Archive for August, 2008

Bucket and Spade Time

Sunday, August 24th, 2008

Folks – I’m grabbing my spectral bucket and spade, donning my towelling cloak and my straw tricorn and I’m actually going to have some time off. I’ll be back , yabbering on about god-knows-what on Monday 1st Sept. Happy Hols, guys…

Greenwich Wildlife (5)

Saturday, August 23rd, 2008

Is it ‘wildlife?’

Well it could be. Paul sent me this Mandarin Duck that he spotted in Maryon Wilson Park. Chances are there’s another of them just out of shot as they are romantics of the bird world.

Because they’re so attractive, they’ve been used as ornaments in lakes for years, and every so often, a young couple pair up, obviously against their parents’ wishes, and secretly elope. They may be endangered in their native Russia and China, due to deforestation, but Russia and China’s loss is our gain.
There are about 1,000 wild breeding pairs in Britain, apparently – and though these may have been brought in to Maryon Wilson for pretty, they could also be of those lost young couples, desperate for a pond to call their own, Wild or not, they’re still helping keep up the world population.
We have to be extra careful with them, though, as they’re not protected birds here, despite their worldwide decline. That’s because they’re not technically native British birds. Cue one of those 1950s B Movies about misunderstood teenagers…

For the Chinese, they are symbols of love and wedded harmony as they are said to mate for life. Ahhh…

Body Worlds.

Friday, August 22nd, 2008

So. As the monster Tutankhamen exhibition rumbles to a close at the Dome, we look towards the next blockbuster – Bodyworlds.

I confess that the stripping down of dead (I prefer “differently manifested” – we Phantoms are sensitive about such loaded words…) bodies and reinventing them as art leaves me pretty much literally cold although I daresay it will pack in the crowds, if not quite in the numbers that visited King Tut.

But however radical the exhibits of Gunther Von Hagens may be, to me this is a logical step on from the sort of entertainment that regularly appeared at the Greenwich Fair twice a year.

There were all sorts of freakshows – from Royal Waxworks where “the whole court of France is to be seen,” through prize fighters and quack-doctors, to a German ox with six legs and a ‘learned dog who could shuffle and cut” – but there were dead bodies too.

Ok – so we went to gawp at the corpses hanging from gibbets whereas these bodies are donated but in some respects there will always be a question looming over an exhibit like this. However much it’s dressed up as “educational” and “scientific,” it is, let’s face it, just a good old-fashioned circus sideshow, albeit on giant proportions. “Plastination,” the name for Von Hagens’s technique, is a wonderful word – and sounds just like one of the cures a quack doctor from the 19th Century would use for a miracle cure.

I guess it’s hard to follow an act like Tutankhamen (another dead body if you want to get technical, though of course we only saw the results of unwrapping him.)The site is set up for blockbusters and they don’t come along too often. The other giant hitter, the Terracotta Army, has just been to London and Pompeii doesn’t look like it’s coming our way any time soon (more death with both of these – what is it about us and death..?)

Which massive exhibition would you like to see coming to the O2 next? And while we’re about it, there’s still loads and loads of room inside that Dome. Maybe we should be putting first-dibs on what we’d like to see in the rest of the space. My own personal choice would be a bowling alley. I’d want it all retro like Bloomsbury Lanes – though maybe without the karaoke.

Any other ideas?

Favourite Front Gardens (11)

Thursday, August 21st, 2008

Trinity Buoy Wharf,E14


We haven’t had a favourite front garden for ages. Maybe this is because the weather’s been so bloomin’ duff that I haven’t been out looking for them – or maybe nobody wants to do much in the way of primping and preening their greenery in the rain.

But I said I’d bang on about Trinity Buoy Wharf a bit more, and today, I want to show you what a bunch of creative people do with no fixed gardens.

Trinity Buoy Wharf (not actually in, but I like to think “honorary” Greenwich) was basically an experimental station built along the Thames to test out lighthouse technology before it was used in really dangerous areas. There are some fab stories about it – one of my favourites is where they’d fire up a new type of bulb and some poor sod would have to leg-it round to Shooters Hill to see if they could see the light – and famous people – Michael Faraday, no less, who worked there, but that’s for another day. A dark winter’s day, perhaps, when stories of bravery and derring-do on the high seas are all the more dramatic.

