Sunday, 31 January 2021

Buried But Not Forgotten

Everyone I talk to has a tale to tell of how being buried in the lockdown is getting to them.  What effect are restrictions (if any) having on you? It's making me less communicative in writing, I think - it's a struggle these days to even do Facebook, and, although I love to read your blogs I'm not writing here much either.  Are you doing Zoom chats with family and friends? I'm certainly doing that more.  

In general, we're okay though. We've both been vaccinated and we are managing day to day, but we have friends and relatives living in countries where vaccines are in short supply or even unavailable, and every day is an incredibly anxious one for them.   Yes, we're lucky. 

My first vaccine shot was two weeks ago. I haven't a date for the next one yet but they're not booking much in advance.  Below's a (blurry) photo of inside the vaccination centre. We were in a gymnasium, sodium lit and freezing cold, with people filling out consent forms, all muffled up against the cold, with volunteers running around sanitising chairs and vaccinators working full stretch in the little white booths at the right.   

Afterwards, I felt liberated,   though I know I won't be properly protected for a while, so mustn't be over confident.  I'm glad the vaccine rollout has been fast, but it needs to be.  A relative works at a big NHS hospital and is flat out helping staff who are at the end of their tether, so we both want to avoid doing anything that puts even more pressure on the NHS. 

For this reason, we've sadly decided to miss the twins' birthday party this week. They've been planning it in detail, food, games, etc. all ready for the guests, who will be their teddies. 

More obedient, good natured friends than the teddies are hard to imagine, but I'll be glad when the twins can get back to school and see their real live friends.  
Nothing fazes Nature in London at the moment, it seems. The shoots of the spring bulbs are starting to appear on schedule. I was thrilled to see how one little snowdrop had pushed some flowers through holes in a leaf which had fallen on it and been shading it all winter.  

 And T. and I have been litter picking. It's great to leave a place looking better than you found it. We've been spending more time than usual around the church of St John-at-Hampstead, which is on our regular exercise route.  It's a popular and welcoming spot but does get litter.  We keep hoping we'll find some ancient treasure while poking about under the bushes and behind tombstones, but the most interesting thing so far was an unopened tin of tomato soup, a nail file, some unopened jam and some scissors. I spent quite a while wondering what the story was behind that little hoard!    

We've also been exploring the old overspill Burial Ground next to the church, and over the months we've seen its flowers and wildlife change with the seasons, and noticed some of the striking or quaint  memorials.  I took this photo in the early summer, after this fine magnolia had finished flowering

A very prominent tomb is that of a carpenter's-son-turned-clockmaker who solved the problem of longitude in the 18th century.   This may sound a little academic, but until John Harrison invented a clock that kept accurate time at sea, the only accurate clocks had pendulums, and, these do not work at sea.  By enabling accurate navigation, Harrison transformed the whole business of sea travel and trade,  and, of course, saved countless lives.    

The Mark 4 portable chronometer, which he spent his life developing,  kept time to within three seconds a day.   I looked it up and found it resembled a huge pocket watch which ticked at five times a second and this picture below shows what a beautiful piece of work it was. The image is from the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, which is proudly selling great big prints of this and other beautiful instruments in its gift shop, (or would be if it was open, as I hope it soon will be again).     
I also discovered a lady called Eliza Acton buried at Hampstead.  She was the author of one of the best known cookery books of the 19th century, "Modern Cookery," which was only overtaken by Mrs. Beeton many years afterwards.  She also wrote a comprehensive book on bread, "The English Bread-Book."   Goodness know if there is such a thing as a historian of bread, but if so, then she's it.  I've linked to a facsimile here.  

I've looked at her recipes and am considering adding powdered ginger to my next loaf. That is because I like ginger, but she says a ginger loaf can be helpful for people with delicate digestions or upset stomachs, and was particularly useful for "coach journeys,"  apparently.    If you've ever been inside an 18th or 19th century coach, you'll understand why settling the stomach might have been needed. Just the idea of being crammed up inside one as it lurched endlessly over muddy, rutted roads! Ugh!  

