Archive for October, 2011

A Week of Greenwich Ghosts (2)

Tuesday, October 25th, 2011

I worry for today’s odd Greenwich ghost. We know very little about the seaman who is supposed to keep watch from the crow’s nest – nothing about who is supposed to have seen him, who he might be or when he was last spotted, but I find myself wondering what’s happened to him recently, given the Cutty Sark hasn’t actually had a crow’s nest for quite some time.

Once he must have had quite a cushy job of it – dry-docked, no listing oceans, a whole bunch of other spectres to chat with and a Christmas tree every year. But what happens to phantoms whose home is first dismantled then set fire to?

I guess he could have made an almighty leap to one of the local trees, from which he can keep lookout (best views in the winter…) Or maybe he’s gone on vacation to Chatham along with his beloved crow’s nest, and he’s been having a fine old time in the dockyard. I guess Admiral Byng could have taken pity on him and got him in the with the ORNC gang. It’s even possible that, given he doesn’t actually need to physically stand on the wooden platform, he could still be manifesting away to himself way up high in the air above the ship and we’ve just not thought to look.

But I don’t know. What happens to ghosts who lose their earthly homes? I have images of phantasmagorical sleeping bags, spectral soup kitchens and spooky seamans’ missions…


Thanks to Aliyahgator for the illustration.

A Week of Greenwich Ghosts (1)

Monday, October 24th, 2011

I don’t often do a whole week of things – I generally prefer occasional series of interesting oddities but this week, in honour of the time of year, I’m teaming up with local illustrator Aliyahgator to talk about some of Greenwich’s odder ghosts.

It’s a pretty well-worn path by anyone who’s ever written about the town – even I’ve covered ghosts on several occasions (and yes, I admit, I have actually been known to invent one or two in the past.) But as the mornings grow mistier and moistier, the sun gets lower in the sky and the evenings are darker with each passing day, revisiting ghost stories is like meeting old friends.

The problem with most of the ghosts that have been seen around here is that they very rarely fit a ‘story’ – they are ‘sightings’, not fiction. If you want a proper story with a beginning, middle and end, you’d be best nipping along to Greenwich Theatre on Thursday for The Haunted Bride. Instead we get ‘vignettes’ – fleeting moments when someone thought they saw something. One of the things I like about Aliayahgator’s illustrations is that there are no naff representations of the actual ghosts. Instead, slightly skewed images of places we know that might, you know, might just, have something else in there.

Today, we have one of my favourite mental images, gleaned from the archives of The Paranormal Database – the ghostly red-haired pallbearers of Crooms Hill.

The sighting was in 1934 – a woman in Greenwich Park watched a group of red-headed women, cut off at the knees, carrying a coffin to the Crooms Hill Gate, at which point they vanished.

Why women? Why red-headed? Why…well, actually, just why?

Don’t ask me. All I can do is suppose, but I can have a stab.

Apparently, in Irish folklore, red hair is a sign of bad luck (an altogether unfortunate superstition, given the number of people with that colour hair in Ireland…) after a flamed-haired goddess called Macha was forced by her husband to run a race, even though she was pregnant at the time. She won, but went into premature labour. She cursed Irish men who she blamed for making her race.

So where does this leave us? Well, the only church I can think of around Crooms Hill is Our Lady Star of the Sea, built for Catholic sailors, many of whom would have been Irish. But who these mysterious red-headed, footless women would have been, and who the corpse inside the casket might be is anyone’s guess. I’m struggling to think of things that would have been going on in 1934 that would have caused such a manifestation at that particular time and no other (other than the imbibement of a certain other kind of spirit.)

But what a fabulous mental image, eh?

A Phantom Cannot Live by Pate Alone…

Friday, October 21st, 2011

Tell me folks – am I being really outré here? The last few times I’ve dined out someone or other in my party has ordered the paté. Is there some trendy thing whereby eating bread/toast with paté is out of fashion?

Every time there has been little or no bread-like-substance upon which to put the paste, leaving my pals with the conundrum of how to use a knife and fork to eat something the consistency of Brie (amusing for me, but less so for them). In Greenwich this trend has been manifested in the last couple of weeks at 16″ West – a couple of teeny bits of toast that would have had to have blocks of paté the size of Wales on each of them to get through it all – and the Rivington – absolutely nothing whatsoever to put the meat paste on – though they are by no means the only culprits, just the ones I’ve most recently witnessed.

Am I being really out-with-the-times here? Surely bread is the  cheapest bit of the meal and it would seem in the interests of the restaurateur to provide enough to eat something soft and gooey with? Or maybe it’s a cunning plan  to make sure you’re still hungry at the end of the meal and order cheese (with not enough crackers)?