Trinity Buoy Wharf has a fascinating life these days too. It’s inhabited by creative types – with wonderful installations and art projects (see Aluna for one of my favourites) – and a great diner – all of which I’ll also get onto in good time. They warrant looking at in more detail than one post.


The place is a wonderful mix of the old – Victorian warehouses, light-ships and the lighthouse itself – and the new – a pile of containers, painted bright colours and inhabited by arty types. And there’s nothing arty types like better than creating exciting plant projects.

All over the place pieces of art mingle with found objects, juxtaposed in curious ways, both inside and outside the workshops of potters, mosaic artists and sculptors. Strange inventions and old objets d’art and honest tools mingle together – and grow from and alongside plants. Gay annuals and bright bedding jostle with runner beans and courgette plants, tomatoes and herbs.

This place is great. On the first weekend of every month most of the installations are open, and it’s best to go along then. It’s currently a bit of a trek to get to – you have to either drive or go to Canning Town on the Jubilee and take a 15 minute walk. But occasionally, just occasionally, they have a “festival” day and there’s a free boat service from the O2 – and if you see one of those advertised, GO. It’s a great afternoon out. The website is a bit out of date – it’s still advertising the last festival – but I checked London Open House Weekend and it’s going to be open then.

Laura Williams, the artist responsible for Aluna, tells me that since the Thames Clippers are now based around there, they can pretty much hop on a Clipper any time they want to go across to Greenwich. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a boat service every weekend the art is open?

Academies Burney and Westons

Wednesday, August 20th, 2008

Barry is doing a little family history and writes with a question that is probably a bit beyond me – though I’ll bet it’s not beyond a few of you…

He is mainly concerned with the “Royal Hospital School, as I had four 19thC ancestors go there (with families living for many years in the Walnut Tree Road collection of streets).

I am trying to pinpoint two related institutions to the School – the Burney Academy in or close to Burney Street, and Weston’s Academy on or about the School’s infirmary facing King William Street.”

The Phantom is stumped on this one – apart from what I assume you mean is the Dreadnaught Hospital which is on King William Walk and which is now the library of the University of Greenwich, if memory serves me right (and which is open on Open House Weekend this year if you’re interested…)

And that’s one of the problems with living in a place that is dripping with royal connections, monuments of national (and international) importance and glorious, glamorous history. The ‘ordinary’ story of everyday folk seems to get lost in between the floorboards of sumptuous tales involving kings and queens, famous people, influential events and naval heroes.

Where other towns would carefully preserve the day to day life of ordinary buildings, we have such a plethora of grandness that we take for granted – and happily forget – a part of our history that is just as valid.

Looking at my bookshelves I have umpteen volumes about Greenwich’s pomp and grandeur; just a few books (mainly out of print) about what the rest of us would have been doing – and let’s face it – most of us would have been looking to the docks for our livings. Mary Mills especially has made several very decent fists at charting the industrial history of our town and there are other even more obscure books (someone very kindly copied a book for me by Barbara Ludlow – long out of print – for which I am very grateful indeed) but, perhaps understandably, most people choose to look at our gilded history rather than our rusted one…

The Heritage Centre in Woolwich goes some way to helping, but space is increasingly tight (whenever I go there it’s absolutely heaving with family history researchers) and although they do document the lives of ordinary people, the focus is on the arsenal, given its location.

I guess what I’m saying, Barry, in a very roundabout way, is that I haven’t got a clue. But I’ll betcha someone here does.

Flat Rates

Tuesday, August 19th, 2008

A few months ago, Henri sent me some wonderful pictures of her wedding – you can enjoy one or two of them on my weddings and events section. But now she writes with the classic problem that tends to follow weddings around. She writes:

“The husband and I are looking to leave New Cross when our lease runs out at the end of September, and we really, really want to re-relocate to Greenwich. It’s handy for me, being able to roll out of bed and nip off to uni, and a convenient push-off point for him to travel to wherever he may be working then. The problem is we’re having a hard time identifying areas of Greenwich (town or borough) where we can find a reasonable compromise of size, cost, and safety.

