Friday, 30 May 2014

Hall Place

Bourne Road
Kent DA5 1PQ
Monday May 19th 2014

Today’s trip was strictly speaking an unofficial visit to this South East London gem but as Jo had been last year and Mary J has ‘previous’ with the project having joined us on various Sutton area buses we decided it could count on the record. We went by car but it is of course accessible by nearby bus routes including the 229, 492, B12 and 132 to the foot of Gravel Hill. This outing could easily take all day and there are very pleasant picnic places within the grounds.

This site with its extensive grounds is managed by  Bexley Council. The house itself and more formal gardens are between Bourne Road and the River Cray – the wilder ‘parky’ bits extend across the Cray up to the A2, which is noisy but less intrusive than the planes at Kew Gardens.

Entrance to the outdoor attractions is free and we were in a constant state of amazement at the excellent condition of all the gardens. Close to the entrance is a set of eight model gardens – this means they are small plots set out with easily managed and appropriate planting and child or disabled friendly layouts (2 also include parking spaces) – in other words they are ‘model’ plots to offer inspiration for the residents of Bexley, where there are large swathes of  inter-war housing of the 3 bed semi variety with front and back gardens.

Suitably impressed we moved on to admire the other different plots offering vegetables and cut flowers, the orchard and the Timeline garden.  This last was intriguing – planted with different non-native species that we now take for granted each with a black plaque giving the date of its probable introduction to the UK with white plaques highlighting the political events of the time.  It was quite surprising to see the early arrival of some species and the later import of others. Mary J, of course, being a garden historian, was previously aware of some of these incomer plants.

A walk through the pleasantly situated cafeteria or crossing the weir and wisteria bridges across the River Cray and back again will lead you to the gardens that surround the house. Further away from the house itself we found both the Sunken and Hidden gardens were shut to the public as still flooded, while a large Eucalyptus tree had caused some damage falling across the ’Really Useful’ garden. As you might guess the gardens closer to the house are of a more classic formal kind including a grass maze and an extensive rose garden. If topiary is your thing Hall Place is for you as the gardeners have managed to maintain a series of the Queen’s Beasts since their planting for the 1952 Coronation – admittedly the dragons and griffons look rather more like little bears and squirrels but they still have a certain ‘wow’ factor.

Entrance to the house carries a small charge, which actually buys you a year’s admission (reduced rate for National Trust members).  It is really two conjoined houses, a Stuart extension of mellow red brick greatly expanding the original Tudor building of chequerboard flint and stone partly recycled from a dissolved monastery. Unexpectedly for a Monday there was a wedding (reduced rates?) which meant no access to the Great Hall or Minstrel’s gallery, but that still left much to see.  The original owner, Champney, had been Lord Mayor of London during  Henry VIII’s early reign and wanted a place of his own not too far from town.  What remains of his building has a very human scale as befitted middling gentry with servants – a small Great Hall, a ‘not very’ Long Gallery and pocket sized chapel.  

Mostly the rooms are empty, giving you time to enjoy the plasterwork ceilings, the wood paneling and the views over the garden.  The ground floor chapel, and its extension built probably as storage, now house the children’s inter active exhibits. Today we had them to ourselves and could be really indulgent trying on mob caps, finding our place at the dining  table (well below the salt) and contemplating a diet of pottage and vegetables in the end probably healthier than endless roast and fatty boar’s heads reserved for royalty and nobility… Impressively, all the exhibits were robust (most of them reassuringly ‘analogue’) and in good working order – there is nothing worse than a ‘children’s area’ in a museum or house where half the stuff is either missing or broken and the other half are non-responsive computer terminals – full marks again to Bexley.

The first floor space above the hall adorned with excellent plasterwork is where the original family would have lived. Eventually the house was sold to a family called Austen who organized the Stuart era extension; some of the upstairs rooms dating from this time are galleries celebrating the history of Bexley, though not currently open.  We do not usually mention special exhibitions (see the Project rules) but did enjoy the display of Quentin Blake’s illustrations for the Nightingale Project a series of colourful, tranquil and so humane and compassionate work for mental health resources catering for both the elderly and the younger age groups: this is a touring show to catch if you can.

