WHEN BORIS Johnson became Mayor of London in June 2007 he said he was going to open up the lost rivers of London. Surprise, surprise, it never happened. The Fleet, the Tyburn, the Walbrook and all the other romanticised arteries of bygone London have remained buried under the ground or have long since been diverted into Sir Joseph Bazalgette’s amazing sewage system.
But is now the time for fresh thinking? A revised version of Nicholas Barton’s seminal “Lost Rivers of London” – co-authored with Stephen Myers, an experienced water engineer, – has come up with some practical suggestions which cry out for some Lottery money.
The idea is along these lines. Forget about those lovely schemes like opening up the Fleet by St Pancras Old Church or putting glass over it when it runs under Farringdon Road as it nears Blackfriars Bridge. Why not, they argue, run an under-surface pipeline from near its various sources among the Hampstead hills – when it is still fresh Fleet water before being merged with the sewage system – and let gravity take it down the hills towards London town where it could be diverted to form ponds or rivulets in interesting spaces such as housing estates or public places or parks. Local authorities could bid for part of the action. A good example of this already exists – the New River Walk in Islington – where a stretch of the New River, which has supplied London with water since the reign of James 1 still exists in landscaped surroundings. Maybe the Tyburn, fed from the same Hampstead Hills, could re-emerge in The Green Park where the undulations formed by the original river can still be seen.
The authors have a bolder idea. They claim that in the early 15th century the monks of Charterhouse monastery and the Priory of St Bartholomew “hi-jacked” (their words, not mine) the course of the Walbrook river by channelling water from one of its sources near the Angel to Charterhouse through wooden pipes. Since water continues to flow to this day through the original pipeline the authors suggest it could be tapped (or re-hi-jacked) to beautify the area around Smithfield, now in the throes of re-development. Alternatively, it could routed along the old Walbrook emerging in Finsbury Square or passing alongside the Roman Temple of Mithras which is to be re-erected deep in the bowels of the Bloomberg building on its original location.
Lost Rivers of London (Historical Publications, £22.50) is a well researched and beautifully produced book with the old river routes overlaid on colourful Geographers’ A-Z maps, It will remain as the classic work on London’s Lost Rivers.
WHEN BORIS Johnson became Mayor of London in June 2007 he said he was going to open up the lost rivers of London. Surprise, surprise, it never happened. The Fleet, the Tyburn, the Walbrook and all the other romanticised arteries of bygone London have remained buried under the ground or have long since been diverted into Sir Joseph Bazalgette’s amazing sewage system.
The Shakespeare Gallery, Pall Mall then (left) and now (right)
DURING Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary spare a thought for a London street normally associated with exclusive clubs rather than high culture. Walk down Pall Mall today you are denied entry to almost every building on the south side unless you are a member of one of the clubs. It is difficult to believe that in the late 18th century this street was a hive of artistic activity mainly around Shakespeare. It was triggered by the artrepreneur James Boydell who opened the Shakespeare Gallery in 1789 at 52 Pall Mall which soon contained 180 specially commissioned paintings depicting scenes from Shakespeare, many by established artists such as James Fuseli, Sir Joshua Reynolds and George Romney. It sported a large statue of Shakespeare (see above) which now resides at the bottom of Shakespeare’s garden at New Place, Stratford-upon-Avon. The gallery was free and was intended to direct British art to a more classical direction choosing rich literary themes instead of portraits. But Boydell also had a business plan. Like Hogarth earlier in the century he sold engravings of the paintings here and on the Continent with great success until the Napoleonic wars broke out, cutting off the Continental market, which led to his bankruptcy – and a fire sale of all his artworks in a lottery.
On January 28, 1805, William Tassie, a London gem engraver, struck lucky. His three guinea ticket to the lottery won him the entire contents of the Shakespeare Gallery – over 160 pictures at the height of its fame.Tassie refused an offer from Boydell’s nephew Joshua to buy them back for £10,000 and they were sold at Christie’s for just over £6,000, way below their cost price. As a result the Boydell collection, which in its day challenged the artistic supremacy of the Royal Academy – which until 1780 had also been located in Pall Mall before moving to Somerset House – bit the dust. Many of the paintings disappeared for ever. But some have been retained in galleries and private collections many of which are on show at a special exhibition at Compton Verney to mark Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary.
