Archive for February, 2012

Silvertown Tunnel Plans

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

So many people have told me about the consultation for the proposed TfL crossing proposals that I guess I should at least start a discussion here about them though of course Darryl at 853 has already said much sound stuff about it already.

I confess I’m finding it hard to get worked up about it myself. Not because I think it’s a particularly good idea – I don’t – it’s just going to send the bottleneck from one part of the A2 to another part – but because I sincerely think it’s never going to happen. It’s just been introduced as another random mad idea by Boris a couple of months before – oh, yes, I remember – an election.

Let’s face it – we haven’t got the cash. He cancelled a bridge – which costs a hell of a lot less than a tunnel – ostensibly on financial grounds (though it’s not hard to guess the real reason) and nigh on four years after that fiasco, we have even less money. Ken disapproves of the idea. So – Boris can’t afford it and Ken would cancel it anyway.

I can’t help feeling that this is a battle that we don’t actually need to knock ourselves out on – like the periodic pedestrianisation-of-Greenwich-Town-Centre plans that rock up every so often this is a chestnut that rears its head every few years, then, just when everyone’s got themselves lathered up, ducks itself down again like one of those intermittent faults you get in car engines.

Of course, I know I’m going to be shot down in flames for such complacency. I just can’t help feeling we’ve been here before – several times – and now is just a little early to start mounting the barricades.

Tickets will be available in ten years’ time for Ye Grande Phantome Tricorn-Eating event…

Greenwich Alphabet – A

Monday, February 27th, 2012

Today’s post is brought to you by the Letter A

Okay folks – here’s a great idea thrown up by the post below about An Alphabet of London. Westcliff suggested we have our very own Greenwich Alphabet – and why not, indeed.

So – to kick off today – I want to know what the letter A stands for in local Greenwich parlance…

I’ll start:

Anson Gates

Ashburnham Triangle

Azof Street



An Alphabet of London

Monday, February 27th, 2012

It’s hard to work out quite what I’d describe Christopher Brown’s Alphabet of London as. Memoir? Puzzle? Art? Design manual? Commentary? Reportage? It’s a bit of all of those things, and although it will probably just be filed under ‘London’ in bookshops it could easily be described as any of the above.

Artist Christopher Brown works with linocut – the sort of thing most of us do in primary school then forget exists. He must have got through entire kitchens’ worth of lino over the years but, as he tells us in a sort of ‘how-to’ at the end, he’s brought the medium up to date by combining Photoshop and Pantone colours with the more traditional gouging tools and tracing paper.

He’s exhibited all over the place, from the RA to the V&A, but An Alphabet of London is clearly a labour of love. He has poured his life and personal experiences into its creation, juxtaposing obvious things with stuff you need to spend a little time to work out and  although the cover (and the title) make it look like a hip kids’ book, but it takes an adult to get all the references.

It starts out as a charming little memoir – Brown lived much of his early life in Putney and gradually learned to explore and love the rest of the city. But just as you get into the swing of the memoir format, the alphabet-proper begins.

Each letter gets a double-page spread, with one landmark and an array of things beginning with that letter which sum up London to Brown. I turned immediately to ‘G’ of course:

but although the Gherkin, Great Fire and Gilbert and George were there, I needed to turn to ‘O’ for ‘Observatory’, ‘Q’ for Queens House and ‘R’ for Royal Naval College to find Greenwich. It takes a while to work out what some of the entries stand for, which makes it a charming book to read snuggled up by the fire with someone else, perhaps a child, perhaps a lover.

An Alphabet of London is not the sort of book you buy for yourself – well, not the sort of thing I can usually buy for myself. It’s not a ‘must-have’ reference volume. It’s the sort of book you want to have; the sort of thing you purchase as a gift and hope someone buys for you in return.

Hornfair Water Feature

Friday, February 24th, 2012

Okay folks, I have a request to make.

Not for me (for once) but for Matt, who works for (Royal) Greenwich Council and who has been tasked with installing a new water feature at Hornfair Park, at the rose garden above.

