Archive for August, 2007

The Thames Path

Friday, August 31st, 2007

Gwladys Street has sent me this – maybe someone else has some news on it…

“The riverside path is now closed from the Cutty Sark pub to the boat repairers yard. No notices explaining how long this is likely to before. The diversion takes people away from the river turning left at The Pelton Arms (a tidy, well-kept pub that seems to attract a respectable local clientele- and which will do well out of the temporary route). Lots of activity on two very large building sites-piles for buildings being drilled already. Somebody is going to make a great deal of money out of this development…”

Sadly it won’t be me. I’ll be looking into this when I can, but for now, folks, I’m taking a break. Normal service should resume next Wednesday. Happy Greenwich times…

Billingsgate Fish Market

Thursday, August 30th, 2007

It’s a bourgeois tragedy. The meat’s bought (GG Sparkes) the cheese and veg is safely gathered in (Cheeseboard and Creaky Shed) vast vats worth of wine, port and sherry arrived(Theatre of Wine – delivery’s free) but – zut alors! The Fishmonger’s closed for the week! What’s a phantom to do? Only one thing to do – brave the Blackwall Tunnel and the hour-that-dare-not speak its name, and Go Wholesale…

I utterly hate getting up when there’s a five in the hour. It makes me literally ill – some kind of weird pressure thing at that time of the day seems to contract my chest and make me really rather queasy. I will do anything to avoid it – including getting up when there’s a four in the hour. Billingsgate opens at five on a weekday (no Mondays, remember, and only shellfish on a Sunday)and because we knew nothing about how the place works we decided to turn up as soon after then as possible.

As it happens, it seems that the real rush happens about an hour later – and who can blame a bleary fishmonger for wanting to get an extra hour in bed? These guys do it every day, including winter – yeuch – and I confess I have a new-found respect for Julian at The Fishmonger Ltd for doing it. The only thing that would make me go at 5.30am again is the Blackwall Tunnel – really quite fluid at 5.15 – and going back south at six, but with a good queue building already on the other side going north. And from a buying point of view 5.30 seems a good time to arrive too. The car park is busy but not overflowing; the fishmongers doing a fair trade but still able to talk.

I confess that being quite a shy and retiring kinda phantom I was a little nervous of a wholesale market. I was concerned that I would stick out like the proverbial sore thumb as the tourist among all the Gordon Ramsays, Marco-Pierre Whites and, er, Julians. I had this image that the traders might be quite hostile to someone who didn’t want to buy a hundredweight of Dover Sole or a whole barrel full of eels. I had also assumed that there would be no prices anywhere and a sort of Turkish bazaar-style haggling system would be the norm. I had, of course, forgotten one thing. This is Britain.

Billingsgate is one of those things everyone should do at least once in their lives, even if only so that they know what they’re buying at The Fishmonger, and what goes on to get the goods to the shop. Wandering around the place is an education in itself, though not, I understand, as atmospheric as the old Billingsgate in the City, whose cellars, I have heard rumoured, took several years to thaw out when it was redeveloped by greedy people in the 80s. Their loss is our gain, I say. The market’s new location makes it about 12 minutes by car. You could go by DLR to Canary Wharf (about ten minutes walk from the market,) but you might not be popular with other passengers on the way home.

The main market is, of course, covered, and a lot quieter than I had expected. As you know by now, I live in some kind of hazy 1960s time warp in my head and although there is friendly Alfred Doolittle costermonger-type banter going on (yeah, yeah, I know he was fruit & veg,) it’s not the racket I had imagined – and not a single geezer with one of them silly ‘ats on at all. Nobody seemed to be in the slightest bit interested in the tourists – ie. us – they were too busy going about their business, and we happily wandered up and down the aisles marvelling at the sheer variety of sea life we’d never heard of. I mean – what the hell do you do with a Ribbon Fish?