The Boydell gallery was but the biggest of a mini explosion of artistic galleries often featuring Shakespeare in Pall Mall at that time. In 1788, a year before the Boydell gallery opened Thomas Macklin’s Poets’ Gallery which showcased over 50 British poets including Shakespeare, opened to an enthusiastic response. Meanwhile James Woodmason moved his New Shakespeare Galley from Dublin to Schomberg House at 88 Pall Mall in 1794 across the road from Boydell’s initiative which he copied by using illustrations and text employing some of Boydell’s artists. Among the works Woodmason commisioned were Matthew Peter’s Death of Juliet as she prepared for suicide, dagger in hand, and Fuseli’s depiction of Titania falling in love with Bottom from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The Shakespeare galleries in Pall Mall must have left something in the air because years later in the 1840s after their closure Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-59), the great engineer, who was living in nearby Duke Street, commissioned paintings of Shakespeare scenes from some of the top artists of the day including Edwin Landseer and Charles West Cope. They were hung in his spacious dining room which came to be known as the “Shakespeare Room”.
There were others. Henry Fuseli opened a Milton Gallery in the late 179os, Christies had their showroom there, Schomberg House, the facade of which still exists today (complete with statues made of artificial COADE stone) was host to the studio of Thomas Gainsborough and also the exhibition rooms of the Polygraphic Society which aimed to make multiple copies of oil paintings available for people who couldn’t afford the originals. At the other (eastern) end of Pall Mall at Spring Gardens the Society of Artists had its main exhibition venue while on King Street (off
St James’s Square) there was another gallery, the Imperial Museum, (later the European Gallery) which showcased British and Continental paintings. There are still lots of paintings in Pall Mall but they are all behind the closed doors of the clubs. There is nothing, apart from the Schomberg facade (photo, right), to remind us that Pall Mall was once had a strong claim to be the artistic centre of London.
CHRISTCHURCH GARDENS, the last patch of greenery in Victoria Street, looks decidedly undernourished as if it is expecting to be gobbled any time soon by a developer for yet more luxury flats. It is only when you look among the discarded tins and other detritus by the telephone exchange at one end to see a row of half-hidden tombstones that it starts to reveal itself as an historic churchyard and burial ground. Its best known alumni is Captain Blood, an Irishman and local resident, who nearly stole the Crown Jewels but managed to blarney his way out of execution and ended up with a pension in the Court of Charles 11. He was such a notorious conman that his body was dug up a few days after his death to ensure he was not still alive.
(Photo courtesy of J McCarthy taken from a window in their former premises in Strutton Ground).
The churchyard is one of the last visible remains of Tothill Fields which once stretched from Tothill Street to the Thames at Vauxhall, apart from the 10 acres of playing fields at Vincent Square which was “enclosed” by Westminster School in 1810. But this space which once had a Chapel of Repose – built on the site of a much older 17th century church called New Chapel – and a burial ground which stretched under today’s Victoria Street was also the scene of two remarkable legacies of slavery – black and white.
Here is buried Ignatius Sancho (1729 – 1780), an extraordinary African (below) who was reputably born on a slave ship and after working as a black servant in a rich household – a fashionable thing for the upper classes to do at the time – he was actively encouraged by the Duke of Montagu to educate himself which he did with relish.
There is a plaque in King Charles Street, Whitehall, which I have walked under for decades without noticing.
It records that there was once a grocer’s shop (right) at number 19 Charles Street (as today’s King Charles Street was then called and where the Foreign Office now stands) run by Ignatius Sancho who escaped from slavery in the 18th century to become a London celebrity and an admired writer, playwright and composer. He was feted by Dr Johnson, painted by Gainsborough and a correspondent of Laurence Sterne author of Tristram Shandy whom he encouraged to campaign against slavery. When a book of his letters was published on a subscription basis – today we would call it crowdfunding – the subscribers read like pages from Debrett’s. Sancho was also the first black African to have voted in England.
But Christchurch Gardens is also the place where one of the most shameful incidents in England’s history took place. In the 17th century it was a burial ground – stretching across today’s Victoria Street – taking bodies that couldn’t be accommodated at nearby St Margaret’s. Samuel Pepys complained that demand was so high that “none but such as are able to pay dearly for it can be buried there”. After Oliver Cromwell’s victory at Worcester during the civil war an estimated 1,200 Scottish prisoners were buried here or in Tothill Fields after being marched in terrible conditions from the battlefield while others were sold as indentured labour – effectively, slaves – and sent to plantations in the West Indies and America. One example was Thomas Kemble, a lumber merchant from New England who ran sawmills in New Hampshire. He transported 274 Scottish Highlanders who had fought for Charles 1 to America as slave labour.
