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.   



Thursday, 21 September 2017

Spitalfields Journey

-          Sandys Row Synagogue
-          Dennis Severs’ House (18 Folgate Street)

London E.1 7HW


I think this ‘package’ had been sold as part of the imminent ‘Open London’ events but for us it was a handy combination of venues whose opening times are quite selective. Coming via the Overground to Shoreditch High Street was a doddle for Linda though Jo managed to mislay herself between Liverpool Street and the meeting point, just outside the synagogue.


This particular part of Spitalfields (once the fields surrounding a leper hospital) was chosen by Henry VIII as the area where his archers and artillery could practise their skills, well out of earshot of any of his palaces. Also down the ‘poor end’ of London, close enough to the Docks and downwind of the richer parts… One of the earlier waves of economic migrants, Huguenot artisans (weavers or gem cutters for example) from Holland settled here in the early 17th century and they erected a chapel on this site. The size and proportions of the building (larger than it looks from the outside) are very harmonious and the minimal decoration includes some wooden features painted orange, as in ‘the House of Orange’. During the following 150 years the building changed hands several times and probably stood empty for a while as well. In the early years of the 19th century there were more arrivals from Holland – this time Jewish Ashkenazi families, who had probably already fled the pogroms of Eastern Europe. Like many of London’s newcomers they set up home close to where they landed and were soon employed in the local industries. However in those days if you did not work you did not get paid and the Jewish  mourning ritual requires eight days of not leaving the house (also not shaving or washing if you are fully observant) so fifty families set up a friendly society with funds to help members get through the financial hardships consequent to ‘sitting shiva’. Sandys Row became their synagogue, at that time one of about 65 in the East End, now one of three – as often happens when the newer communities become more settled younger generations move out to the suburbs and the congregations dwindle.


However the Dutch spirit of independence lingered on and the synagogue remains as noted one of just three still active in this area. It is not affiliated to either of the two main groups of synagogues in the UK and still manages to continue albeit with a reduced congregation, which meets fortnightly. But should they fail to assemble the requisite ten men to be able to hold a service there will be difficulties, and as this is still a more orthodox-leaning group women are of course not allowed to be part of this select group. (The congregation’s pragmatism extends to conniving at a bit of Sabbath rule-breaking when it comes to travelling to ensure the necessary numbers for service, but not to this more radical ‘reform’ idea.) Women sit apart from the men – upstairs in the very fine gallery or, if unable to manage the stairs, in a curtained-off area.


Synagogues, like mosques, go in for very little adornment so apart from a Star of David in the window the most embellished objects are the scrolls of the Torah which sit within the Ark, facing East (to Jerusalem). There was some thought that the first Jewish worshippers here had to reverse the orientation of the chapel to achieve this alignment. The ancient Hebrew texts (Books I-V of the Old Testament) are carefully hand-written. When they are no longer legible, rather than being destroyed, they are buried, or in the case of this synagogue, carefully walled up in the cellar.


Talking of the cellar we were invited to descend to this spacious area beneath the place of worship and here indeed was a brick wall enclosing the no longer legible Torahs. The volunteers who help run the synagogue (and the tours) had also found packed away in drawers and cupboards many old heavy and on occasion lavishly embellished cloths that had previously been used to cover the Torah scrolls. It’s a shame no-one had thought to iron them before putting them aside. A local supporter of the synagogue, though not member of the congregation, has a plan to set up a museum of the East End down in this basement.  For this he will need to identify the age of the various Torah scroll covers. The most exciting find was a large iron chest with an intricate and complex locking mechanism in which the V&A had shown some interest. To me it looked continental and certainly as old if not older than the synagogue itself so possibly had come over with one of the Dutch or other groups? A mystery yet to be solved. Though a short visit, thanks to our guide Tony we had learnt a lot about the history of local area and its communities and some of the religious practices of Judaism.


From there it was a short walk through the more modern parts of Spitalfields to 18 Folgate Street – the venue known as the Dennis Severs House


Dennis himself, who was an artist, had bought this historic house and collected items around which he had created a story fitting to the artefacts and the house and the area and then opened it to the public but most definitely did not want it known as a ‘museum’. There are two rooms on each of five levels from the basement cellar (complete with remains of the Spital lepers) and well provisioned kitchen through his and her room sets – these are candle lit and some included a warming fire – until you get to the top floor where the poor weavers were reduced to multi-occupancy and poverty and living with the job, where they could. The smells are mostly benign of sweetmeats and smoke and would I suspect have been much fouler back in the day with rank chamber pots and unwashed bodies. Our party of 30, which looked very modest in the synagogue, rather overfilled this house (although admitted in staggered groups of eight) which rather detracted from the atmosphere though we all adhered to the requested silence so we could hear the sounds of ‘the family Jervis’ having just gone about their business through the ages, starting with a room the age of the house when new and finishing with Victoria’s accession. Unlike the synagogue photography was of course forbidden.


