Monday, 20 February 2017

Travelling through Time in London

We were cycling through a not-at-all-beautiful area of London called Limehouse yesterday, when glimpsed amidst the traffic, discount stores and council estates, I spotted this handsome old house standing secluded behind some railings. 

A notice outside said that it was the head office of the Royal Foundation of St. Katharine, an organisation  I'd never heard of.  I spotted a little notice, though, with an arrow directing passers-by to the Yurt Cafe, and that sounded interesting.  So I followed a long wall, turned a corner and came to what looked, at first, like an industrial site.  The trains of the Docklands Light Railway rumbled constantly over the nearby viaduct, but there was certainly a yurt there, as well as tables where you could eat outside.

The place had a name - St Katharine's Precinct - and it's run by the St. Katharine Foundation.    And although you might think it looks a bit rough, believe me this is the cool style here in East London, just what many locals are hoping to see.  So I was not surprised to find that inside the yurt it was very pleasant, with great coffee, good cakes and fairy lights around the walls (although you can't see the lights very well in my photo.)

And there was a Quiet Space just down the corridor, warm, relaxing and welcoming. 

Most of the activity on the site was carried on in brightly painted metal containers. I stepped inside the Precinct office where I found photos of the sort of things that happen there, from printmaking to meditating to community gardening. I thought St Katharine's Precinct was such a nice place to hang around that I was a bit sorry it wasn't nearer home.   

Out of curiosity, I looked up the Foundation of St Katharine, and discovered it was founded by Queen Matilda in 1147 AD. It  has offered spirituality, hospitality and service since that time. It even runs a b&b where you can stay.

 I'm sure Limehouse has changed a lot since 1147, and probably not for the better,  but I like the idea of going on a slightly monastic mini retreat in the grounds of that old house, in an oasis of spirituality and history in the midst of the heavy traffic, trains and noise. 

Now, here is a slightly time-travel trip that you can take yourself in London. Go to this spot on Google Street View - it's Cleveland St., London. (Or at least, I hope it is - never quite sure with Street View).  See the house with the round blue plaque on it? Charles Dickens lived there during his not-very-happy early life. Here's a photo of him looking young, earnest and just a bit teenagery. 

Go back to his house on Street View, turn left along Cleveland St past Dennis Publishing and Middlesex House, continue a few more steps and you'll come to a boarded up old building, once known as Cleveland St. Workhouse. Charles Dickens would have walked past it almost every day, and it is thought to be his inspiration for the workhouse in Oliver Twist. Here it is on Street View, in case you missed it. 

Cleveland St. Workhouse was built by 1778 to care for the sick and the poor. In its early days, it was humane, but by Dickens' time, workhouses has become cruel and harsh places, and Oliver Twist reflects that period in its life.   Later, times changed again, and this building was returned to its original use of caring for the sick, becoming part of the large Middlesex Hospital. 

The main hospital was pulled down a few years ago and replaced by "luxury" flats. Costing over £2m each for 2 bedrooms, you can take a look here, and you might agree that there is not much luxurious (or attractive or interesting) about them, really. London has many blocks like this which are aimed at property speculators. They usually don't live there but buy them in hopes of turning a profit later.  Developments of this type create areas of deadness in the bustling city streets. 

There is now a plan to gut the 18th century workhouse to create more of this kind of "luxury" and, in the graveyard beyond it, which is full of paupers' bones, another huge block is proposed, with, shockingly, no care about what happens to the remains of the dead human beings who lie there. 

There's more about the workhouse and Dickens here on David Perdue's blog. You can also find the planning application for the graveyard flats here, where the links at the bottom take you to where you can comment to the planning board.  If you do want to comment, deadline is really soon - 23 February, in fact. 

Oh - and I've just heard fromphotographer Mo Smith, of the fascinating "Fresh Eyes on London" blog, that she has posted about this too.  

A bit depressing, that, but never mind, Spring is on its way, even in the busiest parts of London.   I was really delighted to see these brilliant crocuses in the nice park in Limehouse.  

And it was wonderful to see so many flowers all together after the months of winter. 

Thursday, 16 February 2017


I like to hand-make cards and February is the time to do it in our family - four birthdays plus Valentine's Day.  I'm a bit out of ideas now but quite pleased to have created individual cards for everyone.

With Spring on the way I got the urge to do some de-cluttering. I don't think I'll ever be a minimalist, but somehow I've acquired a lot of stuff which I really don't need. Do I really need an Ancient Order of Foresters sash?  Specially when I don't even know what the Ancient Order of Foresters is....

And where does this rather large  jug come from?  It reminds me of the stuff we saw in Murano, and although I wouldn't exactly call it beautiful it's kind of interesting.  But what could I use it for?

