Archive for the ‘Blackheath’ Category

Historic Wrath of God

Tuesday, January 28th, 2014

Conal from Australia asks an odd question:

In St. Mary’s Churchyard (Woolwich) used to be a headstone telling of the death by drowning of 2 (?) young boys who had taken their new skates to a frozen pond on Blackheath (I don’t know which one). It draws the moral that this was divine retribution for skating on a holy day. I was taken to St Mary’s on occasion by my father, I remember it well, not least for his appalled reaction to such a homily. It has been removed, cleared, and unlike the earlier clearance in the 19th century, the headstones were not recorded.

Do you know anything of this, or where I might check it out further?

I confess I’ve never heard of this incident. Normally I’d suggest Conal check out Greenwich Heritage Centre, but they, apparently, have no record of either the accident or the headstone.

My next thought was, of course, Neil Rhind’s history of the Heath, which is pretty much definitive. But apart from my nicking this rather wonderful picture of skating on Prince of Wales pond in 1904 (which is from Greenwich Heritage centre – sorry chaps…) – from a good sixty-odd years after Conal’s two little boys killed by the wrath of God – there is little about skating in my version of The Heath other than noting that skating rarely happens these days as the winters aren’t so severe.

Of course I only have the first edition, something I always mean to rectify then forget about until the next time someone asks something like this, so apologies to Neil if the incident is mentioned in there.

I can’t imagine that the newly-renamed Kentish Mercury (The Greenwich, Woolwich and Deptford Gazette, and West Kent Advertiser were turned into the Kentish Mercury in 1838) would have missed a juicy story like this though. If there isn’t a copy in the Heritage Centre it will probably be in the National Newspaper Archive. I confess a cursory online search of the millions of pages they’ve scanned for online search so far didn’t bring much up for me and I don’t have the hours in the day for a trudge up to Boston Spa (though actually, the Phantom Webmaster points out that the current transfer of all the Newspaper archives from Colindale to Yorkshire has a five-month embargo on research via their services anyway).

Has anyone else anything on this? Do you remember the headstone? Anything more on it?

Side Steps

Wednesday, April 3rd, 2013

Stephen is curious to know why the steps he snapped at Number 15 the Paragon are shaped like this instead of just being straight up and it seems like a good question to me.

They don’t seem to take much less pavement space than regular stright-up jobs, and besides, lack of pavement space isn’t an issue here.

Neil Rhind’s otherwise definitive The Paragon and South Row, Blackheath doesn’t really go into building design, it’s much more a social history – and probably the better for that. What it does tell me though, is that number 15 was the porter’s lodge.  The porter had to do a lot of fetching and carrying of mail, odd jobs around the estate and general inspection. Some were ex-soldiers – a couple became Chelsea Pensioners  - and in the later years they wore a smart livery to run errands etc.

If I were a Phantom Phlunky, with fancy frogged frocking, the last thing I’d want to do is step out of my front door straight into a muddy puddle. It’s my guess these steps doubled as a mounting platform for horse riders.

But maybe someone else has a better idea?

The Paragon & South Row, Blackheath

Friday, March 1st, 2013

A Triumph in late 18th Century Unintentional Town Planning.

Neil Rhind, Bookshop on the Heath

It’s taken me an age to get round to reviewing this, not least because it’s so bloomin’ heavy (in pretty much every respect). Weighing in at nearly a kilo (926g to be precise) despite the fact that it’s a paperback, it’s just not the sort of volume you shove in a back pocket to read on the tube.

It’s also not the easiest book to find – you won’t get it online (for better or worse, sometimes I can’t help thinking that making something hard to buy online forces people to look in the real world. Of course that’s only useful if you don’t actually have to sell something…) I got my copy at Waterstones at an eye-watering £35, and for that price I was determined to squeeze every last drop of information from every last appendix before talking about it.

Thing is, that this is the sort of book that needs to be on the shelf of a serious Greenwich/Blackheath-ophile. Being a Neil Rhind, it is exhaustive, wide-ranging and, frankly, definitive, like his other volumes on Blackheath and Environs – if it’s not in here, it hasn’t been discovered yet.

It’s not the first book on the Paragon, of course. When I first heard he was writing a book about the Paragon I did wonder what Rhind could add to William Bonwitt’s The History of the Paragon, Paragon House and their Residents (also published by the Bookshop Blackheath) which delves into the lives of the people who lived there and which is a fascinating read.  I have always been particularly taken by the rogues and villains – especially the Misses Eliza Robertson and Charlotte Sharp, a pair of swindlers who lived there and who I keep meaning to write about myself.