This patch of grass remains as one of the very few historic memories of the surrounding area that have escaped the clutches of developers. One other is nearby Blue Coat School. Christchurch Gardens may soon be confronted by several 20-storey plus blocks of flats and offices on the other side of the road where New Scotland Yard now stands, if plans go ahead. It may be only a matter of time before the ugly telephone exchange on the northern side of the gardens is redeveloped on a bigger scale. But, hopefully, Christchurch Gardens will remain to remind people of a very different world. If they notice it.
IT IS OFTEN said that the nearer you are to something the less likely you are to visit it. A variation is that some things are so big you don’t notice them. Such it was with the Royal Hospital – home of Chelsea pensioners – which I have passed on numerous occasions, admiring Wren’s facade of course, and presuming it must be a private space. Even as I was passing its narrow entrance the other day I thought the same. There was no notice saying it was open to visitors and when I asked a man by the door whether it was open to the public, I was answered with a beaming smile and told I could wander where I liked. Which I did, apart from the spaces reserved for pensioners, and was instantly smitten. It was not just the numbing architecture of Wren’s marvellously understated chapel (below, right) and dining hall or the Grinling Gibbons sculpture of Charles 11 (above) who founded the hospital so as not to be outdone by Louis 1V’s Les Invalides in Paris.
It was the sheer size of the place. It makes St James Park seem like a back garden, surely the biggest group of buildings and gardens in central London stretching as it does from Royal Hospital Road to the Embankment.
It was only after I was turning for home after walking the length and breadth of its nooks and crannies, including allotments and a putting green for residents, that I observed a discreet notice with the words “Ranelagh Gardens”. Could this be – yes it is – the site of the famous Ranelagh Pleasure Gardens (below, left), an upmarket version of the equally famous Vauxhall Gardens across the river. It was built in 1688 by the first Earl of Ranelagh (née Roger Jones, son of the Archbishop of Dublin) who was Treasurer of Chelsea Hospital from 1685 to 1702.
In 1741 the house and grounds were bought by the proprietor of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane and opened to the public complete with the Rotunda where in 1765 the nine-year-old Mozart performed.
If ever there was a secret garden in London this is it, still roughly the size it was in its hey days when Horace Walpole observed: “It has totally beat Vauxhall” adding “You can’t set your foot without treading on a Prince or Duke of Cumberland”.
Today the spirit of the pleasure gardens continues. Pensioners seem to have permanent smiles on their faces and are only too happy to lead a conducted tour or explain the history of the place – not least that it is called a hospital in the old sense of giving hospitality. Retirees from the army spend four days in the hospital before being accepted – including eating in Wren’s dining hall. If they are accepted their army pension is paid to the hospital to help finance their stay. Entrance is free but it would be a hard person who didn’t leave a donation to maintain this delightful place. After a pleasant coffee and scone in the attractive café (hidden down an alley) I walked home amazed at the scale and history of London’s most unhidden gem.
An old print showing the hospital and Ranelagh Gardens with Rotunda on the right
Little known fact – Fulham Football Club played here for two years from 1886
THE GARDEN MUSEUM and its amazing café – my favourite place in the whole of London to have a quiet lunch – is closing on Wednesday until 2017. I had my last nostalgic meal there today (it is adjacent to Lambeth Palace) and mourned with others over its wanton destruction.
OK, not destruction – reconstruction. Much of what they are doing is admirable. They are extending the world’s first garden museum – at the place where John Tradescant, the father of English gardens who died in 1638 is buried – into a much classier operation within the deconsecrated church of St Mary’s where the museum is housed. This includes bringing back historic artefacts from the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford which were transported there from Tradescant’s ark or museum in Lambeth after his death in rather dubious circumstances. All that is good.
But the garden! This is a garden museum for heaven’s sake dedicated to gardening. Progress will be achieved by greatly shrinking the size and nature of a very special place, one of the few oases of tranquility left in central London. One side of the garden is to be enclosed by a new café which will open on to a much reduced area of garden on one side and the main road on the other. This replaces a tiny galley inside the church from where a small team produced lovely vegetarian meals which helped to get it declared the sixth best museum cafe in the world by an American Gourmet magazine in 2012. It wasn’t applauded because it had the grandeur of other contestants like the Michelin starred Nerua at the Guggenheim, Bilboa but because of its simple delicious home made food and idyllic garden which will now be enclosed on all four sides by intruding extensions, not the best advertisement for a museum dedicated to garden design.