The whoppers are sold individually. We bought the biggest salmon we could fit in the fish kettle for a tenner – the truly mooosive ones were about twenty quid. While we were about it we bought a huge side of smoked salmon, also for ten pounds.

Of course where retail fishmongers really come into their own is with the giant fish – the halibuts, for example – you really do need to buy the whole damn thing when one slice from the local fish shop would feed a family of four for a month. All the individual can do is wonder at these majestic creatures laid out on slabs of ice.

Most of the smaller fish you need to buy by the boxful so its well worth going with friends and divvying up the spoils or making sure you have a LOT of room in the freezer. We bought a box of beautifully-filleted rainbow trout for fourteen pounds – there were thirteen in there, which makes them just over a pound each (unprepared trout was much cheaper.) As a final treat, we bought a kilo of gigantic king scallops also for fourteen pounds(with free plastic box, whoopee.)

We were treated with courtesy and smiled at by people who, at that hour of the morning could be forgiven for being very crabby indeed. There are two greasy-spoon type cafes in the place, but we didn’t stop to test them (they looked fantastic)as we had one eye on the tunnel.

Back home we divided the scallops into sensible amounts in separate bags, and clingfilmed individual trout fillets we weren’t going to use. Our freezer is now full to bursting – and anyone coming to dinner chez Phantom can expect scallops, salmon and trout for the foreseeable future.

It’s still only 7.43am. I can’t believe I’m up. I’d forgotten how good coffee is this time of day.

Seriously folks. Try this once. Take the pain, get up at 5.00am. Wander around, experience a little bit of London’s heritage, buy some fish (oh – handy tip – take plenty of bin bags to put your loot in – some supply bags, others don’t, you don’t want it dripping everywhere) – and then grovel before Julian’s feet, knowing he goes through this rigmarole every day.

The Old Friends

Wednesday, August 29th, 2007

Gwladys Street told me that this ‘classic’ establishment of olde Greenwich has closed – but I needed to see it with my own eyes before getting too upset…

I checked it out and yes, it has indeed, got that ‘closed-for-good’ feel about it – huge metal grilles across all the windows and doors, which Gwladys reckons is to keep the old regulars in, but concedes could be the new decor for when it reopens as a crack-den.

I can’t work out whether to be delighted or saddenend by the death of this place. In some respects it represents what Greenwich used to be – presumably all the pubs around here were once as unreconstituted as The Old Friends. Some are completely subsumed into takeaways or flats, the only indication that there was ever a place of social gathering, however ‘not as we know it’ it may have been, some curly ironwork that once supported the sign. Old Greenwich is on its way out; the industrial heart a dot on the west bank of the peninusula that seems to get smaller daily, the traditional residents of East Greenwich unable to afford to live there any more.

On the other hand, the Old Friends was, frankly, horrid. A scruffy exterior and a dingy interior where your feet would stick to the carpet before you could order a pint of Courage Best and the regulars formed a chicane of beer-guts against intruders. I guess you could call it ‘local colour’ when the chalkboards outside the place let you know that Alvin’s disco was on 8 til late or that there would be free seafood on Sunday, but those messages were often just shy of offensive – who can forget “England – Love it or Leave…” Some of them were just plain baffling – I still have no idea what the message about the smoking ban actually meant (though there is a clue later on in this entry…)

I wonder what will become of it? Will it turn into Gwladys’s Crack DenTM? Become a trendy wine bar? A chicken takeaway (The Old Frieds, perhaps?) A pachinko parlour? A lapdancing joint? Or, even more depressing than that lot put together, merely morph into ‘luxury’ flats, the sign of the old boy and his dog and the pub’s name carved into the very fabric of the building the only things left to remind us that there was once a place of social (some might say anti-social) interraction here.

Much as I disliked the Old Friends for being a scuzzy old den, it was, at least, some kind of public venue which provided a service for some people. I don’t have much expectation that it will be transformed into anything more exciting. Maybe the coming of whatever will be on the old hospital site will be its salvation, but in the meanwhile, I have actually found somewhere that – and you won’t hear this too often – I would positively welcome Frank Dowling taking over. Of course he wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole – but in this one particular case, he would certainly have my blessing. Without him – or someone similar, I hold out little hope.