The churchyard is also the burial place of Peter Llewellyn Davies, M.C. original inspiration for J.M. Barrie's "Peter Pan."    Below is an illustration from my rather battered copy of the original book Barrie wrote about him as a baby. (This is long before Wendy came on the scene, and introduced the Boy who Never Grew Up to the world).   In "Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens," Peter is a baby who believes he can fly. Because he believes in his own ability so firmly, he can really do it. Full of confidence, he flies to Kensington Gardens, only to learn from a crow that he is not able to fly after all....

Peter Llewellyn Davies'  life was a difficult one, and perhaps he might have been happier if, like Peter Pan, he'd never had to grow up but had lived a happy life somewhere away from the real world.  His parents both died before he was fourteen, and he brought up partly by J.M. Barrie, who was perhaps not the easiest of people to deal with. 

In the first world war, Llewellyn Davies was decorated with the Military Cross for bravery, and after the war, he established a successful publishing house. So he did his very best, but he had been badly scarred by his wartime experiences, and later developed a drinking problem.  Sadly, at the age of 63, he committed suicide after his wife and three children were all found to have inherited a devastating fatal disease.    He is buried near both his parents and two of his brothers. 

He was a cousin of the writer Daphne du Maurier, who is also buried here.  Daphne was the author of many extremely popular books, of which the most famous is probably "Rebecca" which Alfred Hitchcock made into a terrific film (I see it has also just been remade for Netflix by the amazing Ben Wheatley, which should also be worth watching). 
"Rebecca" is the story of a grand house and estate overshadowed by the still-felt presence of the deceased first wife of the owner, Mr. de Winter.  The second Mrs. de Winter does not find this to be an easy situation, and, naturally, nothing runs smoothly.  If you haven't seen Hitchcock's movie, here's a clip.  I must say I'd forgotten how well crafted his films were, so I am going to re-watch the whole thing. I'm going to re-read Du Maurier's novel, too.  

Another writer buried at Hampstead, and a big contrast to Daphne, was Eleanor Farjeon, a really, really familiar name in my childhood. Her huge output included not only original children's stories but also retellings of legends and old tales, poetry and verse.  (She was also friendly with many celebrated writers, including Robert Frost and D.H. Lawrence).    I saw her unusual name constantly at school, for she is associated with school for me, and always liked the things she wrote.  My favourite is a children's hymn,   "Morning has Broken" which she put with an old Scots Gaelic tune. Every time we sang her words at Assembly I relived the happy feeling you get on waking up on a summer morning in the holidays, with the feeling that the day belongs to you....  

In the 1970s, the hymn was taken up and became associated with 1970s singer Cat Stevens, but I prefer this version by folk singer Mary Hopkin,  Even better, I'd like to hear it sung by a group of little kids.  What do you think of the words?

If you're into great actors, there are several buried here.  One of the most celebrated is actor-manager Herbert Beerbohm Tree, grandfather of Oliver Reed, father of Carol Reed and one of the most famous theatrical figures of the Victorian age, specially for his interpretations of Shakespeare. It's hard to over-estimate what a towering figure he was on the Victorian and Edwardian theatre world.   Among his many achievements he founded the stage school RADA, which has trained many people you're going to have heard of.  (And even I have heard of, given that I have a terrible memory for that kind of thing) 

Gerald du Maurier, actor-manager, philanthropist and father of writer Daphne Du Maurier is also there, as is the Austrian actor Anton Walbrook, who fled to Britain in 1936. Walbrook is seen here in Stephen Fry's introduction to the British "Gaslight" film, (which is very interesting in itself.)  

Several artists also lie in this surprisingly small area of land.   In a far corner, this peaceful,  almost oriental figure stands by an old, ivy-clad wall and holding a fresh flower.  It commemorates the artist Randolph Schwabe.  

As the inscription says, Schwabe was for years a professor at the famous Slade School of Art.  His long career included quite a variety of artistic work,  including designing for Diaghilev's ballet company, book illustration and several years as an official war artist.

 One of his war drawings, above, shows the area around Coventry Cathedral after the devastating air raids of 1940.  Doesn't it just show up the primitive, childish, pointless nature of war? The destruction is in such contrast to the careful skill of the drawing.  

