Archive for July, 2013

Getting To Know You…

Tuesday, July 30th, 2013

The Phantom by Stephen

Brinley asks:

I fell in love with Greenwich a while ago and am now in the process of trying to buy a place in Charlton (a few mins from Westcombe Park). I’ve read your site with interest and wonder if you would mind giving me some tips on how to get to know the area better. I was planning to stop off at Little Nan’s cocktail tea party tomorrow and criss-cross the area on foot , but would appreciate any suggestions that you think might help someone who’s already inclined to like the area start appreciating it even more.

The Phantom replies:

Every Phantophile will have their own suggestions here, so I suggest you read any comments as well as mine, but in my view you have the right idea. Burning shoe leather is the only way to really get to know Greenwich – indeed, in many places it’s the only way to get to them as bikes/trains/cars/buses just don’t go.

Don’t expect to do it all at once – there’s a lot of Greenwich and it’s all very different. It divides up into discrete areas and it’s worth getting to know them all, then exploring the bits you like best in greater depth.

I’d start with the vistas. There are two main high-up viewpoints, the overcrowded but splendid lookout by Gen. Wolfe up at the Observatory and the much-less known Point at the top of Point Hill, looking out towards London, a bit of a faff to find but worth seeking out. My favourite way of getting there is to fiddle up through the blocks of new-build housing – there are steep steps – from Royal Hill then take the ‘country lane’ to the bottom of the jutty-out bit, before taking even steeper steps up to the top, though many just approach from Blackheath.

Then there’s the classic ‘Canaletto’ view from Island Gardens by the foot tunnel, I am rather fond of the one from Enderby Wharf on the Thames Path (we’ll get to that) and there’s an excellent bench on the ridge at the west end of Greenwich Park that bears a lazy afternoon’s sit.

I would then suggest you take the Thames Path all the way round from, say the Cutty Sark through to the ferry at Woolwich. You can go even futher both ways of course, and soon, when the famous swing bridge at the Creek is built (anyone have any updates on that one?) it will be easier to go west than ever. You should see the Peninsula while you can – it is changing at an alarming rate and will soon be all dreary apartments in glass and steel – enjoy what’s left sooner rather than later. Don’t be tempted to cut-off the very tip of the peninsula and nip straight across to where the Pilot Inn is, you’ll miss good stuff.

I personally adore the cable car, though it is not universally loved (it’s not terribly useful at the moment – I prefer to look at it as infrastructure for the future that Phantoms can play on now) I have one of those ten-trip tickets that makes it easy to just nip across, have a coffee at the Crystal (the weird looking glass building the other side) and then come back.

I’m assuming you’ve done the tourist stuff – the Maritime Museum, Observatory, ORNC etc, but once you’ve done the vanilla versions, they all repay regular visits and there’s always stuff on. Smaller gems like the Fan Museum are also wonderful.

Continuing with ‘areas’ of Greenwich, you should explore the areas around Hyde Vale, Crooms Hill and Diamond Terrace – just wander around (there’s an excellent vista from Diamond Terrace, too) then enjoy the pubs in Royal Hill, especially the Richard I (the Tolly) and Greenwich Meantime’s own Union.

The area around the Ashburnham Triangle, just to the west of there, is also worth a walk – there’s an excellent booklet on it, available at the visitor centre, by Diana Rimmell. Don’t forget to visit the Discover Greenwich Centre BTW, it’s a fabulous intro to the area.

You’ll need to walk up Maze Hill, see John Vanbrugh’s castle at the top of it and admire the view – perhaps before taking a LOOOOOONG walk around the park. Don’t miss the perimeters – and make sure you see the deer at the back. Keep an eye out for open days at Westcombe Park Woodlands, just behind it – or better still volunteer as a friend.

I am a big personal fan of East Greenwich. It’s a little harder to love, but for me it has a gritty reality that the west is just too shiny for. And you should check out Blackheath Standard as it’s closer to you in Charlton.

Which brings me to your new stamping ground. You will not be there long before you feel the need to at least see inside Charlton House, peek around St Lukes Church and wish that Inigo Jones’s loo was still open.