Anthony Francis Oscar Sampayo

Friday, October 21st, 2011

Okay – I was supposed to be doing something else but there is nothing like procrastination to turn a productive afternoon into something less useful – albeit infinitely more fascinating.

It started out with a gravestone in East Greenwich Pleasaunce. I initially photographed it to remind myself to look up the word ‘plenipotentiary’.

But then when I did look it up I started to wonder what on earth a French Minister ‘diplomat with full powers’ was doing in an East Greenwich graveyard.

That one, I still don’t know. Not least because he appears to have anglicised his name. After much searching, I discovered another French diplomat – minister to Portugal, no less, with exactly the same dates – only with the name Antoine François Oscar Sampaio – but I can’t find out much about him, either. His granddaughter, though – a totally different story and I found out what I know about him from her biographies, which appear to be ten a penny. But more on her in a moment.

Certainly Antoine was already living in London and calling himself Anthony Sampayo when he married an American heiress, Virginia Timberlake (whose own grandmother had been implicated in the notorious ‘petticoat affair’ that nearly brought down president Andrew Jackson) in 1849. I can’t find out where they were living – but hey, why not Greenwich? Everyone  of any note comes here at some point…

Virginia was, apparently, brilliant, if a bit ‘lacking in veracity and getting ‘coarser’ as she got older, whatever that means. An acquaintance remarked “I suppose she may need money, or craves notoriety,” and indeed both are possible – by that time she would have been a widow, and everyone knows what Greenwich Birds are like…

Or maybe she just wanted some of her granddaughter’s celebrity. For yes, folks, I’ve managed to find an (extremely slim) link between Greenwich and Olga Meyer.

Who she? Oh, Come on

She the daughter of Marie Blanche, Anthony and Virginia’s girl, born, I note, the same year as her parents got married – just guessing now, but maybe a reason why the happy couple weren’t in Portugal any more…

But the gossip-mongers were much more interested in Marie-Blanche’s later life than her birth. She was officially the Prince of Wales’s goddaughter but everyone knew he was really her lover, and it was rumoured that Donna Maria Beatrice Olga Alberta Caracciolo (Olga’s real name) was actually Edward VII’s daughter.

She certainly lived up to her heritage if she was. Born in 1871, she went on to be an artist’s model, socialite, muse, writer, fencing champion, gossip-columnist, coke-sniffer and fashionista – oh, and a celebrated lesbian when ‘that sort of thing’ wasn’t supposed to be going on.

She married a couple of times, most notably to photographer Adolph de Meyer. It was a useful marriage for all concerned – he was gay and she was much more interested in women – her most famous affair being with Princess Edmund de Polignac, the heiress to the Singer sewing machine fortune, who’d made a similarly convenient union with a French amateur composer.

Her life sounds like something out of a novel (Olga Meyer’s, though the Princess’s life was pretty steamy too) and got wackier as she got older – changing her name to Mahrah on the advice of her astrologer and acquiring a tongue considerably coarser than her mother’s – though, like so many lights that burn that bright, it all ended in tears in a detox clinic in Austria in 1930.

I can’t see that the Baroness Olga de Meyer, photographed here by her husband, ever lived in Greenwich. But perhaps she visited her old* Granddad’s grave sometime.

Odd isn’t it, where a gravestone will lead you. More to come soon…


*actually he wasn’t old at all – just 44 when he died. I have no idea how.

Afternoon Hens

Thursday, October 20th, 2011

Emily asks:

I was wondering if you could recommend a nice place for afternoon tea in Greenwich… the catch is I need a place big enough for 16 people! It’s for a hen party in January, so we’ll need to be able to sit inside.

The Phantom replies:

My suggestion would be the orangery at the Fan Museum in Crooms Hill. They’re only open on Tuesdays and, if memory serves, Sunday afternoons, but I guess if you could fill it, they might be amenable to opening another time especially in January when everything’s so quiet. It’s a gorgeous little room, perfect for girly afternoon tea – and you could book the whole place in advance. At £6 a head for the full monty (sorry – in the pre 1997-sense – don’t get all excited now…) it’s not going to break the bank either.

But maybe other people have a suggestion for a special afternoon tea in Greenwich?

In and About in Old Greenwich

Thursday, October 20th, 2011

There are one or two notable gaps in the Phantom Book Shelf. It still bugs the hell out of me, for instance, that I cannot, and haven’t been able to in the five and a half years I’ve been writing this blog, locate a copy of the Greenwich Theatre Book however much I try, which, I hope, will tell the story of Greenwich Theatre’s transformation in the 60s and 70s. I have a fairly useful leaflet and two books of photographs – perfectly nice but not the volume that’s going to give me the details I really want. I’ve looked a couple of times in the Heritage Centre but, ahem, always get sidetracked with something else – one of the hazards of such a place.  Ah, well. All comes to the internet eventually.

