Archive for March, 2008

The Pagoda

Monday, March 31st, 2008

Pagoda Gardens, SE3

I was saving this entry until June (I’ll explain why later), but Benedict sent me such a fantastic picture with his question that I’ve escalated it to now.

He asks:

On a rare morning of no responsibilities my partner and I went for an unstructured ramble around the not so familiar environs and – blow me down – gor blimey – I have never seen this before , but it’s obviously been in Blackheath since 1800s. A Georgian Pagoda!!! What on earth is/was it?

The Phantom replies:

Astoundingly, just put the definite article in front of it and that’s exactly what it is – THE Pagoda, Benedict. And no – it’s not been there since the 1800s – it’s been there since the 1700s – 1767, in fact. It was built for the Duke of Montague at a time when everything Oriental was fashionable. It was called chinoiserie – though that term was used for everything that came from the East, not just China.

In fact, if we’re being honest, they didn’t really much care about authenticity at all – it was the flavour 18th Century stylists were after, not the precise style. All they knew was that all the things they liked – from fabulous silks and exquisite vases to the tea being loaded from massive ships at East India Dock – came from this exotic all-purpose ‘Orient.’ Many country houses have a ‘Chinese’ room, decorated with dainty wallpaper, screens, bamboo furniture and porcelain.

And they built their summer houses – for this was what The Pagoda originally was – a grandiose garden shed for Montague House which, if memory serves, was at the South West corner of Greenwich Park, next door-ish to Rangers House – in what they assumed was oriental style, too. They used all the bits of Western building they liked, and just added funky bits and bobs, like curly roofs and moon windows that would make it look Chinese/Japanese/Whatever.

You can still see them from time to time – Heal in Wiltshire, for example, has a fabulous oriental garden with a delightful ‘tea house’ – more English than Chinese but when it’s as pretty as that, who cares?

I have heard that the Blackheath Pagoda was used by saucy Princess Caroline of Brunswick though whether this was before or after the Prince Regent turfed her out of Montague House I don’t know. It was certainly used as a hunting lodge though, by one Henry Scott, third Duke of Buccleuch.

The poor old place eventually fell into disrepair – the Victorians weren’t that bothered by the oriental style, presumably too busy dealing opium to import flowers and vases. It got passed from pillar to post, even being used as a convent school at one point, I vaguely remember; its final indignity being London County Council building a housing estate right up to its gates over its once-massive grounds in the 1950s.
I don’t know when the formal Oriental garden was built – presumably around the same-ish time as the house – any info on that would be gratefully received, though, as to me it looks quite turn-of-the-20th Century. But whatever the original gardens looked like, they didn’t last long. It turned into a market garden at one point, covered with greenhouses, and finally became totally overgrown.

And this is where the June bit comes in. The present owners, the Coopers, discovered the dilapidated mansion in 1991 (what does that sort of thing never happen to me?) and renovated it to its current state. Luckily, they were also into gardening and started hacking back the dense undergrowth, where they found the old retaining walls of a formal water garden and they set about restoring it. It’s now a fine, mature secret corner in classic British-Oriental style.

Best of all, we can actually get to see it – once a year in June, when they open it as part of the National Gardens Scheme. It’s a lovely evening event, where you can wander round with a glass of wine in your hand, soaking-in the bright red pergolas, stone water channels, and exotic plants – wisteria, palms and lotus-flowers.

I try to get there every year – as much to admire the building as anything, (don’t miss the wonderful, huge round windows…) and I will let you know the precise date when I’ve got my sweaty paws on this year’s Yellow Book. Devote the entire evening to the event – there are two other gardens, each exquisite in its own way, within walking distance of the Pagoda, that most considerately coincide their openings.
I’m usually a bit wobbly by the time I’ve visited all three. Aw – c’mon – it’s drinking-for-charity. It would be rude not to…

Blow Up

Friday, March 28th, 2008

Michaelangelo Antonioni, 1966

A few weeks ago I went to see an artist friend of mine (in Bloomsbury, of course – how fabulous can you get..?) and was a bit put-out to find that he’d been on a pilgrimage to S.E. London and hadn’t visited me. He explained that he’d had to go to Maryon Park in Charlton alone, so that he could get the full Blow-Up experience. A likely story… I trust that he was wearing slightly too-short tight white jeans, Chelsea boots and a heavy-lidded, vacant expression, though I suspect the fact that he went by train rather than in a convertible Rolls may have dampened the image.

