Saturday, July 23rd 2011
Today, Saturday, is the first day of our July "Staycation" for which we have a programme of excursions both within and outside London.
On Thursday, I began to suffer the symptoms a cold which made me feel unwell. I spent yesterday resting and sleeping, hoping that I would feel better by today. It seems to have worked. Although I still have the usual symptoms of a cold, I feel a lot better in myself.
The first of our planned trips is to Bedford. What’s at Bedford? I don’t know but hope to find out.
The weather is so far playing along and it is a day of sunshine though with big white clouds that sometimes shut out the sun for a while. We walked down Pentonville Road to St Pancras and had breakfast in the Camden Food Co cafe. Then we went downstairs to the Thameslink platforms and found them closed, presumably because of rail works. Trains to Bedford were running from the upper level so we went back upstairs and found the train waiting.
The journey to Bedford was uneventful. This is a popular commuter route with packed trains coming into London in the morning and going out of London in the evening. Today, as it was the weekend, the train was nearly empty and the atmosphere relaxed.
Arriving at Bedford, we found a boring glass-box station, very typical of railway buildings these days, just slightly better than the wooden shed design of some of the smaller stations. From here we set out on foot towards the town, interested to see what we would find.
Bedford revealed its cosmopolitan character very soon because within a short distance of the station we discovered an Italian Catholic Church,
The West Indian Cultural and Social Society,
a Polish Club,
and a mosque and Islamic cultural centre.
We reached the town centre at Greyfriars where the big road island carries this sculpture. I think you can make out at least one horse and two people carrying what look like suitcases. I don’t know what this work represents and if anyone can tell me I would be interested. We thought at first that it might be in memory of the packhorse trade that used to pass through Bedford but that doesn’t fit with the suitcases. (See Update below.)
We progressed to Church Square where there is a variable height fountain and a group of musicians was performing.
We passed through a short modern (renovated 2010) Church Arcade and then came to this much more interesting venue, called simply The Arcade.
Dating to 1905, this elegant Edwardian arcade is gently lit by its glass roof, lending the interior a peaceful atmosphere conducive to window shopping.
Hanworth Interiors demonstrates what I think must be an original 1905 shop front, as suggested by the elaborate pillar and the lovely curved window glass. “They don’t make ‘em like that anymore!”
Incongruously, perhaps, we saw this plastic owl perched up in the rafters. I can only guess that someone placed him here in the hope of deterring the pigeons. As it happens, I didn’t see any pigeons, though I doubt very much whether the presence of a plastic owl was responsible for their absence!
This sculpture is very striking (except that the side you can’t see in the photo is disappointingly flat and unworked) and holds a prominent position in the town. It also seems to act as a stage for street musicians, such as this young lad playing the accordion.
In Mill Street stands the old fire station. It is slightly unusual in having not one but two foundation stones (you may be able to make them out at the bases of the two side columns) both of them laid on July 11th 1888 by MP Samuel Whitbread and the Marquess of Tavistock, respectively. The heroic firefighter standing in front of what is now a mobile phone shop looks American to me but let’s not be picky.
Author of The Pilgrim’s Progress and prisoner of conscience, John Bunyan is associated with Bedford
There are two famous Johns associated with Bedford. The first is John Bunyan (1628-1688), religious writer and preacher and prisoner of conscience. His best known work was of course the allegorical The Pilgrim’s Progress, one of the most read books in the world, apparently. The Bunyan Meeting Free Church and Museum is dedicated to his memory and welcomes visitors though we didn’t visit it. I will come to the other John later.
Bedford did have a castle but it has now largely disappeared. It was built in the 12th century and destroyed in 1224 after falling to a siege by King Henry III. You might not recognize this rise in the ground as part of the castle but for a notice advising that it is the remains of the castle motte or mound.
Bedford stands on the Great Ouse. Where the modern bridge stands, there has been a series of bridges dating back to before records began. Traces of an ancient bridge have been found and another replaced it after 1224, using materials from the above mentioned castle. This bridge was itself replaced in 1811 and the new bridge was widened in 1938 to 1940 to take modern traffic.
The Embankment, a favourite promenade in Victorian times, provides a beautiful setting where you can stroll or sit on one of the benches. The war memorial – commemorating both world wars – stands here. It is topped by a very Art Deco but slightly strange-looking figure.
We walked along the bank beside the gardens until we came to the pretty little pedestrian suspension bridge that crosses the river and takes you to Mill Meadows on the other side.
The bridge footway curves gently, following the general line of the main structure. At each end the slope is sufficiently steep to need stairs. The bridge fulfilled its purpose faithfully until 1983 when it was closed for major repairs. It was reopened in 1984 by the current Marquess of Tavistock. Its design was specially conceived to allow river traffic to pass under it.
Mill Meadows is virtually an island between waterways and forms a grassy park. The Bedford and Milton Keynes Waterways Trust is building a link between the Grand Union Canal and the Great Ouse in order to close a perceived gap in the waterways transport network.
The French Gothic Magistrates’ Court, designed by Alfred Waterhouse and built as the Shire Hall between 1879 and 1881, stands in St Paul’s Square which, together with the High Street that forms its fourth side, might be regarded as the historic heart of Bedford.
The square takes its name, unsurprisingly, from St Paul’s Church sitting in its middle. The church contains a mixture of 14th and 19th century building.
The Old Town Hall which today serves, in part, as the tourist information centre, is one of Bedford’s oldest public buildings, dating back to the 1550s, though the façade is 18th century. It was originally the Grammar School and became the town hall in 1881. A corner of the new town hall can be glimpsed on the left of the picture.
The statue on the town hall façade commemorates William Harpur (1497-1574), a son of Bedford who became a rich merchant, moved to London and was there elected Lord Mayor. Remembering his roots, he founded an endowment to support several schools in Bedford.