There's also a beautiful stone commemorating Arthur Watts, an accomplished illustrator who died in a plane crash in 1935. I really love his illustrations, (some shown below) for their clever viewpoints, delightful use of colour and surprisingly contemporary feel. 

But the most famous artist interred in this burial ground has to be John Constable, who revolutionised landscape painting in the early 19th century. He lived in Hampstead for the last ten years of his life, even though he's usually associated with "Constable Country" the beautiful area of south Suffolk where he was born and raised.  Perhaps the most famous of these large works is "The Hay Wain,"  which most people in Britain seem to know.    If you are interested in art, here is an amusing talk by Colin Wiggins of the National Gallery about it which will tell you more about Constable.  

While he lived in Hampstead, Constable was raising his seven children alone and doing many outdoor landscape sketches from life on Hampstead Heath.  One shows a view which is instantly recognisable and very familiar to me. It is a vista of the valley between Hampstead and Highgate, with the distant skyline punctuated with the spire of St. Michael's church in  Highgate village. 

The photo below is taken very near to the viewpoint of the painting, although further down the hill  (and, at dawn).  We take this gravel track every time we travel from Hampstead to Highgate village and back.    Of course the trees are different now, and the photo was taken nearer to the hedge on the right than Constable's viewpoint.  

   Both villages are both around 450 ft, so first we have to climb up one hill, then go down across the valley to get to the other hill, and then back.  It's not exactly the Tour de France but it is reasonable exercise and Highgate is a nice place to look around.

When we go to Highgate on a sunny day, it's usually a nice little treat to have lunch on the lawn outside the cafe of the old mansion at Waterlow Park.   Here's a photo taken only last summer, which is set on the hillside and has a very interestingly designed garden stretching around it in all directions. 

It seems a long way away right now, in freezing cold, lockdown London!

 Still, now the vaccines are here, I feel more optimistic that it won't be long before we will be able to go back to that cafe again. They do great smoked salmon bagels and good coffee.  Fingers crossed. 

Thursday, 24 December 2020

Happy Christmas!

It is a growing mystery to me why I have less and less time when I should have more and more.  (Quite a few people have said that.    Have you found that too?) 

Anyway I wanted to wish you Merry Christmas particularly as it is a bit of a strange one this year for many of us, And I have a heap of gifts waiting to be wrapped and some cooking to do and some emails to write (seem to have sent all the cards anyway. Phew).  We will be spending Christmas alone as requested by the government, but will be connected to our family by Zoom.  I've an idea that many people will have that plan too, so I hope that the Zoom system doesn't break down in dismay.   

I've looked through some of my files of Christmas past and picked out some images I liked, so here they are with a note of where they were taken, and I hope that you will enjoy them! 

The first picture is appropriate- it shows brussels sprouts, the traditional Christmas vegetable.  I love them and in winter when they are in season I keep a stalk of fresh ones outside. They love the rain!

Breugel -inspired street decorations in Amsterdam, Holland. 

This food market in Munich was full of traditional Christmas delicacies and a fantastic place to wander around as the night started to fall. 

Interior of the Wilden Mann hotel in Lucerne, Switzerland, a very ancient inn which I heartily recommend decorated for Christmas in colours which just so happen to match the wonderful old painted ceiling. 

Still in Switzerland, the Zurich chocolate shops were a sight to behold, very elegant & expensive. 

The annual York Panto - it was held at a shed at the National Railway Museum so the stage was long and thin, as you would expect - about the size of two railway lines side by side, in face. And they ran through the middle of the audience.  It is a brilliant panto, justly famed throughout the North of England. 

Cinderella driving away at the end of the Hackney Panto in London, one I usually take S and A to. I've  REALLY missed going this year. 

Santa having a cuppa in a cafe in Stoke Newington, London. 

A snoozing polar bear in Tokyo with her baby snoozing on her back. . I like the reflections.  There were buttons outside the window and if you pressed them the polar bear woke up. 

Fortnum and Mason, the famous gourmet food store in London, usually has elaborate window displays. This one was Alice in Wonderland, you can just see a bottle of wine in the left foreground because she was, of course, surrounded by nice things to eat. 