He’d really like to re-create the original feature. Normal budget restrictions do apply so he confesses this could be a tall order but what makes it an even taller order is that he has no idea what it actually looked like. Despite searching Heritage archives and park management files he says he’s had no joy in finding a picture that includes the old fountain.

So now he’s asking us if anyone has any photos, or even memories, of what this feature looked like. It was still around in the 80s or 90s, so maybe, just maybe someone has a picture of themselves as a kid playing there with the fountain in the background or can remember being dunked in it or something. I get the feeling Matt would be grateful for any pointers at all as to what he should be putting there and short of looking at other parks of Hornfair’s age, he’s a bit stuck…

Ballast Quay – Part Two – A Garden is Born

Friday, February 24th, 2012

Today, I’m going back to Hilary Peters’s fabulous memories of Ballast Quay Union Wharf in the 1960s. Just to recap, she’s walked along the river until she found a Georgian house where she might be able to build a garden, persuaded Morden College (who own a lot of the land round there) not to pull down the gorgeous little houses there, and rented one of them for the princely sum of £7 a week. Now, she’s going to build a garden…

I now had a key to the huge wooden gates, though they were hard to open. I could go in and direct the clearing up. It was my very first taste of landscaping, an activity which makes you feel like God.

Lovells’s end crane reached over my wharf, so it was used to remove the barrels of bitumen, railway sleepers and general grot that accumulates on disused wharves. There was a huge cast-iron grab, too, which I wanted to use as a flower pot but that went. If I’d saved it, it would have gone where the plane tree now is. It must have been 6ft tall and 5ft diameter.

I was soon joined by a gang of local kids, desperate for something to do. And there was lots to do. Just picking up the broken glass took days. One of the kids knew of a young cherry tree in the garden of a house that was being pulled down in Banning St. Another had a father who had a key to the water mains. All of them could climb like monkeys. I was alternately blamed for leading them astray and praised for my social work. Together, we spread the topsoil and planted the grass. The cherry tree went in at the end by the pub, the railway sleepers made plant frames. The residual grot was mounded up and covered with soil.

I took this picture in January of the cherry tree – it’s not at it’s best – give it a few weeks and it will be back to its lovely self, but as you can see, forty-odd years have been kind to it…

Our neighbours were wonderful. They would knock on the door and give us food – sandwiches, roast meat, cakes, pancakes, smoked cod, hot cross buns, summer pudding, batter pudding, bread pudding, mince pies. Every time of year had its special food.

Then the greenhouse was built and I called myself Union Wharf Nursery Garden.

I maintained the gardens at Amen Court for St Paul’s Cathedral and the garden round Southwark Cathedral, where the Borough Market was still a real vegetable market and the garden was for drunks to have a sleep. (Plus ça change – TGP) Covent Garden was real market too, which I used, getting up at 4am and driving my mini-van straight into the Piazza.

The wharf housed a shifting collection of plants and trees, and occasionally our neighbours, who had no tradition of using a garden like a London Square. They just kept giving me food in exchange. And when I kept hens in the shed (free range on the lawn during the day) and gave them eggs, they wanted to pay me as well.

On one occasion, a hen disappeared, and then another. There was a large Dutch coaster moored against the wharf (at high tide, the captain’s cabin was a few inches from the shed.) I went on board to mourn my loss. The captain denied all knowledge of hens, wharves and even ships. Most Dutch people speak perfect English but this does not apply to sailors accused of theft. He understood nothing. Soon after, they left on the tide, and there on the sea wall, was the corpse of my second lost hen, carefully returned, though dead. I assume they ate the first one…

I started to work at St Katherine’s Dock, designing garden after garden as the development progressed, salvaging blocks of granite and York stone. They form the basis of ‘the rockery’ in the garden at Ballast Quay, now covered in ivy. All my dockland gardens had a fig tree because I liked the one at Wapping Pier Head so much. To me that huge fig tree against the Georgian houses in Wapping summed up the powerful mix of industry and beauty that my gardens struggled to recreate. Eating the figs in Ballast Quay is an unforeseen bonus.

