I don't know if you have found this, but life still feels a bit different from what it did before the pandemic. Not just an awareness of crowded spaces, but even socialising, having friends to dinner, going out to concerts and movies ... I do it, but not as much as before. And I've only just got back into thinking about just getting on the bike or the train and exploring bits of London... just to see what is out there. I used to do it all the time.
Still, it's getting better. We have had three trips into London recently just to see what is going on. The most recent was to the Museum of London, one of my favourite museums. Or at least it was, because just last weekend it closed for at least 4 years. It will reopen in around 2026 in an impressive new home in the old wholesale meat market in Smithfield (click the link to read more) so I was taking a farewell look.
It was not a very convenient museum in some ways, but I loved it just as it was, tucked away near the Barbican, in the financial district, in a peculiar, inconvenient but pleasant little 1960s development perched on a little concrete island amidst a wilderness of large roads. Once you get there, it's spacious, calm and full of life, although you wouldn't know how lively it was if you just stood out in the morning sun admiring that interesting statue and the buildings beyond.
Inside, the spaces are all kinds of shapes and sizes, with several oddly shaped little windows which look out on its immensely historical site. Because, appropriately for a museum of London its building stands right at London Wall. Look below and you see part of a real Roman gatehouse on the wall the Romans built to enclose London two thousand years ago). I love to see that.
Most of London Wall area was bombed to bits in the Second World War, but efforts were made to keep anything that could be preserved, and the museum feels very much part of that effort. Below is another window I like. This goes from floor to ceiling and overlooks attractive leafy gardens and buildings in many different styles.
So it's clear that the museum itself had a very good architect, but unfortunately, London's 1950s and 1960s town planners were focused on motor traffic, with pedestrians separated off, supposedly for their own safety. In reality, pedestrians were forced under or above ground with little consideration for their needs. Since the area was built, there has been a complete reversal. Now, car traffic is heavily discouraged in London, and the museum has no car park, but the road layout remains. So most people have to approach the museum via a selection of grim concrete pedestrian walkways about 30 feet in the air, dark unpleasant outdoor lifts and staircases, tunnels and too-wide streets. Let me show you Street View to give you an idea....
Open the link. Can you see the museum's name on the wall ahead? It seems so near, but let me tell you that getting there isn't so simple. After leaving the polluted tunnel you're in, where traffic noise echoes off the walls, you arrive here, and you'll be crossing that walkway over the road. You need to find somewhere to tie your bike up, if you have cycled here, then make your way to the dark, unheated entrance here, (or one of the adjoining entrances), and go up four flights of now crumbling concrete stairs, or an escalator which might or might not work. While traffic below pumps its fumes up at you, you cross the walkway, possibly in the wind and rain and finally.... you are in the museum. And it is really nice. Phew!
I don't know what people with limited mobility or small kids do, but I'm guessing grim dark elevators somewhere in the concrete. But they come, somehow, and when they do it's lovely to enjoy the little circular garden and plaza outside, and inside a welcoming, well laid out place full of surprises, all of it telling different stories about London, both now and in the past.
Here are a few of my favourite things, which I may not see again for ages. I like them all for different reasons, and I hope you will also find some of them interesting.
These large, elegant, beautifully polished and curiously figured stone objects would not look out of place in many a modern interior. A sculpture maybe? They're actually mace heads from 2500 BC, from a tribe living near London, and it is clear from the lovely figured stone and quality of workmanship that they were used only for ceremonial purposes. I marvel that such lovely things could survive in such good condition, and it certainly makes the stone age seem a bit less rough and ready.
I'm not a great fan of the Romans but the museum's big diorama of the Roman town of Londinium is worth looking at. Here's an unheeded corner. What do you think those teeny folks on the right are doing working at those rectangular pans? I think they might be making salt - do you agree? At the top left there's a glimpse of the Thames in an unlikely blue, and the original wooden bridge which crossed it. What a feat it must have been building it. It's interesting that these houses are nothing like the circular wattle-and-mud huts that the Britons lived in. They are more like the kind of places you still get in Italy and parts of France today, so it seems these were made by immigrants.
I am also fond of this huge lump of carved stone, carved with stylised flowers and leaves, several feet across, and still bearing signs of having been brightly painted.
It is a stone roof-boss which once decorated the enormous roof of the medieval Merton Priory, in Surrey, near where I spent some of my childhood. Merton Priory was pulled down so that King Henry VIII could create the grandest palace in the world with its materials. Since Henry's vision did not include carved ecclesiastical roof-bosses, the stone was put to use as rubble beneath Nonsuch's walls.