We’re looking for something with 1 or 2 bedrooms, house or flat, for under £900 a month, and not down some dark, seedy alley miles away from any transport. Or Police. Do you have any advice? Inside info?

We don’t mind something a bit shabby, if it means we get a few extra feet for our money (I much prefer a nice high Victorian ceiling over sunken lights in my bathtub and an oven that speaks to me) but we’d rather not live on the 16th floor of a scary council estate either. Know any areas we should be looking at?

Plumstead seems to have a nice range of shabby but affordable and slightly more spacious housing (although it’s a bit close to the in-laws in Abbey Wood to be my pick of the Greenwich area) but apart from that and….Thamesmead *shudder* we’re having trouble finding anywhere that isn’t full of ‘state of the art’ and ‘luxury’, which seems to be code for ‘shoebox with spotlights’.”

The Phantom sympathises. However swish the new housing may be round here it tends to be a) tiny and b) stupidly expensive. I’ve never been able to work out why they call some of it “affordable” – I can’t imagine many people on lower incomes actually being able to manage even the small part that they are expected to stump up at those prices. Following your code for ‘Luxury’ as equalling “shoebox with spotlights” I’d say “affordable” translates as “shoebox without spotlights hidden behind the bins…”

I have to put my hands up here – I don’t really keep much of an eye on prices. I am sure that people here have a better idea than me but hey – it’s my blog, so I’m going to have my two-penn’orth…

To be honest I suspect that Greenwich Central may be a bit scary for that sort of money (though it’s always worth just checking – you never know what you may be able to find and with this credit-crunch thing going on you may find a landlord who would rather do a good price than be forced to sell up.) East Greenwich is worth a look – and ideally situated for amenities – the tube, train and sundry shops – but even that seems to be getting a bit pricey these days.

Since your husband (does he actually have a name???) has to commute, you need to be nearish the railway – though of course there are two good lines – the one that goes through Blackheath and the one that goes via Maze Hill.

I’m a big fan of Charlton. It’s on both railway lines, which means you get a better selection of trains, and it has some great housing stock. You’ll have to pick your area for safety purposes – but I think it’s an underrated area. Sadly I’m not alone, and prices have been creeping up recently.

Ditto Woolwich. That’s going to explode in the next few years – if I were buying, I’d be tempted to look there – it’s got good transport links (soon to be fantastic) a shopping centre that may look tatty but has a solid, provincial feel, and it’s a short distance to some excellent open spaces. Oh – and it has a very good Chinese restaurant.

If you want to get lots for your money, Plumstead isn’t a bad choice at all – though tradition seems to dictate that you may to be more careful to find a safe area. I don’t know too much about most of Plumstead to tell the truth – but I have friends who live there and none of them has been mugged in over 18 years. And it has the bonus of being on the railway and near to countryside. Some bits, especially around the common, are really rather grand.

Which brings me onto Shooters Hill. A little bit more out of the way, but still pretty nice, and close to lots of countryside and open air. I understand the Highwayman problem has abated in the last hundred years.

As we were talking a few days ago the Royal Herbert development is really rather cool. Don’t bother trying to get the ex-water tower though – I think last time it was up they wanted a million for it. I have no idea whether they actually got it. I think the bit around it is rather charming, though it feels a bit remote.

Eltham’s a funny one. it goes from the extremely old and posh right through to some truly grotty bits. It’s a little bit out of the way so it may come up cheaper (as long as you’re not after that amazing Tudor place next to the palace…) but I’m really into dodgy territory here – I really don’t know.

One last thing. You shudder at Thamesmead, but I know several people who live there who are fiercely defensive of it. They love the fact that they have modern houses with lots of room and gardens for their kids to play in at prices they could never afford elsewhere.

