was or for what purpose the hall was built. It is made of a harmonious combination or brick and terra cotta and dates from 1887. Age has so far treated it gently (although the end of the word “Hall” is missing). The building is listed, as you might expect.
Or how about this “ghost sign”, pointing customers to the premises of Fortescue Bros. In business by 1898 at the latest, they also – or perhaps originally – retailed sewing machines before going into the manufacture of bicycles, in which activity they are said to have continued until some time after the Second World War. Are there any Fortescue bicycles still coursing through the streets of Reading, I wonder?
Close by the Minster Church of St Mary the Virgin with its fine chequerboard facing, stands a drinking fountain installed in 1887 to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria. It is an exuberant piece of Victoriana though now somewhat eroded in places. The inscription in large letters reads “ERECTED ON THE COMPLETION OF THE 50TH YEAR OF THE REIGN OF QUEEN VICTORIA * 1887 *”
We enjoyed a light lunch at an Internet cafe called Quark’s, and then pressed on. The guide books tell you that Reading in sited “at the confluence of the Thames and the Kennet”. That sounds simple enough until you look at the map and see what a tangle of waterways decorate the area. However, I am persuaded that the river that runs through the town is called the Kennet. Here we are crossing it by a bridge thoughtfully provided by the Corporation in 1788.
If you follow the river (in the right direction, of course!) you find a quieter spout and the abbey ruins. It was here that I experienced what was possibly the highlight of my day. That there were ducks and coots on the water was only to be expected, and even that there would be the odd coots’ nest but I was not expecting what I in fact found.
Right against the embankment wall, about 6 feet below the road, a pair of coots had built a typically untidy nest and had produced 6 chicks. I could hardly believe I was getting such a close-up view!
While one parent (the hen, I’m guessing) stayed on the nest, trying to keep her energetic chicks close, the other, presumably daddy-breadwinner, was out on the water foraging and bringing back titbits. In the left picture, he passes food to the hen, and in the second, a couple of chicks are curious enough to go and see what he has brought.
On the other side of the river is an avenue called Chestnut Walk, a pleasant spot for a stroll. It is also known as the Oscar Wilde Memorial Walk. As you no doubt recall, the famously witty writer was imprisoned in Reading Jail after his arrest and conviction for “gross indecency”. It is good that the town thus seeks to make amends for the unjust treatment that it was required to mete out to an artist of whom we should be proud, but I cannot help thinking that Wilde himself might have penned a suitably ironic aphorism on the subject.
The abbey is in a very ruinous condition and during our visit was closed to the public “due to the poor condition of the walls and the risk of falling masonry”. It was founded in 1121 by King Henry I and for 400 years prospered and became rich. It was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1539, when the last abbot and two monks were hung, drawn and quartered, probably in front of the main gate. (Will someone remind me what it is that people find so appealing about the monarchy?)
We passed in front of the Crown Court, behind which you may be able to glimpse a famous Reading eyesore called “The Blade”. This tends to dominate the skyline to ill effect wherever you go, rather like the Shard in London. A wave of architectural penis-envy seems to be sweeping the country, causing architects to compete in producing huge structures, each more monstrous than their rivals’, to the detriment of our skyline.
After a coffee break, we took a stroll in the pleasant Forbury Gardens, laid out in 1800. Prominent is this huge lion who, if I have got the Roman numerals right, commemorates the 11 officers and 318 non-commissioned officers and men of the 66th Berkshire Regiment who gave their lives at Girishk Maiwand and Kandahar in the Afghan Campaign 1879-80. Sounds familiar? Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
He is a very splendid, if strangely muscled, lion, as fierce and imperial as they come, but what I liked was that this pigeon found him a peaceful perch whereon to relax in the sunshine. Maybe there’s a lesson there somewhere.
As we continued, we saw so many interesting sights that I cannot mention them all. They include this pretty little drinking fountain with a back panel decorated with a floral design in relief. Set up in 1860, it was refurbished in 1990 as a container garden bearing a notice “Please water me”.
Or this elaborate lamp, “ERECTED AND LIGHTED FOR EVER, AT THE EXPENCE [sic] OF EDWARD SIMEON ESQ, AS A MARK OF AFFECTION TO HIS NATIVE TOWN. AD 1804.”
And, of course, the inevitable Queen Victoria, also erected in the Jubilee year of 1887, though the poor dear does currently look as if she has been dragged through a hedge. She needs a wash and brush up, Reading!