Later owners/tenants used the house as school premises and during World War II there was some enemy signal decoding type activity linked to Bletchley Park.  

We finished our  afternoon with a stroll round the park, noting that the flood channel was still holding water,  and enjoying the excellent colour scheme of the rockery. Even during a visit of nearly three hours there were areas we had missed – the Poplar Walk and Spring Garden and extensive glasshouses. For additional payment you can also enjoy weekend owl demonstrations (they want a shorter working week and the minimum wage) and a butterfly ‘jungle’.  We would recommend to those folk shy of penetrating South East London that Hall Place will more than repay the effort of negotiating the route there.  

and in Dementia Week...

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

The Royal London Hospital Museum

St.Philip’s Church, NewarkStreet
London E1 2AA
Thursday  May 22nd  2014

Having finished early at the Nunnery we hopped onto a Number 25 and stood for the short straight trip down the Mile End Road getting off, along with many other passengers, for the Royal London Hospital.  When we last passed this way on Route 25 it was a very busy ‘bendy’ so had more seats; on the other hand the Royal London was midway through its 21st century rebuild, in 2014 still not fully complete but very impressive. 
We walked through the new building along an art-filled broad sweep of a corridor asking two lots of receptionists where to find the Museum – out the back and turn left : the contrast between the state-of-the-art new building and the surrounding streets and location of the museum is quite striking – about two and half centuries in fact.

The Museum, located in the church crypt, tells the history of this hospital within the national context.   The Museums of health and medicine have banded together and have an excellent website.  Jo felt she had had her fill of surgical implements at the Herb Garret, so I shall try to focus on what makes this  venue unique. Little does she know we still have 24 Museums of Science and Medicine in our future!
The Museum was founded not as part of a medieval monastic institution but in the spirit of 18th century social scientific and humanitarian philanthropy: in this part of London people were dying off more quickly than the birth rate replaced them. The main ‘killers’ were smallpox, cholera and malaria, not to mention alcohol abuse (as seen in an original Hogarth drawing) particularly prevalent in this, one of London’s more crowded areas.  The links between poverty and health are longstanding and no-one knew it better than the founders of the London Hospital, one of five that date their origins to the second half of the 18th century.   The plaques and display texts give details of names, costs and early buildings; the cabinets display the charters, the board members and the growing identity of ‘ the London’ – the dietary needs of the local Jewish population were acknowledged and addressed at a an early stage. The London’s own crockery has a very solid look to it too.

Several cases are dedicated to well-known men and women whose fame and contribution went beyond the London; Sir Frederick Treves, who from quite humble origins rose to be surgeon to Queen Victoria, is better known as the doctor whose humane treatment offered sanctuary to Joseph Merrick aka the Elephant man (and seen most recently on ‘Ripper Street’. ) 
By World war 1 the hospital was established as a sound teaching institution and when the young men enlisted the hospital took on women for training only to drop them again later… However it does number Elizabeth Garratt Anderson, the first woman to qualify in the UK , amongst its alumni.

Eva Luckes, who was made a matron at a very early age, was renowned for her organisational skills and the high expectations she held for her trainees and staff, which did not always make her very popular. 
More famous still was Edith Cavell who completed her training at the London before heading out to Belgium – where she was subsequently shot by the occupying German Army in October 1915 for helping Allied prisoners to escape. Each year her heroism is remembered when the London nurses place wreathes on her statue in St Martin’s Place. 
Amongst the short films/videos on offer was one showing a recruitment vehicle for nursing at ‘the London’ where a range of fresh faced young women support a patient through surgery to return home. With their neat little hats but no gloves we know that nowadays this kind of patient would be dealt with virtually by day surgery but we enjoyed the earnestness of this early Sixties documentary.

Nearby was a case with the evolution of nursing uniforms, and a rather pretty little china statuette of the London nurse.
Also of note was the effectively sad account of  Ernest Harnack, who with three colleagues worked tirelessly to launch and improve X-ray services, but exposing himself thereby to excess and fatal doses of radiation.

The last text board announces the plans for the 21st century rebuild and, pleased with our brief but informative visit, we returned through the new building that offers all that is best in the UK’s National Health Service to the Whitechapel Road and our different routes home.  