But to get to really love the place you need to go to a Charlton match – the place has to be one of the family-friendliest grounds in London.

Wandering around the backstreets of Charlton itself will reap rewards if you keep an eye out

and, the other side, over at Woolwich there is also much to enjoy, though perhaps that’s for another post.

But for me, to really get to love Greenwich is to get involved. Join stuff, go to the theatre (the pantos are superb) look out for events, join the Picturehouse, rootle round the market, drink the beer, try the pubs (I’m a big fan of the Pelton Arms and Vanbrugh Tavern, both in East Greenwich) listen to the choir at St Alfeges, visit the Advent Windows, go to the Heritage Centre at Woolwich and above all, keep your eyes open for weird stuff, which is everywhere if you only care to look.

And if you see something particularly splendid, tell me, eh…

Maze Hill and Station Early 20thC

Monday, July 29th, 2013

A treat for anyone who enjoyed the picture of Vanbrugh Hill last week, supplied by the ever-knowledgeable Neil Rhind. Another from his bulging collection, not taken at exactly the same time, but still very early. It’s not as clear as the other photo, probably because of printing processes – this, as you can see is a postcard, of the ‘bird’s eye view’ variety…

He says “I noted that some readers were disappointed that Maze Hill Station was not included” and has sought to remedy the problem with a photo taken from the other side of it, which clearly includes (most of) the station.

The area behind it, now filled with apartment blocks, is a yard, and behind that is the much-disputed-in-the-past-but-alright-now-I-believe Westcombe Park Woodlands. Almost washed out right at the top centre is Vanbrugh Castle, and many of the houses in the picture are, astonishingly given two world wars, still with us, if somewhat ‘embellished’ with additional builds. The further up the hill you get the more intact it is, and of course the park is as it has been for the past 300-odd years.

Of course, bottom right isn’t the same. Where a hundred years ago was hung washing out to dry, is now the doomed-itself Arches leisure centre and telephone exchange.

Neil tells me that the white stuccoed building was Douglas House, sometime the Greenwich Liberal Club and afterwards as the Key Social and Athletics Club. He notes “I doubt much running and jumping took place but I suspect an awful lot of drinking.”

Can anyone here remember going to the LCC school in the bottom left corner? Its address used to be Creed Place before the whole road became Maze Hill.

Just when I think I’ve seen all the postcards Edwardian Greenwich had to offer, another bowls up. Keep ‘em coming, folks!

Wartime Whitworth Street

Friday, July 26th, 2013

Meet Geoff, aged four. It’s 1944 and he lives in Whitworth Street. His parents had the unfortunate luck of moving in just as war broke out in 1939, but nevertheless the family will stay at Number 12 until 2002.

I always love it when people send me memories of Greenwich, whether from wartime, the 50s or more recently, like the marvellous photos from the camera of Gerald Dodd (more coming up there at some point when I’ve worked out which ones I haven’t shared with you yet…) and I was delighted to hear from Geoff, and see the marvellous shelter in the back garden at Number 12.

Geoff says “My father dug out a pit and erected an Anderson Shelter, then covered it with earth, four wooden bunks, quite smelly & damp, but safer. After the war he dismantled it to make a shed.”

This one has been buoyed up with bricks and wood – here’s another shot with Geoff and his mum and brother, that (just) shows the famous corrugated iron arch:

Of course there are still Anderson shelters to be found in the back of some Greenwich gardens. I know of at least two, which have been made into garden sheds – now that people have started relocating again I sincerely hope that anyone moving into a house that has one doesn’t just turf it out, not knowing what it is…

The whole area round Pelton Road was (and continues to be) close-knit – his brother was mates with Raymond Gallagher and his gran lived next door to him in Christchurch Way. All the kids played together in the streets, throughout the war, no matter now dangerous it became. Definitely different times. It’s hard to imagine parents letting their children roam and play with all those H&S hazards around these days, yet Geoff remembers

“We played in the derelict buildings for years, dangerous but fun. The scrap metal merchant’s yards by the river were full of rats and machine gun belts, some live ammunition, if you had sharp eyes.”