So yeah, there are some books out there that I am still searching for. But generally I like to think that I at least know what’s out there to find.

So the very best red-letter day of all is discovering there’s one I didn’t even know about. In and About Old Greenwich is just such a juicy volume, and it hints at another being out there.

I have been unable to find out anything about G.L. Culver Budd – perhaps someone here knows who he was – but, in July 1910, he decided that there hadn’t been a history of Greenwich for some time and he decided to remedy the situation.

It has a publisher – South Eastern Press, 139 Greenwich Road (which makes at least two book publishers in Greenwich at the time, including Richardsons) but if you ask me this is a privately produced work – it has the feel of ‘self-published’ about it – and there is a list of local lords, knights, MPs and esquires who contributed to the publishing costs in the front (I have this image of Mr Budd sitting in his study of an eternal Edwardian summer Sunday afternoon agonising over which order to put which dignitary on the list… )

It is, mainly, just a re-hash of the usual stories about Greenwich’s royal past, with chapters entitled In the Days of Bluff King Hal and In the Days of Good Queen Bess, though the chapters about the Peasants’ Revolt and the nasty Roundheads are amusing in his sheer outrage that the lower classes might want a say in anything that affected them.

As a history book, then, it doesn’t have an awful lot to say beyond Hasted and leStrange, which Culver-Budd has heavily used (both of which are funnier). But where he is at his best is in bringing us up to date with things that were happening as he wrote. Who owns what house now, what plans there are for such and such – that sort of thing.

And he does come up with some odd little snippets, like Mince Pie House (one of Vanbrugh’s lost back garden follies) being currently known as Sherwood House and the incident in 1734 (the same year that the Anglo Saxon burials were excavated) when workmen digging a well at the bottom of Maze Hill discovered a stone chest with a lid, containing several Danish coins but he is frustrating in his detail. He tells us that the date on the coins – 326AD – is ‘quite erroneous’ but he doesn’t tell us what the date actually was or what happened to said coins.

There is enough in here to be curious, and to warrant some extra digging, but I rather wish that his other book had fetched up. Memories of Greenwich, sounds much more interesting – an Edwardian gentleman’s memories of a town that even he admits has changed greatly in his own lifetime – now that I’d like to read. I am far more interested in what someone thought and remembered in 1910 than reading yet another version of the old tales. But that work, which I’m guessing was also self-published, seems to have disappeared entirely. I’ll have to check down at the Heritage Centre some time.

Don’t, by the way, bother trying to find it on any of the normal websites – I’ve already scoured them – absolutely nothing – though there are a couple of copies of In and About Old Greenwich knocking around. They are for sale at a lot more than I paid for mine and personally I’d say say your cash for a nice clean copy of Le Strange or Hasted.


Stephen’s just sent me a pic of his own copy – signed by the great C-B himself…

Doesn’t he have a fabulously Edwardian signature. Actually there are two signatures, one in pencil and saying ‘compliments to…’ which makes me wonder if it was a pre-copy.

Rear Window (23)

Wednesday, October 19th, 2011

Isn’t this a fascinating photo? For all of us who can’t see behind the various hoardings, an aerial shot of – what I calculate to be five separate building jobs – though I may have miscalculated – it could be more, could be fewer.

It’s a shot taken for the forthcoming book Greenwich Then and Now by Barbara Ludlow and Julian Watson, taken by Julian from the window of a kindly upstairs resident of Coltman House and I love it because it’s not a static shot, it’s work in progress.

In the foreground we have the ‘gardens’ themselves – and, from what I have seen of the plans, they are much greener than the area’s been for years, much to the chagrin of English Heritage for whom I usually have a lot of respect but whose desire for an urban dockfront feel at this bleak spot would be as specious as greenery and a hell of a lot less enjoyable when the icy Thames winds blow for the three-quarters of the year that don’t have the sunshine you always get in architects’ plans.

Next to the gardens, on the left, is the interminable Foot Tunnel project which has, frankly, been a bit of a disgrace. I have lost count of the number of cyclists I’ve seen going up to the door, realising the whole bloomin’ thing is shut and, knowing that there’s nothing down at Woolwich either, turning round wearily to peddle their way up to Rotherhithe. This is a public highway – which is why, up to this particular works, it was left open 24 hours a day and if it did close, for filming, for example, (i.e. when someone else had to foot the bill)  it had to have proper provision made. The excuse of the DLR is fine for pedestrians happy to shell out for the ticket but cyclists can whistle. It is, apparently, due to be opened ‘in the new year,’ whatever that means – my bet is ‘in time for the Olympics’ which seems to be the mantra for everything these days.

