Trafalgar Road, SE10
The Arches are not, I confess, somewhere I frequent on a regular basis. Every so often I make a bit of effort and go for a week or so then somehow sink among the waves of apathy.
It’s nothing to do with the facilities. They’re really not bad at all. Built in 1928, the place has two pools, originally, would you believe, ‘First’ and ‘Second’ class. The ‘First’ class pool is what is now known as the ‘Fitness’ pool, roped into lanes of various abilities – from plodders to fitness freaks. Laning-off manages to avoid at least most of the problems, not least those pensioners who insist on doing widths, backstroke, across all the lanes, stopping suddenly for a chat with their mate just when you’re trying to plod past in the opposite direction. It doesn’t prevent the butterfly-stroke-show-offs, though, who plough past you in a fury of water sending everyone else flying in their wake.
But this isn’t a post about pool etiquette, it’s about the pool itself. What I love about it is the little individual cubicles running along each long side. They have swing doors, some with little modesty flaps in bright colours hanging from the top and are so cute, if rather battered now, that they just cannot survive any modernisation that may or may not (what do you think) that may go on. Neither, sadly, will the now-virtually-redundant stages that grace the ends of both pools. I like to think that they either drained the pools occasionally or covered them with a dance floor for balls and events and the stage was for bands. Of course it could be far more prosaic and the platform was just used for the Lady Mayoress, resplendent in giant picture hat and beaded dress to dole out the cups after swimming galas. It’s painted with a jolly 1920s-style mural now and still has some of its original deco fittings.
Trivia – there is a scene at the pool in Camilla May’s The Dead of Summer (see ‘Books.’)
The other (ex-’Second class’) bath is now a ‘leisure’ pool – which at least separates the dive-bombing teenagers and toddlers who haven’t yet quite managed bladder-control from the ‘serious’ swimmers. It has a very shallow end and little extra pools with fake sandcastles and rocks so that it can be easily cordoned off for classes and tinies. There seem to be a lot of classes of various descriptions. I have never seen anyone shooting down the curly slide, but that may have more to do with the fact that I don’t frequent the pool enough than it’s not being used.
There are two studios, one big, the other tiny, also used for classes. It is sometimes filled with squashy cushions for a creche. Right at the back there’s a gym. It’s not too full of scary muscle-men and not as intimidating as some I have been to. Plenty of baffling machines which, despite the fact that I once, Very Long Ago, had an induction, I can never remember how to use. I quite like the vibrating plate, but that’s probably more information than you need. You can watch TV whilst you’re on the bikes, but given the general standard of TV, both daytime and evening, you may choose to bring your own entertainment.
Uncertainty hangs like a sword of Damocles above the Arches roof. Given that rumblings and rumours of a new leisure centre at the Old District Hospital Site bubble under the surface and that the close proximity of The Arches to the centre of Greenwich makes it prime luxury-flat development potential, I don’t hold out much hope for the place long-term. It’s already looking tired round the edges (despite a refurb not so long ago in Local Council terms) but I don’t see it ever being spruced up again. I don’t know if it’s listed (where can one find a list of listed buildings? I’ve searched and searched but at the moment if you’re not an official you can only see a list in Swindon. I must check at the Heritage Centre…) but I reckon it is of 20th Century interest and I would hope that it wouldn’t just be pulled down by developers. Surely they must be able to do something interesting with the existing building?
In the meanwhile, happy splashing…
I was walking in Greenwich Park today and came across a circular fenced-off area in the south-west corner, just north of the tennis courts. It had a rusty iron fence around it and a locked gate with signs that said ‘Hazard – Keep Out’. Naturally curiosity got the better of me and i climbed in, to find a large raised area of grass like an inverted bowl. Steps ran up one side and joined an overgrown row of paving slabs running along the centre of the bowl, with some sort of metal grill right in the centre. This ‘path’ was also lined with what looked like those hook-shaped ventilation pipes you get on ships. I didn’t venture far in case the ground gave way or something, but I am most intrigued. Can you or your readers enlighten me as to what this area is, or was? Unfortunately i didn’t have a camera on me otherwise I’d send you a picture.
The Phantom replies:
What is this – Greenwich Enigma Day or something? This seems almost as much of a mystery as Miss Mott.