Our next stop was the old town hall, an interesting and beautiful building in its own right (see the terra cotta panel enlarged at the end of the post), which is now used as the town museum and arts centre. In here too we found treasures to behold.
There was a creditable range of material in the museum, starting with this hippopotamus skull. We were told we could take photos as long as we signed a docket saying they were for our own use. I asked whether this included posting on one’s blog. My informant was unable to give a definite answer though she thought that would be all right.
The fine model shows how the Abbey Wharf might have looked in its heyday, bringing wealth into the city and, of course, to the Abbey. No wonder Fat Henry wanted it for himself.
There were Roman mosaic floors from Silchester and other Roman artifacts.
Not least was an entire gallery dedicated to Huntley & Palmer biscuits with a display of some of their more fancy biscuit tins. Here are a couple that particularly caught my eye.
It would be interesting to know exactly what the biscuit selection was in each of the tins, the so called “Italian Casket” and the Jubilee Victoria tin. Such tins would have survived for generations because once the biscuits were eaten, the tins were useful for keeping trinkets and other belongings in. I remember we had such a tin with a hinged lid at home that was our sewing box. Today’s boxes can’t be compared whether it terms of solidity or of design.
The label on the above exhibit reads (in part): “It was recognised in a garden at Silchester in 1899 and was said to have been used as a weight in a cheese press in the local farm”. Oh, how are the mighty fallen! You lose your nose and then have to press cheese.
It was getting late and we had enjoyed a full day in Reading. It was also spitting with rain, a clear invitation to board a train back to London! There were still sights to see, however.
Near the station was a memorial to the Coronation of Edward VII, with the monarch standing upon his plinth looking button-poppingly regal. Well, after all, Victoria was always going to be a hard act to follow.
We had spent a full day in Reading and seen much but much remains still to be seen. We thought it might be an interesting place to visit and were not disappointed. I am sure we shall return one of these days.
A festival remembered
Friday, April 22nd 2011
Today we are off to the Southbank Centre to see the exhibition celebrating the 60th Anniversary of the Festival of Britain. Deliberately held in 1951, the centenary year of the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations of 1851, the Festival was an important event in the life of a Britain still struggling to emerge from the traumas and deprivations of the Second World War. It caused great excitement and a feeling of optimism that things were about to change for the better.
It is a warm and sunny day but the conditions are very hazy, as you can see from these pictures from Waterloo Bridge.
So much history is visible from here and every building along the banks of the Thames seems to have a story to tell.
This is one of my favourites, the building with the big clock, one of the biggest in London. It is called Shell Mex House or the Shell Building and was built, as its Deco styling suggests, in the 1930s. If it isn’t the most beautiful building you have ever seen, it at least exudes an air of benign and dependable solidity. Once the lair of the oil companies after whom it is named, it today provides office accommodation for rent. (More information here.)
While we were enjoying the view from the bridge, the Goodyear “blimp” flew over. It is performing advertising forays over London at the moment though I believe it is possible in some circumstances to be taken on a flight. There used to be regular airship tours of London and the German Zeppelin company have been talking about starting one up, but for now tyre advertisements are the best anyone can manage.
The art community’s activities were well in evidence and included a lot of rubbish accompanied by descriptions inflated with hyperbole which rather than enhancing their meaning, reveal their essential shallowness.
I did, however, like the Urban Fox (by Mike de Butts and Alex Geldenhuys), a large representation of said animal built from straw bales. We had seen this several times from the bus but now had the opportunity to observe it close up and take photos.
It too has a rather silly description about seeing things differently (a bit of tosh that has become something of a cliché with artists these days) but it is rather fun and will make an enjoyable addition to the environment until the British weather gets at it.
What would you least expect to see at the Southbank Centre. OK, quite a lot of things, but one of them is a dry stone wall. Which is what these chaps are building. They are making a very good job of it too. They are using freshly quarried stone, hence the sharp new look to the stones.
This was said to be an existing wall that they had brought here in bits and rebuilt. That seems plausible if you compare its worn stones with the crisp new ones beside the gate.
There were stalls selling the usual things that are sold on stalls at these events but as we had not had breakfast we were more interested in finding somewhere for brunch. We went to the nearby branch of Canteen which, though a little more expensive than our usual, serves good food.