Last time I was there (I was re-visiting the fabulous Crossness Engines – which if you haven’t ever seen you must asap) they were building some very nice-looking flats on the river. I can’t imagine they will be as pricey as anywhere upstream. I wouldn’t count on the mythical “Waterfront Transit System” (read “bus”) coming into service any time soon though.

I’ve yabbered on enough. Time to hand over to people who may actually have some answers to your questions…

The Chingford Meridian

Monday, August 18th, 2008


Another in my Greenwich-related days out today; the glorious Chingford Meridian. Right at the top of Pole Hill, the highest point in Chingford, the then-Astronomer Royal, John Pond, erected an obelisk so that everyone north of the river could delight in Britain being the centre of the world. It was put up in 1824 under the excuse that it would help astronomers find True North from the transit telescope. It was the pride of Chingford.


Then disaster struck. Zut alors! The Meridian line changed. It wasn’t as bad as it could have been – Paris was most keen to become the city of the Meridian – but it did shift everything by the frustratingly short distance of 19 feet, in 1850. Suddenly the good folks of Chingford felt as though they were somehow committing a fraud – luring unsuspecting meridian-chasers up to the top of the hill, only to sell them a lie.

They considered just moving the monument – but it was solid granite and had been enough of a huff and puff the first time. No one wanted the job of moving it again…

It hung around like a bad smell, embarrassing the mayor and shaming the councillors for 34 years. When the new line was officially adopted in 1884, they decided enough was enough. A new, somewhat less attractive pillar was erected (I mistook it for some kind of MOD relic when I first saw it) and an apologetic plaque stuck on the old one.

Visiting the monuments is quite a fun quest, if you’re stuck for something to do in the long school holidays. We spent quite some time trying to work out exactly where it was, so you don’t have to – the map reference is here – and, in fact, once you actually have the map it’s quite obvious where it is – it’s the bit marked “Obelisk…”

You can drive reasonably close – go to the top of a loop-y road of a very residential nature and park as near the apex as possible. You have to climb the last 50ft or so, but it’s not a big deal – the grass is roughly cut and although there are no signs you just head for the top.

We had a fight against time – a massive storm loomed in the West – we watched it approaching through the handy gap in the trees (hence the moody look of the shot at the top – click on it to see it properly.)

I’d say that the very best time to go would be on a bright winter’s day, when the trees are bare. The view is of central London – the Gherkin, BT Tower, London Eye, etc. and very dramatic, but if the trees were leafless I’m pretty sure you could see Greenwich (after all it was intended for exactly that…)
Most of the time we were alone, though a snogging couple did turn up at one point, and thinking about it, it’s a perfect lovers’ walk. In between slurps, he loudly announced that the Meridian Line began at the Millennium Wheel. She ooohed and aahed appropriately.
They didn’t last long up there, and we didn’t last much longer than them - the storm was getting closer and closer. We left it as long as we dared, but still didn’t make it back down the hill before giant drops announced a torrential downpour. The last part was an undignified scramble down some rather muddy slopes in great stair rods of rain.
There’s one last oddity about this place. On the granite column, another small plaque tells us that TE Lawrence (of Arabia) and his friend Vyvyan Richards had intended to build a place to print copies of Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom on the top of the hill. It never happened – but Richards lived in a hut up here until 1922.

Random but fun…

Rear Window (11)

Sunday, August 17th, 2008

I rather like starting out a post in August with a snow pic – wonderfully dramatic. Today, Rear Window takes a peek through the nets chez Mr & Mrs DeeBee, who live in one of the streets around the power station. I’m guessing perhaps Hoskins St but can’t be sure.

I love the houses in the two or three streets around here – there’s something really idiosyncratic about them that I’ve not seen anywhere else. At a guess I’d say they’re turn of the 20th century or Edwardian – but they could be slightly older or younger. They have some great detail in them – I love the coloured tiles in the doorways and the fact that although they look the same, they are actually most of them slightly different from each other.