No – I prefer to remember the good times – those sepia-tinged, halcyon days of yore when you could buy a pint of pale ale and a glass of port and lemon for your lady friend, enjoy a pickled egg together while Roger Romantic sang songs of love every Saturday night, and still have change of a groat for the bus home. I have included a lovely picture for you to remember the old place by. Incidentally, the picture also, perhaps, gives a small clue as to the closure of this hallowed boozer. The little sign in the window says “Smoking permitted throughout…”

Sir James Thornhill

Tuesday, August 28th, 2007

1675/6? – 1734

James Thornhill, in accepting Wren’s commission to decorate The Painted Hall, made one fundamental mistake. He agreed to be paid after the mural was finished. In all fairness, he probably didn’t imagine that it was going to take 19 years and had his eye on a little more than money at the time (as well as seeing the job as a superb advert for his skills, he fancied a knighthood and a life in politics.)

Thornhill wasn’t a Greenwich guy by birth – he came from gentle stock – albeit impoverished. He got himself apprenticed to Thomas Highmore, who did fancy paintings in toff’s houses across the land. He proved an apt pupil, and got a fair amount of work on graduating, but needed a special job that would act as a calling card for even more splendid commissions. The Painted Hall seemed the perfect opportunity to show off. He just hadn’t counted on how long it would take.

The allegories and allusions that litter the ceiling and walls of the Painted Hall deserve a separate entry on another day, but suffice to say that it is absolutely chock-a-block with stuff going on – stuff which meant much more to an 18th Century viewer than it does to us today. He had taken this job as a way to display how good he was at painting portraits – and he certainly got a lot of practice. The Royal Family kept changing and he had to repaint sections, and since he was being paid at the end, he received no recompense for continually repainting the various Kings, queens and sundry royal hangers-ons’ likenesses.

The job got out of hand in virtually every respect. The hall, originally intended as a mess room for the elderly sea dogs was covered in scaffolding and paint pots, so the pensioners had to eat downstairs in the undercroft. (They never returned, because when Thornhill finished it was deemed too posh for the likes of them, and just became a tourist attraction, where the old boys earned a few coppers by showing visitors around.)

Thornhill had his fun, with a few allegorical gags but things were really dragging on. It didn’t help that various contemporaries who could have been more charitable were, frankly, sniffy about him. Sir John Vanbrugh, who was, to be honest, in a bit of a Glass house himself, thought it would be “a pleasant joke” when Thornhill, a mere “painter” applied to become Royal Architect at Greenwich. He clearly thought a playwright would be better qualified – and, of course, he was right…

In 1718, as a bit of a sop, presumably, King George I appointed him court painter, promoting him to Sergeant Painter two years later, when he also knighted him. It was the least he could do, considering how he was going to shaft the guy when he actually finished. There was a great deal of grumpiness over the bill when Thornhill’s work finally came to an end.

I’m not sure how much of an insult it was to treat him as a posh painter and decorator in the end, instead of paying him as an allegorical historical artist, but it must have stung like crazy to have his life’s work divvied up by the yard – three quid for the ceiling and a mere pound for the walls.

Luckily, by this point he wasn’t desperate for the cash, having gone into politics in the meanwhile, and he was still able to build a rather sweet palladian country pile at Stalbridge in Dorset. He set up his own art academy where one of his saucier students, William Hogarth met and married Thornhill’s daughter. Thornhill is part of Hogarth’s parliamentary group ‘The Goals Committee of the House of Commons.’

Nearer the end of his life he didn’t have any commissions (presumably being out of the loop for 19 years didn’t help much)so he set himself to copying the Rapheal Cartoons at Hampton Court. He managed a lot, but slowness still bugged him and he never completed them.