I'd have loved to have seen Nonsuch Palace. As its name suggests, it really did not have any equal in the whole world. Its exterior featured nearly 700 white carved images of gods, goddesses, mythological stories and Roman emperors, many of them also gilded and painted. Imagine it! There were two giant fairytale towers on either side of the front door, plus courtyards, turrets and oriole windows, magnificent brickwork, panelling and carving, and everything of the very best. Here is a picture (credit: modelhouses.co.uk) which shows a historically accurate model of the palace, based on the work of Prof Martin Biddle of Hertford College, Oxford.
Nonsuch Palace disappeared after King Charles II gave it to his mistress, Barbara, Countess of Castlemaine, a mere hundred years after it was built. I always thought this woman sounded completely awful - (but make your own judgement of course: here's a link). She tore the entire place down and sold the materials to pay off her gambling debts. Nothing remains above ground, but the roof boss survived. I love it I think for being such a survivor.
The peculiar layout of the museum building means that there are many interesting corners. I like this lively diorama model of the Old Turk coffee house in the 18th century. They weren't just drinking coffee, from the looks of it... and I am pretty sure the figure in the middle with the red waistcoat was Dr Johnson, the greatest literary figure of the time.
By the way, sorry that some of my photos are not up to my usual standard. In places the lighting was very low and reflections were a problem. The picture below is part of an illuminated pleasure garden at night, and the whole display, which is much larger, is accompanied by particularly nice music. Take a better look on the museum's site which gives a good idea of how charming, exciting and slightly dangerous these pleasure gardens were. They flourished well into the 19th century and had alfresco dining, bands, menageries, amusement rides and, of course, the chance to drink and meet the opposite sex. Predictably, when Britain turned ultra-moralistic in the Victorian age, they were put a stop to as being far too immoral!
The museum's inventive layout includes some glass covered cabinets underfoot. Here you see the teacher telling her six year olds about how people called archaeologists can find interesting stuff if they dig in the ground. The kids were open mouthed at the idea of this, and full of questions, and peered intently at all the pottery and trinkets on display.
The museum's Victorian London section has a replica area of real old shop fronts and fittings fully stocked and assembled. The picture below is an area based on the showroom of the firm of James Powell, which made high quality decorative items of glass, mosaics and ceramics. I like the mosaic lady sitting there so casually with the enormous tigers.
Off the Victorian galleries is a small room entirely illuminated with sections from William Booth's Poverty Maps of London, from various dates mostly in the late 19th century.
Booth was the founder of the Salvation Army and a social pioneer. He talked to London's poor in language they understood, did not patronise or humiliate them, fed and sheltered them if they wanted and needed it, and tried to inspire them to turned their lives around. Salvation Army members live strict and repressive religious lives themselves, but they do not ask their clients to join them in this, and are to be found doing good work in the worst of situations, without asking any clients their orientation beliefs or identity. I spent a long time looking at these maps and seeing how they had changed over the years.
There is a good 20th century section. I actually remember the last gasps of the Lyons Corner Houses . In their heyday they were inexpensive restaurants which served decent traditional food in elegant white and gilt surroundings. You found them in towns all over England, and they were famous for their black and white clad waitresses, known as "Nippies." You can see a Nippy in the background of this display of cakes (including a sensational wedding cake which looks more like a church). She is actually on a film, and life sized, and in the darkened gallery there is something spooky and surreal about the way she flits about, smiling, in the darkness. I only remember Lyons Corner Houses when they were modernising themselves, going self service, and downmarket.
I also remember some of the old London department stores from when I was young. This most beautiful lacquered relief panel came from Marshall and Snelgrove, of Oxford Street. It was my great aunt's favourite shop and when I saw this large panel in the museum I got a strange sense of deja vu. I must have visited Marshall and Snelgrove with her, I suppose, because I got a flash of memory of examining the detail of these great big panels a very long time ago, and feeling them as I ran my fingers over them. They probably dated from the 1920s, and I don't know when they were removed.
Nobody who visited Selfridges before the late 1970s could have missed its magnificent bronze and painted-glass lifts. I remember using these - it was like walking into a movie set, although they were ever so slightly alarming too because they did seem so very... well... old to be creaking their way up and down.
These are the exterior doors, with bronze silhouettes of mythical scenes, I suppose. Apparently the customers demanded escalators.
Luckily Selfridges has kept the fantastic bronze sculptural work of its front entrance, which is of equally splendid quality. You can see it at the bottom of the page via this link, or in real life if you happen to be in Oxford Street.