There is so much to be discovered in that seemingly tiny patch we call Greenwich Park that it doesn’t surprise me that there’s something new and hitherto undiscovered somewhere off the beaten track. I vaguely know where you’re talking about, I think. I wonder – is it in line with the red brick building that’s part of the underground water system? It could be part of the notorious tunnels in Greenwich Park which date back several hundred years (see The Greenwich Phantom: Tunnels in Greenwich Park ) but it sounds too recent to really be connected with it. Given the way that the land seems to cave in at a moment’s notice round here you were probably wise not to tread any further. It does sound like a reservoir. Something banging at the back of my brain tells me that Greenwich University did some low-level experiments in the park way back, but I thought it was all cleared away. Actually, I may be completely wrong; thinking about it, it could have been the Peninsula. Or somewhere else entirely.
Basically what I’m saying is that I don’t know. I’m hoping that someone from the Friends of Greenwich Park will read this and be able to tell you. In the meanwhile, I’ll do a spot of digging (not literal.) Watch this space.
When is someone going to write a really in-depth topographical study of Greenwich Park? Or is there already one that I don’t know about?
Incidentally, folks, I’m sure Fin wouldn’t mind my telling you about his own website that he ‘accidentally’ left the address of on the bottom of his mail. He’s a local playwright and poet and you can find him here http://www.finkennedy.co.uk/
David Herbet writes:
Heard only on Thursday that LBG Planning Board are going to consider the application for the Creek Road/Bardsley Lane site this coming Thursday 31 May, 6.30 pm at Woolwich Town Hall.
It’s likely to be the last chance for anybody to speak to prevent this most unsuitable development and save the open space and the trees.
Hard to believe the Board will postpone a decision again as this is the 5th time the developers have put forward their application and the 3rd time it will have been put to the Board.
Just to remind you, David lives at 258 Creek Road – the stand-alone house in the middle of the proposed Creek Road Development. Good luck, David – let us know how you get on…
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Today I bring you a total mystery. In vain I have searched for information about the poet Helena Pare Lydia Mott, who lived at 115 Maze Hill. There is a glorious 1951 plaque to her, in flowing rococo-style, with what I can only assume is a verse of hers engraved into it.
The summer’s breath is spent upon the hills
Behold, remember and rejoice
She seems to say
I give you colour
That the dolour of your winter
May be eased
Until I come again.
And, er, that’s it. I have consulted books, googled her to infinity, asked anyone I know who might have a clue – and drawn a complete blank.
I find it remarkable that such a splendid house, with such a grand plaque has absolutely no reference to it – or the person to whom it relates – anywhere that I can find. This is only just over 50 years ago. Is someone so important that she warranted a memorial in 1951 so easily forgotten?
Does anyone out there in Greenwich Cyberville know anything about her? In the meanwhile I will continue to delve and update you if I find anything.I guess Greenwich without mystery would be a dull place indeed.
BTW I will be coming to No. 111 Maze Hill and its more famous but un-plaqued resident very soon…
The Old Royal Observatory, Greenwich Park
I’m sure that most people remember the lovely, cranky old planetarium at the Old Royal Observatory which closed a few years ago to make way for this new development. About 30 people per sitting got to climb up a bunch of fiddly old backstairs, right up to the very top of what is apparently “South Building” (which always felt slightly ‘naughty’ – being allowed somewhere which was obviously not really for the likes of us) and sit round the edge of the old dome on 1950s plastic benches (red, if memory serves) and gaze up at a cardboard cut-out silhouette of the London skyline while some wonderfully crusty old boffin in a knitted tie and baggy trousers gave us a commentary of our journey through the sky at night. It was always a bit of a lottery as to how interesting your particular crusty old boffin would be, but usually they were delightful and as fascinated as I was. There is something rather special about being talked to by a real astronomer…
I used to love that old place, with all its quirks and idiosyncrasies but if I stopped being romantic for just one second, it was hardly cutting-edge and fell way short of being everyone’s idea of a good day out…
They closed the place three years ago, promising us a brand new one. If I’m honest, I didn’t believe them. I thought it would be like when the BFI closed MOMI “for refurbishment” to avoid an outcry from furious film fans, then quietly never re-opened (they lost my membership over that – not, I guess, that they care. )
The Observatory needed stupid amounts of cash – they already had some – enough to rebuild the South Building into new galleries, but the extra required to include a planetarium seemed nigh-on impossible. I gave my own paltry sum, but it was a drop in the ocean. However it would seem that the National Maritime Museum has a lot of friends, all of who put in their own sums, presumably some of which amounted to rather more than paltry – for now it has re-opened, in sumptuous splendour and not a penny seems to have been pinched anywhere.