Friday, August 24th, 2007

Dennis asks:

I was wondering whether you knew of any neighbourhood or residents’ associations in downtown Greenwich?

The Phantom replies:

I’ve been meaning to do a links page for ages – but in the meanwhile here are a few local groups. I’m not commenting on any of them here; merely listing them.

I’m sure I’m going to miss a few, so feel free to chip-in, folks…

The Greenwich Society

The Blackheath Society

The Charlton Society

The Friends of East Greenwich Pleasaunce

The Friends of Greenwich Park

Park Vista Area Residents Association

The Westcombe Society


Friday, August 24th, 2007

Dirk asks:

I wonder if you’ve been to the Costcutter (though the sign is a bit faded, so not sure they still have the franchise) on Greenwich Church Street? If not, it’s worth it to see what’s changed.

As I am sure you know, this is a Turkish owned convenience store much beloved by foreign language students, the winos hanging around St Alfege’s Church yard, and South London chavs on their nights out. The range of products is simply hilarious, and you have real difficulty finding a recognisable brand. Most of the stuff seems to be Polish, from other parts of Eastern Europe, or Turkish – down to the juice, coffee, biscuits etc. My neighbour reckons this is so not because the owners want to cater to the tastes of London’s Eastern European communities but because the stuff is cheap.

Which brings us onto what’s new, which is that that Costcutter no longer has a license to sell alcohol. So what? Well, if you go to the store you will see that they’ve sectioned off the whole booze section (around a third of the shelf space!) with hand written signs saying that Mr Hossein Z…(can’t remember the last name) has withdrawn the license, so no more beer and wine!

I’ve heard that Mr Hossein is in fact the owner of the property. And that the Turkish lady you see in the shop is his daughter who manages it and pays him rent. The story I heard was that she asked for a reduction in rent, and he agreed, but said cheaper rent = no more off license.

The Phantom replies:

I can’t say I’m even slightly upsest about this one. The one thing that Greenwich is not short of is tatty stores that sell cheap crap. That Costcutter shop is an eyesore (as is much of that parade) and if no license means they have to clean up their act (and their shop) to regain custom so be it. So the chavs and winos need to toddle a few metres up the road to get their Special Brew. My eyes are dry – and so, I suspect, Dirk, are yours… ;-)

Prime Time Video

Thursday, August 23rd, 2007


I made a huge faux pas the other day. Admittedly it was a Sunday morning and I’m never at my perkiest then, but this was stupidity of monumental proportions.

I went into the video shop opposite the station and was bowled over. My feet stepped onto sumptuous dark red carpet, my eyes feasted on a simple but elegant store layout and lit up at the sight of interesting stock (though it seemed a little emptier than it could be – not sure what that was about – unless they’d had a busy Saturday night.)

It was like walking into an old cinema – clearly the desired effect. Splendid fake friezes in deco style of cinematic tableaux, curved stairways leading to different areas of the shop, fab subtle lighting – even with dark red ropes on brass stands dividing areas – it was just really beautifully laid out and I was excited. A closer look at the DVDs on offer (I didn’t have time to check out the videos – which appeared to be being sold off) revealed a good selection of oldies and arthouse as well as the usual blockbusters, rom-coms and action movies.

And here comes the stupidity. I suggested to the guy at the desk they open a store in Greenwich. Of course he told me they’d just shut a shop in Greenwich. DUH…

One look at the name of the shop and it all came flooding back – as did a rather fetching tomato colour to my face. Prime Time Video. Of course. I even wrote about it. I just hadn’t connected this sophisticated, beautiful place to wander round and enjoy for its own sake with the scruffy old video shop that just closed in what has to be Greenwich’s worst shopping centre (next door to that dodgy old Somerfields and sundry other dead shops.)

What on earth made them open up there? Why did Blackheath get the luxury treatment and Greenwich the bargain basement? Maybe it’s one of those classic Greenwich/Blackheath fundamentals that seems to apply to all wine bars/restaurants and shops (with one or two fabulously inspiring exceptions – places that keep my optimism for our wonderful, exciting town.) Whatever it is, it’s depressing as hell.

