Monday, 16 October 2017

Bentley Priory Museum = Battle of Britain Memorial

Mansion House Drive
Stanmore Middlesex

Friday October 13th 2017

Linda arrived late for her rendezvous with Jo at Stanmore Station having forgotten that while the Jubilee Line is both fast and frequent Stanmore is still at the end of the line and therefore takes a while. Also you need to wait for the (infamous) 142 bus route, which did come after a bearable wait, on what was a mellow October day.

After chugging uphill quite slowly we were pleased to spot some reassuring brown signs for the Museum thus ensuring we did not walk in the wrong direction, a step we are apt to make… Almost immediately on turning right you come to a dual (car and pedestrian) gate and an operative springs out of a slightly upmarket sentry box to ask your business – as museum visitors you are directed to go left at the roundabout.

A bit of historical context is required – indeed there was once an Augustinian priory here once, founded probably circa  1170, which went the way of most monasteries in England come Henry VIII’s dissolution. Apparently it was offered to Archbishop Cranmer who swapped it for some land in Wimbledon, and various different entitled families lived here for the next two centuries. In 1788 the 9th Earl of Abercorn decided on a refit and engaged the already famous (Sir) John Soane to redesign his home, and a great job he made of it.

At this point the house was a hub for the Great and the Good, so much so that the widow of William IV came here to retire and die. Subsequent owners were less successful socially but did manage to add the Italian style ‘campanile’ and gardens. An attempt to launch it as a hotel was not successful (I suspect not country enough to be a real retreat and too far from town to be a London hotel) so its fate became one of the usual ones of declining stately homes – a school, which it was till 1936, when the Fighter Command part of the Royal Air Force moved in preparing for what they thought might be the next major conflict.

RAF admin. remained till 2008 (by now Fighter and Bomber commands had joined to become Strike Command) but by then the site was neither in a good state nor accessible to the public.  Cue Barratts the builders, themselves tainted somewhat by their association with a certain Prime Minister, who developed the site as essentially a large gated community with lots of communal green space and restricted and refined housing, while also making a £6 million  contribution towards the setting up of the Museum which opened in 2015.

Apologies for the lengthy lead-in, but both externally – gleaming and clean sandstone, restored and landscaped gardens – and internally the fabric of the house and the museum installation demonstrate hefty financial but thoughtful investment. Staffed, we suspected, largely by volunteers you are handed a laminate guide to the order of visit. Some of the earlier rooms and corridors are a bit like a rabbit warren and there are lots of competent but not very exciting water colours of aeroplanes and airfields various interspersed with photos. There are also separate tributes to both the Observer Corps and the Radar Section, set up in 1936 essentially as military research.  

The ground floor trail then leads into a room set up with desks and  period phones – each open drawer contains an appropriate display be it orders for the day, memos to the cabinet or headlines from the newspapers of the day. As becomes obvious as you learn more about Air Vice Marshal Dowding, he made clear to Churchill in several crisp memos (oh, I do love a historic typed memo, now completely superseded by email) that any impending war needed a strong air defence and attack system, and hence his appointment pretty much near the end of his career to head up Fighter Command at Bentley Priory.  

There are some tracking charts displayed (more of this later) including one of Hess’s flight into Scotland in an abortive attempt (unknown to Hitler) to make peace. He was of course captured and lived on for a very long time in different places of captivity including, briefly, the Tower of London.

The museum offers a short film unusual in that it is not the standard-issue composite of newsreel clips and heroic commentary (though we do get Chamberlain  announcing war)  but in fact a kind of  3D video projection/reconstruction as you look into Dowding’s office and  see him and hear him in his own words – actually quite effective.

From there you enter the grand hall and even grander staircase hung with Honours boards, squadron shields and a lace banner, a gift from Nottingham. Interestingly we had seen the same lace panel in the Croydon Museum leading me to wonder whether they had been ‘mass-produced’ ? 

At this point you are offered a respite from aerial warfare, namely a glimpse into Dowager Queen Adelaide’s very finely restored room which comes across as a haven of femininity with its chaise longue and gracious tea cups.

To be fair the Museum has included very many personal testaments of serving WAAFS who must have been very busy typing and telephoning on a 24 hour basis through the war.

From the hall you step into the Rotunda which is one of Soane’s masterpieces (‘better  than his dusty dark house,’ said Jo, who had really not enjoyed our experience there) with light through the dome illuminating what is essentially a tribute to the pilots who did not make it either during the actual Battle of Britain or thereafter. For each biography there are medals and artefacts – a log book here or a cap there. In the centre are medals and badges with their individual citations and explanations; for e.g. a small caterpillar badge meant you had ‘bailed out courtesy of your silk parachute’ a fact probably known to those of you who read all those Biggles type books…

The trail then goes into what is arguably the most interesting room, called by Dowding ‘The Filter Room’ where a combination of reports from observers with radar results were carefully plotted on a grid system overlaying the coastline of East and Southern UK  to show where alien aircraft were coming from and heading to so that the information could be collated /filtered and evaluated and  appropriate orders could be sent on to the various airfields to ‘scramble’ and hopefully intercept the invading planes. What is clear is that Dowding devised and perfected this system so that the comparatively few planes and trained fighters he had could be used in the most focussed and effective way, and as we know it held off an invasion.

