Wednesday, 31 August 2016

The London Museum of Water & Steam

Green Dragon Lane
Brentford TW8 0EN
Thursday August 25 2016

This appears in our list as the Kew Bridge Steam Museum but we learnt from all the literature and signage that it now trades as the London Museum of Water & Steam. However the Kew Bridge bit gives a hint as to how to approach this West London outpost – trains on the somewhat infrequent Hounslow Loop pass through Kew Bridge, which is indeed very close to the Museum, easily spotted due to its impressive brick chimney. There is no shortage of space throughout the Museum as of course it used to house the most enormous steam pumps, and while there are still plenty of large scale machines there is room to circulate.

One of the first things we noticed was a plaque thanking the EU for their financial support to setting up some galleries and we would also guess that Thames Water played a contributing role.
The first large wall has a more or less chronological display of domestic appliances which use water – these of course include basins and sinks, bath tubs and boilers and toilets and tubs for washing and washing up, interspersed with old fashioned adverts and films of how to use said appliances. Dominating amongst the public service notices were frequent requests not to ‘waste water’ including some catchy rhymes and slogans…  Given that the average Londoner gets through over 150 litres of water per day it is no mean feat for the companies which provide us with this precious commodity to achieve this in an area (SE England) where there are known water shortages (maps give examples of this both for the UK and the whole world) . So how do they manage this? – by re-cycling of course.

Also looked at historically is the management and distribution of water and its various components:
Pipes various through the ages from terracotta (good to a point), stone (nah), lead (seemed a good idea at the time), copper (costly), to iron. There are a range of pumps scaled down so you can test the various types and see which are most efficient… and which require the most effort.

(Once the oomph or heft was applied technologically or industrially you are looking at the huge machines upstairs).
You also need a system to get water from where it collects (downhill/rivers) to where it is needed and the answer to this is not only pipes and pumps but the LONDON RING MAIN, which as you can see from both maps and models does indeed encircle London – presumably areas beyond are dependent on other managed sources of water supply.
We live very close to the Honor Oak Reservoir, which occupies a raised and very protected site.

Back to water distribution through the ages and this section is well illustrated by a combination of appropriately costumed historical figures on video giving their accounts of various water/sewage problems and the solutions alongside various dolls’ houses complete with the historical water distribution and disposal methods of the day. The talking heads include 
 The talking heads include James Simpson, who introduced water filtration, and the more famous Dr. John Snow – the ‘water detective’ 
whom we have also featured in our blog on the Anaesthesia Heritage Centrethough he is better remembered as the man who established the wisdom of not crapping where you intend to drink – and that applies to animals too. This section of the museum has great fun with sewage – and many details of how widespread it is (faecal matter found on 75% of mobile phones)and how it is dealt with safely through an instructive series of films, models and even cartoons – an excellent example of multimedia education. Soberingly, 2 millilitres of (rain)  flood water can trigger a sewage discharge into the Thames… hence the need for the London Tideway/ sewer works. This visit may not be for the squeamish – there are more pictures than you might choose of sewage disposal systems past and present and models of the ‘muck’ that the public dispose of incorrectly. 

Having exhausted the very absorbing ‘Waterworks Gallery’ and taken a spare water saving shower head and shower timer (courtesy of Thames Water) we stepped up to the main body of the very fine building to look at what was undoubtedly the core collection of steam pumps run mainly by coal. Although we like ‘industrial heritage ‘ the detail of different models of pumps did not detain us for long though there are doubtless visitors who like to ‘commune with the metal’ as Jo put it, especially on steaming days, which are most weekends and thoughtfully half-terms too.

We enjoyed the building itself – the brick tower holds a flue to expel the excess steam and there was another flue demolished when it became unstable.  The history of the site is probably typical of similar pumping stations – there had been a proliferation of private water companies as the population and its expectations grew – competitors promised reliability of supply and good quality water but competition led to the inevitable cost cutting and drop in standards that follows this kind of ‘privatization’ (think railway companies then and now). Kew was one of the better operations – working conditions were good with apprenticeships and affordable rented housing (some of these can be spotted from the windows). It was a large site with its own coal yard and a small railway to transport the coal to the eight engines run by 14 boilers. It was bombed in 1915   but apparently escaped further hits during World War II. Steam pumping ended in 1944, replaced by diesel until 1975. There is a garden which is raised and offers a good overview of the site. Apart from the pumps original to Kew, different models  have been donated as other pumping stations closed.

Shortly after this visit the water supply for the area where one of us lives suffered a collapse due to a broken pipe and it is only then that you realise how water dependent we have all become – indeed on average we use 163 litres per person per day. Without the infrastructure  of pipes, pumps, filters and sewers that keep London going, and which are so well explained in this museum, our lives would be a deal less comfortable, clean or safe. 

