Archive for January, 2010

A Window Through Time

Saturday, January 30th, 2010

First view of the things to go in the new visitor centre, folks, and if everything’s going to be as pretty as this, then I can’t wait.

It’s a window recreated out of some of the bits of the original Placentia palace during the 1970s excavations, including a specially-commissioned stained glass insert with two coats of arms – those of Henry VIII and his current squeeze at the time, Anne Boleyn.

Henry was besotted with his new queen, and since there was a whiff of scandal, to say the least, about how she got the position, he was keen to assert her place by his side. So when he had a new coat of arms created for her, he went overboard – her device is one of the busiest ever designed. It’s got everything the court heralds could throw at it – the badges of every noble family (both sides of the Channel) he could possibly shoehorn in and, like some lovestruck teenager carving into tree trunks, Henry had the letters ‘A’ and ‘H’ intertwined in it too, for good measure.

He ordered the entire palace re-glazed to celebrate Anne’s arrival on the scene. Shame he didn’t have a crystal ball installed at the same time, since the whole thing had to be done again three years later when he had Anne’s head cut off and Jane Seymour’s coat of arms was hurriedly inserted instead. He kept the court decorators in employment with a succession of new wives after that, though perhaps he just went for something neutral after his third attempt (not, I suspect, that very much was ‘neutral’ in the Tudor court – everything seemed to have some kind of significance in those days and be on someone or other’s coat of arms…)

Ultimately, all that coloured glass shenanigans was in vain. The palace was pretty successfully demolished a century or so later, first damaged by Cromwell’s men then finished off by Charles II to create his new palace on the Restoration, but for the restorers who painstakingly trawled through boxes of old rubble from the site, there seem to have been enough broken windows that were identical to piece together one decent example.

The guy who did the stained glass, Alfred Fisher, is a specialist in 16th Century techniques, and he used the original methods – abrasion, etching, painting, silver staining and firing – to create his new work. It was particularly tricky as the glass of the 1530s was much thinner than we make today, and if he wanted it to fit into the original stone grooves, he had to be very picky about the depth and tint of the glass he worked with.

Apparently the most difficult bit was the expressions on the Royal Beasts’ faces. Tudor lions, especially, are a pig (so to speak.) They range from happy, smiley, cuddly kitties, to snarling, scowling kings of the plains, and it’s hard to know which to choose in any one circumstance. Fisher hedged his bets by having a few of each variety…

Will, who works for the new Discover Greenwich Centre, and who sent me this pic, tells me that there will be all kinds of exciting stuff coming up over the next few weeks as the place gets ready for its grand opening – he’s promised to keep me up to date.

In the meanwhile, I’ve been reading about the sturdy fellows who did original building work at Placentia – but that’s for another day.

Walking Back To Happiness

Friday, January 29th, 2010

Tony asks:

“For reasons best known to myself I’m planning to use a free day coming up to walk from Greenwich into the West End, something I’ve wanted to for a long time. However, I’m stuck on which is the best route.

Taking the Thames Path on the north side of the Thames seems the most obvious route. It takes in a number of classic sites – Canary Wharf, Wapping, The Prospect of Whitby etc. However, my loyalty to South London makes me wonder about the mysteries of the southern route – I know far less about the areas I’ll be going through.

Can anyone recommend one path over the other (I won’t have time to do both, alas)? Or is there perhaps a third way – Evelyn St, Jamaica Road? I’m looking for history, sights I haven’t seen before, a chance to experience a different side of London.”

The Phantom rubs spectral hands with glee. This is the sort of question I live for…

At first sight, yes, the Thames Path to the north does seem to offer delights – and I’m not pretending for a moment that it’s not an extremely pleasant affair, especially if you’re into the ancient pubs of Wapping. A walk through Canary Wharf will yield all kinds of hidden joys – I love the new glass city, but the history and old architecture isn’t completely gone – in fact its hidden nature makes it even more fun to find. And short deviations later in the route take you to wonders such as Wiltons Music Hall and St Georges in the East (who have got our cast-off church tower…) not to mention St Katherine’s Dock and the Tower.