Santa parading up Hungerford High Street, Berkshire, at their wonderful annual Victorian Christmas - another casualty of Covid this year but I hope it will be back. I considered adding the startling picture of Reading Pipe Band marching along in full Scottish costume, but decided instead to leave you with.... 

A moonlit scene as the Christmas Market in Coburg, Bavaria, packs up for the night.  You could spend all evening standing around chatting and drinking Gluhwein at this market, as indeed we did. 

Happy Christmas!

Tuesday, 1 December 2020

Yum Yum, Carrying On Regardless

 Our latest lockdown is coming to an end today, and our shops, offices and businesses will open again, although still with some restrictions.  T and I go out for exercise every day that we can, and mostly spend our time cycling up the steep hill to Hampstead Heath then roaming around for ages because (a) there isn't much open in London, and (b) it's so rewarding being around nature. Yesterday, for instance, was wonderful. The sky was bright blue, and the silver birch trees glittered ethereally in the sunshine as if their leaves had been dipped in gold. 

Of course we have made a few trips into the centre, mostly driving through in the car, but it has seemed so quiet that we hadn't really thought of cycling or walking around it much right now.   

But then, about two weeks ago,  our daughter K went to Borough Market, formerly a fruit and veg wholesale market, now a centre for the sale of gourmet foods. She reported it had been lively and fun. So, the next sunny day we had, we got on the bikes and off we went to Borough Market. It's about a 12 or 15 mile round trip from where we live, almost on the banks of the Thames, near Southwark Cathedral.  Here is the cathedral, very calm in the low midday winter sunlight....

And K was right - it was fun being there!  Of course it wasn't nearly as busy as usual, but it still had a good vibe, and nearly all the stalls were trading. It was so relaxing to ... well, to just have things seeming a bit how they always used to be.  

Most restaurants were closed, but there were plenty of takeaways to to be eaten in the open air, and lots of food to buy to take home.  We got some cheese...

...and were tempted by paella, but since I'm somewhat allergic to mussels, I decided not to risk it. 

  We got a takeaway lunch from a BBQ beneath the arches of the Victorian railway bridge.    

 T. had wild mushroom croquettes with black garlic and pickles, I had venison skewers with kimchi and sour cream.  Excellent! And this is my venison, cooking. 

It was so good to see people relaxed and having a good time, and most of them were being responsible, too. The market hall is partly open-sided, so it's not strictly speaking enclosed, but the stallholders and nearly all the customers wore masks anyhow, at least until they got out and started to eat their food.  

Last week, hoping for a similarly good experience, we met our other daughter V. for a little walk around Covent Garden, in central London.  In case you haven't been there at Christmas, this is what it is usually like, so if you have time, go on this virtual walk and enjoy!

After looking at the movie, take a look at how the same place looked the other day at 3 PM, a month before Christmas.   All lit up, beautifully decorated, but....   

See that big shiny reflecting globe on the right, up in the roof? I've enlarged it below, and if you look look closely you'll see a teeny pink jacketed figure by the far Christmas tree, near the guy in the fluorescent yellow jacket.  That's T and me, and the third figure is V. 

Instead of the buzz of people, live music and the yelling of buskers, there was canned muzak to break the silence.    I felt sorry for the staff in the few cafes and shops that were open, and the security guards and the guy in the information booth, all of them brightening up like puppies in an animal shelter when you glanced at them.  Seeing those big eyes, you felt you really had to buy something....  

In fact, Covent Garden in recent years has been too busy for me to enjoy.  I used to love roaming around what was once a forgotten corner of London, full of actors and dancers, but now I get disheartened battling through crowds and tour groups and their innumerable bags of shopping.  V., who loved hanging out there in her early teens, was struck by nostalgia at the memory of her street entertainer heroes of those days spending hours perfecting their often amazing acts before tiny audiences in an easy, laid-back atmosphere.  

It was the sheer sleepiness of it that reminded me of my teens, when  the place was a working wholesale market.  The traders began at 3 AM, jamming the surrounding streets with their lorries and clattering great big barrows over the cobblestones.   By 3 PM everyone had gone home, the shutters were fastened and the ground was littered with old carrots and squashed oranges, waiting for the cleaners.  