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Valence House Museum

Beacontree Avenue
Dagenham RM8 3HT

Thursday 18 August 2016
Linda and I know that the local museums of the varying boroughs are an important part of our project, and with the Museum of Barking and Dagenham at Valence House, we felt we had found a winner.

From the moment we walked round behind the library, and saw the rusted Ford motor (a Capri, we thought) it seemed probable that we were going to get local history with a slight touch of wry humour.

We thought we would save the attractive looking gardens for later, and so, having used the facilities in the reception area, and met the first of several charming and friendly staff, we went through the red door in the Manor House. The signage throughout is clear and crisp, and we headed first for the oak panelled Great Parlour.

This contains two interesting objects, one modernish and one extremely ancient: an apt introduction to this excellent museum. The 1877 Bechstein grand piano came to the borough in the 1930s, when the Chief Librarian purchased a piano for every library under his control, on the grounds that books were not the only cultural items which should be made available to the people. How the concept of public service (and spending!) has changed. In the centre of the room stands a wooden idol, found in Dagenham Marshes, and labelled as 'older than Stonehenge'.

This made a good introduction to the next area, which was about archeology, and included opportunities to see what archeologists do, as well as various items discovered. Every pot and shard has its provenance clearly labelled, so we could see what rich trade came up the rivers to settlements round here in ancient times. We weren't sure why the children's signage featured rather a jolly whale, but we learned later - as you will if you read on.

The next section was about the great Abbey of Barking, founded by St Erkenward, the Bishop of London, in the 7th century for his sister, St Ethelburga.  She was the first of a series of educated and influential women. The most interesting, we thought, was Mary Becket, who was appointed Abbess by Henry II as an apology for the murder of her brother. This kind of royal influence continued to show to the end: the convent was not dissolved till 1539 (most of the wealthy houses fell to the greed of Henry VIII between 1536 and 1538) and the nuns were all awarded generous pensions.  The artefacts were limited, but the signage and illustrations excellent, including a splendid map showing the Abbeys holdings as recorded in Domesday Book in 1087.

The stairs up to the first floor, which are modern, are decorated with pictures of local heroes, as well as a typical family from the Becontree estate, about which we were about to learn, and the first thing we came to was a quiz about sporting and otherwise famouis sons and daughters of the borough, with a clue, and then a door to open to find the answer: not only Bobby Moore, but Alf Ramsey, Trevor Brooking, John Terry and, if you prefer the oval ball, Jason Leonard.  Other famous people include the aircraft designer Handley Page, the singer Anne Shelton and (apparently) the early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. Sandie Shaw. Dudley Moore, and the Tremeloes (listen here!) are all from the area. So was the prison reformer Elizabeth Fry. Oh, and this is Margaret Hodge's Constituency, too.

There was also a case about the Dagenham Girl Pipers, who apparently played for Hitler when on a visit to Germany in 1937. Gandhi chose to stay in the area ('among the poor,' as he said) and so there is a swadesh cotton spinning wheel of the kind he used.

Next we came to a brief 'community' section, with photographs of rites of passage ceremonies from some of the different communities of the borough, but we have seen such things in other local museums and so were keen to get back to the History. 

The reason the Manor House is borough property is that the estate was compulsorily purchased in the 1920s, to build 27,000 new homes: this is one of the few areas which even attempted to fulfil the pledge to build 'homes for heroes'.  The Becontree Estate was internationally renowned, and people were proud to live there, and to accept the fierce rules which governed tenancies. Of course, thanks to Mrs Thatcher, these properties are no longer publicly owned or available to the deserving of the area, being mostly buy-to-let.  This is according to a lovely member of the Museum's staff with whom we had an interesting conversation. The Museum has a mock-up Becontree kitchen:  running water, Befast sink, electric cooker, mincing machine and all, as well as a sitting room, complete with rag rug, antimacassar and fire screen.  These two cases were backed up by examples of other domestic gadgets.

A section about health told us that Malaria was a problem in this marshy area till the 19th century , but also that this was the home of  May and Baker, the pharmaceutical company whose product probably saved Winston Churchill's life during his pneumonia in 1942.  Since the area also had a major asbestos plant, the health news was not all good.  As the industries and population grew, so did pollution, and apparently fat skimmed from the sewage laden river was used to lubricate machinery.

Next we came to a room about Barking and Dagenham's waterside industries:  the huge fishing fleet and innovative methods of the 'short blue fleet' whose fishing boats stayed at sea for weeks at a time in the 1820s, a kind of precurser of modern factory methods of trawling.  Also the shipbuilding industry:  it was here that the Dreadnought HMS Thunderer was built in 1911. Jute was also manufactured hereabouts, and there was information about the great Ford works.