Friday, 23 May 2014

The Nunnery Art Gallery, Bow

Thursday 22 May 2014

Linda and I headed East, to visit The Nunnery, as recommended by Diamond Geezer. (There, is by the way, a school of thought that suggests that one could live one's whole life just following his suggestions)

The day started with a sight hiccup, as neither of us had thought to look properly at a map, and the area map outside Bow Road station did not mention the place.  And Linda's phone (she is the modern one) was refusing to pick up the internet.  However, more traditional means of navigation proved effective - we asked a postal worker - as we soon reached the narrow alley that takes you to the Gallery.

At the moment, it is displaying artworks by the East London Group of painters.  Between 1928 and 1936, John Cooper worked with people from the East End.  He was helped by people like Walter Sickert (prolific artist and friend of Lord Beaverbrook) and there are several Sickerts displayed here.

But the real interest lies in the paintings by the East End's own artists.  Several domestic scenes, in varying styles are displayed, as well as a number of works derived from what we assumed to be art class outings, like the flamingo at the Bethnal Green Museum.

Then there are some holiday pictures, made at Herne Bay, Hastings and as far afield as Lyme Regis.  We thought the ventriloquist on the pier particularly striking, with that creepy feel that the dolls always have.

We very much enjoyed the pictures of local scenes, several of them familiar to us from our bus journeys in the area.  The Bryant and May Match factory, now rebuilt and rebranded as the Bow Quarter (where, by the way, you could buy a one bedroom ground floor flat for £320,000) can be seen as it was in the 1920s.

We liked the delicate lamp post in Harold Steggles' painting of Old Ford Road.  Several of his works have fine, wiry winter trees as well.

Albert Turpin's 'Canal Scene in Victoria Park' was one that I would happily have taken home.  The walk through Victoria Park (from - say - The QEII Olympic Park towards Angel) is one we enjoy.

The subtlety of the colours in Walter Steggles' Bow Bridge also took our attention.

All in all, we admired the pictures very much, and were able to enjoy them alone (which is rather a pity).  I suppose it is part of the strange way London is perceived by the rest of the country that there is a play about the North East's Pitmen Painters, while these Londoners are less well known.

The gallery is very easy to get to  and well worth a visit. The 205 bus would convey you from Paddington, or the 25 from Oxford Circus, even if you don't want to use the Underground or the DLR.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

The Fashion & Textile Museum

Thursday  May 15th  2014
The Fashion & Textile Museum
79-85 Bermondsey Street SE1 3XF

Jo, Mary and I arrived on foot after a short if unscenic walk from London Bridge Station (having crossed all the lines at platform level you then have to skulk beneath them along Bermondsey Street) to find the easy-to-spot Fashion & Textile Museum. This is an area of London still full of narrow streets which used to be part of the leather and tanning industry, with the nasty effluent heading into the rivers, and which is gradually being rehabilitated and loved.

The Museum was set up by Zandra Rhodes, well known for her colourful Sixties and later designs and the exterior of the building reflects her colour palettes. There are those in the party (no names mentioned)  whom the word ‘Fashion’ might make run for the hills, but I am pleased to say that by the end Jo (oops) was wishing it was her turn to write an account of our visit. The exhibition was entitled  ‘Artist Textiles – Picasso to Warhol’ but contained so much more than the two named artists – essentially everyone you may ever have heard of (and a few not) had been seduced or persuaded into designing head scarves at the very least or dressmaking or furnishing fabrics at most. Jo took many photos and almost certainly I will have made errors in the captions so I will let you match artist to picture!!

The artists included :
Matisse (of course)
Sonia Delaunay – fabulous stripes and choice of colour
A Braque
Dufy – amusing and topical prints with variations of Charlie Chaplin or tennis matches – very Thirties
Ben Nicholson

Miro, and – the real revelation – Salvador Dali. None of us enjoys his work and indeed find it positively unsettling (I know that’s the point) but his textile designs were an enthralling and witty surprise. (This one is 'Number Please')

If all that Alexander Calder makes you think of is giant mobiles think again; he too ventured into textile design, though of a rather spidery and less attractive finished article.

