Archive for February, 2009

Underground Greenwich (10) Back Garden Fun

Friday, February 27th, 2009

Geoff, who lives at the park end of King William Walk, has an intriguing question. He says:

“Apparently, there’s a well is in my garden. A former resident of thirty years ago told me he was digging in the area outside the back door when he fell down it. He only went down about six foot as it was filled in 110 years ago when they built the properties. He informed me that the foundation of the back wall of the property is sitting on the edge of the well.

Could it be a shaggy dog story? I have no plans to dig up the back garden to find out, but I thought you might be interested.”

The Phantom is very interested indeed. It’s very unlikely the guy’s pulling your leg, Geoff – though of course he could be exaggerating as people who can’t be proved wrong enjoy doing ;-) It’s a fascinating – and topical thing to talk about, given the whole chucking-out of the market folk to build the Stockwell St. development.

We have discussed the Stock Well before – how it dates back to at least Duke Humphrey’s time – he got himself a license to run a conduit (that’s ‘secret tunnel’ to you and me – there are loads of ‘em in Greenwich, especially around Crooms Hill and the Park. They were only for water, of course, but the romantic possibilities for a giddy Phantom are endless…) to his gaff which was more or less where the ORNC is now.

I’m not going to reiterate here what I wrote a year or so ago (click on the “Stock Well” link above to get the original piece) – suffice to say that at the time of writing the pamphlet from which I got the information – just shy of 100 years old now, the exact location of the well was unknown. I think, given the fact that you’re at King William Walk and the Stock Well (it’s thought) was around the corner of what’s now Nevada Street and Stockwell Street, that it’s unlikely that yours is the actual well (though since no one really knows, it could be) – but it may be a very old subsidiary one that came from the main supply.

I know you have no intentions of digging up your garden but I have to say that if it were the Phantom Back Garden, unless it was a display of positively Wisley-worthy immaculateness, I’d be sorely tempted to call in Time Team pronto.

At worst it would be a curiosity, at best it would be the original well – full, if John Stone’s speculation is to be believed, of “archaeological treasures reposing at the bottom of the well, dropped down from the earliest days of Greenwich in the daily and hourly user of the inhabitants through many centuries…” Blimey.

Whether or not Geoff’s is the missing well, I truly hope that the archaeologists will be called into the Stockwell Street development at a very early stage. It is one of the longest-inhabited areas of Greenwich – and this could be the only opportunity to investigate its history before it’s lost or damaged for ever.

South London

Thursday, February 26th, 2009

“Few places in the world which were once the scene of pageantry, glory and decisive events have received such scurvy treatment at the hands of time as South London…”

Harry Williams, author of the 1949 gem South London, published by County Books and the first of my lovely finds at the charity booksale last week, doesn’t pull any punches. He’s an angry man. He’s angry at the clumsy development of the boroughs south of the river as opposed to the fragile treatment of the north London villages. He’s furious at the way South London’s glorious past has played second fiddle to its sumptuous northern neighbour. And he’s positively apoplectic at the state in which German bombers have just left the whole sorry mess.

But he has a soft spot for Greenwich. He admits that her charms, though “not immediately apparent” - with her “garish main thoroughfare, most depressing where most pretentious…shoddy little shops,…all-pervading atmosphere of dirt, tiredness and weary resignation…lumbering trams,” when the brittle carapace of post-war filth is broken through, “bursts upon the astonished vision with magical effect after an approach of the kind so prevalent in the southern half of the London tangle.”

There isn’t enough of this sort of stuff about. Well ok, the superlative Iain Sinclair makes a fine fist of London polemic – but he’s a Hackney man.

Harry Williams’s impassioned prose is a joy to read – even if he is, on occasion, a little slipshod with facts (hell – aren’t we all…) describing St Alphege’s Church as “a fine example of Wren’s genius,” for example, or telling us that there’s “nothing of exceptional interest” in the Maryon parks. Indeed, a previous owner of my copy has gone through making pencilled amendments and correctly re-labelling several of the pictures, one of which is printed upside down.

But this is fabulous stuff. Williams riffs happily on Greenwich’s many charms (I love the phrase “umbrageous dells,” and shall use it constantly now I know it means ‘shady’…) before moving reluctantly on to the rest of the borough – “an anticlimax, but we must not shirk it, for we are in search of the soul of this part of London and we cannot tell where it may be found” – as well as other more westerly places, with a style that I would expect of a much more modern author.