Behind that, we can just see the entrance to the new pier and, separately but together, the strange skellingtons that will make up the ticket office and the cafe. I’ve heard all sorts of rumours about what’s going to be there – a Zizzi’s, Nandos, Byron (no indies, natch) but in case you can’t read Steve’s photo

it looks as though it’s actually going to be that retail-park blandity Frankie and Benny’s. Sigh.

Steve’s been trying to get the signage sorted out around that area for some time – after ORNC hours it’s quite hard to get through from West to East Greenwich in that part as random paths have been shut off and the ORNC security guys are not to be argued with. He’s discovered that this mess will stay until the whole area opens properly but has been at least promised some signage. Go, Steve.  Let’s hope it’s not like this splendid example of Greenwich Council signage, wrong on so many levels and spotted by Dan:

Which leaves us with the Cuty Sark herself. I don’t want to know what’s gone on with the engineering, what kind of stress those timbers are under or what corners were cut. We were left out of the loop when it mattered and all we’re likely to get now is platitudes if, indeed, they ever decide to actually talk to locals at all. But I have to say she’s looking good. Every time I walk past she seems to have a bit more fluffy frou, a little extra gold, a shininess more of paint. At last she looks like a ship again. Who knows – she might actually be ready for that all-important date.

And all this encapsulated in one photo. I can’t wait for Barbara and Julian’s book (one of several very exciting volumes to be published soon, and not Julian’s only outing.) It’s due at the publishers at the end of the month so we should see it – actually I don’t know how long books take to come out once they’re written so let’s just say ‘soon.’

All Better Now – more or less

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011

Some encouraging photos from Stephen. Of course the Olympic test events were much smaller than the real thing, but the grass that’s been fenced off in the photo, where the stadium was is actually much greener than the stuff around it and it’s only October.

For a while, those green fences seemed to be here for the whole winter but no, they’re packed up and there’s more room to crunch in the leaves.

That’s not to say it’s completely as it was – Gemma asked about these structures

which look like the ones used for spectators in the summer. Frankly it would seem pretty mad to take them down only to put them up again next year – and would probably create even more damage so I’m pretty cool about them really. IMHO they’re not an eyesore.

Of course it’s in the interests of Olympophiles to make sure it’s all put right quickly after test events.We can only speculate as to how quickly the park will be set right after the world has tramped across it next year – and this is only a dilute dummy-run. Next year will be a much tougher tread and there will be fewer eyes watching to see if it’s all done in a reasonable time.  But this seems pretty okay to me.

As a not-quite-non-sequitur, though, and just to prove that the Olympic business is in no way over, I refer you to an excellent post by Darryl at 853 who has a very interesting report on the planning meeting for the Equestrian Centre at Shooters Hill.

Mummers, Maypoles and Milkmaids

Monday, October 17th, 2011

A Journey Through the English Ritual Year. Sara Hannant

I can’t imagine that there’s anyone who’d be interested in buying this book who wouldn’t, on seeing the title. think of another volume probably already sitting on their shelves.

Steve Roud’s The English Year is, IMHO, the definitive work on the history and practice of English rites and rituals – covering, in eye-popping detail, pretty much every egg-rolling, face-pulling, pig-tossing, whip-willowing event the villagers of every county in the land have invented (or to be more accurate, usually reinvented in the late 20th Century) since antiquity and although he does fail to mention Greenwich’s very own nutty event, tumbling, I’ll forgive him that one as it was outlawed in 1857 and no one’s bothered to revive it (yet.)

I have to say that, as the proud owner of a fabulously pastel-tinted-hardcover copy of  The English Year it hadn’t occurred to me that I’d need another month-by-month coverage of events, but I do have to give Mummers, Maypoles and Milkmaids points for winning over Roud’s masterpiece in two ways. Firstly, Roud spectacularly fails to alliterate his title (though the subtitle does include  ’from May Day to Mischief Night,’ which proves that the letter M is very important in English folklore.)

But, seriously, folks, the one thing that, now I think about it, Roud doesn’t really include in The English Year is illustrations. He has a few, but the emphasis is very much on the text and including lots of information. And it’s quite hard, if you haven’t actually had to get out of the way very fast of the path of a flaming tar barrel dragged by a couple of scary chaps in stripy jumpers or, indeed, if you’ve been too hungover to get up for the annual ivy-covered-man’s shindig at the Globe Theatre (ahem) to know what it looks like.