Not keen on this glass lampshade but it is genuine 1930s, and might be worth a few pounds. I wouldn't sell it on eBay as it might break in the post but our local charity shops only sell fairly new stuff so I don't think they would recognise it as an antique. After surviving for 80 years I feel it would be a shame if it ended up chucked out in a charity shop bin. Any suggestions?

As for THIS... well, an early effort by one of our daughters to get her life under control, it seems...

I'll keep that, for sentimental reasons.  As for the rest, I'm fighting the temptation to repack it and put it back in the loft.

Still, yesterday I did use one of the items which has sat forgotten in the cupboard for ages. T and I got an unexpected bouquet of Scilly Islands jonquils from a friend.  There were so many flowers we didn't seem to have a vase to fit them, when I suddenly thought of my grandmother's glass jug. It has a very wide neck so they all fitted in.

They are beautiful and giving us a lot of pleasure.  Glad we didn't get rid of the jug, which I always liked anyway. 

I was still thinking about how to deal with all the other stuff when we went into central London yesterday, to run a few errands. We had a cup of tea on the fifth floor of John Lewis, overlooking the escalators, a spot I love. Somehow I can sit for hours and watch the escalators rumbling quietly away.

Yesterday, I thought how well those crowds of people in the store organise themselves without anyone to tell them how to do it! 

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Maps and Birthday Cakes.

Have to share the twins' birthday cakes. As you can see, their interests are not the same these days,  so they NEED separate cakes!

Both are very fond of cake but being twins they are quite good at sharing, so the cakes were a success with their little friends too.

I thought I'd share with you a couple of the exhibits from the British Library's fascinating exhibition "Maps and the 20th Century - Drawing the Line".  It's on till 1 March and if you're in London I recommend it - it shows very many different aspects of maps and mapping in the 20th century. Some were quite surprising to me. 

For instance, after the war there was a great shortage of dress fabric, but there were many military "Escape and Evasion" maps left unused in the Army stores.  These  splendid maps had been printed on silk, in order to be (a) lightweight (b) more durable than paper and (c) less likely to rustle when secretly opened.   With the war over, there was no further use for them as maps, so someone had the bright idea of making clothes out of them.  

I've never seen a dress made out of a map before. I wondered why, then I realised that after the war, people most likely dyed them to make the dresses look more "normal." I can't say I really blame anyone for not fancying going round dressed in a map of a war zone.   

These days, though, if the map showed somewhere I liked, I'd be happy to wear it.  Maybe that sounds a bit weird to you?

Among my other favourite exhibits in the show were watercolour designs that were used to decorate the covers of Ordnance Survey leisure maps of 90 years ago. The one below is for the stretch of the Thames between Wallingford and Kew, which covers some really beautiful landscapes.  It is still fun looking at boats going through locks, but I have never seen anything as colourful in real life as this group with their parasols and - yes, boater hats.  I suppose that's how the hats got their name, come to think of it... 

Do you find maps interesting?

Monday, 6 February 2017

Georgians and Dahlias

I wonder if developing that soy allergy in Japan weakened my immune system. After getting flu after Christmas, I went down with norovirus at the end of January, which makes you feel fit for nothing but lying around. So I lay about re-reading some favourite books and put together photos for another post about Akita, Japan.  

But I felt much better on Saturday, and by yesterday, Sunday, I was fine, so I decided to go and see one of London's hidden interiors which I'd learned would be open  to the public for the first time in years, or possibly even ever. It's a large 18th century house in Fitzroy Square,  London, that is home to The Georgian Group.  

So I'll still post about Japan, but first let me tell you about visiting Fitzroy Square and the Georgian Group....

The Georgian Group is a fount of knowledge about life, times, arts and architecture of the 18th century and if you click here you can read a bit about its work in protecting the 18th century heritage of England and Wales.  Part of that work is to help keep neo-classical skills alive - plasterwork, leadwork, wood carving like this delicately carved little swag, for instance, made out of lime wood.

Now the GG has just had its 80th birthday, and has decided to reach out to the wider world and get more people involved in its work.      There certainly seemed to be a lot of people thronging in to see the place.  The visitor's entrance to the house is via the big echoing stone flagged basement, once the kitchen and servants' quarters, and when I wandered in, one of the first things I encountered was a room full of people hard at work making 18th century style crafts with shells, plaster-of-paris and mirrors, and trying their hand at printing wallpaper. 

It looked like fun.  So I accepted one of the thin polystyrene tiles they offered me, and drew a vaguely old-world design onto the tile with a pencil, making the lines as deep as I could.   Then, I inked the tile with gold lino paint and printed it several times....  and wow, suddenly I had some decorative paper myself! 