The sun coming over the power station was taken in June, when DeeBee sent this to me (I told you I was behind on my mail…) but my favourite shot is this one, taken at night. There’s something at once comforting and sinister about that building. What I wouldn’t give to have a poke around inside…

Sadly, despite my writing to TfL and having a long conversation on the phone with a helpful man a few months ago, it’s not one of the buildings being opened for Open House Day this year. Neither are my other choices. But there are some interesting things coming up and I’ll be setting aside Sept 20/21 for a spot of exploring. And there’s always next year…

The Lucky Greenwich Gnomes

Saturday, August 16th, 2008

Benedict sent me a wonderful pair of gnomes, which will form part of my “alternative Greenwich Park walk” when I get round to creating it…

They are the Greenwich Guardian Gnomes, which, if you go at the right time of day, you may just catch peeking from out of their rain-hopper homes.

Tradition says that anyone who spots them can make a wish. Of course Tradition is less clear as to whether your wish will actually be granted – but hey – they’re gnomes and they’re lucky. Take a chance…

Here we have Mr Wicked and Mr Worried – but there are others too – Benedict wants to collect ‘em all – maybe we could start a craze like those card-swapping games you get in playgrounds…

If you’d like to find them for yourself, imagine you’re standing at the Blackheath Gate, looking in. On your left are the loos, but behind them are some random maintenance buildings. Check the rain hoppers by the gutters to see if you can see them. And don’t forget to make a wish…

Mays, Mayes, Maize, Maze Hile, Hill

Friday, August 15th, 2008

Jo asks:

“Why is Maze Hill called so – presumably there was a maze since that would be in keeping with the royal park etc.”

The Phantom Replies:

The answer to this is not at all straightforward – and it’s not necessarily correct either. It doesn’t help that it’s not always been spelled like that. Over the centuries it’s been spelled using all the versions in the title.
According to my trusty Hasted, it is “supposed to have taken its name from Robert May who lived, 1683, in Park Wall, now Park Terrace.” He got his information from the court rolls of Westcombe. Gregory Page – who is better known for his developments at more central Blackheath – is listed in 1717 as living in Mayeshile.
As an aside, I was chatting with a friend the other day who’s studying old manuscripts for a PhD, who told me that what we think of as ‘quaint,’ archaic spelling on old documents was actually deliberate – that the authors of documents knew full-well that they were spelling things differently every time and that being able to spell words in ingenious ways was considered a mark of education and sophistication – which would explain why things are sometimes spelled – in our eyes awry – several times in the same document. I have no idea if it’s true, but it certainly sheds a different light on old manuscripts…
But back to the Mays. Turning to Neil Rhind, I read that Mays Hill would have been established by the latest, the end of the 15th Century when our old friend Humph pinched a lump of common land to build his own palace – and Maze Hill would have been the cart track up the side of his new acquisition.

Neil Rhind seems to disagree with Hasted – in that it was named after Sir Algernon, not Sir Robert May. But far more interesting to me is the theory that there was actually a maze – albeit rather a long way away. A turf maze – a bit like the one at Hall Place rather than a formal one like at Hampton Court. It was, apparently, on the site of today’s Wemyss Road – just round the corner from the main drag. It’s not really a direct route though, and it’s frankly a stretch for me – though I guess at a pinch it could commemorate the cutting of the maze…

It’s also spelled Maize Hill – though I’ve not heard that there were any plantations of corn around there in particular.

No – I’m going back to my friend’s theory in that our ancestors enjoyed the art of creativity in spelling. Mr May – whether Algernon or Robert – seems the most likely solution to me – it being originally “May’s Hill.”

I got told off for speculation yesterday and since I may as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb, I have one last thought to add. I have not heard or read this from anyone – it’s merely from my own ponderings. That since this was a pathway cutting the Park from the rest of the land and that one thing that the area was well-known for – especially in Henry VII’s time, was the abundance of May trees.

There was nothing Good King Hal and his “lusty bachelors” enjoyed more than setting off of a spring morning, and riding out towards Shooters Hill to gather may blossom, ‘ “caracolling” (I think this means singing rude songs) along the way and challenging each other to “feats of horsemanship,” according to Rev. LeStrange. Could that particular hill have enjoyed a particularly spectacular display of blossom?

I’ll be getting onto some of the intriguing buildings – and their occupants – of Maze Hill on other days…