Also from the early 20th century is this painting by CWM Nevinson, an artist who died in 1946. It is my favourite one in the whole museum. It shows seagulls over the Thames, filled as it was in those days with ships and industry, and with a fanciful depiction of the old Shot Tower on the right. I love the feeling of life and movement, and the slightly Cubist style of the picture.
The war years are also well represented, with a lot of recordings and films, but I prefer the 1950s and this lovely Coronation dress. Look at all the decorations around the hem. I was keen on royalty as a child and would have considered this to be the ideal dress for myself. Can you see the toy royal coach at the bottom left?
And then, the 1980s. That was about the last time that young people had a hope of getting a reasonable sized home in London, and it wasn't easy. The following pictures are actually of a model of Ellingfort Road, an area of slum housing in the London Fields area of the borough of Hackney. Neglected for years, like the rest of Hackney, they were scheduled for redevelopment. They were squatted by young homeless people, who repaired them when they could and created a very active creative community. After a high profile campaign to keep them, they won the right to remain. The model, created by young artists James MacKinnon and John Hurley, was one of their projects, and I could look at it for hours. The amount of work that went into it was remarkable, showing every peeling cornice, dumped bit of furniture, dustbin and sheet of corrugated iron.
Hackney has become one of the coolest areas of London now, although I wouldn't personally describe it as smart. The houses are still standing, painted, retiled, repaired and definitely in far better shape. My guess is that many are still rented and perhaps some of the original artists are still in residence.
My final favourite item here is from 2012, the magnificent cauldron-like object at the opening of the London Olympic Games. It was built by Thomas Heatherwick, a highly original designer. He rails against "boringness" in modern architecture, and he is certainly right. I'm going to check out more of his buildings and projects - the ones I've seen are amazing.
Looking at this cauldron, I remember the feeling of pride and optimism that filled us all when it first opened. In the present fin de siècle atmosphere with a collapsing government and damaged economy, I remind myself that it was only ten years ago. The damage that the last few years have done to Britain is not endemic, and despite the recent damage to our institutions and values, most people here want to put things right.
I will look forward to seeing the new museum building for London. It is clearly going to be fantastic, and I hope they bear in mind to give it some cosy corners too.
So now, with Christmas approaching at top speed, I won't be going anywhere for a few weeks. I want to find time to go through my pictures of the past few months and pick out a few favourites to post. Here are a few to be getting on with...
Way back in July the twins had a Teddy Olympics. This is the referee of the Long Jump (teddies being hurled from one side of the room to another). Note the handy cup of coffee to keep her going.
And we went for a little break in Kent with our oldest grandson S. during the very hot spell. Among other things, we spent a whole day on the Romney Hythe and Dymchurch railway. Combined with that extraordinary weather and the fact we were staying literally in the grounds of Canterbury Cathedral the trip was a magical and slightly surreal experience. The railway runs passenger services on beautifully engineered 1/3 size steam locomotives, owns several stations and has a fascinating history like something out of a novel. The line goes through some lovely countryside to Dungeness, a most curious place by the sea originally populated by poor folk who left London to live a peaceful life in converted shacks and railway carriages.
full of artists displaying their work in wooden shacks....
...and also a Site of Special Scientific Interest, full of Napoleonic military ruins. People waved at us as we puffed and chuffed by and we thoroughly enjoyed stopping at the museum in one of the stations and discovering one of the best model railways in Britain there.
My next bike trip may well be to Hoxton. I finally bit the bullet and decided to have my great grandmother's scrapbook rebound...it is large and so full of different things that even though I photographed every page, I still haven't fully examined it all.
We decided to use a bookbinders in Hoxton (on the edge of Hackney, see above) partly because it is near Monster Supplies Inc. This is part of a literacy charity for young people in the area, and is most remarkable: take a look here. The twins are desperate to visit but it's quite a long and complicated trip by public transport and they're not yet up to cycling it through London traffic, so we will have to see.
The scrapbook is huge, falling apart, and full of elaborate cards, newspaper cuttings, family letter etc. stuck on heavy sheets of disintegrating paper. It's going to cost an arm and a leg but if it's not fixed soon, it will be beyond repair. It is nearly time to go and collect it, and if I am to be honest, I am full of trepidation. I can't believe anyone could fix it but I am hoping for the best.
So, that is what I have been up to and I aim to post again soon, if only to catch up. Right now, though, I'm off to have my supper and view the next episode of Howard Goodall's Story of Music. It's a BBC television series from 2012 which I discovered on Youtube. I'm really ignorant about the history of music, but he explains everything so clearly and finds such amazing music that I'm loving every minute.