Every self-respecting ancient town has a corn exchange and Bedford’s was opened in 1874 by the Ninth Duke of Bedford as a centre for business and trade. Nowadays it is a venue for entertainment and the arts.
A bust on the front celebrates the popular American musician and composer, Glenn Miller, who performed here on a number of occasions and whose first public broadcast by the BBC was aired from here.
Around St Paul’s Church, the market was in full swing. It was very busy and the goods on display were of fine quality. We like markets and in addition found here something to do with our second John. But first there was an interruption…
This handsome and good natured citizen thought we were from the local newspaper and asked us to take his photo. So we did, though telling him we were not from the paper. I gave him a SilverTiger card so that he could email me for a copy of the photo but so far he has not done so.
And so to our second Bedford John, the famous prison reformer John Howard, arguably the more useful of the two.
Howard became High Sheriff of Bedfordshire in 1773 but spent much of his time working for prison reform, travelling widely both in this country and abroad to study prison regimes. His conscientious efforts resulted in the passing of the Gaol Act in 1774 which brought improvements in sanitation and health care for prison inmates. Sadly, Howard died from typhoid in the Ukraine on one of his explorations.
The bronze sculpture is by Alfred Gilbert who also designed Eros in Piccadilly Circus. The elaborate Art Nouveau base has given rise to comment and speculation: what is the meaning of the corner figure in which a cherub seems to slide out from under a Satanic mask? The feet at the bottom seem too far away to belong to the cherub and are adult female feet rather than a child’s feet. I have seen a several suggestions of which the simplest is that the figure symbolizes Good (prison reform) emerging from Evil (a barbarous prison regime).
We passed by these proto-ghost signs on the way back to the station. We had found much in Bedford to interest us. There were historic buildings (many more than shown here) and a beautiful riverine landscape. As you can no doubt see from this account, it would take more than a day to ransack Bedford completely and reveal all its treasures. In that sense, Bedford has left us with a tacit invitation make further visits.
The clock graces the 1817 premises of John Bull the clock and watch maker
We met the spider in the gardens on the Embankment
Update Aug 5, 2011
Tigger reminded me of what I had forgotten, namely that the sculpture commemorates the large-scale immigration in the 1950s of impoverished Italians to work in the brick-making industry. A brief account of this will be found here.
Sunday, July 24th 2011
When you are on holiday and travelling around, what is the chore you least expect to perform? The list is long, so I will propose one: doing the laundry. That is not a holiday task, surely. Nonetheless, that is how we started today. The time had come because the laundry basket was overflowing. We stripped the bed, remade it with a fresh sheet and duvet cover, emptied the laundry basket into the wheelie suitcase and shopping trolley, and caught a bus to the British Library.
We set the machines spinning and as we had not yet had breakfast went out to do so. Because it was Sunday, few places were open and we plumped for Costa where we breakfasted on cereal yogurt and toasted paninis. While we were enjoying this, we could consider ourselves to be on holiday…
Then we went back to the launderette and transferred the damp wash to the dryers. While it was cooking, we could sit back and read. Tigger is reading Christopher Fowler’s Full Dark House and I have La Chatte by Colette, bought for £1.99 at a charity shop yesterday.
The slender plot of La Chatte is of a man who loves his cat to the point where he chooses her rather than the wife estranged by jealousy who tries to kill the beloved animal. This is perhaps an unusual story but I suspect it finds echoes in many animal lovers’ minds. Colette herself was famously a cat lover and and reveals in this novel, as in other writings, her understanding of feline behaviour and psychology.
You perhaps need to have had a special cat in your life, as I was privileged to have, in order to enter fully into the theme of the book though it can be read at a more objective level, I suppose, perhaps seeing the cat Saha as just one of circumstances of life able to sow dissention into a troubled marriage. One of the characters in the book is the big and beautiful house and garden in which the protagonist, Alain, spent his childhood and early adult life. It is here that he is fully himself and happy. But as the family’s fortunes decline, the house comes under threat and may have to be sold. Alain reflects, too, that Saha may only have another ten years to live and he wants to enjoy that time with her to the full. There is thus a feeling of a childhood world, an Eden of innocence and beauty, that he wants to cling to while it still exists.
The laundry done, we carted it home, stopping on the way at a branch of Pret for a drink. By now the day was warming up and the sun was shining from an almost cloudless sky. At home we decided to rest and relax for a while. And why not? We are on holiday, after all!
Friends of ours are down at the Tower of London, engaged in an archaeological event and we have arranged to meet them when they finish around 4pm. Rather than hang around at the Tower waiting for them to finish, we preferred to go the St Katherine’s Dock, where we found a bench in front of the Dickens Inn and waited for them to join us there. St Katherine’s Dock is a good place to go in fine weather because firstly, it is a picturesque place and secondly, there is a first-rate Indian restaurant there – Mala – should you feel peckish after your wait.
The Dock is full of private boats. Whether you call these yachts, I don’t know, not being a member of the yacht-owning classes, but most of them seem very well appointed, like luxury homes afloat. I can only wonder at the level of mooring fees they must have to pay to dock here in the tourist heart of London.
Our friends arrived and we proposed a meal but it was the wrong hour for them. I admit we ourselves are pretty relaxed about how many meals we eat and when we eat them. This regime seems not to suit everybody, however, and so we retired to the Dickens Inn for drinks and chat and the usual mutual catching up that friends do when they meet.
After parting from our friends, we again considered the question of food as we had not eaten since breakfast. We decided to make a bid for the Prospect of Whitby, the famous riverside pub in Wapping, where we knew they had vegetarian fish and chips on the menu.