I was far too embarrassed to admit to him that I had never, ahem, actually seen this seminal piece of 60s hip-o-rama, so I nodded sagely and made ‘intelligent’ local remarks,’ most of which involved wittering on about Mark being able to take pictures of sheep there these days (what’s worse – Bill tells me that it wasn’t even the same Park – see Comments…) It wasn’t going down well . What else was there to do, but quickly rent the DVD and do a spot of catching-up?

Watching it now, post-Austin Powers and High Anxiety, it’s difficult to stop just the tiniest smirk from creeping around phantasmagorical lips. Let’s face it – it’s the ultimate Swinging London Sixties cliche – complete with guardsmen in uniform, funky shots of Piccadilly Circus with guys in mini cars and dolly birds in mini skirts. But it also says something really rather interesting as far as we locals are concerned. I’ll get onto that.

David Hemmings’s vacuous airhead photographer (apparently based on David Bailey) drove me nuts, with his floppy haircut and dark-circled eyes. Maybe it was the casual misogyny, maybe it was his (or Antonioni’s) irritating habit of being sidetracked from the plot for the flimsiest of reasons – buying a boat propeller or romping with naked girlies in bits of sugar paper (some might argue not flimsy at all, of course) or smoking joints with his side-boarded mate Peter Bowles (Peter Bowles? Peter Bowles? How wrong is that?) But my artist friend was clearly impressed with it enough to trek out to South East London (and believe me that’s a trek for him…) so I stuck with it.

Now I know it’s all about the viewer and how they percieve the images they see before them – did the photographer actually witness a murder or was it all in his drug-addled imagination? The simple omission of the one scene that would prove it one way or another (the return to his ransacked flat after his non-discovery of the body in the cold light of day) is proof that Antonioni doesn’t want the audience to know the literal truth. I know that it’s full of the classic images of British cinema in the 60s and I know that it was cutting-edge for its day. Even worse, I know that I’m going to get beaten about my spectral tricorn by a good majority of you cinema fans – but frankly I was a bit bored.

It’s almost certainly a case of what I call “Hitchhiker” syndrome. If you listen to the original radio version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy now, it sounds horribly cliched. The modern listener has to take a step back and think this was the first. This is what all the other comedy sci-fis were based on. I’m sure that Blow-Up suffers from this – all the other 60s films/TV progs, doccos – and now spoofs – base themselves at least a little on Antonioni’s creation. Certainly all the art fans I know love it for that very seminal quality and I enjoyed it in its own way too, I guess – to a certain extent for the spotting where other films had been inspired. My trouble is that I’ve just got myself too plot-driven these days, watching too much Hollywood stuff, and the sundry tangents started to get to me.

Note To Self: Must get back to watching more art movies.

Something Blow Up does do though, is show a quality that South East London had then, which seems to have been forgotten. Now maybe I am, as my old college lecturer would have said, “reading too much into this,” but I’m beginning to think that places like Charlton and Woolwich were actually rather funky and alternative in their own ways – so very outre that they went full circle and became hip again. Charlton’s not actually owned up to in the film – Hemmings’s flat is in some anonymous mews in, what most would assume, is Chelsea – I have no reason to think it isn’t – but Maryon Park is implied to be just round the corner, with a cool ‘antiques’ (read ‘junk’) shop on the corner. I don’t know if that shop’s still there, (I’m sure someone will tell me) but I’ll wager it doesn’t sell propellers, busts and stags’ heads anymore.

Ok, it could have just been standing in for somewhere else, as Greenwich Film Unit is so keen to promote these days, but I get the feeling the funkiness went deeper than mere set-dressing.

I’ve been reading Iris Bryce’s A Tree In The Quad, the sequel to her wonderful Remember Greenwich which, while not being quite as compelling as its predecessor, does describe a Woolwich which was, almost impossible to believe now, a hub for the late 50s/early 60s Trad Jazz revival, the radio and television shop she owned with her musician-husband a magnet for duffle-coated beatniks and beardy hipsters, and the various music clubs they ran together meccas for jazz afficionados. I’ll get onto that book another day, but for now, maybe my artist friend was right. Maybe Blow-Up is more than a fabber-than-thou whimsy about a bloke who may or may not have witnessed a murder. Maybe, just maybe, it shows that all of London was cool then, not just the West End.