Air raids were mere temporary interruptions to play, and sometimes not even that. Geoff’s brother was left, tied to a lamp post throughout one raid, having been ‘captured’ during a game of Cowboys and Indians.

Geoff has more reason to remember the air raids than most as both his parents were deaf, and relied on Geoff and his brother to tell them when the sirens went.

At first they evacuated to Tunbridge Wells, but it didn’t work out (there seems to have been a high failure rate – my own mum came sloping home after a couple of weeks) and until the Anderson shelter was built they hid under the stairs went the alarms sounded. Geoff doesn’t remember being scared at that point, and I get the impression that he found it rather exciting when his gran took him to the big shelters in Greenwich Park, protected by enormous barrage balloons.

The bombs continued. And Life continued. I find it weird to try to imagine a time when you just lived with the idea that at any moment you could be forced to go and sit in a tin hut and when you came out your house might have disappeared.

The family adapted their lives to survive in a wartime situation. Geoff’s father, a shoemaker, brought Army boots home to repair over the weekend, his mother made clothes from scraps, and everyone kept rabbits in the back garden, though they got a neighbour to actually kill them when they wanted a stew. In another ‘weird to think…’ Geoff was entirely unsentimental about this – I can’t imagine many four year olds being cool with eating their pets these days.

The whole family was involved in Wartime Greenwich. Geoff’s Grandma cooked supper and served cocoa for the firefighters at Rangers ‘Lodge’ (now ‘House’) and his Granddad, who had survived the trenches of the Great War:

worked loading coal for the new Power Station on the river – a prime target for Bombers.

Unsurprisingly, Geoff’s most indelible memory of those years was the Blackwall Lane mine that blew the back of their house in and the V2 that took out the front door and destroyed several shops in Traf Road.

I’ve been trying to work out which one that would have been – but judging from this map there were so many, I’d have to guess. The indstrial area, all along the river, was heavily bombed for strategic reasons. All I know is that as they watched the V2 Geoff’s brother said ‘No problem until the engine stops’. Unfortunately it stopped almost immediately overhead.

Sounds as though they didn’t make the shelter in time. There is still a photo extant of Geoff’s mother with her head bandaged from the flying glass wounds (no, I’m not sharing that…)

It’s easy to see why the parties at the end of the war were so reckless and excited, attended by absolutely everyone. Geoff’s VE Day Party had a bonfire made from the fence around Christchurch School, (local bobby unhappy) which burned an effigy of Hitler (local bobby less unhappy) and banjo playing to the early hours (everyone unhappy*)

Happier times were ahead.

*just joshing, banjo players of Greenwich, all…

Why I Don’t Drink at Belushis

Wednesday, July 24th, 2013

It wasn’t the greatest pub in the world – well, not for the Phantom demographic, anyway. But I did used to go there on a reasonably regular basis.

This was mainly on the occasions I used to visit the tiny Greenwich Playhouse upstairs. I’d have a drink (or three, if the curtain was late – which sometimes had disastrous results- I still remember the Walk of Shame across the stage when a late-kick off/several drinks resulted in an emergency loo-break in between scenes…) and I was okay with the place.

Belushis was what it was.

And, actually, Galleon Theatre was what it was too. The resident producing company didn’t always hit the mark for me, but I admired their dedication to creating theatre that wasn’t particularly commercial, but never took the easy route. In many ways they reminded me of the sort of work you used to get in the good/bad old days of subsidised theatre, before The Glory of the Garden, the swingeing cuts of the 90s and 2000s and the even more swingeing ‘temporary’ cuts to the arts that paying for the Olympics brought.

I’m not sure that Galleon were/are subsidised at all, but they still managed to keep going. The one thing they couldn’t have dealt with was the other Olympic effect – greed.

When the contract on their little attic theatre above Belushis wasn’t renewed, the excuse they were given at the time was that the landlord, Beds and Bars, wanted to run it as a venue themselves, and I, gullible Phantom as I was, actually believed it. In fact I was almost encouraged by that – I rather liked the idea of an independent venue that would present an even wider range of shows.

Galleon Theatre had much darker suspicions – that Beds and Bars wanted to cram as many bunk beds as possible into the space to cash in on the Olympics as a low-budget backpacker-type hostel.