It took us a couple of buses to get there and on the way, we both noticed a building that looked interesting. I caught a glimpse of the name: St Peter’s in the Dock. We made a note to return to it at some point.
Despite alighting from the bus too early and having a longish walk with the uncertainty as to whether we were on the right road, we at last reached the Prospect and ordered our food. It was quite good, especially with the sauce of hunger.
Afterwards, we waited for a bus to take us somewhere near St Peter’s. It is a strange church, separated from the street by another building in which there is an arched passageway to the church. Either side of the passage is a house or apartment, the one of the left being the home of the priest in charge.
The church describes itself on two boards as Church of England and also as Anglo Catholic. I am not sufficiently versed in religious matters to know the nuances between low church, high church, Anglo Catholic, and so on. I find talk of theology as boring and pointless as talk of football. Nonetheless, the church, which was founded in 1856 has an interesting history that is described here.
We now felt we have done enough for today and took the first of two buses in the direction of home, changing at Aldgate.
Such was Sunday and tomorrow we have another day out and another destination, this time outside London.
Monday, July 25th 2011
We have another fine sunny day for our outing. As I had an errand to run in EC1, we stopped off for breakfast at Cafe Maya and then returned to the Angel where we caught a number 43 bus and got out at Liverpool Street station just after 10 am.
The departure board showed a train for Norwich at 10:30. This was our train though we are not going as far as Norwich on this trip but stopping off at Manningtree, today’s destination. Manningtree is another of our less-than-obvious places to visit, not being on many tourist itineraries. Will we be disappointed or will we discover a hidden gem?
Between Chelmsford and Colchester the train came to a halt. We waited quite some time before an announcement was made that the train ahead of us had halted after hitting a person on a crossing. There would as a result be a delay of up to two hours while the emergency services were on site performing their necessary actions.
At around 11:25 we were informed that the emergency services were on site and that our train would be held where it was for at least another hour. Annoying as this is, they are at least keeping us informed as to what is happening and the length of possible delays. This is good customer relations and does help calm the anxiety and impatience of passengers. For the moment everyone in our carriage seems to be enduring the wait with good-humoured forbearance. Fortunately, we have brought reading matter with us which helps pass the time more agreeably.
At 11:20, we heard that the emergency services had finished work and that we had only to wait for the train ahead to start moving to be able to go on our way. Five minutes later we did indeed begin the move again, soon arriving at the garrison town of Colchester and, finally, our destination, Manningtree.1
Walking from Manningtree station, we looked for the way to the town. This was a little confusing as the first sign we encountered read "Welcome to Lawford". (I think Manningtree station is actually in Lawford.) We persevered, however, and eventually arrived in Manningtree which announced itself first with houses and the occasional shop but then revealed a proper village centre with a proper High Street so named.
Manningtree is on the river Stour which forms a broad estuary here. The tide was out, leaving a vista of mud flats and shallow channels, the whole area dotted with boats of various kinds. There were also water fowl, including swans and gulls and some long-beaked waders that we couldn’t identify.
Despite the town’s small size, there were two Indian restaurants but neither was open when we passed. Instead we plumped for Cafe Rio. The board outside advertised "Potato and onion tortilla with salad" but when I asked for this the staff appeared puzzled. One went outside to check and decided it must all have been sold previously. We settled for alternative items and by the time we had finished lunch it was already 3:30.
After lunch we went back down to the estuary and walked along. It’s a very agreeable area to walk in, despite the road running alongside. Large numbers of wild fowl are to be seen here, particularly swans and Canada geese and also some others such as a few Egyptian geese, black-headed gulls, and wading birds.
Continuing along here you come to Mistley and just before that, to Mistley Place Park. This too is full of geese and I think you would have to go a long way to find an area with such a dense population of these sizeable birds. Along the grass between the road and the estuary there are benches and here and there, swans came up onto the grass to graze or rest. We sat on a bench for a while, accompanying a pair of swans who had settled there.
We had by now realized that this was not the first time we had seen Manningtree. We had touched on it briefly during another trip. Arriving at the village sign at the entry to Mistley, we continued on to Mistley Towers, a church refashioned by Adams but now incomplete.
The question was what to do next. Choices included taking the bus somewhere else or taking the train back to London. My view was that there wasn’t really anything much to see in the immediate area and that we had seen all that was to be seen in Manningtree so we might as well take the train. I think that this was shown to be the best decision by the fact that we were both tired enough to doze off during the train journey!
So was it worth visiting Manningtree? Yes, I think so. It was a low-key visit in the sense that the town, being small, lacked exciting historical buildings. We might have gained a better view if we had been able to visit the museum but this was closed. On the other hand, we enjoyed the waterside walk and the sight of all those waterfowl, followed by a view of Mistley Towers.
The return train journey passed without incident and we arrived back at Liverpool Street in a timely fashion.
We stopped off for coffee at Costa in Endell Street and then crossed through to Finsbury Square where there are two cattle troughs and a very fine Victorian drinking fountain. From here we boarded the 214 bus to the Angel and home.
1We later learned that a mobility scooter had become stuck on a level-crossing and had been clipped by a train. There were no serious injuries.
Tuesday, July 26th 2011
Today we are staying in town. This will enable us to do some necessary chores such as the weekly shopping which we have been putting off. We had a leisurely breakfast at the Alpino in Chapel Market, then confronted the crowds at Sainsbury’s and carted our purchases home. After a little rest, we set out again, wandering more or less at random.
We caught a bus to Holborn and dropped into Caffè Nero. We had no plans and sitting around for a bit seemed as good a way as any to pass the time. Say “coffee house” and the first name that springs to mind is “Starbuck’s”. While this may be the largest chain, it was not the first to start up in the UK. Starbuck’s started here under that name only in 1998. Caffè Nero had already opened during the previous year.