I have already talked about the Time Galleries in the really old bit, so I won’t go into them here (you’ll find them somewhere in my rambling archives…) The new bit really amounts to a load of stuff that hasn’t been properly open to the public ever before, so it’s all fabulous brand-spanking new.
The little observatory that they use for looking at the movements of the sun has had a spruce-up. You still can’t go in there, but it is such a pretty little building that it’s a joy to look at anyway. I would guess it’s the same age as the old South Building, which has also had a clean up so that all its Victorian finery (which some said was over-fancy, I say is glorious) is back to red-brick newness. I’ll come to that in a sec.
What is between the two is a bit of a surprise, and takes a tiny bit of acclimatisation, but once you are used to it, it’s just as enjoyable as the other buildings. It’s a sort of truncated cone made in bronze which houses the new planetarium’s dome. I had originally assumed they didn’t want yet another dome in Greenwich after the dubious success of its most recent ancestor, but I am told it’s that shape to avoid the bad acoustics that you get in other domes. It looks like a giant metal iceberg, floating in the concrete sea between the two Victorian buildings, and that’s not a bad analogy as it turns out.
But back to the South Building. Apparently, because it was built for observation, it had a massive brick plug down the middle of it to support the weight of the telescope in the roof. This made it an absolute rubbish building for everything else, and it was just a warren of tiny little offices. Once they’d calculated that if they took the middle bit out the rest of the building wouldn’t fall down, they were able to completely redesign the interior, so there’s nothing of the original left (save the dome right at the top which has been made into a conference room and which the public can’t see, chiz.)
The guard told me that in order to put the gigantic spiral staircase down the middle, they had to remove part of the wall, then put it back again. I’m not entirely sure I believe that, but stranger things have been known. It’s a stunning staircase, linking all the floors and reflecting the original brick plug.
On the middle, entry level there are three galleries – the usual interactive, heavily curriculum-oriented exhibits we are used to in all our major museums nowadays. It’s fun, and, like the rest of the Maritime Museum, great for people with a passing rather than deep interest in the subject. I can see it appealing to school parties, which is presumably their prime target. I enjoyed it, because, frankly, it’s pretty much on my own level of knowledge, but I was with people who are much more interested and I think they could have taken a little more depth.
Above that are classrooms. Some have computers (I suspect they will be using those for that fantastic GCSE Astronomy course they run) others are more for schools.
Downstairs the fun really begins. The basement covers virtually the whole of the concrete patio bit above and is much bigger than you’d think. The bulk of it is, naturally, the planetarium.
It is a massive dome, as you might expect, but what I didn’t expect is that instead of like every planetarium I have ever set foot in before, these seats are all in rows facing one direction – like a theatre. This felt strange and unsettling and that feeling didn’t leave me all the time I was there. We were advised to fill up from the back. I only sat four rows from the back, but I already had difficulty seeing absolutely everything that was going on behind me and I really pity the poor sods who, having paid their six quid, had to sit in the front row. I can’t imagine they got to see very much at all. I am baffled by the decision to place the seats in this configuration – at best you get a neck-ache, at worst you don’t get to see anything at all. Next time I have £ 6 I will go in and deliberately sit at the front to see just how good or bad a view I get.
The show is amazing, though. I dread to think how much that projector cost, but the clarity of the images is stunning. The script is, again, basic and aimed at children and the mildly interested (yeah, ok – me…) but the beauty of it is that you come away wanting to know more. I am told that there will be other shows of various complexity rolled out as the planetarium matures, which will be shown in repertory.