Greenwich deserves a video store as classy as Prime Time Video in Blackheath – somewhere the evening’s entertainment begins before the film starts – and I know just the guy to do it. Here’s my fantasy. An independent video store that is as fabulous to look at as Prime Vids in Blackheath in what was going to be the lapdancing club at the Plaza run by the big guy from Blockbuster who seems to know everything thre is to know about film. Now there’s a place I’d visit more than it was healthy. Actually, while we’re about it, how about a small screening room in there too, with selections and introductions by The Big Man Himself (must find out his name…)

Ho hum. Back to reality and what has to be the grimmest day of the year – in effing AUGUST…

Village Green?

Wednesday, August 22nd, 2007

Iput posted this in a place I though few people would see it, and they raise an interesting point, so I’ve reprinted it here:

I would like to draw everyones attention to a matter concerning the millenium celebrations and preparsations as they were in 1999/2000. The site of my attention is the area just outside Greenwich BR statio, the junction of Greenwich South street, and the High road.

There was at this site, a triangle or old ‘village green’, which had probably been there since the building of the Queen Elizabeth ? almhouses in the early 19th century, and the row of mid georgian houses, (now shops), on South street. This green was wiped out by the council in the preparation for the 2000 celebrations to provide traffic control which they did by tarmaccing the entire site and planting a series of traffic signals. As it turned out , the surge of traffic on the day did not materialise , and the entire operation proved entirely surplus to requirements. At the time, the council said thst they would re-instate the green, but so far nothing.

Any enquiries I have made are just greeted with the ususal fob off, ie, ‘the person you need to speak to’, ‘there are no plans’… etc. I have raised this matter with the Greenwich society, of which I am a member, but have not even had the courtesy of a reply. Does anyone out there have any idea about this. I would be very grateful to know, as I seems that the planners are determined to turn this end of Greenwich into a faceless urban centre.

Power Station

Wednesday, August 22nd, 2007

Annabel asks:

I heard rumours that the Greenwich Power Station could be a potential site for re-housing the museum of Theatre from Covent Garden when it closes, do you know anything about this or what the Power Station will be used for?

The Phantom replies:

Hi Annabel. As far as I am aware, Greenwich Power station has been recently refurbished and is still being used as a power station. It certainly was last time I went past! I haven’t heard any new rumours that it is being closed – though rumblings have been going round for years – usually emanating from estate agents trying to sell luxury flats close-by..

The rumour you have heard almost certainly comes from the New Statesman from July 2006 where they suggested it might be used for a museum for performing arts incorporating MOMI. Nothing’s impossible, but I should point out that the New Statesman was also responsible for the recent (wrong) report that The American Embassy was moving to Greenwich.

Dudgeon-Type Cycle Network Milepost

Wednesday, August 22nd, 2007

Talking of milestones, there is a splendid one at the very tip of the peninsuala which was erected by the Milennium Commission. It’s got a figure 1 on the top of it, but I can’t work out whether it’s the first milestone to be erected or part of Cycle Route One. The website for the Cycle network, Sustrans isn’t the most useful I’ve ever found and although it shows a map, which implies that Route One makes up this area of the Thames Path, I can’t find any official route map – others are listed but that one is missing – maybe one needs to buy a book.

Apparently it’s a “Dudgeon-Type,” officially called “Tracks,” designed by Belfast artist David Dudgeon. There are four different styles of markers, all similar, but with significant differences by artists from the four countries that make up the UK. ‘Tracks’ is supposed to represent the marks left on the countryside by bike-riders though I’m not convinced that that would be a major selling point of cycling. At the bottom there is a poem by Dudgeon himself.

On each of the markers is an individual disc with a motif depicting an aspect of Time, with a part of a secret code. You’re supposed to do rubbbings of each one, collect them and crack the code.