Neil Rhind has, with a heavy-heart, relegated the pair to one of his (gigantic) appendices as he worries that they’re such a fine story  they actually detract from the rest of the tale, and I can see his point. It is a story hungry for attention and could pull other, more gentle tales out of proportion. It also adds grist to my own personal grind of getting the world to read appendices – proving my theory that they usually have the best bits…

In many ways, this work goes in the opposite direction to many modern social history volumes. Most books about famous places in years gone by have been about the fine architecture, omitting the fact that people lived in the palaces the writers expound upon. There’s been a recent trend for modern authors to come along and write a cosy history filling in the biographies of the human aspect, often with rather a lot of speculation shoehorned in. I confess I’m beginning to weary a little of this ‘fluffy’ approach, though of course, I’m as guilty as the next Phantom when a juicy human story comes along…

William Bonwitt had already looked at the people of the Paragon back in the 70s. So what Neil Rhind has done is go back to the actual bricks and mortar. He looks at materials, social background, the area, the big landowners of the day, Michael Searles (the builder) and, of course, the design. I particularly enjoyed the floorplans, and the newspaper ads from the time, expounding on all the marvellous things you could enjoy if you rented there (few people actually owned their homes at the time.)

Although Bonwitt does touch on what happened to the buildings through history, Neil Rhind goes into much more detail, especially on the 20th Century, which saw so much change – in both good and bad ways. Perhaps the fact that information is more easily accessible these days has helped, but it’s still one hell of a task to track down the kind of detail there is here – and he’s found some new stuff that wasn’t even known about in Bonwitt’s day.

At first I wasn’t wild about all the (many) illustrations being grouped together – I am a bit of a sucker for having pictures throughout a book. But I have discovered since reading it that now I’m using it for reference, it’s much easier to find the images I need – no leafing through trying to find the picture I’m after by trying to guess where it comes in the story.

So yes – it’s a big investment, there’s no getting round that. But it’s a solid one (in every respect.) The paper quailty’s high, the print is clear and strong and it’s going to stay in good nick – if only because it’s never going to stray far from your shelf. But it’s more than that – it’s good quality work. Just as I go back to John Bold again and again, and virtually never look at some of the cheap & cheerful tourist histories on my shelf, paying more for specific volumes does work out better value.

I recommend seeking this out – ask for it for a birthday or something. It’s a keeper.

Black, Bleak or Bubonic?

Thursday, August 16th, 2012

Abigal asks (heading her email with the endearing phrase ‘to whom it may concern’ which made me smile)

When I was at school I was always taught that The Plague / Black death victims were buried at Blackheath.
I have also heard this on walks and on numerous television programmes.

My mother and I have always believed this to be untrue, to the extent that my mother went to Manor House Library and sought clarification from a local historian.

The friend I am currently debating this issue with is adamant that Black death victims were buried on Blackheath.
I have understood that the reason Blackheath got its name was Bleak Heath – due to dark soil.

Please can you help?

The Phantom replies:

I can but refer you to the definitive Neil Rhind on this subject:

“In modern times it has been easy to fall into the trap of believing that Blackheath took its name from its use as a mass graveyard for victims of the Black Death, despite the name being well established in records before the 12th Century…

…Blackheath derives its name rather mundanely from two old English words meaning black and heath. Black being the colour of the soil, not the gloomy appearance of the surrounding  country.”

That’s not, of course, to say that there aren’t mass graves to 14th Century Black Death victims somewhere on the heath – there might be, though Neil Rhind only says it’s ‘widely believed’  and there doesn’t appear to be any evidence for the rumour, save that in a later bout of plague, in 1635, ‘the clothing of local victims was burned on the Heath at the expense of Greenwich Parish.’ Of course I only have the original 1987 version of Neil’s book The Heath, not the revised edition, so new evidence could have pitched up, but I’ve not heard anything to that tune.

Greenwich was relatively free of the later epidemics – Sam Pepys sent his wife to Woolwich to get out of central London in summer 1665, though we know from pretty much the only mentions of Westcombe Park in his diary that the area wasn’t entirely free of pestilence:

I went away and walked to Greenwich, in my way seeing a coffin with a dead body therein, dead of the plague, lying in an open close belonging to Coome farme, which was carried out last night, and the parish have not appointed any body to bury it; but only set a watch there day and night, that nobody should go thither or come thence, which is a most cruel thing: this disease making us more cruel to one another than if we are doggs.

Not that that seems to have dimmed his day – by the afternoon Pepys had wangled his way into poor old Bagwell’s house and done things with the heavy-hearted cuckold’s wife that even Shameless Sam had to write in Latin.