Beating these by over a decade, however, Costa opened its doors in 1971 in Newport Street, the brainchild of brothers Sergio and Bruno Costa. I think Costa is currently my favourite with Nero coming second. I used to like Starbuck’s but, though I am sure they will deny it, my taste buds tell me their coffee has got weaker since the good old days.
Sociologically, the coffee houses are important. Where do you go to chat and hang out with friends? Up to the mid-20th century, the obvious answer was “the pub”. The coffee house changed that. Today they are crowded with shoppers, with people having time to waste and with students working on their laptops. The decline of the pub has been blamed on many things – the smoking ban, cheap booze in the supermarket, etc – but no one mentions the obvious: the coffee houses. Why else do you think that pubs now serve tea and coffee as well as alcohol?
Holborn isn’t exactly within earshot of the sea but that’s no reason for eschewing marine symbolism on its buildings, apparently. This is currently a branch of the Leeds Building Society – hardly associated with salt-sea adventures – but perhaps it once accommodated a shipping company or something of that ilk.
Further down the road is India House, home of the High Commission of India. Around two sides of the building is a set of plaques, of which I have shown four, which are the emblems of the Indian states and UTs. You can guess which is my favourite. They are colourful and very well made.
We pressed on down to the Strand and thus came to Somerset House. This is where national records used to be kept and where you came for a copy of your birth certificate or your grandad’s death certificate. I suspect a lot of people still think that is the case but the records office has moved out. Today, Somerset House describes itself as “a major arts and cultural centre in the heart of London”, a designation that it fully justifies.
We went inside for a quick look at some of the exhibitions. Nothing really took my fancy on this occasion, though photography is usually allowed. However, the staircase and its – to me – frightening well attracted my attention.
Strand station used to be a tube station like any other but then it was closed and barred to the public. Such dead stations are not as rare as you might think. They close for many reasons, usually because not enough people use them or they are thought to be too close to other stations to be worth keeping open. In some cases, the station building itself disappears while in others, as here, it remains but is blocked up. Some of them are available for use by film-makers and are occasionally opened for the public to visit. As pressure on public transport increases year by year, there are demands to open some of these sleeping beauties and put them back in service.
Then on to Whitehall, and Horseguards Parade where this lady flaunts her not inconsiderable charms in front of a government building. And not just any old government building, but the Ministry of Defence, no less. I half expected uniformed security officers to swarm out shouting “Oy! No photos!” but they didn’t. Incidentally, if you want to see a blog whose author has an eye – and a lens – for a good sculpture, you should pop over to Ornamental Passions, where the Min of Def has recently been discussed.
Around the corner is a small park or garden with the snappy name “Victoria Embankment Gardens Whitehall Extension”. Rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it? It contains, among other things, this monument to General Gordon. Military statues are generally much of a muchness but I rather like this one because of its informal pose. It is by Sir Hamo Thornycroft and was unveiled in 1888, so it has a comfortable patina of age upon it.
To see a more formal type of monument, you need walk just a few yards to this one, sculpted by William McMillan and unveiled by Prime Minister Harold McaMillan on July 19th 1961. The monument is boldly entitled “Trenchard 1873 – 1956”, though more information on the great man’s titles and achievements are given on the side of the plinth.
Though it was still early, we decide to turn for home. After all, you can do what you like on holiday, can’t you! There was, however, one more incident before we left the scene.
We walked up Richmond Terrace. Though you can’t see the barrier, because I took the photo over it, there is one. It closes off almost all the street but for a narrow passage. We noticed that there was a blue plaque on a wall on the other side though we could not read it at that distance.
Now, a blue plaque, like this one, affixed by the now defunct Greater London Council, is part of our cultural heritage. It was paid for and installed by my city out of taxes levied on its citizens. I should be able to approach and read that tablet and photograph it too.
There was a gap in the barrier, guarded by a man in uniform. I asked politely “May we go across and photograph the blue plaque, please?” I expected to be refused but even so, the blank “No”, pronounced with a smile as though I had asked something obviously stupid, still shocked me. “You can photograph it from here,” added Smiler.
I could have replied “I know I can. Here I am on the public highway and do not need your permission to take photographs, thank you very much” but it hardly seemed worth getting angry or self-righteous. I took my photo and left Smiler to his solitudinous guard duty.
The plaque, in case you cannot read it, bears the following inscription:
Greater London Council
Explorer and Writer
If Stanley were to return today, they wouldn’t let him approach his house and read the plaque in his own honour. Thus do politicians in the spurious name of security play fast and loose with our rights and freedoms.
Wednesday, July 27th 2011
We are heading south today into Sussex, our destination being Bexhill on the coast. The sky is overcast and I vehemently hope it will improve because the seaside needs sun!
London Bridge is one of London’s oldest stations, having opened in 1836. It has been rebuilt several times and these days is something of an untidy mess, badly in need of refurbishment. (Personally, I would knock it down and start again.) The prospect is not improved by the building works going on all around it.
One of the causes of the disruption, noise and dirt is the construction of the monstrous Shard, the cancerous growth disfiguring the skyline of London.
The 43 bus carries us to London Bridge but as we have bought off-peak tickets with a network card, we cannot board a train before 10 am. This gives us time for breakfast so we take the stairs to Tooley Street.
We cross the street to Hay’s Galleria and go to see what is on offer at Café Rouge. Returning to the station just after 10, we join a delayed Brighton train on platform 5. As it is still fairly early and Brighton is a popular destination, there are many customers for an already well subscribed train. We manage to get seats but others are not so lucky.
We had to change trains at Haywards Heath and again at Eastbourne. At the latter station, a gull was keeping watch from a vantage point on top of a parked train. We must have looked promising for some reason because he came to see if we had anything for him.