As we moved on, our friendly guide told us not to miss some 16th century wall paintings, which were uncovered during renovations a few years ago.  They are protected behind glass, so we do not have a picture of them.  Suffice it to say that there are rather grotesque and, we thought, designed to embellish a male area of the Manor. We were also shown a panel with ancient gorse behind it, designed to discourage rats and mice.

Of course the industrialisation of the area is a fairly recent phenomenon, and there was some interesting information about rural life, with a model of Dagenham Parish before the 19th century changed it all.

This time we went down the handsome main staircase, to see a collection of portraits belonging to the Fanshawe family, who come from the area but not this house, as well as a small section of wattle and daub wall. They also have a room which was showing a loop of old Pathe newsreels, including a few minutes of children in 1953, gorging on chocolate because sweet rationing had ended, and some film of the return of the triumphant World Cup team of 1966.

The special exhibition space has a display about the Crimean War, based on the letters home of one of the Fanshawe family. 

Finally we came to a room which explained the reason for the children's 'whale' signage: some huge whale bones were found in the river and are displayed here, looking like great beams of blackened wood.  And of course. the whaling industry hereabouts produced everything from 'corsets to candles,' examples of both being on display.

By now, we felt we had filled our brains, so we went for a restorative stroll through the attractive garden, before returning westwards via the number 62 bus and the District line.

We had really enjoyed this excellent museum. 

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Imperial War Museum PART 2

Lambeth Road SE1 6HZ
Thursday August 11 2016

This is one of the Museums where we have privileged access but also one where we felt we were far from completing  (if one ever can) the five floors of exhibits and galleries.  Today’s visit included a return trip to a special exhibition and an overview of the pretty crowded World War 1 gallery, comprising 14 sections. As photography was forbidden in the special exhibition and there were low levels of lighting in the second our photos are poor. Apologies.

'Real to Reel'  has been put together to  look at 100  years of war films , the starting point being the first ever war documentary The Battle of the Somme filmed mainly from the point of view of an ‘embedded’ photographer, running quite  few risks but  with some staged episodes. The film was seen by millions in the UK and overseas with the audience both keen to identify their loved ones and anxious at the fatalities. This key film included many  of the elements of a ‘war movie’ which are later explored and illustrated: shocking and traumatic scenes, acts of bravery ( see here for an exploration of the man carrying  his wounded, later to die, comrade out of the trench  and directorial vision, to which you might add ‘propaganda.
While my more simplistic mind might have managed more easily a chronological canter through war films this thematic approach is more thought provoking.

If Geoffrey Malins  was the auteur behind Battle of the Somme,  there was no greater auteur in the war film genre than Stanley Kubrick and his work is well illustrated with excerpts from Full Metal Jacket, Paths of Glory, and for me the unforgettable, sign-up-here-for-CND Dr. Strangelove. Full Metal Jacket was based in part on Michael Herr’s writings and experiences and the ‘dope sheets’ are there to see also. Films made more specifically for propaganda purposes (commissioned by the government of the day) included Listen to Britain and Dig for Victory, key pieces in the British documentary tradition.

Inevitably there is a long section devoted to what you might call ‘star vehicles’ and this is certainly quite a thrilling point for anyone star-struck: a chance to inspect items of costume worn by David Niven and Marlene Dietrich and this continues through to the modern day with Tom Hanks’ uniform from Saving Private Ryan, Liam Neeson’s suit from Schindler’s List and the tommy’s uniform from Atonement. There are more…

The exhibition also makes the valid difference between a star vehicle – so a well-known box office draw acting as an ‘ordinary/brave/conflicted’ war hero – and often unknown actors being cast to play ‘real-life’ heroes: thus we have the almost unknown Peter O’Toole cast as Lawrence of Arabia (too tall, too handsome but do we care?) and Virginia McKenna as the doomed spy Violette Szabo…

And the exhibition reminds us this was not the first film about Lawrence with Lowell Thomas’s With Lawrence in Arabia (1919) precursing and ?inspiring David Lean. Some actors get cast as villains of course , none more often portrayed than German Commandants or Hitler himself, with his famous rant from Downfall  now better known as a YouTube meme.
In the UK the Fifties and Sixties saw a slew of ‘war films’ usually aired on Sunday PM so you could snooze through the boring bits after your Sunday roast and these kind of get embedded in the collective consciousness. The exhibition is also very clear in pointing out that after successful war films their images become the abiding ones of that particular conflict – think of the Dam Busters, the D-Day landings both from The Longest Day and Saving Private Ryan, or the Dunkirk evacuation from Atonement.  