Rather in the mould of   William Morris in the preceding century, several of the artists joined or started specific design workshops. The Bloomsbury Set started Omega Workshops and here were represented by a Ben Nicholson rug, to which any of us would have given houseroom, and a Vanessa Bell item.  There was also an example from the Wiener Werkstatte and into the Post war period Hammer Prints.
By the time we reached the post war period – late Forties and Fifties textiles were being used for frocks – eavesdropping on the many other visitors, entirely female it has to be said, these provoked waves of nostalgia for  Horrockses frocks and home dressmaking.  As some-one with the equivalent of  two left feet  where sewing is concerned  this is not a conversation I could join but I was still left admiring the clothes.
The more tailored and formal styles then give way to the vibrant colours and looser shapes of the Sixties: stand out items include Warhol’s ‘Happy Bug Days’ in two colourways – turquoise and orange of course – and his delightful melon prints. Again we had no idea he had designed so much and so well for both furnishing and fashion.

Less surprising were the contributions from Picasso, who was always happy to squiggle on a plate and sell it, whose fabric designs were taken up by an Apres-Ski Company of all things. His Mediterranean-inspired designs, and bull fight motifs  sit slightly oddly with anoraks and the like.

The last room showcased designs by Sarah Campbell , who has continued designing solo after the death of her sister Susan Collier – the board showed how artists build up colour and small details of design into paintings which then form the basis of a repeat pattern – quite inspirational.

I think this exhibition demonstrated quite clearly that there is no firm dividing line between Art and Design, and making their work available in a more accessible and possibly affordable way can only enhance the reputation of the various artists and bring pleasure to those who buy the end products.

This exhibition is about to end but future plans include exhibitions revolving around Mexico and Frida Kahlo, and knit wear design, and on the basis of today’s experience we would all be keen to return.  There is no permanent exhibition but a series of changing special shows. 

PS Steinberg's Paddington Station for anyone nostalgic for transport.

Friday, 16 May 2014

Interbus (Etna Transporti)

Taormina to Recanati, Sicily
Sunday May 4th 2014

Once a bus user, always a bus user.
This must be one of Europe’s more scenic routes.

Sicily is surprisingly hilly/mountainous and so was this bus route. It runs about once an hour to a time-table from the bus station just below the (largely) pedestrianised  town of Taormina.

The story behind Taormina is that the original Ancient Greek residents of Naxos, cosily situated down by the port on a lovely wide bay on the East Coast of Sicily, took the wrong side in a big battle between the cities of Athens and Syracuse so the winners, Syracuse, destroyed their fishing/trading town down by the sea. Not too beaten down, they headed up to a rock which was more easily defensible and settled in what is now Taormina, a very popular tourist destination for visitors to Sicily. Taormina has narrow streets, city gates at either end of a main drag and a large Greek Theatre so any buses have to stop short of the Messina Gate.   The rock that is Taormina is about 800metres high so the bus needs to descend very steeply….which is the fun part.

There is a kiosk at the bus station where they happily went on selling tickets well beyond the capacity of the single decker bus, so it was a case of first come first served, and some disgruntled would-be passengers booted off.

The slowest part of the bus trip is the initial descent from hill top Taormina via several spectacular hairpin bends down to beach and sea level.  The bus uses the road marked as SP10 on this map… If you crane your neck from the bus you can just about see up the steep rock face you have just descended. (on the non-cliff edge side is a Byzantine Necropolis) 

Once down on the level the bus speeds up a little – obviously there were few stops on the descent save for one in a ‘pull-off’ by the aptly-named Belvedere, from where you can descend on foot. [You walk down a series of 750ish steps which bring you to a beach with a short causeway (roll up trousers and wade at low tide) across to Isola Bella, a small island now a nature reserve belonging to Sicily.  It had been previously in private hands including a  rich English woman who planted her villa garden there with many imported exotic plants which did well in the mild climate.] The bus stops are a bit difficult to spot as more often than not sponsored, quite often by an underwear firm. London bus shelters sport often changing adverts but the stops themselves remain sacrosanct.