The third train dropped us at Bexhill whose slightly strange station is pictured above. From either platform you walk up a long sloping ramp to the bridge and to the entrance.
From the station we walked down the appropriately named Sea Road towards the seafront.
We roamed around some of the streets and found a few interesting buildings such as the Masonic Temple (foundation stone dated 1931) and a seafront apartment block with turrets and Dutch gables, though I don’t know the age of this one.
Our ramblings eventually brought us to the seafront. Though the weather was a little brighter, it was not enough to bring people out in crowds.
The yacht club showed no signs of activity and the shingle beach was virtually deserted.
We were rather intrigued by these seafront apartments, separated from the beach only by the walkway. I wonder whether the waves ever reach them in stormy weather. It’s certainly not far to go for a swim though you may get some noise from passers-by.
Further along, another set of apartments is set back tastefully from the beach by a large garden.
This seafront walk or promenade is known as West Parade. Compared with brasher seafronts like those of Brighton and Southend, it has a rather sober but elegant feel to it. Here too we find what is called the Colonnade or the George V Colonnade, currently undergoing refurbishment.
At the moment, this elegant structure is one big building site and cannot be seen at its best. Let’s hope it will soon be restored to its full glory.
The Colonnade is a Grade II listed building – no surprises there.
Another notable building here on the seafront is the De La Warr Pavilion. Described as a “Modernist icon”, the Pavilion was designed by Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff and was opened by the 9th Earl De La Warr in December 1935 (though the plate beneath the staircase was laid by the Earl in May).
The Pavilion hosts exhibitions, concerts, learning programmes and other activities as you can see by going to the Pavilion Web site. It also has a cafe and restaurant where we had a pleasant lunch.
After lunch, we continued exploring and discovered the indoor market in Western Road, though by the time we arrived many of the stalls were closed. It might be more interesting earlier in the day.
We saw the public library but didn’t go inside…
… and admired Edward VII’s coronation clock.
We sat in a seafront shelter for a while and a beetle paid us a visit and went for a stroll on my shoulder bag. We then set out to find Bexhill Museum.
We had been meaning to visit the Bexhill Museum for some time but we had left it a little late. There is an admission fee and they pointed out to us that they were closing within the hour so it wasn’t worth buying tickets. We will try again another day.
We dropped into the Bay Hotel for coffee and cake before turning for the station and our train home.
Bexhill is an historic town in Norman territory – Hastings is just a little to the east – and today is a pleasant and vivacious seaside town, a good place to spend the day. But now it was time for us to return to London. We made our way to the station, walked down the long ramp and caught a train to Haywards Heath where we took another direct to London Bridge. We shall come back one of these days and try to catch the museum at last.
Thursday, July 28th 2011
We are spending today in town and making a leisurely start. For breakfast we went to Stiles’ Bakery in Chapel Market and then around the back of Sainsbury’s in Tolpuddle Street to catch the 274.
So far it’s a warm and sunny day but because of the uncertain British weather, you need to be prepared for all eventualities. When we go out for the day I take a rain jacket in my bag and wear or carry two jackets, a light one and a thicker one. By wearing one or the other, or both, or neither, I have four levels of warmth.
The bus became quite crowded as the journey went on. It almost emptied when we reached Regent’s Park Zoo – parents taking the kids out for the day – then filled up again as it continued. We disembarked before it became crowded again and walked along Prince Albert Road, following the edge of Regent’s Park.
I was intrigued by this builder who was wearing a tall headdress or turban. The colour made a nice contrast with the pale shades of his clothes. I’ll bet his has to mind his head, as I do, when entering low doorways.
Along here are tall apartment blocks. I imagine they are luxurious inside and cost a mint to rent or buy. I often wonder what it’s like to live in them: is it noisy or are all the neighbours well behaved? I doubt I’ll ever have the chance of finding out.
The road leads to John John’s Wood, today a rather posh area of London but once well outside its boundaries. In the 13th century, it was owned by the Knights Templar but when that order was dissolved it fell into the hands of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem, the Knights Hospitallers, from whom it takes its name. The present church was built in 1814.
Next to the church is a pleasant garden or small park whose name, St John’s Wood Church Grounds, betrays its origins as the churchyard. It in fact predates the church itself having been bought to serve as a burial ground in 1807 though both church and burial ground were both consecrated together in 1814.
Another famous institution, one that sets cricket enthusiasts’ hearts a-flutter with excitement, is just across the road: Lord’s Cricket Ground. Owned by Marylebone Cricket Club, this is in fact the third cricket ground founded by Thomas Lord, from whom it takes it name (nothing to do with aristocratic wielders of cricket bats).
Being about as interested in cricket as in watching paint dry, I was happy to take a bus up Finchley Road to this interesting place. (The paint here was at least already dry.) It is called the Camden Arts Centre, which perfectly describes its role and activities.
The building was originally a public library, designed by Arnold S. Tayler, and opened in 1897. It remained a library until 1964 when its materials and activities were transferred to the new library in Swiss Cottage. A year later it re-opened as the Hampstead Arts Centre and in 1967 changed its name to the present one. In 1971, Camden Council transferred responsibility for the centre to three separate organizations though how that works I cannot imagine. The good news is that from what I saw on our visit, it does work.
Although you are not allowed to photograph the art works in the exhibitions (the Centre does not own them, after all), you can photograph the building. You do not have to sign a form; they trust you and suggest you ask the “invigilators” in the different rooms in case of doubt – a grown-up attitude of which I heartily approve. Other galleries might like to take note.
I cannot show you any art works and, in any case, there was not much that appealed to me. Perhaps I don’t “get” modern art or perhaps it really is inflated vacuous nonsense as I suspect. The prettiest object we came across was this spiral staircase.