The experience, because that is what it is, was a bit reminiscent of Punchdrunk Theatre with carefully curated ‘sets’ where perusal of small details may give you clues as to the residents’ life style and what had just been going on before you arrived... I think when this was first made available to members of the public it was truly original and absorbing; I fear years down the line there have been imitators of this kind of display which you can now see in more mainstream settings. However the attention to detail was meticulous, the ensemble effect consumate and the love and care behind it palpable, and it made an excellent complement to see the inside of a house in this area (which is so threatened with further development) alongside the place of worship of some of the erstwhile residents.    



Friday, 15 September 2017

Artangel ‘Natural Selection’

Former Cuming Museum @ Former Newington Library
155 Walworth Road

London SE17 1RS

Wednesday September 13 2017



As you will know by now our interpretation of what counts as a museum is ‘flexible’ as you might say including as it has a few stately homes and private galleries. Today’s visit was to an installation /exhibition put on by the wonderful organisation that is Artangel, who have for many years promoted and curated interesting artworks in site specific locations (what in another context you might call a ‘pop-up’). So not strictly speaking just a London thing.


The venue however has been a Museum, namely Southwark’s very own Cuming Museum named for a father and son collecting duo who donated their exhibits to Southwark. From the sound of things they covered similar ground to the Horniman’s collection (natural history, artistic and ethnographic artefacts) and remained open to the public until the fire of 2013. The same rather fine Victorian building also housed a library, and the clinic which lingers on next door. Whether it is all the new building at the Elephant (glimpsed in this photo taken from the bus stop) but the former library complex has now been occupied by some local art and art education projects with presumably free space for exhibitions. And it was for the exhibition that we came….


‘Natural Selection’ with its echoes of Darwinian theory,seemed an appropriate title for a display looking at the variety, complexity, flexibility and longevity of nest building, and along with that the eggs that go into these nests and the people who have collected them. Yet ‘selection’ also implies that choices go into the materials chosen for each nest (and indeed the works chosen for an exhibition).


The exhibition has been assembled by father and son team Peter & Andy Holden.  Peter worked for the RSPB for 30 years during which time his roles included setting up and running the YOC (Young Ornithologists Club) so what he does not know about birds is not worth knowing. As there are photos of Andy in his pram clutching an RSPB brochure I assume he is pretty knowledgeable also but inclines more to the artistic. The show is over two floors each with a half hour video. The upstairs one is about nest building – divided into three chapters technique, site and materials – and while Peter gives you the natural history commentary Andy’s is more about the artistic aspects – he cradles nests like precious ceramic bowls which in a sense they are. He examines the materials from crude twigs to mosses and mud with colourful embellishments and the different patterns and textures they achieve, and ponders the question of whether there is more at work than instinct and inherited behaviour. It is a wonderful synthesis. In a side cabinet you can see particular nests closer up – three examples of the weaver bird,  who has evolved an ever longer tunnel approach to the tree-hanging nest in order to protect from ever longer snake predators – a kind of ‘evolutionary arms race’ as the video puts it.


The guillemot’s egg is just placed simply on a small plinth – no nests for them as the bare conditions of the windy cliff faces has little nest material available. However the eggs have a distinctly pointed profile which combines with the effect of the yolk ‘weighing down’ the egg so that it won’t roll off – meanwhile the individual colourings allow the birds to distinguish their own eggs amongst the thousands in the colony.


I was very dismissive of one nest – wood pigeon it turned out – which looked like nothing more than an untidy heap of twigs.  However apparently they spend so little time building it leaves them more for breeding, unlike the weaver or even more so the Bower birds, whose elaborate structures are courtship devices (I suppose driving a Ferrari may attract you a different kind of mate from driving a second hand Reliant Robin). The most arresting exhibit is a person-sized replica of the Bower Bird’s nest but without the adornment of blue plastic spoons or colourful berries which they seem to prefer as decoration.