I took my last melancholic look at the garden today (above) with its banana trees, mulberry, and an unusual tree of rosemary which watch over the graves of the Tradescant family and Captain Bligh of Mutiny on the Bounty fame. They are among 26,000 souls buried there including six and a bit archbishops of Canterbury (don’t ask . .). I shall never see it or its like again. I pray I will be able to eat my words, but I doubt it. The graves and knot garden will remain to be gawped at rather than wandered among. Other than that a unique patch of London will be gone forever, never to return to its former glory.
When Francis Bacon wrote: “God almighty first planted a garden” it was in 1627 some 600 years after the creation of the nearest thing to a God-created garden we are likely to see in England. And it us still with us. The garden fashioned by the monks of the abbey of Westminster – or to give it its proper name, the Infirmerers’ Garden – is not only the oldest cultivated garden in England but it is the same size as it was in the 11th century apart from a parcel of land at the north-eastern end which was confiscated by Edward 111 in 1365 to build the Jewel Tower (which is still there). We know this because the medieval walls along the eastern and southern sides are still intact as is the boundary wall on the other side.
The garden still provides an oasis of calm at the heart of a busy city only yards from the cacophony of the Houses of Parliament. It remains calm partly because so few people know about it. Even when they do, they have to find how to get there (from the north-eastern end of Dean’s Yard) and negotiate their way past a red-robed official who is there to stop tourists gaining a back door entrance to the main part of the Abbey and avoiding the £18 entrance fee. The garden is free – and also gives entrance to the cloisters and museum – though only on three days a week, usually Tuesday to Thursday.
Once in, it is easy to go back in time to conjure up what it once contained: an orchard, a herbarium dating to 1306 (the main reason for the garden), a dovecote, a cider mill, ponds, fruit and vegetables and even a vineyard which must have been sizeable because in 1310 one man was hired for three days to “repair the vines”. There was also a channel leading to a mill at the southern edge of the garden,from which the word Millbank is derived. If you were to dig in the garden you would soon come to some of the deposits which formed Thorney Island, the eyot between the Thames and the River Tyburn on which the Abbey was built.
The statues guarding the gate to Westminster School.
Today’s garden has a fig tree, plane trees planted in 1850 and two handsome mulberry trees (one black, one white) at each end of the garden. Either side of the stone gateway leading to Little Dean’s Yard (part of Westminster School) there are two stone angels – reputably by Grinling Gibbons and Arnold Quellin which once graced the Queen’s Chapel at the other end of Whitehall Palace where the Ministry of Defence building now is. There is a wealth of detail about the garden in “Westminster Abbey: The Infirmarer’s Garden” by John H Harvey. But there is no substitute for going there to experience a curious meditative calm, sitting on a bench contemplating over a thousand years of religious and political history.
The Saxon Shore Path near Rochester
OVER AT LAST. A few days ago I came to the end of my self-imposed retirement task to walk from Trafalgar Square to Margate – without crossing a road. The last leg was from Rochester on the Medway to All Hallows on the north Kent coast, hugging the Saxon Shore Path where possible and passing through places as varied as Upnor, the beautiful castellated village and the brutalist Isle of Grain power station.
I did the walk in a pincer movement coming fom London to All Hallows in one direction and Margate to All Hallows from the other (not at the same time!) because I feared that walking around the Medway estuary might prove my undoing. I knew that if I was thwarted there I would not have had the willpower to continue to Margate. It has been a marvellous experience, seeing parts of England I would never have chanced to visit in ordinary circumstances.
I chose Trafalgar Square as the starting point because it is the centre of London from which official distances are measured. As soon as I worked out that it was possible to go underground from Trafalgar Square to Charing Cross station and then directly across Hungerford Bridge to the other side of the Thames I realised that there were no obvious limits to how far it was possible walk without crossing a road. It is a unique attraction of London that you can walk for miles along the south bank without encountering any roads.
My first experiment ended up over 20 miles later in the Lee Valley with me exhausted and – literally- walking around in a circle. After I had done Trafalgar Square to the Millennium Dome and then Trafalgar Square to Islington (both trips with companions to check me out) I decided to do one final walk to the bus shelter in Margate, chosen because that was where TS Eliot wrote much of The Waste Land and it seemed an iconic finishing post.