Oscar-wining films get their own spot ranging from the very early Wings to the more recent Hurt Locker; interestingly many of these films depict specialist areas of warfare/defence  and personnel in extreme circumstances.

The biggest thrill for me, and quite unexpected. was to see the stolen German motorbike that Steve McQueen rode so memorably in The Great Escape, which really did make my heart beat faster…
We could have lingered longer but if you are any kind of film fan (and if you are not you would have skipped this whole section)  give this exhibition your time (and your money – it costs)  – above all it shows that war films while containing the ‘big bangs’  are about  a  lot more.

According to the Project rules we were supposed to review the substantive collections only so before we left today we did spend some time back on the 1st floor with the extended and extensive World War I exhibition which opened in time for the centenary commemorations in 2014.  

This is most impressive and very well attended with significant numbers of overseas visitors.  The 14 sections are arranged both chronologically (causes, course, key battles, global rather than just European conflict) and thematic – Allies/ Enemies/ Life at the Home Front the technology of war and there are a wealth of exhibits including uniforms galore, shells and armour and artillery,  and the growth in hardware and technology. Individual campaigns are examined in detail – the Somme. Verdun, Gallipoli, Jutland and their immediate and long term impact analysed. The consequences of the war both economic, political social and psychological are all  included and what impressed us was that balanced combination of objects/ relevant film and photographs, objects and many quotes not just from Generals justifying themselves but from the diaries and letters of army ordinary serving soldiers, sailors and fewer airmen. These different ways of both personalising  the conflict and putting it into perspective makes for a very effective experience and one that should not be missed.

If this takes a couple of hours to visit think what the planned galleries for the longer, more intense and probably better recorded World War 2 will bring??

Monday, 8 August 2016

575 Wandsworth Road


Saturday 6 August 2016

Visiting 575 Wandsworth Road requires booking and, as only 6 people are admitted per tour, we need to thank Roger for the meticulous advance planning.  The place does not look like the stereotypical National Trust property, nor is it flagged by brown signs. But once you get to the front garden, there is evidence that you have reached the right place, and it is clear that you must wait to be admitted.  So we did, and as the 13.30 slot approached, so did a couple of guides and Laura, who checked us in and would have taken our money had we not been NT members. The other two people who had booked for our tour did not appear, so we effectively had a private view.  Photography is not permitted inside the house, but you will find a plethora of pictures here.
From the moment we entered (by the way, you start in the house next door where there are lockers to leave your bags) we were completely amazed. We were taken downstairs to the kitchen, where we were given a fascinating account of the house and its artist-owner. Then we changed into slipper socks, to protect the painted floors, and explored the seven rooms.

Khadambi Asalache was born in Kenya, and qualified there as an architect, before coming to Europe and becoming a noted novelist and poet.  During the 1970s he became a civil servant, and this small house suited him well, as it is on the 87 (formerly 77a) bus route which dropped him at the Treasury in about 20 minutes. The house, dating from 1819, was
in a parlous state when he bought it, and some squatters (or 'dossers' as he called them) had to be removed, together with the chickens, a pig and a horse which they kept in the tiny back garden. When the basement kitchen's damp patch became unsightly, he covered it with some floor boards rescued from a skip, and then embellished the patch with fretwork of his own design. From 1986 to 2005 he decorated every wall, ceiling and floor with fretwork or painting, mostly using retrieved wood, which meant that there was little risk of warping. The basement, bathroom, kitchen and dining area; the two sitting rooms and the two bedrooms, are all covered with his work. Shelves of beautiful tracery house his collections of - well - all sorts of things: inkwells; Victorian plates with a hot water base for keeping food warm; lustreware of all kinds; postcards.  His partner's small dogs were treated to a tiny kennel by the bed, with a step up to help them in. But he also painted a range of scenes at dogs' eye level so they would not feel left out.

Some of his carving is Moorish in inspiration, some African, some Ottoman. In addition, some dancers had clearly come from the classical ballet, and some from Matisse. There were animals of all kinds, and we could have spent hours exploring every room.  The thought of all this entrancing woodwork lit by candles was somewhat worrying, but the artist loved to entertain, and candlelight would have enhanced the magic of his work.

When he died in 2006, leaving the house to the National Trust, the Trust was at first dubious: the amount of conservation needed, in a damp house on a busy main road, was daunting, and the need to limit numbers of visitors meant that it would never 'pay its way'. But happily for us, they decided to go ahead, and the restoration and conservation is ongoing. The garden is due to get a replacement for the mimosa tree which was threatening the foundations of the house.

Do go! Even with the Overground not working (grr) we found it easy to reach and worth every minute of the time we spent there.