Of course – the clue was in the name. It wasn’t ‘Beds and Bars and Challenging Contemporary Theatre…’

But I read this article in the Wharf and was mollified. The poor landlord was outraged that he was being so clearly maligned…

I find it hard to believe that I was that naive, but hey, I was. Of course B&B (see what I mean about the name..?) turned it into a flop house, with not so much as an open mic night as a nod to producing shows. And they did it illegally – they didn’t have permission for this change of use.

The council issued a ‘stop’ notice.

It was ignored.

By the time the news was out and the scales fell from Phantom eyes, it was too late, the deed was done, the Games were upon us and the backpackers were bowling up. The letters, emails and petitions were pointless, the cash was already rolling in.

I still had a bit of hope – after all – this was an illegal change of use. Surely the council would stamp all over that?

More letters, more petitions.

On 3rd July 2013, the council voted unanimously to grant retrospective change of use planning permission. There will be no opportunity to take it the Planning Inspectorate, that’s that. Beds & Bars have been rewarded for acting illegally and Galleon Theatre are once again packing their worldly goods into a little spotted hanky on a stick and looking for somewhere to live.*

The councillors who voted for this were (and there are some shockers in here, among others who don’t surprise me):

Cllr. Ray Walker
Cllr. Hadley Fletcher
Cllr. Dick Quibell
Cllr. Miranda Williams
Cllr. Geoffrey Brighty
Cllr. Neil Dickinson
Cllr. Matthew Pennycook
Cllr. Maureen O’Mara

I name them and shame them here because this brings up a much bigger issue. If Beds & Bars can get away with this, we have a precedent. A company has built illegally, been told to stop by the council, ignored that order then been rewarded for flouting rules by being granted planning permission anyway. What message does this send out to other unscrupulous developers?

In many ways I can’t blame B&B for cashing in – after all it was their building and they saw the opportunity for a massive profit. Not everyone values Art over the laughing lettuce of hard cash. What I hate is the way they did it – the outraged innocence, the protests of being unfairly daubed with false accusation.

Which is why I won’t be setting foot in any of B&B’s pubs again – wherever the location.

Hooray for the Greenwich Olympic Legacy – a budget hostel, one less theatre and a licence to build wherever you damn please…

*I have no idea whether the plan to get a brand new studio theatre in the bowels of a new build up the road has come to anything or not.

Water Turn Off (2)

Monday, July 22nd, 2013

Continuing the Phantom Tour of Greenwich’s most rubbish fountains. Unlike our first useless water feature this one does actually look pretty good when it’s going. I like the raised feel to it, that makes it look like the water’s really luxurious, when really it’s just a few centimetres deep.

It was turned on briefly during the Olympics last year, but apart from that it’s become a ghastly eyesore – not only permanently empty but with the usual council solution of a load of wire railings clumped round it, making it look like a building site, which I guess it sort of is.

Not a brilliant entranceway to the Emirates Airline, especially given my other pet hate round there – the car park, which visitors to said cable car have to either run the guantlet of or tramp round the outside. Why they couldn’t have put the car park further in and allowed visitors a clear path across, say, nice grass is beyond me.

But the thing’s never turned on now the latest surrounding offices have been sold, David Beckham’s moved on and they don’t need it to look smart any more. In fact I don’t actually have a photo of it gushing water, much as I liked it, with its little system of higher and lower jets.

If the story is to be believed it was those jets that did for it – them and the very shallow water, which proved too tempting for parents with toddlers who used to lift them up so they could play among the water spouts, at the same time stamping all over the mechanisms and breaking them. It didn’t matter how many notices went up, they were ignored. In the end those spouts were broken just once too often.

This was the reply when I wrote to the council to ask why it was never switched on and I can believe it. I can believe too that there just isn’t the cash to turn on a fountain in these cash-strapped days.

Which is leading me to a rather worrying thought. If we can’t afford to run fountains in the long term, is there any point in actually building them in the first place? I adore water features as much as the next Phantom but I don’t adore empty concrete basins, wire fences and the council equivalent of police tape.