Was this once the library manager’s office? Or a storeroom for valuable books? Next time I visit the Camden Arts Centre, I’ll ask and see whether anyone knows.
From the Camden Arts Centre we went down the Finchley Road to the O2 Centre and had lunch at the Zizzi restaurant there.
I used to like the water-spray decorations on the escalators and the large and beautiful aquarium but these have gone, though there are two smaller aquariums. Photographing the fish was quite difficult because of the distorting effect of the water and glass.
Tigger wanted to go to see Freud’s House and Museum in Maresfield Gardens, so thither we went. We found we had struck lucky: admission was free today.
The Freud family fled here in 1938. Though Freud himself died the following year, 1939, it remained their home until daughter Anna Freud died in 1982. The house was Freud’s home and his study and housed his collection of antiquities and other interesting articles. We were not allowed to take photographs.
If you are interested in (or obsessed by) Freud, a visit to a house where he lived and which still contains the furnishings and objects that he used is no doubt a great pleasure. Personally, I find it of limited interest though I did like the design of the house itself.
After visiting Freud’s house, we caught a bus to Hampstead and went to Burgh House where we had tea and cake in the little cafe there. Burgh House is itself worth visiting. It is a museum of local history and a centre for arts and cultural activities.
Afterwards we made our way up Flask Walk, the quaintly named sloping street, lined with trees and shrubs, that leads up to Hampstead High Street.
The pedestrian foot path beside the The Flask is what most people think of as Flask Walk though, as we have seen, the Walk is in fact a much longer road than that. We passed through and took a bus home, thus completing our outing.
Friday, July 29th 2011
We are off to Southampton today. In St John Street at the Angel we caught the 421 bus to Waterloo but got off a couple of stops after the station to look for breakfast.
On the way we passed along this tunnel which has been designated a permitted graffiti area. I don’t know of any others but assume this has been tried before. The tunnel walls are completely covered with graffiti, many of which are themselves partially covered by other paintings and defaced by "tags".
Freedom to paint provided an opportunity to watch a graffiti artist at work – rare, because for obvious reasons, they usually perform their art in secret.
The area was set up to encourage young artists (is there another Banksy waiting to be discovered?) and to draw them away from places where their creations are unwelcome and considered to deface the environment. Despite the over-painting, there is clearly not enough space here to cope for all of London’s graffiti artists.
Inevitably, the owners have to enforce rules (or they could be liable for any illegal messages) but it is interesting how taggers have invaded the board, surely demonstrating the anti-social attitude that is associated with their activity.
We found breakfast – not where this sinister gent is lurking – but at Marie’s Thai Cafe in the same street, called Lower Marsh, a dual purpose establishment that is a typical English cafe during the day and a Thai restaurant at night, a clever use of resources.
After breakfast we continued on to Waterloo station and there caught the Weymouth train which calls at Southampton. I did my usual trick and dozed off during the journey, awaking to find the passenger in front complaining that I was pushing his seat with my knees. Tigger suggested he change seats and he did so. Modern trains often have pathetically little space between seats so that if you are taller than average (and the population as a whole is getting larger), you have difficulty fitting in.
At Southampton station we boarded the free bus which took us to the centre where we first stopped off for refreshments and then went on to explore the city in our usual way. We met the Balloon Man who makes animals and hats for children by inflating and twisting balloons into contorted shapes.
We had a look at the Bargate, dating from the 12th century when it was the city’s north gate. Later, two round towers were added (13th century) and it was extended to include a guildhall in the 15th.
The other side was hard to photograph because of various clutter, not least a van. You can see the windows of the Guildhall and the staircase entrance to the Bargate Monument Gallery.
We went up the stone staircase to have a look at the exhibition in the gallery, admission being free.
We were not allowed to take photos of the exhibits, but photographing the building itself was permitted. Above you see a section of the old wooden ceiling, though how old it is I do not know.
I also photographed this sculpture though, for once, I neglected to note who she was and the plate below the statue is illegible in the photo.
We walked on through Southampton which has all the expected features of a modern town, including streets of shops, such as East Street above. Because Southampton has been an important sea port since time immemorial, though, it abounds in reminders of its historic past. You stumble over these, so to speak, at every turn.
Soon after their arrival, the Normans built a castle here. As they did often, they first built it of wood and later rebuilt it in stone. In 1961, archaeologists discovered the remains of two 14th century “drum towers” that had flanked a gate. These have been partially restored. The castle itself is lost: an apartment block now stands on the site.
At this point, I would like to get rid of Jane Austen. To be honest I don’t know a lot about her and don’t care whether she wrote her own books or these were corrected by her editor. We soon discovered that she is connected with Southampton and the sign board on the left tells us that she had a house here. Fair enough, but then other signs popped up until I had the distinct impression that the wretched woman was stalking us. I will note the fact and mention her no further.
In October 1338, 50 French and Genoese ships stole into Southampton Harbour and the crews attacked and looted the town, including the stores of King Edward III. He subsequently ordered the building of a defensive wall along what was then the quay to prevent future raids. This wall is called the Arcades for obvious reasons.
The loading and unloading of ships took place here and valuable cargoes were landed. Further along is the Royal Quay, where goods for the King were unloaded.
The castle reached down to the Royal Quay along which its wall ran. This entrance, called the Watergate, was added in the 14th century to allow goods to enter the castle but was small and stoutly defended against attack. The gate was restored and modified in the 19th century.
Goods were transported up this curvaceous path called Blue Anchor Lane. (Google maps denies its existence but it is real enough.) At the top of the lane is this magnificence house.
One of Southampton’s favourite treasures, this beautiful house belonged to a Tudor merchant.