Of course it just might mean that the murders in the 60s were all in South London…


Following this entry being originally posted, Stevie went on a pilgrimage of his own. It would seem that the park, still spooky, continues to throw up strange and unexplained images. Did Stevie really step back to Jurassic times, or was it all part of some spaced-out trip? We may never know…

National Maritime Museum Hits Paydirt

Thursday, March 27th, 2008

Thanks to all of you who sent me the link to the BBC story about Israeli tycoon Sammy Ofer giving £20m to the National Maritime Museum as his way of saying thank you for happy times when he was a jolly tar in the Royal Navy. It seems to be the time of year for bilionaires to bestow gifts on the arts – only yesterday the Bodleian Library received a £5m donation – interesting to us as it was founded on our own Duke Humphrey’s 15th Century book collection. Maybe we’ll see some more big cash gifts over the next few days as wealthy people see the end of the tax year looming.

And it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good. The NMM are planning to use the cash to build a new wing. So – a good thing for the museum and a good thing for us, I guess. I’m hoping they have a good plan to ensure we don’t lose too much green space around the museum and that it will be a plus for the museum – more temporary exhibition space and more archive areas. A tiny part of me slightly agrees with Shaun, who says

In the larger picture, where is this new wing going to go? I don’t want anymore buildings around the NMM, but then I’m picky. Although as a bit of a naval historian wannabe the prospect of more NMM really excites me, I’m worried for the area and how it will turn out.

On the telly at lunchtime, they said it would be in the South West corner – and I can’t currently picture what’s there already – with a bit of luck that will be because it’s boring outbuildings. In the end this can only be a good thing.

You know, though – something about this makes me a little sad for the smaller, less glamorous museums and collections. Wealthy benefactors are a fine thing – and I am absolutely delighted that Sammy Ofer’s doing this for us. But whilst no museum is ever going to admit that it’s got enough cash, the NMM is not exactly at death’s door; and already has an impressive list of donors – not least Peter Harrison, who paid for the the planetarium. I visit little places all the time that are starving for lack of funds – and visitors – less money means shorter opening hours which means fewer visitors. When I am a billionaire, and looking for ways to reduce my tax burden, I will be looking to give a leg up to those quirky individual places that really need the help.

Pugh, Pugh, Barney McGrew…

Thursday, March 27th, 2008

…Cuthbert, Dibble and Grub.

Yes, I’ve made it to East Greenwich Fire Station. A building that has definitely seen better times. And yet, somehow, despite its reduced circumstances, it still manages to be a curiously elegant structure, waiting, perhaps for the return of glory days.

Just over 100 years ago, East Greenwich must have been a hive of activity much as the Peninsula has just been. The new school in Halstow Road had just been built, a library was just about to be announced as a gift from the American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, and a whole bunch of new houses was going up – presumably to the great dismay of local people upset at losing Coombe Farm.

And in the midst of this, a brand new fire station was being built. The first stone was laid, according to the plaque on the front, by one J D Gilbert Esq., chairman of London of the Fire Brigade Committee of London County Council, on 18th July 1901, but apart from that info, I can find virtually nothing more about this building. All I can do is look at the place itself and try to work out how it operated.

It’s a great-looking place – if you view it from Google Earth it’s a curious truncated diamond, the car-park (presumably where the horses were kept) maintaining the shape. It’s one of those places that the more you look at it, the better it gets. Now a frankly dodgy-looking ‘hotel,’ it’s not easy to see that the obscure-windows at the little gabled front must have been where the appliance was stored, though the old cobbles outside remain. The front bit, although it looks connected to the rear, is only, apparently, attached by the walls around the outside. What was in that little roofed area upstairs? I have no idea – offices maybe. There doesn’t seem to be any room for a pole.

I like to imagine the scene – presumably there are photos, though I’ve never seen any. All the jolly firemen, almost certainly made out of foam rubber and walking with a slightly stiff gait, lined up for inspection before being called out to a small blaze at Windy Miller’s mill or Trumpton Town Hall.

Behind the front business-end, what can only have been the crew’s live-in quarters rise in elegant red brick behind. Even these have lovely little touches – crenellated mansards, railings and faux-mullioned windows.

I don’t even know when it stopped operating – unless I’m googling really badly I can’t find anything at all about this place, and no book I own seems to mention it at all. Sadly it seems that Greenwich’s everyday past is often forgotten in favour of her grander buildings. All I know is that in its present form, the Greenwich Hotel, this fabulous building is wasted. The sign outside boasts a bar and conference facilities – I can’t begin to imagine the kind of conferences that would go there at present. It also boasts an 01 telephone number.