Not sure how authentic the design was, but I loved the smudgy look of the printing (which is just as well). Even if I don't manage to create wallpaper, I can see all kinds of possibilities for creating my own gift wrap, at least. 

As my paper dried, I climbed up from the basement to explore the main house. This contained many unusual and fascinating objects, old and new.  The front hall is full of statuary and plasterwork. Here's the view looking to the front door with its well proportioned fanlight.  

The exact proportions of architecture were very important in Georgian times, so the size and shape of the rooms are always very harmonious and comfortable.  The main office, with deep red walls and a huge bookcase down one wall, would have been a wonderful place to work. It sports a signed photo of Prince Charles, the Group's patron, on the wall. 

 Charles has worked very hard in conserving the country's traditional visual and natural heritage. It's fair to say that not everyone always agrees with everything he does, but over decades he has done so very many good and lasting things for the country and its people. So I nodded approvingly at his photo and gave him a thumbs up as I passed.  

My favourite room in the house was the main salon, a double interconnecting room which when the house was new, would have been opened up for balls and parties.  In this shot most of what you see is actually a reflection in a pier-mirror, a tall mirror which occupies the space between two windows and makes the space seem larger.   Placed before the mirror is a decorative shellwork obelisk, which also reflects itself back.  

And there was more shell work in the next room - this is a startling and unusual modern chandelier.

And, how about this, in the glass topped cabinet below?  This grotesque face is reminiscent of figures featuring in shell grottoes, a type of folly which was popular two hundred years ago.   Like the chandelier, it is modern, but once again, it seems very eighteenth century somehow  - a mixture of brash, elegant, refined and outrageous.

 I looked up and spotted this modern painting of Fonthill Abbey (right) had been hung over a doorway. The towering, Gothic style Fonthill Abbey was created by the profligate, clever art-collector, critic and politician William Beckford, who was just the type of excessive character the 18th century specialised in.

Beckford was astoundingly rich and decided he wanted to live in a Gothic cathedral so he got one built as quickly as possible, without bothering about whether it would stay up.  And basically, it didn't.  Fonthill Abbey's soaring tower, 90 metre high (300 feet), collapsed three times, and the rest of the house wasn't much better built.  Beckford for instance, wanted Christmas dinner cooked in the kitchens even though they were not ready. So the kitchens were flung together just enough to enable the staff to cook the meal, and then they, too, collapsed. Mad though this sounds, there was, in fact, a bit of a tendency in the eighteenth century to build beautiful houses almost as if they were stage sets, not really intended for living at all.

Anyway, all kinds of strange stories circulated about Beckford, and Fonthill of course was famous for its extravagant interiors, in gold, silver, crimson and blue.   (Talking of which, someone had created some wallpaper with the lino paints downstairs which might almost have been made for somewhere like Fonthill Abbey, don't you think?)

 Gradually most of the Abbey either fell down or was demolished, although a tiny fragment of the building still remains, and it does make you wonder what the rest must have been like. This website by Ric Norton gives some idea.....

Having fallen in love with No. 6, I suddenly began to see Fitzroy Square in a different light from how I had always seen it.  To be honest, this corner of London had always seemed somewhat dull to me, but, viewed out of the long windows of No 6's salon I suddenly perceived it as it was meant to be: elegant, well proportioned and restrained, a place to spend the gloomy London winters.  Imagine going to balls in those long-windowed rooms, glittering with the lights of thousands of candles.  Really all the scene needs is a phaeton or two bowling past. 

And so that was my Sunday.   But, since I have got the dahlia photos sorted out, I'd really love to zip across to the other side of the world and mention the wonderful dahlia garden in Akita, Japan, which I was lucky enough to catch in full bloom last October.  

This garden, set in a sweeping valley, stretches almost as far as you can see to wooded hillsides, and the dahlias come in such a variety of colours, sizes and shapes, as you can see below. 

The variety below had a twisty, ornate quality, and if I plant any dahlias this year, I'm going to plant some of these. 

The yellow ones at the bottom hardly seemed like dahlias at all but make a striking display in a border.

This to me seemed to have a perfect colour and shape

 And the centre of this deep red dahlia glowed brightly, like enamelled gold.

However, my eye was also caught by this stall which an elderly man had pitched just outside the dahlia garden entrance. 

He was selling fungi that he had collected himself from the mountains.  Most of the fungi were very large, and looked almost as if someone had made them out of finely textured and dyed leather. 

I had seen small "maitake" mushrooms like this before - in fact, I think they grow wild in England - but these were in a different class - they were bigger than cauliflowers.  My Japanese friend told me they are called "dancing mushrooms,"   - 舞茸  in Japanese - because they look like dancers in flowing robes. And as you can see there were other types of fungi and fungi products on the stall.