Here’s a radical idea (well, not that radical, I’ve mentioned it before, in conjuction with the under-pavement lights that used to run along the edge of Eastney Street).

When a new feature that is going to need maintenance is built – special lighting, water features, high-maintenance flower beds etc. in the budget, alongside the build-cost, the entity building it should HAVE to put a sum set aside, RING-FENCED, to keep the feature maintained. If it’s a 106, that should be part of the initial deal, rather than allowing the contractor to build something that’s effectively unusuable.

This isn’t just a council thing of course – the number of times I’ve seen new-builds go up that look incredible while they’re selling the apartments, all fancy flower beds and intricate Art, but go to wrack and ruin after they’ve sold the units. Then you’ve got the fabulous mosaics, along the Thames Path, and especially the amazing Rathmore Benches which had exactly the same problem – beautifully built, no cash put aside at the outset for upkeep.

It seems more expensive at the beginning, but if the thing is going to be rubbish after a few years (or months, in some cases) I’d rather not have a fancy water feature in the first place – please – stick some nice low-maintenance shrubs or something in there and just be honest about it…

Greenwich Hill 1906

Friday, July 19th, 2013

After the delights of the Maze Hill Photo last Wednesday I couldn’t resist this postcard that local author Graham Dolan sent over to me. If it wasn’t taken at the same photo session, or by the same photographer, it was almost certainly using the same opportunity – the scaffolding around the power station chimneys.

Graham tells me that there was a bit of fibbing going on with the labelling of the card though. Edwardian tourists were variously told that this picture was taken ‘from the air,’ ‘as seen from a balloon,’ as seen from an aeroplane’, ‘a bird’s eye view’ and just plain ‘Greenwich Park’ on the sundry captions – this card by Perkins & Son is of the ‘as seen from an aeroplane’ flavour. I guess no one wanted to admit on a tourist memento that four whopping great industrial chimneys were being plonked in the middle of the classic vista of Greenwich Park (they were originally taller than those we have today.)

It’s another fascinating view – the backs of the houses along Park Vista (most of which survive) the Obsevatory (if you zoom in you’ll see people on top of Flamsteed House- presumably astronomers, since it wasn’t open to the public at the time) a very fuzzy MacCartney House and what look like deer in the foreground (they were still roaming free at that time), but it’s also fun to note that this was a time before the General Wolfe statue.

I find it incredible that that position was left open for so long – the top of Greenwich Hill seems somehow focus-less without it, yet despite a splendid design (by John Webb, if memory serves) for a sort of classical temple-thing at the top of the Giant Steps, which remained a twinkle in Charles II’s eye through the usual lack of funds and even a competition for an eyecatcher in the 18th Century a there was nothing there until the 1930s.

In theory, I guess it’s possible that there were photos taken at all 360° from the power station – after all, it was a golden opportunity for Greenwich’s numerous photographers to get ‘unique’ shots. The phantom mailbox is always open to seeing any more…

Brassed On

Wednesday, July 17th, 2013

Gosh was it really two years ago that Stephen was so fed up at the cuts which stopped paying for (mainly brass) bands’ expenses that he wrote to Royal Parks to protest? At the time RP called it a ‘non-core’expense and the glorious Colebrookedale Bandstand lay fallow throughout the summers of 2011 and 2012.

But now thanks to sponsorship from The Friends of Greenwich Park I’ll be able to once more don the Phantom Boater, sit in a stripy deckchair, lick a 99 and listen to live music of a Sunday afternoon – perfect for this weather.

I am delighted to see this gentle pursuit return. I always thought it a very petty saving on the part of Royal Parks – it wasn’t as though the bands were being paid – they just got exes, and the money saved, in the grand scheme of things, can’t have been enough to do much else. I guess they’ll never cough up now the Friends have dug their hands in their pockets but hey – a Phantom round of applause to the Friends for actually doing so.

The next one is a Jazz band on the 28th July at 2.00pm and Greenwich Concert band will be performing on the 25th of August.

Maze Hill 1906

Tuesday, July 16th, 2013

I had planned to do something else today – but after the discussion about street by street history in Greenwich the other day, when Jim was asking about Woodlands Grove, Neil Rhind has sent me the most extraordinary picture which I just had to share with you.