All the way through, it’s illustrated with some wonderful photographs (as aforementioned, slightly hap-hazardly labelled – and all the sweeter for it.) Since they really are great fun and I haven’t a hope in hell’s chance of ever finding the photographer, I’ll reproduce one or two of them over the next few months until I get a cease-and-desist… ;-)

I’d like you to take a look at the pic at the top. Yeah, yeah, I know it’s of Trinity Almshouses. But just take a peek at what’s behind them. Look at the chimneys on that. I can’t find out when these beautiful things were torn down for the frankly utilitarian versions we have today, but it had better have been for a good reason.

For a different view of those chimneys – and not merely because I want to share this lovely aerial pic of Greenwich, see below (as usual, click on the image to make it bigger.) Things that I especially like about it are the little paddle steamer in the Thames, the flatness of the Isle of Dogs – and the patchwork effect of what I can only assume was the last knockings of the allotments allowed on Greenwich Park during the war.

There are some other crackers, but I’ll leave them for another day, leaving you with the immortal words of Harry Williams:
“For this one moment, in Greenwich, beauty is revealed fully, and within limits completely, making nonsense of the jumble of architecture passing as commercial efficiency which is the norm of the London Scene.”

Combe (2)

Wednesday, February 25th, 2009

I promised I’d return to the subject of Combe Farm and the second part of Barbara Ludlow’s essay at some point, but my trek over to Westerdale Road on Saturday made me think that before I get onto Victorian Combe I should tell you about a little part of the place that secretly still exists – not that the casual passer-by would know…

Take a peek at the picture above. It’s a house in Westerdale Road that’s somewhat different from the rest in the street in that it’s clearly got a little workshop-y bit – and a side gate from a time when houses didn’t routinely have garages. It says “Greenwich Village” and, if memory serves, at some point it was a stained glass workshop. I have no idea whether or not it still is.

But look to the left hand side of the picture. Down the little alley between the two places, there’s another building, tucked away, sandwiched between Westerdale Road and the Police Station. It’s impossible to get a really good look as it doesn’t actually hit a road at any point.

This is, as far as I know, the only remaining part of Combe Farm. Hand-on-heart, it’s not a particularly prepossessing structure.. There’s nothing of the grandeur of the Elizabethan manor (which was further up-and-across anyway) or even of the sturdy Victorian farmhouse which, if I can find any non-copyright pics, I’ll pass onto you. Indeed, it’s only one room deep.

Here’s a picture I snapped whilst trying not to look suspicious, hanging around the back of the police station as I was…

Back in 2002, a planning application (presumably to turn it into living accommodation) and a request to list the place spurred Philip Binns to do some research. His full findings can be found here but it boils down to there being not a huge amount to say.

I guess the big problem is that – well – who the hell bothers to record anything about outbuildings? It’d be like writing a history of a garden shed or a mechanic’s yard.

Look at how little info there is about David Beckham’s polytunnel on the peninsula. Not ten years old, and a construction purely for utility and economy, it’s never going to win prizes for beauty or architectural innovation – give it ten years – or even, come to think of it, try now - to find out the name of the architect (even if only to send death threats for creating such a monstrosity.)

And such is it with this place. It’s not that old in comparison to most of the Combe Farm buildings – only from about 1869-94. And it was clearly not designed to be enjoyed as a work of art. It was off Combe Farm Road (now Westcombe Hill, BTW) and part of a whole bunch of buildings that made up the farm, apparently right on the western edge of its land.

Philip Binns discovered that by by 1916, Combe Farm had been totalled by the massive development drive.

The occupant of 9-11 Westerdale was one Ernest Palmer who used the place as a laundry. I guess the fact that the building was behind a place of work made it useful to keep. It didn’t need to look beautiful; just to serve a purpose.

The Palmers kept the place until 1937, adding a car-hire business in 1925. Philip Binns reckons the closest equivalent to the building is in St. Alfege Passage where an old workshop has been renovated as a town house.

It would seem the application for the Combe Farm building in 2002 had much the same idea in mind. I’m told it was rejected – but that was seven years ago – it looks inhabited now.