It is effectively an air traffic control approach without benefit of computers or other communication.  

The last room has a smaller model of the actual filter room – there is also a gallery where the higher ranks sat presumably to set priorities. You can also sit in the mocked up cockpit of a Spitfire, which is indeed a small and thus manoeuvrable aircraft.

Back out in the hall you are allowed to climb the stairs but not penetrate to the rooms beyond, and are also
encouraged to go down a level. Away from the windows are more pictures including many caricatures of the serving officers and a more detailed life of Dowding. We had rather had our fill of the great man so moved swiftly through his Scottish childhood, education at Winchester and career in the Army both in the far East and the First World War where his observations of his superiors fighting with old fashioned methods including the cavalry made him embrace and promote newer technology including learning to fly, and the rest you already know.

The cafĂ© opens out onto the Terrace of the house with beautifully restored terrazzo flooring and a view over the gardens and £4m houses built up on the slopes.

This is essentially a one trick pony – a museum built on the career and achievements of a single  man but with substantial tributes to crews of young pilots.  By all accounts Dowding was not an easy man but he did care about his men and ensured they had adequate ‘free time’ on their bases between operations. The staff here must have worked hard at times of crisis and the quality of the restoration and presentation of the material pays full tribute to all the men and women who participated in the Battle of Britain in certainly one of the most lovely and peaceful settings of the various military/war museums we have visited. 

Thursday, 28 September 2017

Bankside Gallery - and the Blavatnik Wing of Tate Modern

Thursday 28 September 2017

Today Linda and I visited the Bankside Gallery, a few steps west of Tate Modern.  It is home to both the Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers and the Royal Society of Watercolourists.

At the moment, it is displaying the results of its national original print competition, in the cool white space which is its gallery.  It was a 'no photographs' visit, but you can see some examples of the amazing work here.  We saw pictures which were monochrome, and also many that ere brightly coloured.  We know about screen prints and woodcuts (both represented here) but there were also photo etchings, monoprints, linocuts, digital etchings.  The subject matter was equally varied.  There were landscapes, both realistic and abstract;  there were difficult pictures of suffering faces and contorted shapes; and there were some very funny items.  Jenny Wiener's 'Due Diligence', which you can see here, made us laugh, as it considers all the precautionary measures which should be triggered after a small girl enters a bears' house without consent. We enjoyed Martin Langford's Art Talk', too.
 Since admission is free, and they have very good cards and books in their shop, I think it makes sense to go in every time one is in the area;  but it did not detain us for more than an hour so we also visited the new  (well, newish) bit of tate Modern.

We found we could not get in via the Turbine Hall, because they were working to complete Superflex, which is due to open very soon, and should be colourful.  We are among the people who did walk around Ai WeiWei's shells before they were roped off as unsafe, so we look forward to walking on these coloured strips.

But mainly we went up to the top floor, having had great difficulty in persuading the lift to do more than zoom up to 5 and then come down to 0 without pause.  It was worth it, however, as the views are spectacular in almost every direction, the exception perhaps being the ugly block of luxury apartments which is being built.



We didn't feel we could cope with one of the several big exhibitions which are on at the moment, so we merely gazed at what was on the landings and stairwells. And we paused, but did not participate, at Tate Exchange, where we were invited to make slip pottery and follow the process through from weighing the clay to the finished product.

How lucky we are to live in a town with such interesting art galleries available to us at any time we choose to visit.

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Chislehurst Caves

Caveside Close, Old Hill,
Chislehurst BR7 5NL
Wednesday September 20 2017

My previous experience of caves has been of the damp rather drippy variety where we are encouraged to admire the stalactites and strange rock formations so to walk through man made passages and spacious ‘rooms’ was a very different experience. We were lucky enough to join an outing arranged by the Friends of the British Library which set off from the very welcoming (and informative) visitor centre really not far from Chislehurst Station and village.

We started with the obligatory health and safety chat – mind your head if tall and beware the (not very) uneven floor and you should be OK. I would add, stick to your party because the ‘caves’ are very labyrinthine and it would be very easy to take a wrong turning and get lost. The guidebook I bought indicated that there used to be a sniffer/guide dog who went round finding errant children at the end of the day. However the Friends of the Library are very well behaved and there were no waifs or strays today – in fact we had a participant whose father lived in the village during the war and almost certainly would have sheltered here.

There is limited electric lighting in the system, restricted to the various tableaux, so many of us were armed with paraffin lanterns complete with the smell so redolent of my childhood where we had paraffin stoves to supplement our meagre heating.