The Latin American ‘oven bird’ has a structure akin to a mud hut (birds got there first and some have theorised that humankind copied them) which made Andy wonder how anyone can build something so complex without having a concept of what the finished article should look like before you start…. And up to now we have not thought any living creature apart from ourselves has this capacity??


As you can see this exhibition with its combination of artefacts/film and found objects was both thought provoking and moving. A further room contained less nest-specific but still bird-related items, including posters for previous Holden lectures and events, a graphic design realised as a wallpaper, and some turned wood artefacts whose profiles represent sonograms of the songs of various bird species.


While the upstairs part focussed on nest building the downstairs looked specifically at the social history of egg collecting with much archive footage. This film is narrated by ROOK (familiar to YOC members), here animated and flying across a ‘background’ of iconic UK landscape pictures from Constable to Hockney. Egg collecting may have started as a ‘respectable’ way of studying nature and birds but it quickly became collecting for its own sake with all that means – competition, greed and eventual destruction of several rare species (such as the Red Shrike) whose eggs were sought after. Eventually egg collecting from the wild became illegal but still happens with the perpetrators unrepentant.  That the egg collectors are almost without exception MALE is interesting: I cannot imagine any woman wantonly destroying the unborn offspring of another woman or parent who has gone to the trouble of building a safe protective nest in which to nurture said progeny. After all the later weeks of pregnancy are known for ‘the nesting instinct’. That some of the nest building is instinctual is almost certainly true as young long tailed tits will build quite superior nests without any prior instruction or examples.    


The last display shows the huge range of eggs that birds can produce – each a different colour with different markings, each peacefully beautiful. This comes as quite a shock after the brutality of some of the egg collectors but these eggs are porcelain.



We normally lose interest in the video components of some exhibitions but these today were so integral and interesting that it was very easy to spend an hour at this moving and absorbing installation. 


Friday, 8 September 2017

White Cube

144-152 Bermondsey St, London SE1 3TQ

Thursday 7 September 2017

Linda and I walked down Bermondsey Road, past the enormous works which are transforming London Bridge Station, to reach the handsome building which is White Cube.

Vast spaces and white walls were what you could expect from a cutting edge gallery of modern art.

We were less taken with the art on display - well, I was - a sign of encroaching old age, perhaps.  The exhibition, Dreamers Awake, is of the works of female surrealists. Never at our best with surrealism anyway, we found the exhibition somewhat sameish and annoying.
You can read what it is about here

My problem with describing the works is this:  if I use the normal words for the subject matter of virtually every painting, drawing, bronze, carving, photograph and ceramic in the show, we shall attract huge numbers of people whose search criteria appear to be set to find such terms.  We are still bruised from the post in which I referred to the (less than fully clad) angels in the ceiling of Muchelney Church and we got 9,000 hits.... Roger suggests that I substitute the words BEAST and PENCIL for the most common objects, so here goes.

We first went into South Gallery 2, containing a range of works in different media. Some quite funny pencil sketches depicted men with multiple beasts;  some porcelain wreaths and arrangements proved to be bunches of legs and pencils (these were by Rachel Kneebone); a pink ceramic tongue protruded from a wall, possibly for use as a coat peg. There was a series of photographs of shop dummies, face down, some covered with cellophane, one with a snake, which presumably is some kind of Freudian reference. Oh, and this, one of the works we were allowed to photograph, is by Tracey Emin.

We paused before the Bal des Ingrates, a painting of women's heads peeking out from dim-sum type parcels as which were being carried on men's heads; there was one picture which had a very large spider protecting the modesty of the model (Dr Freud again, I suppose)

Another room had some rather disturbing cut out children and birds, blindfolded and trapped between sheets of glass.

In the 9x9x9 room, a cord ran from floor to ceiling with disembodied hands climbing up it. The Leonora Carrington quote on the wall ('I warn you, I refuse to be an object') left us little the wiser, since it all seemed to be objectivising, though presumably in an ironic way.  Three Lee Miller photos surprised us, since we had enjoyed her war photos a few months ago. One was a pair of severed beasts on plates, with knives and forks. We also saw a wooden chair with fabric beasts and a large pencil arranged on it. A hanged woman was suspended from a pencil.


So, as you can tell, we found the 'irony, resistance and self expression of these women artists, the object becoming subject and the artist being relocated inside the body', quite beyond us.  It was also hard to picture what sort of person would want one of these art works on their wall.  But we do know that this is our problem, not that of the artist: as Miss Jean Brodie remarked of the Guiding movement, “For those who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like.”