Tuesday, February 24th, 2009

Christopher Fowler, Doubleday, £16.99

Remember not so long ago when we were discussing the groovy plans drawn up by the GLC for the Blackwall Tunnel Southern Approach in the early seventies? Those full-of-optimism brown and orange hopes and dreams, with little cardboard models and artists impressions of what it was all going to be like?

Dazza wondered at the time if there were any protests or petitions from the people being hoiked out of their homes to make way for Progress.

Apparently not. It would seem that the residents looked at the grand new plans with puzzlement before meekly saying “Oh, okay. I’ll be on me way then…”

I can now reveal that the protests amounted to one small boy running away from his family’s dodgy new location in Abbey Wood, arriving at his old house in Westerdale Road just in time to see the wrecking ball in full swing. That small boy was Christopher Fowler…

I bought Fowler’s (of the Bryant & May mysteries) memoir Paperboy last Friday. By Saturday evening I’d gobbled up the lot. In an age where everyone can be a TV star, a micro-celebrity or a self-published writer(ahem) it’s great to sit back and enjoy an autobiography written by a professional.

Even if it hadn’t been about the ‘wrong’ end of Greenwich, for which I have a particular soft spot, or about a white collar working class world that I recognise only too painfully (Fowler may be writing about the sixties – but this stuff was going on well into the seventies and even eighties. Hell – I bet it still goes on in pockets all over Britain…) and even if it hadn’t discussed my favourite kids’ TV shows and games (though I disagree with him over Noggin the Nog – that prog rocked…) I would have still enjoyed Paperboy for its sheer joy of narrative, fun with words – and sarky footnotes.

As it is, it’s a tender, unsentimental part of Greenwich’s history that’s never going to make it to the Pepys Centre or into most conventional history books, but which is just as real as any tale I’ll happily recount for the nth time about Sir Walter Raleigh and Queen Elizabeth I. The characters of Christopher Fowler’s childhood might be working class, but stereotypes they’re not. They’re real people – which makes a fair few of them all the scarier.

Fowler himself, a speccy, bookworm of a child, was as much of a puzzle to his parents as they were to him. As is customary in such tales, true understanding came all too late. To avoid the fights and arguments, he hid himself in East Greenwich Library, immersed in whatever reading matter came to hand until one day when – well, I’ll let him tell you about that.

This is a book intended for a market beyond Greenwich, unlike most local memoirs, which although often sweet – and, of course, important documents in their own right, can tend towards the “After blacking the fireplace, we always used to go down the Co-op of a Friday, before we sat in the sixpenny stalls at the Regal. That was how it was done in those days….” method of storytelling. Therefore, when Fowler does move onto the cinema (of which there were a fair few in Greenwich) his concern is more with entertaining the reader and building a picture of childhood than namechecking as many locations as possible. He no longer lives around here – and hasn’t for many years.

Nevertheless, this is still a local book – to be cherished by local people. Don’t be put off by the lukewarm quote by Joanne Harris on the front cover (was that really the best he could get?) I recommend it with all my spectral heart. It’s funny and touching – and beautifully written.

Taking a quick break from my almost one-sitting Paperboy readathon, (and in the same trip that I visited Lauren’s bench) I took a little pilgrimage over to what’s left of Westerdale Road (see top) on Saturday, as well as the hallowed – if a bit battered – East Greenwich library, which, despite the best efforts of several generations of town planners, still stands (just about.)

I daresay that the young Christopher Fowler would have gobbled up the meagre selection of kiddie-fare and large-print romances purveyed there, but the poor old place has really seen better days. Reading Paperboy, I just struggle to work out when those better days actually were…

The Littlest Australian

Monday, February 23rd, 2009

Wasn’t it incredible on Saturday? It seemed the entire universe had descended on Greenwich Park as the first decent day of the year saw almost as many people enjoying the slightly freaky weather as did a few weeks ago in the snow.

But it was an email I received during the snowiest snow for 18 years that took me into the park this weekend.

The day after the snow, I was slightly puzzled (but rather flattered) to recieve a truly international postbag – from Greenwichians-at-heart around the world who’d logged on to get pictures of their favourite town in the snow. The furthest two (within an hour or so of each other) came from either side of Australia – which was receiving its own share of freak weather conditions, albeit at the other end of the scale.