Then we went to look at what is called the “Museum of 1951”. Photography is allowed! In the exhibition there were original films from the period about the Festival and its construction…
wall displays to look at…
fifties room interiors to admire…
memorabilia to ogle (remember PC 49?)…
balloons (though not to take away)… and lots of other interesting exhibits.
Anyone who remembers the Festival of Britain will, I’m sure, get a pang of nostalgia and anyone to whom this is new, a sense of wonder. At least, I hope so, because the Festival was something quite unique and deserves its place in our social history and perhaps our political history as well.
From the crowded terrace of the Southbank Centre, we walked along the Thames.
There were rides for the boys…
and crowds of people…
rides for the girls (OK, and some boys)…
and still more crowds.
We met the Queen taking a fag break beside her begging pot (the cost of upkeep of Buckingham Palace is unbelievable)…
and saw a Duck Tours DUKW getting ready for a splashy tour.
And did I mention the crowds? They were everywhere. I am not keen on crowds; crowds do nothing for me; in fact, I intensely dislike crowds and whenever possible avoid them. So I was not enjoying this bain de peuple.
I was glad when we finally left the multitudinous environs of the Southbank and made our way, through Covent Garden and past the Drury Lane Theatre, where the impresario Augustus Harris still surveys his old stamping ground from the fountain erected in his honour, back to the Angel and the peace of home.
But, when all’s said and done, a day out is a day out, and despite the crowds we enjoyed this one. London is the ever-changing city and whenever you explore it, you find something changed and something new. And, after all, you have first to leave home in order to enjoy coming back to it.
A castle, a funfair and the city at night
Saturday, April 23rd 2011
“Which would you prefer,” asked Tigger, “Kent or Essex?”
That was last night, and as we had been to Kent recently, albeit for a funeral, I responded with what was for me unusual decisiveness, choosing Essex. This morning, bright and (relatively) early we set off. Essex covers a large area and it wasn’t until we reached the ticket office that I learnt our exact destination. Tigger likes to surprise me and I like being surprised, so this is the game we play: Tigger leads, I follow, and I find out where we are going at some point along the way – often only when we arrive.
It was a fine day for a trip but the low morning sun showed up very clearly the haze in the air, as you can see in the above photo. Perhaps it is the lack of rain or the high levels of pollution, but this is the general state of affairs these days.
One of the good things about computerized ticket sales is that you can buy tickets for practically any inland destination from practically any London railway station. We took the bus to Liverpool Street station so that we could have a porridge and croissant breakfast at the Camden Food Co cafe there.
We bought tickets for Leigh-on-Sea and the ticket clerk (a lady from Bulgaria) reminded us that the trains for Leigh left from Fenchurch Street. We went there on foot, enjoying the relaxed atmosphere of a Saturday morning in contrast to the frenetic rush-hour crowds in the week.
This beautiful old imperial elephant, complete with mahout and howdah, hangs outside a pub in Fenchurch Street. No prizes for guessing it’s called The Elephant.
I always think that Fenchurch Street station is a pleasant little station, nestling shyly among tall buildings and other city clutter, but maybe that’s because I only go there when we’re off on a trip. Perhaps if I came through it daily as a commuter I would admire it less.
The journey was not very long and took us through some pleasant green countryside. As the train reached Leigh, we saw the ruined Hadleigh Castle perched on its hill and decided to visit it. By the time we disembarked at Leigh-on-Sea station, the day had warmed up considerably under a sun that burned down from a clear sky. Distant and not so distant views were still affected by a grey haze.
A path leads across the fields to the castle and this would be a pleasant walk in cooler conditions but today, in the unrelenting heat, it was tiring, especially as there is a long slope to climb to reach the level of the castle.
At first, there is no sign of the castle. You have to take on trust that the path actually goes there. There seems to be an “official” path, which is overgrown and lost among the bushes, and an unofficial one along field edges. That is the one we took.
It was a relief when the castle appeared at last. The sun was so hot that Tigger was using an umbrella as a sunshade and we were looking forward to sitting down for a rest.
We climbed the castle mound to find that there were already people on site. As time passed, more and more people came, families with young children. I often wonder why parents think that museums and ruins are of any interest to young kids. They would do better to take them to the beach or the amusement park.
On arriving, we spread a rug, took a few photos and sat down, content to relax and take in the scene. The peace did not last, of course.