What this place needs is a Greenwich equivalent of the Blackheath Preservation Society, which, if I have it right, was formed to bring back lovely old buildings to gloriously restored health and put them to a genuinely loved use. I know this isn’t a Captain’s House or a Tea Caddy Lovely, but it has a beauty of its own – and great potential. You won’t hear me saying this very often but I actually think this place would make great apartments, with a lovely Something (TBD) in the front bit (suggestions for funky alternative uses on a postcard, please…) So it’s a little close to the Blackwall Tunnel Approach and the flyover? Let’s face it, it’s no more so than most of the Peninsula…

I don’t even care if it continues to be used as a ‘hotel,’ with the same inhabitants. Just not as it is – unloved and slowly crumbling to dust. The paint is peeling, the front closed and unwelcoming, the atmosphere around it miserable – when it needn’t be. The slates on the roof are chipped and the bit around the back choked with weeds.

But look again. Greenwich ‘Hotel’ might be jammed up next to a major road intersection, but actually, there is a little patch of grass and trees in front of this once-pretty building – easy to miss just now, but with a little care, a patch that could be made into a tiny oasis before the madness of the roundabout/flyover ensemble. With a spot of investment this place could sparkle again and, surrounded by the newly-spruced Angerstein Hotel (another day, folks) and the Library (ditto) could bring to this forgotten little corner of East Greenwich a touch of renewed Edwardian glamour.

Sorry about the pic, by the way – I took it a long time ago – during one of the many road-up moments of 2007. However, Dazza has just discovered an old picture of when it was first opened. Just take a look at this:

The Best Shed in Greenwich…

Wednesday, March 26th, 2008

…has to be this one at Ballast Quay. I’ve written about this fabulous little garden before – mainly the very odd little memorial to the animal victims of foot & mouth dying “not of the disease, but of the cure…”

If I’m honest I know virtually nothing about this lovely little rural corner of the city riverside, but there is something wonderfully bucolic about the simple tree, the ivy-covered memorial, those terracotta jars, crumbling stone steps – and, of course that shed. I love the fact that it has city railings one side, the river Thames the other, yet its low-lying black-shiplap walls and lichen-covered roof are straight out of deepest Dorset.
I imagine the inside, neat rows of ancient terracotta pots, regimented in musty wooden seed trays; the slightly musty, earthy odour mingling with faint reminders of creosote and linseed oil.
In the corner, I see a battered leather armchair, moulded to a half-century’s worth of backsides, aged stuffing bursting from cat-clawed arms.
There are, of course, a couple of chipped mugs, a much-used Thermos and a packet of Rich Teas, nestled in a rusty biscuit tin behind a propped-up spade and a pile of seed catalogues. By the window in the roof, a few small seedlings enjoy what little watery warmth the March sun can afford.
I have never seen anyone in this garden, not even perched on the little green-painted cast-iron seat outside my dream shed enjoying a cup of PG Tipps in the setting sun. Someone told me that it’s looked after by a lady who lives opposite – presumably in those cute brick houses with the little lattice arches, but anything more – well – my imagination has to fill in the rest.
You know what? Just like that roof garden on the peninsula, I don’t want to know what’s really in that shed. I could only be disappointed. But I will always stop a moment as I pass that place, poke my nose through the railings and wonder…

Computer Engineers

Tuesday, March 25th, 2008

Abi asks:

Despite being vaguely I.T. literate I can’t get my wireless router to work in my flat. Is there anyone locally who provides computer help?

The Phantom Replies:

The only one I know of is Greenwich Communication Centre on Trafalgar Road. I only used them once and that was a long time ago, but they were certainly able to help on that occasion. But maybe other people have other suggestions?

Crossing Points on Woolwich Road

Tuesday, March 25th, 2008

Pat points out:

Have you noticed that the council has built in no less than three crossing points along Woolwich Road?

Two are in front of the retirement home and another further down towards Denham Street.All have dropped pavements and a central island. As a pedestrain I appreciate having somewhere safe to cross but can only predict that this will lead to further traffic problems as the road is now significantly narrowed.

And who in their right minds would choose to cross that road at anything thing other than the designated pelican crossings where at least you only have to do battle with the cyclists, generally the other traffic is not going anywhere very fast anyway!

The Phantom sort of agrees:

I wonder whether they are gearing up for the new “Heart of East Greenwich?” Heaven help us. I noticed that one of the big problems with the plans (when they deigned to show them to us for half an hour last autumn) was the exiting point of traffic from the new development straight onto Woolwich Road.

I asked the guy why they thought that was a good idea and he just said ‘ well there would have been traffic when it was a hospital.” Trouble is that whereas that traffic have been on a continual trickle-basis during the day when it was a hospital, when new flats and offices are built, I can see residents (understandably) wanting to leave for school/work at the same time as the council office workers want to arrive and everyone else is trying to use Woolwich Road around them.