Most of it is utterly fascinating, though I could have done with a few fewer comparisons. I don’t think there were any of the really terrible double-decker-bus/ football pitches /n-times-the-size-of-Wales cliches, but there were a lot of them and some of them made me cringe a little – one that went something along the lines of “more stars in the sky than heartbeats in the whole of human existence” for example…
I would argue that it’s not for real tinies or very sensitive children – there are a few things that would have kept me awake at night as a child. Let me explain. I remember a sleepless six months or so as a small child, after having seen a programme about how rabies was just about to invade Britain. I don’t think it was a ‘bad’ programmes – a sort of Panorama-type thing – but I was one of those kids prone to a fertile imagination and unchecked exaggeration, with no sense of proportion. Every day for months I was utterly paralysed with fear before the 6.00 o’clock news, waiting to hear the headline in case I was going to be turned into some raving, frothing lunatic (no gags, ok?) I never told my parents because I thought they would laugh but the thought distressed me a lot. In a very small part of this show, ideas such that the sun could explode at any time, or a meteorite could crash into Earth causing the end of the world (I paraphrase) are usually – but not always – given the “but this is extremely unlikely in our time” caveat. Maybe I’m being oversensitive myself here but just to warn you guys, you might want to talk to your kids afterwards to make sure they’re not eaten up with silent trauma.
The show I saw was not with a live commentary. I understand that there are live, real astronomers doing the shows and that the recorded show is just a back-up for when they’re not available. That will make it much better.
So. A big thumbs-up for this new, exciting attraction here on our doorstep, with a couple of minor grumbles – those seats will give you a crick in the neck – arrive early and get in the back row – and some of the exhibits are a bit entry-level knowledge – but that’s what we have to expect these days from a government policy that calls “inclusivity” pandering to the lowest common denominator. I think that given that they just wouldn’t have been allowed to do a really in-depth presentation, the NMM has provided exhibits which are fun and exciting, and which invite further private study…
Tranquil Vale, SE3
I have been passing this odd and rather beautiful building for some time now, wondering what on earth who Mary Evans was, and what a picture library bearing her name is doing in Blackheath.
In my head I had images of some doughty Edwardian lady, somewhere along the lines of an Emily Pankhurst or a Gertrude Jekyll. Perhaps she was a writer – a Sitwell – or a painter – a Gwen John. In my fertile imagination she had grown up playing in the fields around Blackheath, learning to love every blade of grass, every leaf of tree – the butcher’s boy’s whistle, the postman’s cheery greeting. That extraordinary house had been commissioned by her slightly bohemian parents in the style of that nice Mr Morris down the road at Bexleyheath and now she lived in it, the collection of paintings she had amassed with care and sensitivity visited by members of the fashionable London Set, her name as a woman of taste and elegance assured right through until the 1920s, by which time she had created a bit of a New York scandal by being painted in the nude by John Singer Sargent at the rip old age of 87. She was, of course, a spinster – a beautiful bluestocking who scared off a multitude of suitors with an acidly-accurate tongue, her only true love her painting collection…
I guess I could have been more wrong, but it’s safe to say I couldn’t have been much more wrong…
The Mary Evans Picture Library is, at least, the brainchild of a Blackheath woman of taste. But rather than grand paintings housed in the strange Arts & Crafts (? – as regular readers will know my knowledge of architecture isn’t always spot-on) ‘cottage’ at the top of Tranquil Vale, it is a collection of images ranging from the great and powerful – international events and famous people – to small, seemingly insignificant pictures that enrich our lives and decorate everything from TV programmes to newspaper articles.
They’re just over 40 years old as a company – and it’s a family-run business. So much for my sturdy Edwardian spinster. Mary and Hilary Evans started it in 1964 and have recently been joined by their daughter Valentine. There’s a great photo on the website from the early years of the three of them in front of the filing cabinets where the images were (and possible still are) stored, little Valentine merely playing with the bottom drawer. It was, like all great businesses which last, founded on a personal passion, Mary’s vast collection of prints, engravings, drawings and photos.
It’s a commercial collection, so unless I pose as a picture researcher for some magazine, it’s unlikely I’ll get to see inside this amazing-looking building (there is a very small pic of the inside on the website, the lovely, simple lines of the staircase and the splendid circular window in nearly-full view) but there is a service where private customers can buy online prints for framing in their homes, many of which are local. I have not seen most of them before.
They claim to have over 200,000 images online and be adding pictures at a rate of 500 a week. No wonder they need a staff of 20. They don’t say when they moved to the fabulous building they inhabit now, or what it was originally built as – if you know or, indeed are, anyone who works there, I’d love to know more.