It’s always great to hear from people around the world – especially the ones who have great stories to tell, but one in particular really touched my heart. James and Kay, who now live in Canberra, told me to look out for a special bench in Greenwich Park, along Lovers’ Walk. It is a memorial to their baby daughter Lauren…

I decided that Lauren deserved more than the cold, grey weather we’ve been having, so when I went to look for it, it would be on the first day of Spring – or at least the first promise of the season.
So I worked my way up Lovers’ Walk in Saturday’s sunshine, looking, I guess, rather dodgy, peering at the little plaques on the benches in between the people who were actually sitting on them. I missed it at first – a man and his large dog were enjoying its dappled sun – but when I did find it, I was rather surprised to find that I’d actually photographed it before – in the snow two years ago:

It’s on the left, set a little back from the path – and a lovely spot to sit in the spring sunshine and think of the “Littlest Australian.”

Rangers Square

Saturday, February 21st, 2009

James asks:

“I would like to ask you if you know anything about the history of Rangers Square just off Hyde Vale in West Greenwich? My wife and I lived there for 5 years, in a rather small but very nice two bed flat and even had two of our children there.

I wonder why it is called Rangers Square, possibly some relation to Rangers House, and whether you know what was there before the flats? I had heard it was some garage. There is also a bit of scrubby bush just behind it backing onto the Conduit House flats with some tall looking trees. I had even heard there was someone living in this scrub during the summer months in 2006.”

The Phantom is once again embarrassed by sheer ignorance, but given the close proximity to Ranger’s House, I’m guessing that that is the reason. If memory serves, Ranger’s Square is a modern-ish development (70s/80s?) and, as I am increasingly discovering, the naming process for new streets and developments is a path strewn with pitfalls these days.

I told you about the friend of mine who worked for a major developer (not around here) whose job description involved her naming the new developments in a former mental asylum, and whatever she came up with seemed to offend someone or other who thought she was being disrespectful to people with mental health problems. I’ve heard stories about naming problems around here too.

Hence people tend to stay with fairly bland titles that can’t possibly offend anyone and ‘Ranger’s Square’ would seem to fit the bill. But maybe someone else knows better – or can tell you about the interesting character who lived in the scrubbery behind in 2006…

Licence To Swill

Friday, February 20th, 2009

Dennis says:

“I blinked, and suddenly my letterbox had no less than four notifications from the council for licences, or variation thereof. Here we go…

(1) Pistachios Café Bar
(2) Café Sol
(3) Phillies Snack Bar
(4) Green Village Restaurant

…all of whom want to sell booze until the wee smalls, and the last of whom wants so many conditions removed from their “restaurant” licence that they could be mistaken for a pub.

I wonder if anyone else has noticed a surge in applications, or is it just here?”

The Phantom replies:

Wow – you get notices of planning applications through your door? Where do you live? Clearly ‘Well-Informed Street, SE10.’ Bet you get the local rags, too, like the News Shopper and The Guide. All that comes through The Phantom Letterbox is a never-ending supply of pizza flyers, notifications of ‘special’ knocked-off electrical goods sales at the William IV and invitations to consult Professor Manjou, the medium who is 100% accurate, you know. Oh – and Greenwich Time, of course.

But enough of the jealousy and back to the licence applications. Four at once, eh. And all the classy joints, I see. I wonder whether they’re linked in some way – some sort of subprime Greenwich Inc, created by a new seedy svengali who’s gradually taking over all of Greenwich’s worst establishments and turning them into an local chain of UberDives. At least Greenwich Inc takes over the good ones…

Cafe Sol is still trying to live down that eek-y Environmental Health debacle a few months ago, when sundry wildlife species were found in the kitchens. They’re using the “A Big Boy Did It And Ran Away” chestnut, and it was under ‘former ownership’ at the time, but I’m not in any hurry to eat there just yet. As for the others – well, we all know about them.

I’ll be surprised if the applications succeed. Greenwich Town Centre is developing a serious drunken-lout problem and I can’t see the Council doing anything to fan the flames. I recently had a long missive from Nic – who gave me blow-by-blow (sorry) account of a particularly unpleasant day he had which left him at the very least short of cash, short of breath and short of temper, but replete in the bruise department.

But I can see why these places are chancing their arm. Cafes and restaurants, good and bad, are suffering – and will suffer increasingly as cash gets tighter all round. They see drinking establishments like Wetherspoons cleaning up (financially, if not literally) and fancy a piece of the action. I suspect we will see more desperate measures as the year progresses.