The old man had obviously spent hours preparing them for sale, and as far as I could tell, they seemed to have health benefits, including boosting your  immune system......  hmmm, if only I had known that, I'd have bought some of the extract. Then, I'd probably have been the picture of health all winter.  And I would probably have got many more posts written by now!   

Friday, 20 January 2017

Havens of Peace and Hope.

I try not to write too much that's negative here. So I haven't felt like describing how I've been unwillingly dragged into a frustrating and bizarre legal case that reminds me somehow of the trial scene in "Alice in Wonderland."

Can't say any more about it, but really it's nothing compared with the general madness that seems to be swirling around all of us in the world at the moment.   So instead of tearing my hair out (which I confess I often feel like doing) I'm concentrating on how lucky I am in the big scheme of things, and I've been supporting charities like UnitedRescues and War Child, 
which help the millions who have it very rough indeed.

And I've shaken off the flu, so I've been taking the chance to look around lots of old London churches lately - all of them havens of peace and hope. I'm not particularly religious, but I appreciate sitting within these old walls where for centuries people have taken refuge from the sad stupidity and evil conflicts of the world, said goodbye to hate and frustration and lifted their minds to higher things.    

The picture above shows the inside of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, overlooking Trafalgar Square.  This very famous church is only the latest building on this ancient church site, and it dates from the elegant 1720s. When I dropped in, the organist happened to be practising, which added an inspiring soundtrack to that glittering interior.  St Martin's also does a lot of work with homeless people and runs all kinds of events and concerts, and has a very good cafe in its crypt, all in the cause of raising money for its work. 

A few days later, I went into St Leonard's Shoreditch.  Although it's about the same age as St Martins, it's a frankly shabby old church, but it is full of interesting local curiosities and I found it had a laid back, comfortable atmosphere, like going into some rather messy friend's cosy house.  The cat below certainly felt at home there, even though, like T.S. Eliot's Rum Tum Tugger, it was "always on the wrong side of every door."   I let him in, I let him out, I let him in again... and then.... 

One of the first things visitors see in St Leonard's is a large sign high up on the wall in the porch, recording how the church ringers did a complete peal of "Treble Bob Royal" in nine hours and five minutes. 

I've never quite got my head around change ringing but I gather it's about sounding lots of bells in slightly different sequences, according to mathematical rules. If I listen hard to church-bells ringing I do notice the sound seems to change over time. Perhaps you can detect this by listening to this part of Oxford Treble Bob Royal (and no, the video is not nine hours long.....).  

St Leonards Shoreditch features in the old English nursery rhyme "Oranges and Lemons."  Most people know this song, but if you don't, then my favourite version is this 1930s one, which was on a CD compilation that we used to sing along with in the car with S and Young A.  Like so many old English rhymes, the tune is so jolly that you don't always notice the slightly sinister words!  

Anyway, to get back to animals.... St. Stephens, Kensington, has a dog, but not as far as I know a cat. The dog didn't tell me its name, but it's a charmer, very gentle and very friendly as you can see from the wagging tail.  The church is a brightly coloured example of High Victoriana, and T and I spent ages looking around.....

and in fact found a corner devoted to T.S. Eliot... who turned out to have been a churchwarden here.

My most recent little pilgrimage was to London's financial district, the City.  First I dropped in at St Margaret Pattens in Eastcheap, where the kindly blessing below is offered to the stressed city workers whose warren-like offices tower all around.   

The church is supported by two livery guilds -  the Worshipful Company of Pattenmakers and the Worshipful Company of Basketmakers.   Pattens are overshoes which were used for walking in the muddy, dung-littered streets of old, but now the guild has moved into making orthopaedic and medical footwear.  

I got chatting to the vicar there, who said that in the olden days, foundling children of the parish were always given the surname "Patten" when they were christened in the church.  So if that is your name, you might be able to guess where at least one of your ancestors came from.  

King Charles I's coat of arms hangs on the wall, and every year, the vicar said, there's a Choral Eucharist to commemorate the death, in 1649, of the "King and Martyr."  (This year, the service is on 26 January at 1 PM.)  As it happens, King Charles was beheaded, but I don't think it's anything to do with "Oranges and Lemons"   

And almost opposite St. Margaret Pattens, here are the doors of St. Mary-at-Hill, which stands in one of the ancient lanes which still survive in the City. It dates from the 12th century but was mostly rebuilt after being burned in the Great Fire of London in 1666. Then it got through the Blitz unscathed - only to have another serious fire in the 1980s. Luckily, it survived again.

After visiting these two churches, I returned home across London Bridge and saw a striking sunset, a great bank of purple and red clouds rising into a pale blue sky.  I realised how much I love living in London, because it always seems to offer something that matches my mood.    

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