But the path isn’t always distinct, and while I can’t claim perfection on the southern route either, let me be a cheerleader for the south in this post (as opposed to all the others, ahem) and tell you a few of the highlights I enjoy most about the walk between Greenwich and Tower Bridge (after that I’m guessing you’re already familiar with the South Bank, though maybe it would be worth another post sometime to deal with that. I’m a Greenwich-oholic but I’m not beyond spending far too much time wandering round the rest of the capital…)

The first thing I would recommend is the Thames Path National Trail Guide, by David Sharp. I got mine from the Visitors Centre in Greenwich but I’m sure Waterstones have it too. If memory serves it’s about twelve quid – but it may have been updated to include the new bit east of the barrier. I like it because it covers both sides of the river on the same page when it gets to London, and it tells you good things to look out for along the way.

I can’t put my hands on it at the moment, so I’ll have to talk about the Southern side from memory – I’m sure other people will chip in with things you shouldn’t miss too.

At the moment the start is a bit inauspicious, as it involves a trudge across the bridge on Creek Road, but hopefully when the building work is done(fingers crossed) we’ll have a nice footbridge connecting Millennium Quay with Greenwich. Don’t miss the slightly creepy statue of Czar Peter the Great and his even creepier dwarf…
You can walk up past, on one side, new build flats, on the other side some old piers, then fiddle your way up a small cobbled street behind old warehouses. Planning permissions currently being haggled over for the site, so see it now before it all changes (again.)

Continue until you get to Watergate Street, where the walls for the old wharves get in the way of the path. Still – it will give you a good excuse to see the wartime stretcher railings around the flats there.

If you get the opportunity to divert and pop to St Nicholas Church, it’s a fantastic sight inside, with a famous wood carving by local-ish boy Grinling Gibbons, but even if it’s not open, it’s worth the detour just for the gateposts with the sinister skull and crossbones. Legend has it they were the models for pirate flags; I don’t know if it’s true, but I don’t really care. It’s a good story. Just round from there is the Dog & Bell pub, a bit of a Mecca for real ale enthusiasts round here.

Cut through what’s left of poor old John Evelyn’s estate, Sayes Court (I’m convinced the mulberry bush in the park there is a remnant of his garden) and through the more modern estate to get back onto the Thames Path. It will lead you up past the groovy ex-council block that was turned private and became the subject of the TV docco last year. It has good ‘head’ sculptures round it.

The bits all around Surrey Docks are fascinating – in that there are still little pockets of history nestled among the 1980s reworking. Just be aware that if you start walking round the docks, it’s lovely – but a loooooong way round.

From now on, it gets really interesting – and frustrating – in equal measures. I keep meaning to log all the gates onto bits of path by the Thames that have been gated and locked outside new-build flats to find out whether or not it’s been done illegally. I’m willing to bet developers have been forced to create access, but when no one’s looking they’ve just locked the gates – there seem to be an awful lot of restricted access places in builds that are too young not to have had a Section 106 access order stamped on them. A project for the future – and perhaps one for the Ramblers Association.

Even with the annoying detours around modern flats, there’s still much to see. The City Farm, for example, which always manages to be closed whenever I’m there, but which advertises random produce available if you don’t mind carting a leg of organic pork around with you on your walk.

Hmm. What else? Oh, yes. The old Custom Houses are fun, and further on, I take great delight in arrogantly marching straight through the Hilton Hotel which has annoyingly plonked itself in the way of the Thames Path (though I’ve never had the gall to traipse the bike through too.)

By now, you’ll be coming up towards Rotherhithe, which, frankly, is worth a trip in itself. The ventilator houses for the Rotherthithe tunnel are curious, one each side – at least I’m assuming that’s what they are.

Just before you get to the villagey part of Rotherhithe, don’t miss one of the saddest sculptures in town, Dr Salter’s Dream, depicting Doctor Alfred Salter, who stayed in Bermondsey at a time of serious contagious illness to tend the sick at the cost of his own family – his daughter died, aged 8, from scarlet fever. Dr Salter now sits on a bench in perpetuity, fondly watching his daughter play with a pet cat by the river wall.

Moving onto Rotherhithe, if you have an opportunity to nip into the Brunel Engine House Museum, it’s worth it. It will take about 20 minutes to see the exhibits and another hour and a half to talk to the passionate curator there. They do nice cake.

The Sands Film Studios almost certainly won’t be open to the public on your visit, but they occasionally have guided tours and I would highly recommend joining one if you can. The also have a very eccentric film club, where you can see extremely obscure movies for free – just put a donation in the film cannister at the end.

Also in Rotherhithe, the Mayflower pub (the esteemed Dame was unimpressed with the fare last time she visited, but a pal visited the other night and reckons it’s improved. On the plus side you can fulfil your US postage stamp requirements at the bar…

Oh – and look out for the Charity Children on St Mary’s, a classic riverside church.