Hadleigh Castle, originally built by Hubert de Burgh in the early 1200s and later refurbished by Edward III, must in its heyday have been a powerful and imposing edifice. Today, only fragments remain, though there are information boards and signposts to help you find your way around. On a quieter day, it would be interesting to examine the site more carefully and try to gain an impression of its layout. For more on its history see here and here.
As time passed, more and more people arrived and more and more games of football got under way, directed by fathers operating under the illusion that they were professional football coaches tasked with imparting essential football skills to 3-year-olds. Having for the second time been hit by a ball kicked by unapologetic idiots, we decided it was time to move on.
We left by the top end of the site which leads to a nearby road and were there cheered by the sight of a terrace with sunshades. This turned out to be the Salvation Army’s Hadleigh Farm Colony, attached to which is a cafe that is open to the public. We started with tea and continued with a moderately priced lunch.
From Hadleigh, we took a bus to Southend-on-Sea. I have to say that Southend is not my favourite town, especially on a hot day like this when just walking about is tiring. On the other hand, I must admit that Southend has plenty of facilities, even for a curmudgeonly SilverTiger. We stopped for refreshments and then went to the seafront.
Southend developed as London’s seaside playground. Easier to reach than Brighton, it is the archetypical popular seaside resort whose mainstays are fish & chips, pubs and funfairs. There is nothing pretentious about Southend; it is not sophisticated (Westcliff-on-Sea is the posh bit) but it is honest in what it provides.
Southend also has a pleasant sloping seaside garden, providing cool shade in sunny weather like today’s. Finding a shady spot, we spread the rug and tarried here a while.
Mindful of the need to return to Leigh-on-Sea for the train back to London, we took the bus and got off in the waterside district. The contrast with Southend could hardly be greater.
Situated in the tidal Thames Estuary, Leigh is a place for boats, whether working boats or pleasure craft. They sit quietly stranded on the mud until the water creeps in again and brings them alive. It is also a place to observe water fowl, but at this late hour it was difficult to catch sight of any.
It is also a place of characterful old waterside pubs whose terraces become crowded to overflowing on warm evenings.
There is also an extensive fish market where fish and sea food – not all caught locally, I would guess – are sold wholesale and retail and even to be consumed on the premises. At this time of day, though, the bustle of the day has died away and closed shutters cover windows and doors open earlier for business.
We were not entirely sure of the direction of the station and had to trust to Tigger’s inner pigeon to guide us. We found the railway line but which way should we turn, left or right? Right, said the pigeon. We followed its advice and found our way to the station.
From Fenchurch Street station we walked to Liverpool Street station, through a London transformed by darkness and electric lights.
Though still nowhere near completion, the Shard already dominates the skyline, at night as well as by day, its monstrous presence towering over everything else.
We passed through Leadenhall Market which, wrapped in the quietness of nighttime, resembled the high street of a Victorian town as much as a market. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a horse bus come around the corner.
In Bishopsgate, the Heron Tower dressed in lights beckoned us towards Liverpool Street station where we caught a bus for home. You might just be able to see the red light at the tip of its mast.
We have covered a lot of ground and nearly 800 years in our explorations today, from an early 13th-century castle, through a modern seaside resort and a quiet estuary quarter to a Victorian market in a modern city increasingly dominated by skyscrapers. What is big attracts interest but so does the tiny.
For example, we saw these flying insects with long antennae during our walk to Hadleigh Castle. They flew in clouds above the bushes and settled only briefly, making them hard to photograph. I have no idea what they are but perhaps someone can tell me.
From the Museum of Brands to Whiteley’s Store
Sunday, April 24th 2011
In an age like ours where business has so much power and influence, we are continually surrounded with advertising, logos, trade marks, and brand names. These are designed to grab our attention and thrust products – and the firms that make them – into our conscious minds, but there is so much of it around us all the time that we become used to it, screen it out and stop noticing it is there – the very opposite of what the advertisers intended.
Yet some logos or trade marks acquire a special fame or notoriety and become part of our culture. Names like Hoover become words in their own right, as when we talk about “hoovering the carpet”, even though we may be using a Dyson! The chances are that products you became familiar with as a child still play an important part in your life so that they seem reliable old friends rather than commercial products.
Products, even the most familiar, do not stay still. Old ones die and new ones appear; names change (Gif becomes Cif, for instance), and so do logos or colour schemes. Sometimes when we look at the container or packaging of a favourite product from years ago, we are startled to see how different it is from its modern counterpart.