But back to crossings. The point outside the retirement home could well be a good thing, thinking about it – especially for frail people to feel a little safer, though as you point out the traffic’s nearly always at a standstill anyway. I can’t see that there are going to be enough elderly people crossing to make it a big problem.

Woolwich Road is going to be an interesting experience over the next couple of years, methinks. What I’d love to see is a rejuvenation of the dead shops there. The big problem is the traffic, and at the risk of being a controversial old phantom, it’s possible that some kind of congestion charging for people just using Greenwich as a rat-run could be the answer…

What do you lot think?

Replacing London’s Victorian Water Pipes…?

Tuesday, March 25th, 2008

Badger asks:

Are you aware of the ongoing saga of the replacement pipe operation in Annandale Road.

We were informed that the Victorian water pipes were to be replaced and the operation would take 6 weeks starting Jan 2007 (Nearly a year and a quarter ago).

Well the original works did start then and actually continued for around SEVEN months. Once the workmen cleared off in July all was good until around September when a sewer pumping wagon started appearing at Midnight and sluishing out the drains (causing a little disruption with it’s attendant noise, smell and flashing lights). Apparently the sewers were backing up into the houses on the odd numbered side of the street.

This continued until a work crew set up camp in November for a repair job on the main sewer which had somehow got concrete poured down it by the water pipe replacement operation (this is what I was told from the workmen). This was due to take around a week but actually took us into January and this time the road actually had to be closed as they dug a huge pit in the middle of the road.

Now they’ve appeared again early this month and are digging trenches down the sides of the road replicating the original operation over a year ago. Rumour has it that the pipes were not dug in at the specified depth and this therefore has to be corrected.

Six week operation still not completed inside 60 weeks !! Do any other corrsepondents know what is going on ?? Can the authorities enlighten us and if it takes this long for one street what chance for the rest of London which I believe is the extent of the whole operation ??

The Phantom wearily replies:

Sadly I don’t think you’re alone here, Badger. It seems that all over Greenwich (and, indeed, London) roads are dug up, filled in, re-dug, re-filled. Take Woolwich Road. I wonder which bright spark thought it was a good idea to excavate in late March 2007, only to have to fill it in again, having done bugger-all, for the Marathon in April. By the time they got round to digging it up again it was time for the Tour de France and the whole lot got filled in again. I thought they actually had it nailed when they did it again in about September – but a couple of weeks ago it was all fenced off and dug up around the corner – where Combedale and Kemsing roads are – and where all the traffic comes round the corner. And yes. Poor old Annandale Road has copped it yet again too. I’m so used to seeing those wire mesh panels somewhere (before the roads it was the SElectIOn (a name devised by a very weary PR person…) being built) that it will seem quite bare when the road’s actually clear again.

Maybe the job is so big that they’re just not training people properly to do it right the first time. I went to a lecture at the Barrier last year where Thames Water were boasting that they were ahead of schedule – thye’d counted on finishing all of London by 2010. Maybe they had actually factored-in the number of times they’d have to return to ‘finished’ projects so they could look good last year when they were getting all that bad press…

I know it’s a big job and it has to be done (though I did notice that they’re using the ‘old Victorian waterpipes’ excuse for every patch-job they’re doing – in places that are clearly no older than mid 20th Century – some work in Charlton for example where the pipes cannot possibly be 19th Century is proudly annoucing that the ‘Victorian’ pipes are being replaced…) but if they’d just get it right the first time, it would be better for everyone.

Ooh. I do like coming back and having a good moan.

Back to Blogging

Tuesday, March 25th, 2008

Wow – just turned on the computer for the first time in almost four days. That has to be some kind of record. You can tell that Easter’s over and I’ve stopped being on filial duty as the snow/hail/fog/wind has stopped and the sun’s out.

Currently reading all your replies to sundry posts and wading through another enormous postbag of lovely questions, info and curious pointings-out. Glad to see so many of you made the Underground Greenwich walk. Check out the Parish News for a very interesting-looking talk coming up soon.

In the meanwhile, I’ll have a nice cup of tea and a sit down, before cracking the phantasmagorical knuckles and getting back to work. Will be back to normal very soon.

Separated At Birth…

Friday, March 21st, 2008
Could it be? Is it possible? That Admiral Lord Nelson has a long-lost brother? It took me a long while to work out whose lips the artist based this statue on (thanks for the pic, Stevie) …

…but I’ve finally worked it out.

Who would have guessed?