Among the highlights was coming out of a wood on the path from Teynham to Faversham to stumble across the Shipwright’s Arms at Hollow Shore miles from anywhere. Faversham itself – where brewers Shepherd and Neame have been since 1573 – seemed
to be composed entirely of lovely listed buildings. It was visited both by Charles 11 (seeing a friend) and James 11 (arrested fleeing the country). Unspoiled Whitstable with its beach-based fish restaurants was a total delight as were mile upon mile of seashore pathways with not another soul in sight. The only hazard was unexpectedly coming across a gang who had stolen some motor bikes and were leaving them abandoned or burning in the fields.
All Hallows, on the Hoo peninsular in a remote corner of Kent was a revelation. It has twice avoided being in the centre of enormous developments. Plans were at an advanced stage nearly a hundred years ago to turn it into the biggest seaside resort in Europe, bigger than Blackpool. More recently it would have been right in the middle of Boris Johnson’s plans for an estuary airport. To have escaped two such vast reconstructions is an achievement in itself. I think the inhabitants of All Hallows are happy to continue to live in relative obscurity, at least until the next grandiose plans come along.
I did all this because I love walking and having started to find routes that didn’t involve crossing a road I wondered how far I could get. In principle there is no reason why you couldn’t walk around the whole of England and Scotland and end up in Trafalgar Square. Be warned, it can be boring as when you have to walk around estates and industrial areas before rejoining the main route only a few hundred yards ahead just to preserve the integrity of not crossing a road. I didn’t consciously cross any roads except the northern entrance to the Medway Tunnel where pedestrians are strictly forbidden.
Walking is the ideal way to travel as, unlike cycling which gets far more publicity, you can look around you and stop and savour buildings and actually talk to people. And, of course, it is good exercise. Transport for London has a statutory duty to promote walking though I can’t recall Boris ever saying a word. If candidates for the Mayoralty of London embrace the idea of opening up walkways in central London, my vote almost certainly awaits them.
PINEAPPLES, ever since Christopher Columbus came across them in Guadeloup in 1493, have been a symbol of hospitality and wealth. Nobles were prepared to pay the equivalent of £5,000 apiece for them to impress guests at their dinner tables. Which may help to explain why they have become hidden symbols of London as a welcoming city – well, until recently . .
Once you see one you start seeing them everywhere. The first I came across – on the top of the four obelisks at either end of Lambeth Bridge – I thought were a one-off tribute to John Tradescant, the seventeenth century gardener and botanist who is buried a few yards away in St Mary’s churchyard, Lambeth (now the Garden Museum). He is credited with bringing the first ones to England. But look around and you are seldom far from a stone pineapple in central London. A few hundred yards from Lambeth Bridge in Smith Square the church of St John the Evangelist sports a number of pineapples on its spires.
Abandoned pineapples may hint that London is now a less welcoming place
If you look up at the two towers on the western side of St. Paul’s Cathedral you won’t see a cross or a statue but a pineapple. There is also something that looks a bit like a pineapple on top of the dome itself. Christopher Wren seems to have been very partial to them as he also put them on his (war-bombed) Christ Church in Newgate Street (above) where they are currently adorning the ground like discarded sculptures and maybe a reminder that London is becoming a less welcoming place to strangers than it once was. Evangelists for the pineapple point out that Norman Foster’s iconic office block overlooking St Paul’s actually looks more like a pineapple than a gherkin. They have been campaigning for a change of name.
One of my favourites is in the churchyard of St Pancras’ Old Church (above) where Sir John Soane, the architect, had a pineapple plonked on top of the tomb he designed for himself which became the inspiration for Giles Gilbert Scot’s iconic red telephone box (without the pineapple). It is, incidentally one of only two Grade 1 listed tombs in London. The other is that of Karl Marx in Highgate cemetery.
Pineapples were often sculpted on to railings as a welcoming sign. There are literally dozens of them in the roads around Devonshire Street north of Broadcasting house, some painted gold, some silver and some black. Others are in Soho Square, the old Greater London Council building, Whitehall, Mayfair and the Inns of Court, Queen’s Gate Lodge, Westminster Abbey’s garden, and even at the top of the National Gallery as Maggie Jones has chronicled here the
You can view more at pineapples here.There is even an abbreviated map to show you around.