Any plant that managed to put down roots through the paving slabs became a symbol of new life. The ferns and buddleias that grew out of the dock walls at St. Katherine’s were a language hardly anyone understood, certainly not the architects, who wanted me to make the place look like a million dollars. They actually said so.

But while the architects of St Katherine’s Dock were doing their best to appeal to the gin-palace owners they hoped would colonise that part of the Thames, Hilary already had her eye on another piece of real estate, one that would appeal to a completely different sort of customer. But I’ll leave that for next time…

The fabulous black and white shots, by the way, are by Richard Proctor whose photographs of Greenwich, taken back in the 1980s, really seem to capture something of what the wharf was like in much earlier days…

Langton Way Plaque

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012

Lynsey saw this little plaque in Langton Way recently and asked if I know anything about it, which I don’t, so of course I’m asking you. I can find no reference to the Langton Way Association online – it’s clearly quite an exclusive club – I guess you don’t need a website when you can just call round next door for a cuppa and a war council.

My excuse is that Langton Way is a little off my manor – if you’re not quite sure where it is, it’s that delightful little road that runs parallel with the A2 across Blackheath behind the large heath-fronting ‘Captains’ Houses’ and it crosses the even more delightful Angerstein Lane, home to the Phantom’s Joint Number One Favourite Front Garden.

According to Neil Rhind’s excellent Blackheath & Environs II (more about Neil’s latest work v. soon, BTW) it’s named for Langton House, a 14-roomed place at number 132 Shooter’s Hill Road, built speculatively in 1863

It’s a fantastic, ‘secret’ little country lane, somewhere I always enjoy walking through, though I can begin to understand why it might need an association of its own. I can’t help thinking that it’s a classic victim/victor of the back-garden-conversion trend. It used to be a service lane for the big houses on the heath, and although it did have some commercial uses – by nurserymen and, slightly bizarrely, a stable for polo ponies, it was pretty quiet until the Great War, after which a lot of the big houses were converted into flats.

There are some cute old buildings there, converted coach houses and the like, but they’ve been gradually joined since the 1950s by some rather less cute modern ones and although the lane is still very lovely with the two sorts all jumbled together, as you can see from Joe’s photo below, I can understand why existing residents might not want to see any more back gardens converted.

Neil’s book tells me there was a scheme mooted just after WWII to develop Langton Way into a main, relief -road for the A2 and I am wondering whether the Michael Burton who’s remembered in this plaque may have been at least partially responsible for quashing the proposal. If someone saved Phantom Towers from being demolished for a trunk road, I think I’d probably give them a plaque too.

But in truth, I don’t know. Does anyone else?

A Stitch in Time

Tuesday, February 21st, 2012

Jim has a problem many of us face at one time or other – a small job around the house needing doing. Not big enough for it to be a major deal, but irritating and something that if it’s not seen to might turn into a bigger issue. He says

I need someone to re-establish a loose fence post in my back garden and would like to use someone local, but haven’t a clue who to ask.

There are, of course, many ‘no job too small’ handy men/women advertising in the local papers and newsletters and some of them are total gems but I know from bitter experience that firms that look promising in the small ads can’t all be trusted.

I’m not aware that there’s anyone in my Trusted Tradespeople section who does general small jobs, so I’m asking here – have you used anyone local who’s done a good job for you?

Don’t Cross the Streams

Monday, February 20th, 2012

Chas asks:

Any idea why the escalators at North Greenwich tube station are configured the way they are? At the moment you get off the bus at the north end of the bus stands, then have to cross a stream of people coming out of the tube on the ‘up’ escalators which are also at the north end, to get to the ‘down’ ones. The people coming out of the tube then have to cross the flow of us ex-bus passengers heading for the ‘down’ escalators so they can get to the buses on the south end of the bus stand. It’s particularly problematic when there’s something big on at the O2 and there are lots of people coming out of the ‘up’ escalator.

Surely switching the up and down escalators would make the flow much simpler?