The odd thing is that these places could weather the economic storm if they really wanted to. They all of them have prime spots in the town centre, a dream to places like Inside and The Guildford, which people seek out because they’re good.

All these joints have to do is actually serve good food and word would get round among the locals, instead of their relying on the gulliblity of tourists. Even in tight times, people like to eat out occasionally – but they want to know their experience will be good. Any of these places could up their game and become somewhere that locals flock to eat. But instead they take a pot shot at the easy route – serving overpriced drinks to drunken arses.

It will be interesting to see if they succeed.

Young Victoria

Thursday, February 19th, 2009

We get so many costume-drama shoots here that it didn’t surprise me when the PR guy for the film Young Victoria told me that parts of it were filmed in Greenwich – apparently standing in for Constitution Hill, which was indisposed…

Does anyone remember this? I usually notice – or at least hear about film shoots going on – but this one totally passed me by.
I can’t see that Victoria herself had much – or, indeed, any – interest in Greenwich. I’m not even sure if she ever set foot here. Still – she (or a much better-looking version of her…) will be treading our hallowed streets from March 6th, when we can all sit in the Picturehouse squinting at the backgrounds to see if we recognise anything.
Or we can wait for Watchmen. Which I’m pretty sure doesn’t have a single frame shot in Greenwich. Or, indeed, in the real world.

Oh – The Guilt. But Oh – The Pleasure.

Thursday, February 19th, 2009

Oooooh. Ouch – and – Mmmm.

Last night I allowed myself to be fiendishly led astray by The Phantom Webmaster, way down in leafy Surrey which is TPW’s stomping ground. The pair of us sneaked into the dealers’ preview for the (gigantic) local charity booksale and ended up spending Far Too Much Cash for these financially-embarrassed times.

I ended up with all sorts of goodies – from which I shall be sharing nuggets of curious content with you over the coming months.

A blustering, furious account of the shabby treatment South London has received at the hands of Time, written in 1949 where the author’s tack-spitting can be felt almost physically 60 years on.

A book of London ghosts which includes some characters I’ve never heard of or read about despite owning several books on the subject. A first-edition copy of a Victorian book about London’s riverside churches, with some great pics of what St Alfege used to look like before the aforesaid shabby treatment by naughty Time. A 1937 collection of grainy photos of “the London we’re just about to lose.”

And a scarily expensive, even given it was a charity booksale, set of Victorian illustrated volumes which I bought under the flimsy excuse of “saving them from the fate of being stripped of their illustrations by greedy Ebayers selling them as ‘original engravings’ and chucking away the written bits, losing us chunks of history in the process.”

Yeah. even as I write it it feels the flakiest of flaky excuses.

Oh boy. Oh boy. I can’t wait to get down to devouring all this, and sharing the best bits with you. I can wait for my next bank statement which will probably mean that Phantom restaurant reviews might be thin on the ground for the foreseeable future.

I tell myself the following:

  • It was for charity.
  • Which is always good.
  • It was ‘research.’
  • Therefore I can share it with you folks.
  • Money spent on books is never wasted.
  • So it’s a good investment for cold winter nights when I can’t afford to go out.
  • I will send an equal number of books to a charity booksale to save shelf space.
  • Honest.
  • The Phantom Webmaster spent more than me.
  • Marginally.

Fresh Out…

Wednesday, February 18th, 2009

Tim asks:

“Do you know what’s happening to what used to be the Organic Cafe, that changed to “Fresh…”? I walk past there most mornings, and today I noticed that they’d taken down the sign and gutted the inside.”

The Phantom doesn’t know, but given that the reason stated on the poster of the Organic Cafe for being shut down was that Greenwich Council thought there were too many cafe/eateries in the centre of town, I’m guessing that Fresh opened up without actually having permission to open a cafe/eaterie there and was promptly shut down again. I don’t know – but that’s what I’d put my money on.

After all – it’s hardly a first time thing. Remember the blink-and-you-missed-it cafe at Blackheath Standard last year (I can’t remember its name but I do remember it was spelled wrongly) that twice failed to submit an application for premises licence – even after being warned it faced closure if it didn’t just fill in a form? It’s now a barbers…

I wonder why new businesses spend all that money on fitting out a place without checking the paperwork before they shell out the cash?