The different sections of the caves have different names – the Saxons, Romans and Druids, which according to a Mr Nicholls was because each period had inhabited a different part of the cave system. Though colourful this seemed extremely fanciful and what is much more likely is that these ‘caves’ were in fact dug out in the 18th and for sure  the 19th centuries partly for the chalk, but almost certainly for the flint . Although Mr Nichols belonged to the local Archaeological Society there was little proof for his theory. Mr Nichols and his detractors debated their theories in public (or at least in the Bickley Arms where station approach joins the main street) and the public came to listen and then to visit the caves.  Very soon it became an Edwardian tourist attraction and with the local railway offering better connections the visitors came in large numbers. Apparently the caves were enhanced by a colourful display of what sounds like fairy lights.

There was certainly flint in the rock faces and this was pointed out to us. Its extraction and processing, like most underground minerals, are both dangerous and lengthy requiring much hard labour. Flint knapping, as it was called, was broken down into different stages of breaking the seams of flint into the slivers which were suitable to provide the spark to ignite your powder in your guns. As the British Army used flintlocks for over 100 years this would have been a going concern, except for the poor knappers who would have died a premature death due to the sharp particles they inhaled while they worked.

With this link to the British Army it is not altogether surprising that the not so distant  Royal Arsenal based at Woolwich got to hear about these caves and decided it was a good dry place to store their explosives, TNT amongst them. The local population became alarmed and protested about living above a potential explosion but some tests carried out showed that no booms reached the surface so the Army increased their store. In order to transport it safely to the surface they constructed a small underground railway and there was a permanent if bored guard roster on duty here – leaving some graffiti to keep themselves and future generations amused. 

Once the risks of the First World War seemed over the underground passages were leased by the Kent Mushroom Company whose manager, the aptly named Mr Gardner, finally bought them in 1932, and the attraction stays within the same family to this day. Mr Gardner had not been the first horticulturist as a local resident with a large house above the site thought it would be interesting to sink a vent /passage and construct a night garden for asparagus, celery and rhubarb. He seemed to retain enough staff to carry out the amount of digging out this project required; even more impressive was the need to have water for the garden and a well was sunk to reach the water table well (sorry) down. Originally crystal clear and drinkable it now has a blueish hue, due to the number of ‘lucky’ (copper) pennies dropped into it for wishing purposes.

The mushroom farm thrived till 1939 and the outbreak of the Second World War. Almost immediately the caves were ear-marked as shelters and used initially by the local families when there were air-raids. However as the raids increased through Kent and South-east London the numbers taken shelter rose quickly to 6-8,000 nightly, and at the height of the Blitz there were 15.000 people taking shelter, sometimes staying for days at a time and also providing temporary homes for those who had lost everything. The cave system was divided into pitches with bunks three high (those in the top bunks must have hit their heads). Originally the wooden bunks were provided by the Mushroom company and Mr Gardener organised his work force (mushrooms were long gone) into guides/supervisors for the caves.  This was the most interesting part of the visit as Darren our guide told us how the numbers of those sheltering rose from the original few thousand into a whole community which had, at the height of the Blitz, shops, a Post Office, a church and a hospital plus a couple of canteens. As the numbers rose so did the temperature from an ambient 10° (caves tend to have the same temperature whatever it is outside) to 30° generated by the massed body heat requiring an improved ventilation system to bring conditions back down to the bearable. With all those people water was needed and of course toilet blocks, though we were told these were only chemical and pretty unsavoury. In the early days the shelter was run by the Mushroom company but as the powers that be recognised the numbers the government did take over and provided the metal bunks to replace the rather makeshift wooden ones. We were told that everyone was treated equally – you had a pitch. If your family was large enough you could be given a whole small cave but money did not talk and the better off had to bunk down like everyone else.

Apparently there were ledgers and records – of which families were where – but these, along with the whole infrastructure of wiring and plumbing were destroyed once the Second World war was over. The lack of records is quite sad as there are often visitors who remember coming to the caves as children but their ‘exact location’ cannot be pinpointed. Mostly pregnant women were transferred to an outside hospital for delivery (unless there was an air-raid actually in progress) but one baby was born underground only to be named ‘Cavina’ by her parents – no surprise she later called herself Rosie..

Once the shelters were dismantled and the last two families evicted/re-housed the caves were empty. However a few musicians who had sheltered here during the war remembered how good the acoustics were and used to bring their jazz bands down for impromptu sessions. Word quickly spread and through the late Fifties and Sixties the ‘stage’ was home to a range of names – David Bowie before he was  Bowie (quite a local lad really) in 1966 Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin as late as 1974.

Sadly there were complaints from the local residents, not that they could hear the music but the people leaving the venue made too much noise so by this time licensing and local authorities were flexing their muscles and the music stopped. I can remember working with people who lived locally and had been to concerts and raves down here…

That more or less brings the history of the caves up to date – it has been running as a museum for some years and works hard at improving the facilities – the quality of our tour was excellent and I imagine it is tailored to the audience with perhaps a greater sprinkling of spooky tales and ghosts for a different demographic of visitors. However this is a place that truly has something for everyone and offers a really unique experience.