The next landmark, where a good number of passengers got off, was the railway station for Giardini Naxos/Taormina – the station itself is a very pretty Art Nouveau Building with splendid lamps and offers a service to Italy (train trundles on a ferry over the straits of Messina) in one direction and back to Catania the other way. Mainly the train runs on time.

The route continues round the bay of Naxos – unfortunately the bus takes a less scenic road round the back of Giardini Naxos, leaving the seaside route for commerce and strolling pedestrians. Giardini Naxos used to be a fishing village set amongst Lemon Groves; however tourists are now the main cash crop. Having said that the promenade is very pleasant; the rental flats and hotels are in the main low rise with a splendid range of restaurants at street level, these interspersed with those shops you only find at the seaside selling flip-flops, plastic balls and sun-hats.  On the other side is a modest beach and the sparkling Ionian Sea.

Reconati is further west along the Bay of Naxos and is really a continuation of the resort with the additional bonus of the roadside Archeological Park – more park than ruins and beautifully overgrown with a view of snow capped Mount Etna in the background.

After 30 minutes or so the bus comes to a halt behind Reconati main street – an end to end journey spectacular in either direction and at 1.90 Euros per adult single journey (3 Euros return) for a trip involving the kind of bend negotiating that you would not like to undertake in a larger vehicle a true bargain. 

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Queen Charlotte's Cottage, Kew Gardens

Monday 5 May 2014

Actually, while were at Kew for the Bank Holiday, we also visited Queen Charlotte's Cottage, which is only open at weekends and for part of the year.

It's a cottage rather in the way that the Petit Trianon was a farm, but has some endearing insights into Queen Charlotte's family life.  George III gave it to her as a wedding present, and she used to take her family there for picnics and informal fun when even Kew Palace seemed too stuffy.

She added an upstairs floor to make what was known as the picnic room, and the trellis decoration was done by Princess Elizabeth, one of the fifteen (not a misprint) children of the royal couple.

The downstairs room is lined with floral and other prints, like those table mats that people get as wedding presents.

When we visited, the staff were wearing quasi Georgian dresses, but they did not need to say a lot as there is plenty of information, and not that much to see.  It is, however, free to enter, once you have paid to get into the gardens, and its position is delightful.  It is surrounded by bluebell woods, and there are oak trees which I think were planted by the Mayors of the different London boroughs some years ago, but I can't find the reference.

There is much more detail about the Cottage and its history on Rachel Knowles' excellent website.

Monday, 5 May 2014

The Shirley Sherwood and Marianne North Galleries, Kew Gardens

Monday 5 May 2014

The early May Bank Holiday, the sun shining brightly, the Overground working in the West, so what could be better than a trip to Kew?  The gardens were looking ravishing, but I am not about to tell you about the azaleas, the bluebells, the students' vegetable beds.  

Andrew and I did not think we had ever visited the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanic Art, so we did so today. It is housed in a clean looking modern building and is free to enter (after you have paid to get into Kew Gardens, of course).  The displays are of paintings and drawings of botanic specimens, some accurate and scientifically detailed, some artistically arranged.  Many of them were so beautiful that they would sit happily on a domestic wall. Though watercolour and paper are what we were expecting,  some artists use oils on canvas. They ranged in period from quite old (after all, botanical drawing is a very ancient art form) to very recent, including several from an exhibition in Pisa, by Italian artists of the present day.  According to London Town website, the Collection has more than 200,000 pieces of work in it:  we enjoyed the few dozen which were on display. 

Attached to this exhibition is the even more remarkable Marianne North GalleryIt has a slightly 'Pitt Rivers' feel to it (if you have visited that Oxford Museum) in that every wall is covered with her botanical and scenery art works.  She was a 19th century biologist, who knew Charles Darwin, and travelled widely. She recorded what she saw and the plants she discovered, as she travelled around the world. Her works include flora all the way from California to Borneo and she spent a year in India too.  Then Darwin suggested she should make a further journey to Australia and New Zealand.  She always planned to leave her collection to Kew, and did so, before her death in 1890, aged only 60.  She had the advantage of coming from a prosperous family, but that fact does not make her any less intrepid or talented.

There is so much to see at Kew that I did not think Mary and Linda would mind my visiting these charming galleries without them. If they do, I shall be only too happy to go back again.