So, Abigail, you and your mum are right in the name-thing – it’s ‘Black Heath’ for the colour of the soil (presumably if you can find a bit of it that hasn’t been in-filled with WWII rubble it still is that colour) and has been since before the Bubonic Plague was even a twinkle in the eye of a ship’s rat.

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?

Trees on Blackheath

Thursday, January 12th, 2012

Michael asks:

Not sure whether you’ve seen but a number of Silver Birch trees/saplings have recently been planted on the Vanbrugh Park/St John’s Park part of the Heath.

I was under the impression (possibly wrong) that the Heath should essentially remain treeless and what trees there are were either self seeded of planted at a time when it was less regulated.

I spoke to the Greenwich Council gardeners at the time and they said that the council had been asked by “the friends” to plant the saplings as a result of fire damage of the summer although no trees were damaged in the summer.

Personally I would rather see the natural bracken be given a chance to thrive. Any thoughts?

The Phantom replies:

Sadly I haven’t got up to the heath for weeks so no, I haven’t seen them. But I’m not personally too worried. I’m not sure which ‘friends’ asked for the trees (Westcombe Society? Blackheath Preservation Trust? No idea…) but if you’re going to have trees up there, silver birch are, I believe, quite appropriate for heathland.

Of course  the heath looks very different to how it was even 60 or so years ago. It’s only been the smooth green billiard table it is now since it was pretty much ‘filled in’ with rubble from bombed buildings after World War II – before that it was the classic romantic wilderness you generally associate with the word ‘heath,’ complete with dips and hollows, like the dips that still remain at the top of Maze Hill, gorse, bracken, mines, caverns, the odd windmill and, of course, the traditional dandy highwaymen. It was a dangerous place to travel through, let alone walk, but really rather wonderful.

If you want to read more, Neil Rhind’s book The Heath is definitive – and has many pictures, several of which include trees that look suspiciously like silver birches. Obviously the heath would never have been a forest of them, but small clumps would not be topographically ‘wrong,’ I believe. Perhaps a proper plant historian can put me right? Mr Bowes?

We’ll never get back what the heath used to be – and so many people use it as it is now, smooth (and, IMHO slightly boring in the middle) that it’s not even something most would desire, but introducing a few examples of native species around the edges seems like quite a good idea to me, and wouldn’t preclude allowing the bracken to grow.  And it will help to screen the houses up there from the incessant A2 traffic.

But what does everyone else think?

Camping It Up

Tuesday, September 1st, 2009

I’ve been spending rather more time over the weekend over at the Climate Camp than I had intended to – I only went over for a gawp and a few photos, but somehow I got talking to people and ended up going back for workshops and discussions.

I was initially surprised at the size of it – much smaller-looking than I’d imagined – about 400 people actually camping, I guess, but welcoming (and I do mean welcoming) thousands – of both locals and fellow activists each day.

As we arrived (there’s only one entrance – the Blackheath Village side) and came through a corral of straw bales, there were people there specifically to welcome visitors – and no on-the ground police at all, though a camera on a cherry-picker at the TA centre was fixed very firmly on proceedings. The police are being very very ginger at the moment, after the G20 chaos; I’ll be surprised if there’s trouble this time.

As we went to the whats-on tent, a guy asked if we wanted an impromptu tour, and took us round, explaining whatever we asked about – from their position on violence (strictly non-violent direct action here…) to how the loos work.

There are various tents – from the legal guys, who are there to advise people on their rights over things like Stop & Search, through the “Tranquility Tent” (where people go to get a bit of peace and quiet and a cup of tea) to a small ‘cinema’.

Everything’s ecologically powered. Wind turbines and solar panels are racked up on one side, and they cook on colourful, if mildly alarming (though apparently very efficient) home made rocket stoves created out of cooking oil drums, fuelled by found firewood.

A few weeks before the camp, volunteers went around the streets reclaiming dumped furniture and other wooden items. Any furniture that’s still usable is being used in the tents, the really dead stuff is broken up for firewood.

I know some people have been a bit worried about ‘holes’ in the heath, but the climate campers have promised to leave it ‘better than they find it’ and I believe them. Every day, teams go out to clear up the litter on the whole of the heath, not just the bit they’re using (quite a task with the fair going on across the other side). They have dug a small shallow pit for the fire, but the sods are carefully stacked up to be replaced and there are no holes for the loos.