We were making our way to the seafront because we had it in mind to take lunch at a restaurant we had visited before. We passed this striking building, obviously once the head of a pier though today operating as “Kuti’s Royal Thai Pier”, in other words a Thai restaurant. The pier actually dates from 1833 when it was opened by Princess Victoria, who as Queen, would later preside over what we call the Victorian era. Two fires in 1987 and 1992 destroyed the major part of the structure, leaving the pier head that we see here.
Nearby is this robust 14th century building once known as the Wool House. Wool was an important export in the Middle Ages providing the basis of the town’s prosperity. Wool was stored here before being shipped abroad. During the Napoleonic Wars, French prisoners of war were incarcerated here and some carved their names in the woodwork. It is now occupied by the town’s Maritime Museum.
Despite the many distractions, we eventually reached the restaurant, looking forward to a good lunch. Unfortunately, we were disappointed. The balloons indicate that there was a large party event going on inside and this slowed the kitchen so that we had to wait a long time for our food. When it came, it wasn’t really worth the wait. The mood was not improved by the man with the mobile stuck to his ear who engaged in long complaining phone calls in a loud voice throughout.
After lunch we continued walking and exploring. We discovered the Medieval Merchant’s House, dating from the 14th century. It can be visited though we do not do so today. That is a pleasure awaiting a further visit.
Our circuitous rambles, not all of which I can recount, brought us back to the quay area at Westgate. This was the point of access to the town’s original quay, West Quay. It is very defensive: there are grooves indicating that there was once a portcullis, and arrow slits through which to attack a raider. We are told that some of Henry V’s forces marched through this gate on the way to Agincourt in 1415 and that the Pilgrim Fathers went aboard the Mayflower at West Quay at the start of their epic voyage.
We now had a small adventure to the extent of going somewhere where it was not possible to go. But we did go, and we have the photos to prove it! It started when we entered through a doorway into a yard, one of whose features was a Norman fireplace dating from the 1200s, complete with chimney (though it had actually been brought here from another building).
We found stone steps leading to a passageway and went up to see where it went…
At the top, we had a good view of the courtyard with the Norman chimney and the steps which we had climbed. But where were we?
We had gone back in time and now found ourselves in a beautiful Tudor garden! Well, we hadn’t actually gone back in time, of course, but the restored Tudor Garden, belonging to the Tudor Merchant’s House, was real enough. There were beds and borders of the species of plants and flowers that the Tudors would have known and appreciated.
There was also a Tudor fountain and some seats where you could sit and enjoy the peaceful surroundings.
There was even a big old cannon gun though, strictly speaking, in a part of the grounds that once belonged to St Denys’ Priory. Try keeping the kids off the gun. By the way, where are the kids… and all the tourists? There was a cafe at the back of the garden so we asked for a cup of tea. They looked startled. “Who let you in here?” they asked. “This place isn’t open. It won’t be open until the mayor opens it tomorrow.” Someone must have left the door open and we sneaked in. But I’m glad we did.
The Tudor Garden was one of the highlights of the trip but we had of course only scratched the surface of this complex and interesting town, England’s main sea port during the Norman period.
It was now time to go to the station and take the train back to London but, as ever, with the determination to return again and explore Southampton further.
Saturday, July 30th 2011
Today we are off to an historic city prized in Roman times for its hot springs that enabled the construction of an elaborate bath house. The modern name still reflects this ancient usage: Bath. The weather is being kind and instead of yesterday’s clouded skies we have sunshine.
We left home just after 7 am and caught a 205 to Paddington station. We were too early for many of the breakfast places and made do in the meantime with coffee and croissants at Sloe Bar. Later we found a stall selling porridge which we consumed aboard our train.
As it is the weekend, the cheap rate applies all day and we have reserved seats on the 0900 Weston Super Mare train. Annoyingly, they keep us waiting until the last minute to announce the platform number so that when they do so, there is an undignified rush to board. Although we have reserved seats (they are obligatory as we are limited to specific trains) they are not together. We do what we usually do in such circumstances: hurry ahead of the crowd and grab a pair of unreserved seats. They are so called "Priority Seats" (for disabled passengers) and have extra room for our long legs.
The train, destined for Weston Super Mare, became full as we progressed, with standing room only after Swindon. We had a struggle to disembark in Bath.
From the station, we walked down Manvers Street, past the famous premises of George Bayntun, seller and binder of books,
into Pierrepont Road where the Labour Party occupies Century House,
and so to Terrace Walk, an 18th century (1730) terrace, built inevitably in local stone, originally accommodating luxury shops and coffee houses with living accommodation above them. We also partook of coffee here at Gourmet Scoffs.
On the island limited by Terrace Walk and two other roads, stands this rather pretty fountain. It was made by one S. Stefano Vallerio Pieroni in 1859 and was placed near the Pump Room from where it was removed to this position in 1989. It is a listed building. Pieroni seems a somewhat obscure artist though he was responsible also for the statue of King Bladud that originally topped a fountain of free mineral water (also 1859).
We continued on and our path took as past Bath Abbey, whose full name is The Abbey Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. The present building was begun in 1499 upon the foundations of a demolished Norman cathedral. The tower can be visited as long as you don’t mind scaling the 212 steps.
Bath is of course full of grand buildings, most made of the famous Bath stone. Strict building regulations control the style of modern buildings and the materials that can be used, in order to preserve the visual harmony of the city. Above is the Guildhall, built between 1775 and 1778, the third building on that site. Today it can be hired for “events”.
Contrast the Guildhall with the rather sad looking building above. This is the Corn Market, which I believe was opened in the 1850s, having previously been a Georgian house. Various plans for its use have been proposed though its future seems in doubt, especially as it is not listed.