WestminsterAbbey garden (left), Lambeth Bridge (right)
WITH SO MUCH controversy about the exploding height of buildings it is pertinent to remind ourselves of the one that started it all – Queen Anne’s Mansions opposite St James’ Park station, the first high-rise flats in London. In those days we didn’t build big. For centuries the tallest secular building in London was the Fishmongers’ Hall which is now a dwarf among the buildings around it. In the late 1880s, Henry Hankey, a dodgy City banker, erected Queen Anne’s mansions, an unprecedented – wait for it – 13 stories high, more than twice as high as normal flats of the time – without bothering with the tiresome task of asking permission. This may not seem large to us as developers line the whole of one side of Victoria Street with 20-storey plus monsters but it was hugely controversial then. The Metropolitan Fire Service warned that its hoses could not reach the top of the building in the event of fire. The Builder magazine described it as “monster blocks of dwellings” and the Times as “the most elevated thing in bricks and mortar since the Tower of Babel”
When Hankey started to expand the building along Petty France, the architect of the Grosvenor Hotel (by Victoria Station) James Knowles – who admittedly lived next door to the mansions – wrote to the Metropolitan Board of Works saying that the mansions, already a bye word for their monstrous and overgrown ugliness would “constitute an eyesore so offensive as would disgrace the whole neighbourhood of Westminster . . And turn this quarter of London into a laughing stock”. Goodness knows what Mr Knowles would make of the current redevelopment of Victoria Street. He would be lost for words. (The quotations above are taken from Richard Dennis’ excellent paper on the mansions)
Eventually, the London County Council gave up its attempts to prove that construction of the building was illegal by making sure that it would never happen again. In an Act of 1890 the maximum height of new buildings was to be 90 feet – later reduced to 80 feet in the 1894 Act.
Queen Anne’s Mansions continued to be a paradigm of ugliness in the early 20th century. A drawing of “one of the most inexcusable buildings in modern London” (see above) was included in 1905 in Henry James’s English Hours. Of course, one solution was to live in the mansions so you could get its wonderful views without having to look at the building itself, a solution adopted by many people including MPs who railed against it in Parliament.The mansion block lasted until the 1970s when it was pulled down and replaced by a much bigger and if not uglier, then certainly more brutalist building, the new Home Office, designed by Sir Basil Spence (above, left). Whether, in the long term, the mansion block was a hero or villain depends on your point of view. It was almost universally reviled but the reaction to it kept London’s skyline much lower than would otherwise have been the case. Well, until recently.
IN LONDON OLD AND NEW published in 1878 Walter Thornbury described the Roman Bath as one the “few real and genuine remains which date from the era of the Roman occupation of England”. Charles Dickens is believed to have taken a cold dip in one of the two fashionable baths and, if he didn’t, he certainly sent David Copperfield there for “many a cold plunge”.
William Newton observed, in his “London in the Olden Time”, that it is “without doubt a veritable Roman structure, as an inspection of its old walls will prove”. Thurlow Weed, in the 1840s reported that it was used now as it has been for centuries, for bathing, and, though situated in Strand Lane, not six rods from the Strand, “I do not believe its existence is known to one thousand of the three millions of people who inhabit London.”
That may still be true today even though London’s population has soared because the bath (above, left) – it’s not Roman at all, by the way – is an orphan among London monuments. It was bought by a reluctant National Trust in 1947 on condition that someone else put up the money (Montague Meyer, a timber tycoon) and someone else looked after day-to-day management, a task that today falls to the parks department of Westminster Council where it is probably not their highest priority and only open to the public on special occasions. It is rumoured that King’s College which owns surrounding properties wants to sell. I tried to get near it yesterday for a photograph but the approach was locked up like Fort Knox.
Things may now be changing thanks to the digital revolution. Kings College is collaborating with the National Trust to add virtual layers, including 3D modelling, on a computer which would integrate the present bath, including the second one currently hidden, with the memories, myths and inter-connections of the past which are necessary to understand its place in history. This would include the role of water in restoring bodily fluids and the social exclusion of being inside the walls of the adjacent Somerset House where water was plentiful with the situation outside where people were scampering for it. Interactivity between the bath and other things gives rise to the interesting thought that Six Degrees of Separation may apply as much to buildings as it does to people like Kevin Bacon.
The 3D model, by Emma King of King’s College, enables you to see the second bath which can’t be seen even if you gain access to the first one which is occasionally open to public view.
Fascinating research by Professor Michael Trapp of King’s College and a colleague shows that, although it was a cold bath for many years with some of the bricks dating back to the 1550s, it was reconstructed as a cistern providing water for an elaborate 30 feet high Mount Parnassus (or maybe Mount Helicon), fountain built in 1612 by James 1 for his wife Queen Anne of Denmark at the eastern end of the grounds of Somerset House, now part of the King’s College campus.