Covent Garden is no stranger to change, though, so even if it never gets back to its old bustle, it will adapt in time.  Old pictures of Covent Garden over the centuries portray it variously as a busy vegetable market, a fashionable strolling place, a disreputable hangout or a kaleidoscope of theatrical and lowbrow entertainment - and occasionally all of them at once.   Here it is as it was sometime in the 1600s, a couple of hundred years before the market hall was  built. Its church, St. Pauls Covent Garden, already stands looking the same as it does today and there are fruit and veg stalls, people in fashionable clothes and what look like entertainment booths.   I'm glad to say that the brutal bare-knuckle fighting shown in the picture below (on the right) has now fallen out of favour. 

The church is known as the Actor's Church because of its long  involvement with entertainment. (You can read about it if you click the link.)  Its 17th century churchyard is reached via some rather grand entrances (you can spot one above) and it has long been a haven for anyone who just wants to sit quietly, eat lunch, take a nap or look at the church, (whose rear is made of humble brick rather than the expensive stone of the front facade.)    

In busy recent years, St Pauls has been a valuable secret haven for people working in the area who just want a bit of peace and quiet.  But not this peaceful, surely?   The lonely looking pair below didn't even glance up from their phones as we passed. 

  The weather grew darker and gloomier - in fact, I've had to lighten some of the pictures otherwise you wouldn't see much at all.   I began to get a slightly strange feeling as we walked on, through streets incredibly familiar to me for decades, but now so changed. Don't think me over-imaginative, but it began to seem as if an older London was starting to emerge now that the people had gone.  

This old gas-lamp, for instance, (below) was burning steadily away in the silence on an empty house in a dark corner.  So who lights this lamp and replaces its mantles when they wear out?   Covent Garden kept its gas street-lamps into the 1970s, and the old gas-lighter used to come round with a ladder and a bike and light them with a flame on a long pole, but he's long gone.  

We walked on for five or ten minutes and arrived in Lisle Street, in the heart of Chinatown. Usually it's full of the smell of Chinese food and the sound of Chinese voices. But the only Chinese voices were a few passing snatches from two young tourists, and apart from them we had Chinatown almost to ourselves. I noticed the strings of big lanterns which normally make the place so bright and cheerful have begun to fade a bit, though the magnificence of the beautifully painted Chinese gate is still undimmed. 

T. remarked that as a boy, he'd liked pottering around the area because it was full of little shops selling cheap electrical components. And, in a startling flash of memory, I found myself again a teenager standing there with a very young T, agreeing that it was hardly worth coming for the electro-junk, because it was full of  Chinese restaurants now.... I had to smile. 

The gate steals all the attention from the old, terraced houses which surround it, so I took the chance to look carefully at a few of them. My eye was caught by  a circular blue plaque (see the bottom left of the picture below) on the pale blue house on the left of the gate.

 It is a reminder that once this area hadn't been Chinese at all, but the Little Italy of London, and it announced that "The Magic Circle was founded on this site at Pinoli's Restaurant by twenty three Magicians on July 1st 1905."   

So it was 115 years ago since the magical twenty-three had tucked into their spaghetti, and in those days, Pinoli's was a magnet for professional entertainers and other theatricals. The restaurant lasted for half a century, and although the magicians had no idea that their little club would turn into a world wide organisation, Mr Pinoli must have hoped that his name would live on. And it did. It's still there in large letters right at the top of the building, although not so easy to see as it's painted in white on pale blue. 

The site has been occupied by various Asian restaurants for decades now, although I noted with interest that the new restaurant currently occupying the site is called "Fogo de Chão"  and is Brazilian.  And, unlike the darkened Chinese eating places surrounding it, it was brightly lit and open.  In fact, so many of the Chinese restaurants were closed and dark that it did occur to me that the Chinese, (who are normally famous in Britain for being open when everyone else is shut),  might be losing interest in the area. What if the sad mass closure of South American businesses in Elephant and Castle provoked an influx of Latinos keen to turn this place into Little Latin America?  

Fanciful maybe - but I do think that in a hundred years or so people may well be wondering what that fabulous Chinese gateway is all about!