Talking of the loos, I guess I can’t really put off explaining them any more. They’re specially ecologically sound compost-bogs, (read “extremely basic”) and involve peeing on straw bales (the girls get a little more privacy doing this than the guys…) which get regularly changed. They’ll be composted for a year or so, then used in agriculture. The Number Twos are collected in giant wheelie bins and will be used by farmers in the great old tradition of ‘night soil’ (we’re assured that it’s only used on non-food crops – a relief, really…) One thing I’ll say for them is that they smell a LOT better than most festival bogs.

It all seems to work rather well – which mildly surprises me – my experiences of co-operative living/working in the past have generally revealed that it just doesn’t work – a few people do all the work and everyone else slacks around, but good luck to them if they can make it happen. They certainly seem organised – even with their own TV Station:

The workshops are really varied – everything from making your own compost loo (ick) wind turbine or rocket stove, through to how to deal with a Stop & Search situation.

The discussions, which involve some rather odd hand movements – they’re explained in the programme, but are intended to allow everyone to speak with a minimum of interruptions – are worth going to even if you don’t agree with everything that’s being said. Actually, they’re worth going to especially if you don’t agree with everything that’s being said.

I caught the tail-end of a particularly large one in the main tent, that had a panel of anarchists being given a particularly robust time by most of the crowd. It could have been chaos, but it was both civilised and utterly fascinating. Part of the nature of things like this is that it attracts people with views from moderate to militant, and finding a way not to inadvertently divide and be conquered is important.

I don’t buy everything that’s being said at Climte Camp – but I do feel I understand the movement more now, and to anyone who’s reading this who’s actually there just now – thank you for the welcome you’ve given to local people like me who didn’t know much about it, but understand a little more now.

If I can squeeze the time out tomorrow I’ll come and help with the clean-up – they’ve scheduled an entire day to putting the place back to better-than-before. There are few events that do that…

Bella Vista

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009

Montpelier Vale, Blackheath

I hadn’t been to Bella Vista since the refurb, but, being a cheapskate, thought I’d go for the early evening cheapo deal. Once I got inside, of course, there were things on the a la carte I couldn’t resist so I was back to spending cash again…

The refurb has worked well. I’m pleased to say that they’ve avoided anything so ultra modern that it’s going to date within seconds of the place reopening, but, now it’s done, I guess it was a little tired before, though I can’t say I’d noticed.

Things are always going to be snug in a restaurant that size, so they haven’t even tried to make it look spacious, instead emphasising the cosiness. I like the mirrors, the high cupboards with the nicknacks and the colour scheme, though the cushions, whilst looking sumptuous, get in the way.

The menu is part new, part old. Francesco said that if he tries to change anything his regulars moan, so he has to quietly slide things on and off the menu and hope no one notices. If you see BVC after anything on the menu, it means “Bella Vista Classic” and it’s a dish he doesn’t dare remove.

I had the Apulian ‘burrata’ cheese with smoked aubergine, partially because I can’t resist aubergine and partly because I’d never had Apulian burrata cheese before. It was fab. My companion had the cold cuts. I was so busy chomping my smoked aubergine I forgot to note down what the cold cuts were actually like (I’ll never make a proper restaurant critic…) but the plate was cleared so I’m guessing it was good.

There are some times when only lasagne will do, and for my sturdy companion, this was one of those times. It was perfectly acceptable, but not an exciting dish, only going half-way to satisfying the lasagne-urge. Probably not a recipe that will make it to BVC menu-stardom…

I resisted the urge to have aubergine in a second dish in the same meal and instead tried the cod in ‘guazzetto Livornese’ which is, according to the handy menu translator, a Tuscan fish and tomato sauce – tangy and pungent, and really rather tasty, even if it is a wise idea to brush your teeth immediately afterwards, if you’re going to be within 10 feet of anyone else…
I can’t remember what the hell the wine was – only that I enjoyed it and its label had a comedy picture involving a donkey on it, which we each guessed the story behind, then asked the waiter if he knew what it was about. He didn’t but was happy to supply an alternative unlikely, shaggy-dog-alike yarn. He got his mate over who told a fourth, equally nonsense, tale behind the picture.

Actually, it might not have been our first bottle.

Bella Vista’s been around for over 20 years now. Deservedly.

Keskerdh Kernow!

Friday, July 4th, 2008

Q: Where did people meet for rallies before Trafalgar Square was invented?

A: Blackheath.

Yes, long before it seemed like a good idea to mill about the West End listening to bands and devising amusing placards, people with grievances to put, with victories to celebrate, with points to make, all assembled at the top of the hill up the road. Some didn’t have that far to go – Wat Tyler and Jack Cade were at least only from Kent. But when starving Cornish peasants wanted to kick up a fuss, they had a bit further to trudge.