Sara Hannant, being a photographer, has taken the visual route through the English year, trudging around the country seeing people getting as close as they can to their roots. She’s a relative newcomer to English rites and rituals, having been fascinated by Deptford’s annual Jack in the Green May Day celebrations in 2006 and must have spent a considerable amount of time with people in very odd costumes/makeup/leaves ever since – at least one one the events, the Lewes Fireworks, must have been last year, since, along with the usual pope and local ‘enemies of the bonfire’, the ‘guy’ ( always a topical figure stuffed with fireworks who’s paraded around the streets then set fire to) was an alarmingly realistic David Cameron with Nick Clegg as a puppet.

Hannant has taken a good selection of happenings, from the social events that would have brought villages together to the spiritual, though of course many will have had a spiritual base when they were begun. The only thing that seems to link them all are the sundry unlikely items which almost always turn out to be ‘symbols of fertility.’

I found it an oddly moving book. The pictures are thoughtful – from wide angle shots through to single faces and odd objects and something that really struck me that there’s no faux ‘mistiness’ or attempt to look olde worlde, which I’ve seen in other books on ritual. Much of our traditional eventing seems to take place at night, but given how dark a good two thirds of our nights are, that’s understandable.

I like too, that Hannant realises that these events are not just for the participants. Something I’ve always been impressed with locally is the way the Blackheath Morris Men will often get up before dawn to go and dance on the heath to mark a solstice or an equinox, and they feel no necessity to have any kind of spectators. They do it for themselves. But other events have more watchers than doers and I can never work out whether this is welcome or not.

I was particularly taken, not by the image of the actual Druids at Stonehenge (I’m sorry, I know its a failing, but I just can’t take Druids seriously…) but the photo on the next page of the hundreds of spectators, nearly all of whom are holding up cameras, mobile phones, cam-corders etc.

From a local point of view, there’s a splendid few pages devoted to Hannant’s inspiration, the Deptford Jack in the Green, and Fowler’s Troop. I like the scantily-clad lady throwing offerings to the Thames next to a couple of fertility-bathtubs, but my favourite shot is the fabulously incongruous image of a bloke entirely covered in leaves looking as though he’s just about to hop on the tube at Monument.

There are good, pithy captions with each set of photographs giving enough information to understand the context of the events, but the emphasis is on the images.

There are very, very few events in this volume that don’t appear to have been revived in the late 20th Century. That doesn’t  matter. This is not a history book. If you’re looking for that, get Roud. This is more a (literal) snapshot of what is going on within English folklore now, in the early 21st Century when, more and more, people are looking to their past to make sense of the present.

I said I found it an oddly moving book. There’s an exhibition of photographs from the book at the Horniman Museum running until next September. I should imagine seeing them even larger will make them even more haunting.


TellyTubby Sainsburys to Move

Friday, October 14th, 2011

Freaky – just as my computer pinged and someone asked if I’d had a leaflet about this, the thing popped through my door…

I guess whether you welcome Sainsburys eco-store closing so they can build a giant new one down the road will, to some extent at least, depend on where you live.

Anyone Greenwich side of the current store will probably, like me, sigh and count the extra walking time to get a pint of milk  and a bag ‘o buns (unless they’re local shopkeepers who will be rubbing their hands with glee – certainly my local corner shop will do much better, especially if he stops only stocking non-free-range eggs, which I’ve told him on many an occasion I will not buy under even the most egg-strapped circumstances…)

Anyone Charlton side will probably be rather pleased, given the land’s been empty for years and my dream of it being levelled and turned into a gorgeous walled garden centre was always unlikely to come true.

So where is the magical newly re-named ‘Meridian Site’?  Well – several degrees east of the actual Meridian, I can tell you that.

Well, I have to say the map they supply isn’t very clear. Here it is:

It looks to me like it’s the bit where Wickes and a load of old warehouses currently reside, though at first I thought it might be that big walled area behind ASDA.

They promise a giant shopping experience with TU clothes (whoo-bloomin’-hoo) homewares, a cafe  and an ‘Explore Learning Centre,’ which apparently will teach extra maths and English to kiddies.

Personally I have no real objection to the building of a whopping great store on the site of well, not very much really, but I do feel a bit fed up that the old building will be let to a ‘non-food retailer.’ I know why that is, of course, and it is good news for Greenwich’s smaller shopkeepers, but it will make  shopping for all the dull items like toilet rolls and washing powder into a right royal palaver for most people west of the A102(M).

They’re having the usual consultation, on Friday 21st, and Saturday 22nd October at Valley House, 445 Woolwich Road, SE7 7EP