A bit further down, an oddly tall archway leads into an alleyway called Rupert Court. Why did it need to be so high? The obvious answer around here is that the court had once contained some business involved with theatre scenery. There are still places with extra-tall gateways in the area designed to accommodate just this problem of getting the towering "flats" in and out.   No sign of scenery now, but Rupert Court has a Dickensian air, despite the (closed) takeaway and various darkened little shops    

 If you stand in the middle and look up, (above) you see an assortment of quaint old lamps, a CCTV camera and.....  

...a sign saying ANCIENT LIGHTS.  This refers to a law of 1663, which says that a window that has had natural light for over 20 years can claim "ancient lights" - or the right to stop any development which will obstruct its natural light.   It was a useful law in the days when London was full of narrow courts with poky houses jammed up against one another with no regard for hygiene or fresh air. My guess is that at some point about 150 years ago the garret at the top of the building became a cheap office, and so it was worth applying for the Ancient Lights so the clerks could slave away all day without the need to waste the boss's candles.   

 Beneath the archway is another strange relic, a group of long thin mirrors of a type that were put up in the 19th century in dark places in the hopes of reflecting back what light there was.  They were found all over London, and were perhaps necessary because of the smoke and soot and fog which turned all the buildings black and filled little courts like this with a stinking, foggy miasma.    I have to admit they are not very effective in daylight, but imagine they made some a difference at night when the gas lights lit them up. 

Rupert Court emerges into Rupert Street, once a thriving red light district full of sex shops and strip clubs. It's now a slightly less ostentatious gay quarter and has a few well regarded pubs and restaurants.  A few steps away is an old neon sign advertising Raymond Revuebar, which was the most famous strip club in England in the 1950s.    It closed about twenty years ago, but its advertising sign,  designed to flash different messages in sequence, now goes on and off in an entertainingly random way.  I don't know who pays its electricity bill but I enjoyed watching its deranged displays.  I also liked the warning triangle displayed on the ground floor - do you?  

Another five minutes took us to the Algerian Coffee Stores in Old Compton Street. If you're ever in London this shop is well worth a visit, and you can also buy its coffees and teas online. After 113 years it is good to see it is as cheery-looking as ever. It was open, and busy, and its bright red facade was a beacon in the increasingly dark afternoon.  

I remembered that I'd once written an article about this shop, during the course of which I spent ages talking to the owner and trying out various sorts of their excellent coffee. If they still sell the same coffees (and I bet they do) I can tell you they are very good. I seem to recall he said the business had been in those premises since the 1920s, when it must have been a nearly-unique curiosity in a London where almost nobody even drank coffee.   

The Algerian Coffee Stores' window display is always idiosyncratic.  I am sorry the photos are blurred (it was so dark) but I wondered if these are whirling dervishes in the coffee cups. What do you think?

Some of the other old established food stores around here have very imaginative window displays.  The one below was perhaps a shade over-imaginative, and appeared to be decorated for Halloween, or at least I think it was.  (There were also what seemed to be Easter bunnies elsewhere in the window and I would say those are glass Christmas angels on the left, wouldn't you?)   It did give me a bit of a fright to see this character peering out at me, anyway. 

We also passed Maison Bertaux, which has been a feature of the area for as long as the Algerian Coffee. I remember staring longingly at it when I was a sweet toothed teenager, as its pastries were always perfectly fantastic, if expensive.  

During the first lockdown in March,  Maison Bertaux opened an appeal to help it survive the pandemic,  here.  Its loyal customers did their bit, and they have obviously survived so far. Their website indicates that they're taking orders for home delivery and so I hope they will reopen after the lockdown.  A peep through the window suggested they were waiting to reopen, but perhaps not in the immediate future.  They do need a bit more passing trade. 

I'll return and see and I hope they survive.  

So, as from today,  things are reopening, we plan to take a look around in a few days and see if life is looking up again. I hope so.  Although it reassuring to see how Nature continues calmly about its work, paying not the slightest attention to the pandemic, I want these old established businesses to survive.   With a vaccine on the way, I'm hoping it might be possible to return to Maison Bertaux for a post-pandemic celebration tea before too long.  I'll let you know!

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