It’s from 1906 and given the angle and height, I’m guessing it was taken from the scaffolding around the chimneys on the power station which was being built at the time.

It shows the area around Trafalgar Road, Maze Hill station and, in the background, Vanbrugh Hill. I had to reduce the quality to make it fit online but if you click on it you should still get a decent sized image.

What surprises me is how much I just don’t recognise. I guess two world wars and the 1960s have been and gone but even so I’d have expected more landmarks from somewhere that I hadn’t thought of of as having had that much development.

The best way to orient yourself is to find the railway track and Maze Hill sation which, of course, was a much bigger deal back then. From there you can shift down the image to the area north of that towards Trafalgar Road (the pub no longer exists of course, and it looks as though Hardy’s used to be the Bricklayer’s Arms) or allow your eye to travel left along the track past the not-there-yet nurses’ home to find Vanbrugh Hill, with Dinsdale and Humber Roads clear to view.

The Westcombe Woodlands is quite clear in this picture, though you can’t see Vanbrugh Castle. I particularly like the Indian teepee in the back garden of the house down the bottom right, presmumably not being played in by the little girls dotted around the roads in spotless white dresses.

I have no idea whether this image actually belongs to anyone else but I owe Neil a huge ‘thank you.’ It’s one of the most fascinating photographs I’ve ever seen of the area.

Favourite Front Gardens (17)

Monday, July 15th, 2013

Photo Mike Purdy

Haven’t had a Favourite Front Gardens for ages. This is for several reasons – the weather in the last 18 months has been god-awful, people haven’t been inspired to create gorgeous greenery in their gardens and I confess I haven’t been inspired to see it. But Mike reminded me of a chap that goes that extra rod every year.

I’ve often walked through Gloucester Circus and wondered which side I’d like to live – the ‘posh side’ but with the view of the 1960s flats out of the window – or the flats – with the posh view.

With this particular apartment, the smart side gets the best of both worlds – this guy comes up, every year, with fabulous display that lifts even a Phantom’s spirits and this year he’s outdone himself. It takes a huge amount of work to keep container plants like this – especially in the kind of temperatures we’re enjoying just now. It’s not just the watering several times a day, it’s the sheer logistics of lugging soil upstairs and having to pot stuff up in such a small space.

But he’s done it and he does it every year.

No idea who he is but I tip my tricorn to him on behalf of everyone who’s cheered up by the sight of jolly bedding in giant hanging baskets.

Photo: Mike Purdy

Water Turn Off

Friday, July 12th, 2013

Photo: Graham Dolan

One of the most common things that crops up in the Phantom Postbag is the ‘water feature’ in Cutty Sark Gardens which, frankly, has to be one of the least-exciting fountains in the universe. Most of the time it looks like the photo above, but on high days and holidays it occasionally gets some fluid in it. Here it is in full, glorious, gushing flow:

Photo: Jeremy Eaton

Now I absolutely love fountains, water features, cascades, waterfalls – anything to do with decorative, tinkling ornamental displays. I always thought that given the choice I’d go for a water feature every time but this is not what I expected when they said we were getting one at Cutty Sark Gardens. I knew it wouldn’t be Versailles but I did expect SOME water.

When I walked past the other day with a visitor, which must have been the same day Jeremy took his pic, my pal thought there was a leak somewhere. Except, of course, water main leaks actually have some poke to them and given past experience last longer than a few hours.

Trouble is, when the thing’s switched off, it leaves weird lumps, bumps and cracks in the pavement, which some have complained is a trip-hazard. The council’s answer to potential court-cases is to cordon it off with scruffy bits of tape and a few metal fences. Classy.

Photo: Graham Dolan

Personally I don’t buy the trip-hazard thing, being a Phantom that believes in individuals actually taking responsibility for their own safety, but really – is this the best Greenwich could do for its shop window? Cutty Sark Gardens cost a packet and though I do like the little bits of greenery they’ve dotted around the place, I find myself wondering if the whole is really much better than what it replaced – and whether that water feature was worth bothering with at all.