Right. Where are we… Ah, yes. More sundry Bermondsey new-builds with the odd bit of Tudor ruins and curious stuff (that’s where the guide comes in handy, telling you what the hell it all is – and where to go when the path runs out) before reaching the area around Shad Thames street/ Butler’s Wharf, Tower Bridge etc.

I could go on, but I’m really out of the blog’s area now. Besides, this post is indecently long. Tony – whichever path you choose, you’ll get a great view of the other bank of the river as you walk. And let’s face it – unless you’re planning emigrating to Mars anytime soon, presumably you’ll have other days off when you can explore different routes. Take the Clipper home afterwards to see yet another view of the Thames.

Ahhh. I almost wish I was coming with you. But I think I’ll leave the weather to warm up first…

Tidal Revelations

Thursday, January 28th, 2010

Stephen’s been puzzled by some strange things revealed at low tide on the foreshore at Greenwich Beach. They appear to be the remains of some kind of slipway, but he’s not aware of anything particular that used to be here.

I confess this really isn’t my area, but looking on old maps I’m not seeing anything there myself.

I guess this is one really for Greenwich Industrial History Society but I thought I’d ask you lot anyway, in case you have any great ideas.
When I saw the photo at the top of this post, I immediately thought of the old Greenwich pier, and remembered this Edwardian postcard, but looking at it again the perspective is deceiving.
This is Garden Stairs, and the building in the far right of the pic (which you can see about a millimetre of) is the old Victorian waiting room that was scandalously sold off a year or so ago. In fact the bit of beach that Stephen’s talking about is dropped down behind the fancy railings at the back of the picture, in between the lady in the red skirt & fetching hat and the ‘Way Out’ sign.
So really, there was no point in showing this postcard, at all, other than I really like it. We still don’t know what the giant link and bits of iron/rock are doing on Greenwich Beach.
Any ideas, guys?

Cutty Sark Updated Website

Wednesday, January 27th, 2010

After months of no news, I see that there’s finally an update on the official website today.

No mention of Professor Mason’s resignation last year; the news is Greenwich Time-worthy in its cheeriness – everything’s coming on fantastically as far as the official website concerned.

I still haven’t had a reply to my queries – but at least there’s something up on the site now…

Spring Cleaning

Wednesday, January 27th, 2010

The fact that this is my most frequently asked of all my frequently asked questions must say something about how Greenwich is changing these days, though since it’s been the number one FAQ ever since I started blogging it’s nothing very new. The question?

Where can I find a reliable cleaner?

I get asked this, on average, once a month, but recently the gloom and dirt of a filthy winter has clearly become ingrained – and people have become desperate for a spot of spring cleanery. Three people have asked me in the past seven days, so I guess it’s worth having a general discussion about it.

The first thing I should say is that I can’t actually recommend anyone from experience. Whatever cleaning gets (sporadically) done chez Phantom is currently ‘in-house’ (I have a very fetching 1950s-floral print tricorn-and-pinny ensemble, just so you can picture the scene) though I can’t say that I enjoy the experience.

The Nirvana of cleaners, of course, is that jolly old soul, Mrs Mopp. The cheery cockney cliche in a turban headscarf who pops up with happy homilies and stories about a clutch of scampish grandchildren in British comedies circa 1963. She’s the career cleaner who actually enjoys being on her ‘ands and knees polishing front steps.

And they do exist. I even know some people who have one. Trouble is, once you’ve got your ‘treasure’, you’re not going to want to tell anyone about her (she is always a ‘she’ in Ealing Comedy Land) in case you lose her.

So it becomes a secret as closely guarded as the Masons. People who would normally share all kinds of intimacies suddenly clam up as soon as they’re asked The Question.

Good cleaners – the ones who actually do it because it’s a viable career choice – are always booked up to the gills, which means that what’s left are either people who are doing it because they can’t find anything else, or are employed by cleaning companies, often at less-than-respectable wages.

Admittedly it was America, but I’ve been edgy about cleaning companies ever since I read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed. Of course, I’m sure British companies wouldn’t dream of treating their workers poorly or get up to the sort of scams that the American ones do (for example, if they’re running late, sometimes they just squirt the room with a very smelly polishing spray to make it smell like they cleaned it…) Perhaps someone can recommend a company that pays its workers a good wage and consistently come up with decent results for my questioners.