These changes may interest you or bore you, but they are there and can be studied. How or where? This is where the Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising comes in. If you want to see how familiar products have changed over the years, mutated their packaging or modified their approach to advertising, this is the place to go. What you find there is more interesting than you might think.
Unfortunately, photography is not allowed in the museum so I cannot show you any of the displays. It is run by friendly and helpful people and is quite a small museum (though crammed with exhibits) but still manages to fit in a cafe. This was amusingly informal: when we asked for tea, they switched on the electric kettle on the reception counter!
We made our way to Notting Hill, where the museum is, via Knightsbridge. As the top photo shows, it was another sunny but hazy day, of the sort that we have become used to lately.
After our visit to the museum, we wandered at will around Notting Hill, seeing what there was to be seen. Sculptures in metal and other materials seem quite popular there to decorate the fronts of shops and other buildings. I like the proud looking lion above.
The area where I took the above photo, at the western end of Westbourne Grove, has a village feel to it and certain signs indicate that there is a strong community spirit here.
I was pleased to find here another drinking fountain for my collection. This one bears the name of the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association. I forgot to check to see whether there was a date but the design is similar to a model of 1878.
There is also a cattle trough but of modern fabrication and donated by the Pembridge Association, seemingly as a planter rather than as a drinking trough for cattle, despite the inscriptions about kindness to animals.
Is this the smallest publicly accessible garden in London? Someone has cultivated the soil in which this street tree is planted and created a tiny garden for the pleasure of passers-by. Affixed to the tree is the following notice.
I hope people take the plea to heart. In Victorian times, collecting dog dung for the tanning industry was a money-spinner for the poor but these days it’s up to dog owners to clean up after their charges.
Another curious sight was this trio of hounds outside a restaurant. I imagine that the stout chains are there less to prevent canine mischief than to forestall theft by humans. I don’t know what the hounds are made of but since they have survived some hard knocks, as evidenced by the chipped paintwork, they must be pretty tough.
It was now nearly 3 pm so, finding ourselves near this Indian restaurant we went in for lunch. We had, as we usually do, the vegetarian thali. It turned out to be a very good meal, one of the best Indian meals that we have enjoyed recently.
Continuing our ramble, we discovered this rather elegant entrance in Chepstow Place. It belongs to the Baynards apartment block.
The quality shows in details such as this cherub, one of a pair, on the metal scrollwork. (See if you can spot it on the picture of the doorway above.)
I am always fascinated by sculpted faces on buildings, especially where each face is different and looks as if it has been modelled on a real person. This building fairly jumped out at me, therefore. It is a listed building, of course, in the Italianate style, dating from about 1860. Once you know it was once a theatre, that fact immediately seems obvious. Today, it houses the Al Saqi bookshop.
The faces no doubt represent famous roles in plays and or operas and perhaps well known actors of the day. It might be an interesting challenge to identify them.
Our last visit of the day was to Whiteley’s Store. Years ago, when I worked for the Books etc bookshop chain, I was sent one Saturday afternoon to work in their branch here. Perhaps because I was anxious not to be late or too busy working, I took no notice of the building itself. I had not been back since and this visit therefore surprised me. I wonder how many shoppers at Whiteley’s take time to look around them at the building itself.
Needless to say this building is listed. It was the second of William Whiteley’s stores, the first having perished by fire. The new store was built between 1908 and 1912 and has been going strong ever since.
After trotting around so actively, we went into Kensington Gardens, spread a rug and relaxed for a while. It was sunny and warm and there were lots of people enjoying the park. Perhaps I was tired or “photoed-out” but I only took two photos, neither of which give much idea of the Gardens. Another time, perhaps.
The “main event” of the day was the visit to the Museum of Brands and it’s a pity that we were not allowed to take photos. You will have to take my word for it that the visit was worthwhile. It was fascinating to see how the presentation of familiar products has changed over time, especially the older ones, and to realize that what we take for granted – the familiar tube of peppermints or tin of cocoa – is the result of careful planning to make a product that is attractive to the customer and keeps its place on the supermarket shelf.
Here ends our April Staycation 2011. Holidaying at home may not provide the novelty of exploring unknown places but it has its own unique advantages, not least that of moderate cost. Fun though it may be to lodge in a hotel, home is where the heart is, along with the tea pot and your comfortable bed.