The Phantom replies

You know it’s never occurred to me before, but since you mention it, yes, that does seem like a simple switch that could be made. I don’t think it makes much difference to the flow of people going to the O2 as there’s room both sides and they have to go back on themselves anyway. Of course they’d have to switch the in and out turnstiles at the bottom, but I bet that’s an easy fix.

Can anyone think of a reason why a switch like that would be a bad idea? If not, I think I’ll drop TfL a line…

Market People

Friday, February 17th, 2012

Greenwich Market as a concept has an uncertain future. The village market that used to sell the kind of tat intriguing vintage items tourists, foreign and local, flocked to Greenwich to see has already gone (though I was relieved to be able to buy a set of old door handles the other week from one of the stall holders who have moved to the Clocktower site) and the covered market, although to be nominally kept in the redevelopment mooted to start next year will move to the grounds of the ORNC for an indeterminate time before returning to a sanitised reincarnation of its former self.

We may keep something that is called ‘a market’ – but the grubby, slightly anarchic, bohemian quality that has grown to represent Greenwich’s various markets, not without its dangers, but something I love and which still just about clings to areas like the Clocktower has never felt more in danger of being subsumed into sterile conformity.

Part of the joy of markets is the slightly hap-hazard, quirky individualism that has grown organically. You can’t ‘create’ one. The clean, sparkling – and terminally tedious – Apple Market in Covent Garden is testament to that. It has to develop, slowly.

There are two parts to the formula needed to propagate such a tender plant. Punters – which we still have, though I understand in fewer numbers than in previous Februarys – and the stall holders themselves.

Market stallholders are a curious breed. We have our stereotypical images of them, good and bad, but there’s one thing you can’t level at them – they are rarely dull. Many have extraordinary previous lives and they usually have a story to tell.

Old Phantom mucker Paul – author, journalist and passionate Greenwich market preservation fighter – has just started a new blog about the stallholders of London markets and I’ve been having a look.

As you might expect from a journalist, it’s closer to a print publication in style – less ‘chatty’ than most of the blogs I read, each post being a Q&A with a stallholder (some of which are in Greenwich, of course, which is my excuse for including it today). I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see it transfer to the glossy mag of a Sunday newspaper at some point.

The questions follow a pattern, though are not a complete formula and it makes a fascinating read even if – or perhaps because of – once or twice a thing said by someone guarantees I will never shop with them, though other interviewees make me positively want to visit their stall. I particularly like the butterfly guy…

But that’s where the interest lies. This intriguing group of diverse individuals present themselves warts and all – and I have just added it to my reading list.

Son et Lumiere 1958

Thursday, February 16th, 2012

We’ve talked about son et lumiere shows before – Greenwich was the first British place to host such an event – in 1957. An idea born in France in 1952, it’s still a really popular summer thing to do across the channel; even in more northern (and therefore British-weather-ish) places like Amiens, where they have the most amazing light show over the cathedral entrance, showing the carved stone statues as they would have looked in medieval times. But over here, they tend to be sporadic events if they happen at all.

We had one a couple of years ago, and it was brilliant – with the light show projected off the Queen’s House:

and I really hoped that it would be the start of a new interest, but nothing else has happened since. Fireworks, nice though they are, are not the same. And if they come with music, they never seem to be connected with it – the bangs come at all the wrong moments.

I came across this old brochure for the 1958 Son et Lumiere, the year after the triumphant first British outing, which implies that they were hoping it would become an annual event. Charles Laughton is back on narration duty and the London Philharmonic is doing the strings thing again. Even the script is much the same – the history of Greenwich, with marching Romans, ravishing Danes and taxing Normans – it’s just expanded.

It cost a fairly hefty 5/- to get in, and I can’t help thinking it must have been hard to keep the local urchins from climbing railings etc. and get a free view, but it must have been quite a show. I wonder if anyone took any pictures?

Technology has advanced so far now that we are used to seeing mega-screens and outdoor cinema. But son et lumiere is different. It’s a piece of created, site-specific art, and I think it’s not been yet been exhausted as a form.

I guess in these days of cuts it’s not something we’re likely to see again soon, even in this year of all manner of celebration, but I rather wish someone would give Greenwich son et lumiere another run for its money.