As the 1615 engraving shows it was on a grand scale with manifestations of the four great rivers of England, including the nearby Thames.
The National Trust is rather short of historic buildings in central London and its involvement in bringing digital techniques to augment the experiences of the “Roman Bath” project and Benjamin Franklin House near Trafalgar Square are an attempt to make up for this by using virtual techniques to conjure up the associations of the past.
CYCLING gets enormous publicity in London. Walking is hardly mentioned at all yet London is arguably the most walkable capital city in the world as I have discovered doing my – only slightly barmy – walks from the centre of Trafalgar Square without crossing a road. Among destinations so far I have got as far as Islington, and the Millennium Dome accompanied by witnesses and the Lea Valley (without witnesses). But the most ambitious – Trafalgar Square to Margate – is still a work in progress.
It is in theory 9/10ths complete but the final tenth is the most difficult bit and as it is possible I may not complete the journey it might be wise to give a progress report. Knowing that the dual estuaries of the Medway and the Swale were the likely sticking points I did the walk in a pincer movement, walking from London to Margate and from Margate to London hoping to meet myself in the middle.
It has been an exhilarating experience opening up vistas of my own country hidden from past experience. From the London end I hugged the romantic remoteness of the Thames estuary past Greenhithe, Gravesend along the Dickensian coast ending with a desolate walk of miles and miles to All Hallows without passing or being passed by a single soul. All Hallows, a village on the Hoo peninsular in remote Kent was once planned to be the biggest coastal resort in Europe outstripping Blackpool. It never happened.
From the Margate end I started from the bus shelter overlooking the sea where T S Eliot wrote much of The Waste Land through some lovely resorts like Herne Bay and wonderful shell-soaked Whitstable that I inexcusably hadn’t visited before thanks to a myopic preoccupation with France for holidays. I managed to circumnavigate the Swale Estuary but as the marshland of the Medway loomed optimism began to fade. I stopped a few days ago at Upchurch having taken about 12 miles to walk a distance of a few miles as the crow flies from near Swale station. It looked as though I would have to cross a road so next time I will have to retrace my steps and find another way. When you look at the map above it doesn’t look far to bridge the gap between All Hallows and Upchurch as the crow flies but I walk not fly like a crow. Succeed or fail, it has been an unforgettable experience which I hope to come back to at greater length.
Thames estuary near Tyneham
VISITORS to the House of Commons usually make a beeline for the central lobby without taking much notice of the great hall (above) they have to pass through first, a treasure trove of British history. It started life as the Royal Chapel of Saint Stephen, home to the College of Cannons, before becoming the House of Commons for over 300 years until the building was burned down in the great fire of 1834.
The original chapel had rows of pews for the cannons which were laid out facing each other. When Edward V1 granted the Commons use of the hall in 1547 there was no alternative because of the narrow design of the hall but to keep the cannons’s stalls (there is a reconstruction of one on the right) facing each other – which is why government and opposition MPs face each other today in a confrontational manner unlike other similar institutions abroad. Could this be one of the reasons MPs are cannon fodder to each other and why coalition politics has taken so long to emerge? The cannons also left behind a screen which MPs utilised by asking those in favour of a motion to walk through the right hand door and those against through the left door, a tradition which lingers today as does that of bowing before what used to be an altar and crucifix as MPs enter and leave the chamber.
It was this hall that Guy Fawkes tried to blow up, where the consequences of Henry V111’s sequestration of monastic property were debated, where Charles 1’s death warrant was signed, where Horace Walpole, William Pitt, Charles Fox, Wilberforce and countless parliamentarians argued and near where Spencer Perceval, the only British prime minister to have been assassinated, was shot dead. Statues on either side of the hall commemorate some of the politicians who performed there.
But St Stephen’s Hall sits on even older history immediately beneath it is St Mary Undercroft – not normally open to the public -which survived the worst ravages of the fire and still retains some of the medieval splendour of St Stephen’s.
On a recent visit I was not allowed to take photos so I snapped the poster in Westminster Hall (above) as a substitute. In its time it has been a chapel for the royal household, a wine cellar, a dining room for the Speaker and, by repute, a stabling place for Oliver Cromwell’s horses.
Margaret Thatcher and Tony Benn, implacable enemies in life, were united in death as both of their bodies lay – at different times – in the sumptuous chapel of the Undercroft which is not on the official tour of the Commons and thus rarely seen by the public.