It was 1497 and Henry VII was a troubled man. One Perkin Warbeck had his beady eye on Henry’s Crown and the Scottish King James was on his way south to give him a drubbing too. He needed cash and he needed it fast. Who was least likely to moan if he put the taxes up, he wondered?
Ping! What about Cornwall? A nasty, heathernly, grim, storm-swept county, good for nothing much save what could be dug out of the ground. What had those wild, dirty Celts ever done for him? More trouble than they were worth, he figured. In fact – when he came to think of it, they owed him. Besides. They were miles away. Out of sight, out of mind.

What Henry hadn’t counted on, however, was one or two of the Cornish people not being particularly happy about this. They were quite cross, actually. They were already poor – and these new taxes just about did it for them. Henry had also failed to notice that if nothing else, this nation of miners were tough. Very tough.

Thomas Flamank, a Bodmin lawyer, and Michael Joseph, a farrier from St Keverne (also known as An Gof) were particularly upset, and this unlikely pair of buddies also discovered that between them they were exceptionally good at whipping up a frenzy of discontent among the burly peasants.

Reverend L’Estrange, writing in 1886, makes no secret of his own opinion on the matter. He is completely shocked that anyone would rise up against their sovereign king. “Ambitious agitators have never been wanted to fan popular discontent,” he says dismissively, telling us that Flamank and An Gof “harangued and excited the people” to form a rebellion.

Whether desperate men with a genuine grievance or merely L’Estrange’s “rabble,” the march gained in size and strength as it moved through the county and then through Devon and Somerset. They killed a particularly assiduous tax collector at Taunton, and even gained themselves a leader from the gentry – Lord Audley, who openly joined them at Wells.

I get myself a bit confused here. I mean – these people were on their way to London. Surely Blackheath is overshooting the mark a bit? If I’d trudged all the way from Cornwall (which still takes several hours by car) I wouldn’t want to skirt around the edge. But that’s what they did.

They certainly hoped to get some more support from the traditionally militant men of Kent, though in that they were disappointed – they didn’t gain a single extra body. At this point, quite a few got fed up and sloped off home. But no matter. The rebellion still had six thousand angry rustics and they weren’t going anywhere. They set up camp on Blackheath. For many years afterwards, L’Estrange tells us, there was a mound just south of Greenwich Park where An Gof set up his tent, which, his being a blacksmith, everyone called “The Forge.”

All of London was a-tizz. This mob meant business. They were starving and angry and they were staring straight at the city.

Henry gathered together his army – 8,000-strong and led by proper generals instead of blacksmiths. He surrounded them – The Earl of Essex at the City, The Earl of Oxford behind Blackheath hill so the rebels couldn’t run away, Lord Daubeney to lead the attack, and the King himself ‘in reserve.’ Meanwhile in the City, panic was everywhere. The royal family and all the bishops locked themselves in the Tower. Everyone else locked themselves wherever they could.

The Battle of Deptford Bridge on the banks of the river Ravensbourne, June 17th, 1497, wasn’t clear-cut at first. Daubeney was so sure he was better than the rebels that he rushed straight in and got himself captured. Even L’Estrange admits that “the Cornish men showed a considerable amount of native courage” – but they were starving, ill-armed and had no cavalry.

It was, frankly, a rout. Between two and three thousand men were killed on the battlefield; the rest were surrounded and given to the rank and file soldiers, told they could have them to use for ransom – but the Cornish were so poor, they didn’t raise more than a couple of shillings each.
And the leaders? A characteristically grisly end for each. Lord Audley was dragged through the streets from Newgate to Tower Hill wearing nothing but a ripped paper coat, on which his family coat of arms was painted backwards. Being a toff, he was allowed to be beheaded.
Flamank and An Gof received the full hanged-drawn-and-quartered treatment at Tyburn. Henry had wanted to hang up the various pieces of their bodies in sundry venues in Cornwall as a warning to all “in the old fashion,” but perhaps wisely decided that this might not be the best way of preventing further discontent.

At their execution, An Gof announced they would become figures of history – “a name perpetual and a fame permanent and immortal”- and let’s face it – he was right. We’re still talking about them on a sunny Friday morning more than 500 years later. In 1997 (sorry Dazza), exactly 500 years since the rebellion, a memorial march – Keskerdh Kernow 500(“Cornwall Marches 500) – took place and a plaque* was placed on the wall of Greenwich Park. Find it just to the right of the Blackheath Gate…
*Stevie moaned that my photo of the plaque was rubbish – and it was a bit pale – so here is his version.