I get little photocopied leaflets through the door from people from time to time offering their services. They may be the treasures that everyone seeks, but their problem is that no one knows who they are. The issue being, of course (especially since the folk who want cleaners are typically out during the day) leaving a key to your place with some random person who stuck a leaflet through your door.

So what’s the answer? I don’t know. Maybe someone’s prepared to share their treasure with the good folks of Greenwich. Me, I’m just going to don that pinny and flowery tricorn and get down on me ‘ands and knees…

New-Old Brewery Almost Here

Tuesday, January 26th, 2010

Here are some exclusive photos, courtesy of Rod, showing the arrival of the new equipment for the Old Brewery. It’s all coming on apace over at the ORNC, and the new brewery/bar/bistro is scheduled for the third week in March.

I’m very excited, despite not being a beer drinker, just because it all feels so right. The old brewery was here, it’s been excavated properly and it’s going to have a real purpose again (I don’t know what it was used for in the intervening years, but I’m guessing something dull like deckchair storage.)

It’s a local brewery, making quality beers and – well – let’s face it, a company called Meantime really does need to be at least within spitting distance of the Meridian line.

I’m particularly looking forward to the bistro (that will be the non-beer-drinker in me) and the promised exhibition about the history of brewing on the site.

So – make a date in your diary for the third week in March, when you will be able to make like a Pensioner and drink real Greenwich Hospital beer again, albeit (hopefully) without the attendant dysentery that came with the original.

BTW, does anyone know what happened to the Wood Wharf restaurant? I’ve tried to visit it three times but each time it wasn’t serving food and didn’t look like it ever had. I hope it will start soon. I could do with a new restaurant to visit.

Ought To ‘Ave ‘Ad An ‘Uggins

Monday, January 25th, 2010

I tend to think of the Victorian all-rounder John Ruskin as a poet, but it would seem that he’s really more known as an art critic, friend of the pre-raphaelites – and JMW Turner fanatic.

Ruskin loved Turner’s work from the start – loved that Turner rejected traditional conventions and concentrated on what he saw with an artist’s heart – the colours, form, feel and truth of a subject rather than what was literally in front of his eyes.

His view wasn’t shared by all, though, and I found a lovely anecdote told by Ruskin over the weekend that made me smile.

He had been taking a turn around the Painted Hall, which was at the time doing service as an art gallery, its nominal ‘guides’ being grizzled Greenwich Pensioners earning a few pence by showing people round. Ruskin stopped to appreciate Turner’s Battle of Trafalgar (see above – it’s in the National Maritime Museum, if you want to take a closer look) and stood in front of the painting rather “longer than pleased my pensioner guide.”

Thinking that Ruskin was “detained by indignant wonder at seeing it in so good a place, he assented to my supposed sentiments by muttering in a low voice ‘Well, sir, it is a shame that that thing should be there. We ought to ‘a ‘ad an ‘Uggins, that’s sartin.’ “

The old tar wasn’t alone in not holding for all that modern art stuff.

“I can’t make English of it,” admitted another old boy.

“What a Trafalgar!” grumbled another. “‘E’s a damned deal more like a brickfield!”

Ruskin chuckles enormously at the antediluvian attitudes to art from the old sailors, but I confess I was a bit confused. Who was this ‘Uggins?

Turns out the NNM website was able to help there too. William John Huggins was a painter, with a more literal, traditional eye. He was an old sailor himself, so he knew how to get everything absolutely authentic, rigging-wise (Turner got ticked off for not being totally correct in things technical) but to me there’s more than that.

Huggins had worked from the bottom up, as an ordinary seaman, seeing the world and paying his dues – in exotic places, like Bombay and China. As far as the salty old sea dogs were concerned, he was one of their own, and they bought prints a-go-go of his work. He also painted the Battle of Trafalgar – apparently they’re in the Royal Collection (though I can’t find them), but the NMM has 26 works by himbut it was Turner’s work that was chosen for the Painted Hall.

I suspect that Huggins was the Jack Vettriano of his day – loved by the public, hated by art critics. Ruskin didn’t care for his work at all, saying that it looked like “no better than a correct model sailed across a pond.”

It does seem that Time has been kind to Huggins, though. Although he’s still not revered in the same way Turner is, his work commands high prices from collectors. The National Maritime Museum says his work is “a valuable record of the shipping of his period” – but I like it rather more than just as anatomical study. Certainly it’s inspired me to go back to the NMM to check his work out further. I’ll report back…

Cracking Times

Friday, January 22nd, 2010

Lizzie asks:

“After all the cold weather one or two cracks are appearing in my (Edwardian Terrace) house.