Our destination was the Assembly Rooms. Built in 1771, they replaced earlier assembly rooms in another part of town. Such establishments performed an important function in polite Georgian society: people would gather, or “assemble”, to dance, converse, take tea, meet and be seen. The building is still open to the public though its rooms can also be hired for private functions. However, one part always remains open, namely the Fashion Museum. This was what we had come to see.
There is an admission charge (see the Fashion Museum site, click on “Visiting”) but we got in free with our Art Fund membership cards. Note that photography is allowed and people were clicking away all around me because, apart from the exhibits, the building itself is also worth seeing for its own sake.
The ground floor exhibition was of costumes designed for cinema costume dramas. Above is the armour worn by Julius Caesar’s personal guard in the 1959 American production of Ben-Hur.
This group of costumes was designed by Michael O’Connor for the 2008 production of The Duchess, based on the life of Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, wife of the 5th Duke. Some of the scenes were filmed in the Assembly Rooms.
While films enthusiasts seemed to enjoy these costumes, they interested me relatively little because, no matter how accurate their design and fabrication, they are not real, but are artificial modern creations. I am much more interested in genuine historical artifacts.
Fortunately, there is a good selection of these in the lower-floor exhibition. Above is a rare dress dating from 1660, called the Silver Tissue Dress because it is made of silk woven with silver thread and parchment lace. Made to fit quite a small person, the dress is thought to have been worn for a debut attendance at court in the presence of Charles II. (The picture is not as sharp as I would like because these rare and valuable exhibits are understandably kept behind glass which causes problems for the photographer.)
Gloves somehow seem more personal than some other items of dress and this collection of raised hands looks rather dramatic. I was only partially successful in minimizing reflections but I at least managed to keep myself out of the picture!
There was a section on dress, for men and women, from the second half of the 20th century. While these made a vivid contrast with the garments of earlier periods, they were just too familiar and I took no photos of them. I’ll go back in a 100 years for another look when they will perhaps seem more interesting.
When the Assembly Rooms were the gathering place of the 18th century glitterati, riding in a sedan chair was the stylish way to arrive. Carried by two “chair men”, they were probably the easiest way to get about town, other than actually walking (perish the thought!). But the sedan was not to have things all its own way…
If you thought that the Bath Chair was invented in Bath, you were right. If, like me, you thought is was only for transporting the sick and infirm, you were wrong. The Bath Chair, running on wheels and steered by the passenger, was invented in the mid-18th century and soon rivalled – and eventually replaced – the sedan chair.
For lunch we went to the pub. Not just any old pub, of course, but The Porter, described as Bath’s only fully vegetarian pub. Such an establishment must be pretty rare even outside Bath, I think. It offers a wide range of meals, all very tasty and all very vegetarian (plenty are also vegan).
After lunch we continued our rambles and saw many interesting sights. We eventually reached the Victoria Art Gallery.
The foundation stone informs us that it was laid in the 60th year of Victoria’s reign, on October 18th 1897. The statue of the Queen over the door has beneath it an inscription telling us that it was “ERECTED IN LOYALTY AND LOVE BY THE WOMEN OF BATH 1901”, possibly as a post mortem tribute. It is interesting, though, that it was an initiative by women in a city so obviously – if beautifully – designed by men.
As is usual, the rules of engagement prohibit photography of the art works but allow the building itself to be photographed. The above picture of the domed ceiling in the entrance hall will give some idea of its quality.
We walked from there to the Pulteney Bridge, the justly famous bridge built across the Avon in 1773. It is a very handsome structure and while we were there was attracting a lot of attention from tourists.
The bridge is also a good place to observe gulls and, if you are lucky, photograph them in flight. The side of the bridge shown in the above two photos is the most usual view but other aspects of the bridge are also of interest.
Another view of the bridge is as a road bridge – called Bridge Street, reasonably enough – which is lined with shops and cafes, a charming alternative to the more conventional picture.
At one end of the bridge is this little coffee shop and tea room. We managed to find a table and ordered two cream teas.
The view of the bridge from the other side is not one tourists usually bother with but I find it has a fascination of its own.
This cliff-like building is the Empire Hotel. The foundation stone (invisible below street level) was laid in 1899 and the hotel completed at the very end of the Victorian era, in 1901. In style and in name, it is a late blossom of the Victorian spirit.
Naturally, we took a turn around Bath’s covered market. Markets vary in size and quality across the country but in a good one, like that in Bath, there is always plenty to see with colourful goods on display and colourful characters selling them. You may pick up a bargain too, especially at the end of the day.
Already in a charter of 1371, Bath was said to have had a market “since time immemorial”. Originally, the market was covered only by the sky but in more recent times, several buildings in several different locations have been dedicated to the purpose. The present market building dates from 1861.
We sat for a while in the gardens at Orange Grove, near the Abbey. When the supposed curative waters of the spa were at the height of their popularity, the rich and famous came to partake of them. Among them was the King, William of Orange, after whom the Grove was named. Richard Beau Nash raised this obelisk in honour of the King in 1734, though it had to be rebuilt in 1834, having by then fallen into a state of disrepair.
We made our way slowly back to the station where we met the station gull. Explaining that we were not supposed to feed the gulls failed to impress him as he was convinced that we had something for him. Actually, it turned out that he was right.
We had reserved seats on the train but they were far apart so we preferred to compete for unreserved ones. The train was quite full but we managed to get seats one in front of the other. At Swindon a lot of people got out and we were able to blag a couple of seats together.
Although we had been to Bath many times before, we hadn’t visited the Fashion Museum or the Victoria Art Gallery, so they were new pleasures for us. Bath is a pretty and a fascinating city with historic traces from many periods and with its collection of irreplaceable buildings, an architectural treasure house.