For details of a major historical project exploring the history of St Stephen’s Chapel see http://virtualststephens.org.uk or follow on Twitter @VSS_Project
Also @ThorneyIslandSo or @vickeegan
ONE OF THE the stunning recent successes in London has been the construction of footbridges – which fill up with pedestrians as soon as they are finished. Now there are two more in the pipeline. One is the Garden bridge at Temple and the other a pedestrian and cyclists bridge from Pimlico to yuppified Nine Elms in Wandsworth near where the American embassy is being built.
Over 70 fascinating designs from all over the world (see above and below photographed at the exhibition) were on display anonymously today at the Westminster Boating base and can be seen online here.
Most of them sensibly had separate lanes for cyclists but I was particularly impressed with the few that viewed the bridge as a living space not just a plank to convey pedestrians and cyclists across the river. There are some obvious problems not least whether the bridge might be taken over by rough sleepers and others during the night but there is no reason why these problems can’t be overcome. No one closes the embankment because some people might be sleeping rough on it. A bridge like this should be seen as an extension of the living spaces on both sides of the river.
There is a problem. Unlike the Millennium Bridge, the Hungerford bridges and the proposed Garden Bridge, the PoW link (Pimlico over Wandsworth) isn’t leading to a vibrant entertainment centre – it just goes from one old established residential area (Pimlico) to a new one (Nine Elms). It is not even going to divert cyclists from nearby Vauxhall Bridge unless they were already planning to go west along the northern embankment.
This is not an argument against the bridge, just to say that supply won’t necessarily create its own demand on the scale it did on the south bank – unless a redeveloped Battersea Power station becomes a major tourist attraction. But it will link up two London communities hitherto separated by the river and may also trigger economic re-generation on both sides of the Thames. And, hell, it adds to the fun of being in London.
(The exhibition was on the north bank today and moves to the south bank on Feb 27 and Feb 28 at the Rose Centre, Ascalon Street SW8 4DJ)
(Damien Hirst’s Gallery)
THE OLD PART of Lambeth, just south of Lambeth Bridge, still has a claim to be one of the few undiscovered parts of central London. But not for much longer. Damien Hirst’s new gallery is nearing completion in Newport Street and is likely to attract crowds of newcomers to this neglected part of the capital. I have mixed feelings about the new influx because four of my favourite cafes in the whole of London are situated within a short walking distance of each other and I’m not sure I want to be crowded out of them. The Garden Museum Cafe is next door to Lambeth Palace in the deconsecrated Saint Mary’s Church, which could be forgiven for buckling under the weight if its own history. It is a delightful place for a classy vegetarian lunch especially when it is warm enough to eat outside and savour views of the knot garden, banana trees and the graves of Captain Bligh of Mutiny on the Bounty and the Tradescant family of pioneering gardeners. It is too modest to advertise the fact that it was declared one of the top ten museum cafes in the world a couple of years ago by an American gourmet magazine. The people buried there including six and a bit (don’t ask!) archbishops of Canterbury, deserve a book on their own.
A few hundred yards away through a small park off Lambeth High street is the Beconsfield Cafe/Art Gallery in Newport Street (Thursday to Saturday). It is housed in a converted Victorian ragged school with Damien Hirst’s gallery within sight at the other end of the street . Here you can eat very good vegetarian food in an engagingly intimate atmosphere with good wi-fi thrown in. If the street door isn’t open you will have to press a bell – a bit like trying to get into a Chicago speakeasy.
At the end of Vauxhall Walk Is the Tea House Theatre, in a lovingly converted former strip pub on the edge of historic Vauxhall Gardens. It is an excellent place for a meal or tea and sometimes a show as well. On the other side of Vauxhall Station along the Wandsworth Road is Brunswick House Cafe, festooned with architectural artefacts, and none the worse for having become rather fashionable lately.
Old Lambeth, once dominated – and polluted – by Doulton’s immensely successful pottery factory, is still host to the company’s attractively tiled head office, a stone’s throw from the embankment road. Definitely worth a short detour. Costa Coffee, the British company which started in the Vauxhall Bridge Road and is now the second biggest coffee company in the world after Starbucks, has its roastery here. All is now changing as luxury apartment blocks spring up all over the place doubtless bringing in their wake new restaurants and amenities. Setting the pace is the new gallery, head office and cafe complex being built by Damien Hirst to house among other things lots of the paintings and sculptures he has acquired over the years. Artistic projects like this usually stimulate the local economy. This part of Lambeth will never be the same again.