So another of my own personal mysteries cleared up. Shame about my Edwardian spinster fantasy but hey – the truth is just as fascinating.
More Uncommonly British Days Out
Penguin, £ 14.99, £ 8.98 (Amazon)
Bollocks to Alton Towers – Uncommonly British Days Out is still probably my favourite travel guide of all time. Published a couple of years ago (in hardback, almost unknown for Penguin) it captures perfectly that rigid addiction to eccentricity that British people seem to be born with. That stoic determination to enjoy a day out at the seaside despite the hailstorm raging around the car parked on the prom, where they sit in silence stolidly chewing at sodden sandwiches, staring at leaden seas through rain lashing across the windscreen. The recipe of humour and indulgence that the four authors concocts hits, for me at least, the spot square-on, the fabulously grainy pictures so clearly taken by the authors rather than relying on professional ‘stock’ photos only adding to the experience.
Inspired, I made an effort to visit, among others, Mother Shipton’s Cave, Dennis Severs House, Avebury Stone Circle, Bekonscot, and, ahem, Gnome Magic, but, short of counting the David Beckham Trail, which would be a cheat since the tomato-grower’s polytunnel they call The David Beckham Academy wasn’t built at the time, Greenwich was sadly neglected.
I am delighted to say that the sequel, Far From the Sodding Crowd, has redressed the balance. Our home town is represented in this cornucopia of eccentricity in the august form of The Fan Museum, though I have to admit that in the slightly scary face of entrants such as the Yelverton Paperweight Centre, Cheddar Crazy Golf and the Pork Pie Pilgrimage, it seems almost sane in comparison. I won’t give you too much of their wonderfully gentle humour style, but in the few pages that they devote to the museum, the authors manage to give us an affectionate, yet accurate description I would have given my eye teeth to have written.
“Men and fans tend to make odd bedfellows. However stick an engine to a fan and it’s different story. Suddenly it becomes a Man Fan.”
Enjoy the entry about the Fan Museum, by all means, but don’t just buy the book for that. It’s a volume meant to be read and enjoyed cover-to-cover, and, with a bank holiday looming, to use. Visit a few of these truly British institutions and wonder that the big theme parks make any money at all. And if you are not already familiar with Bollocks to Alton Towers, get that too. It’s a sound investment indeed.
PS – how weird is this? As I am writing this entry, an interview with the writers has just come on the Today Programme.The music from The Twilight Zone has started burning through my brain…
I’ve been digging around (nothing like having ‘proper’ work to do to instigate a spot of procrastination, is there) and discovered that K2 models like the one at Whitworth St and outside East Greenwich Library are already rare enough to be considered listed, so we can heave a collective sigh of relief. I’d still like to know about others though, so if you pass any of the old type, think of your poor geeky phantom, spectral anorak zipped right up to ghostly chin and let me know about them, eh…
BTW if you want to buy one, unicornkiosks.com have a limited number at £ 8500 (excluding delivery…)
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EH like particularly kiosks “closely associated with other listed buildings.” So I reckon we could put up a case for, for example, the one on the South-west corner of Greenwich Park, near Rangers House. (I can’t remember which one that is, offhand, I’m not THAT much of a geek – yet…) and maybe even the one (can’t remember what that is either) outside East Greenwich Library (which is, I believe, Grade II listed.) They will also consider boxes that are “playing a key part in a notable town landscape.” Maybe boxes within conservation areas will stand a chance.
I think it’s worth having a go here. These lovely little examples of British street furniture are so much part of our world that we don’t always notice them. I was going to give you a list of them, but realised that I just tend to walk straight past them. All I would know if they went was that I would feel I were missing something.
Maybe we can compile a list of boxes between us then do some kind of class-action appeal? Is there a lovely old K1, K2 K3 (unlikely, this is another concrete affair) or K6 at the bottom of your road? let me know. I guess if we could come up with some cunning new use for them – off the top of my head maybe some kind of top-up station for mobile phones, BT might be a bit keener to keep them without listing. Of course, you might totally disagree with me and think that the sooner these unofficial pissoirs are off the street the better. Now there’s an idea – they could be plumbed-in and actually made into official pissoirs (sorry…)
In the meanwhile, if anyone wants to look at English Heritage’s policy on Listing,
is as good a place to start as any.
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