While I am hoping it is nothing to worry about I’d rather sort sooner than later. Can you recommend a good structural surveyor, who is willing, for a sensible fee, to visit residential addresses (I tried finding one through RICS website but so far they all seem to want a bigger remit to do anything more than look at emailed photos).”

The Phantom replies:

Lizzie – would it be worth contacting your buildings insurance company? After all, it’s in their best interests too for your house not to fall down – if they can arrest a potential problem before it gets to underpinning stage, it will save them money – a bit like a car insurance company mending a windscreen free because it’s cheaper for them to mend it now than replace a shattered one later.

You don’t say where in Greenwich your house is, but chances are it’s up a hill of some sort (most of them seem to be round here.) If memory serves, the lower, Eastern-y slopes are sand and the higher, Western-y stuff near the heath is chalk (the Subterranean Greenwich guys would know more about this – and for heaven’s sake don’t take my word for it – I’m no geographer.)

There’s a fascinating leaflet called Holiday Geology about Greenwich’s composition that explains it all really well, but which I can’t put my spectral paw on just at the moment. It’s aimed at children but I thoroughly enjoyed it myself – it’s clearly written at Phantom-level.

It’s entirely possible that your house is built, in a biblically-unfriendly way, on sand. The bad news is that Thanet Sand shifts from time to time. The good news is that it’s not often very much.

If you’re up Point Hill-way or near the heath, the chalk has its own way of settling. It’s unlikely your place is built directly over one of the underground caves dotted through the hill, but it would be worth checking out either way before it gets too far. Melting snow and lots of rain can be quite destructive.

Your insurance company will almost certainly send their own surveyor round to take a look, and probably for nothing. If you’re unwilling to get the insurance involved or if you don’t have any buildings insurance, I confess I don’t know any surveyors at all around here myself, but I daresay that someone out there in Phantom Land will…

For Whom The Bell Tolls.

Thursday, January 21st, 2010

Annabel gets the prize for weirdest question so far this year (mind you, it’s only January…) She says:

“For the last few weeks pretty much every weekday morning and possibly weekends too, at around 6am there is a middle-aged black lady that walks up Trafalgar Road holding a large book in front of her as if she is reading from it and speaking/singing whilst ringing a bell.

The first few times it sounded like Father Christmas was coming (well it was December). I’m not sure where she starts walking from or where she ends up but all I know is she walks past my house on Greenwich Park Street at roughly the same time each day, very odd and I’m wondering if anyone else has heard her and knows why she is doing it.”

The Phantom replies:

I haven’t heard or seen her myself, but this sounds like a religious or mystic ritual to me.

Every so often I get a leaflet through the door chez Phantom, advising me of the services of a certain Sister Angelina. From memory, she predicts the future, helps with everything from recalcitrant lovers to impotence, evil business transactions to health and family problems – a sort of one-stop psychic shop. I understand she is 98% accurate, too.

I’ve seen her car parked down Woolwich Road on numerous occasions (or at least one advertising her services) and she clearly must be psychic because the car never appears to get a ticket, however long it’s parked on yellow lines.

She has a rival in the leafleting stakes, one Professor Manjou, who is a staggering 100% accurate.

I have no idea if this is Sister Angelina or not, but it sounds like the kind of job she’d be called to do…

More On Gloucester Circus

Thursday, January 21st, 2010

I don’t normally like to return to a subject as quickly as this, but Stephen had some really interesting extras to go with yesterday’s Faded Greenwich post (he also has a better pic of the sign – see above.)

He used to live at Number 21 and tells me that the naming of the whole of the oddly-shaped ovalish street as ‘Circus’ is only relatively recent. If you take a peek at this 1908 map you’ll see that only the rounded, south side was originally the Circus; the flatter, northern side, which was hastily finished with any-old buildings after the cash ran out, rather than continuing the elegant, sweeping curve of Searles’s vision, was known slightly more prosaically as Gloucester ‘Place.’

Stephen tells me his brother remembers a pediment stretching between the two sides, that said ‘Circus’, but if there was one there, it’s long since bombed to buggery in WWII, which destroyed most of the less-pretty north side and more-than-ideal of the south side too. Maybe there are some old photos knocking around. I keep meaning to try and find some pictures of bomb damage in the area.