Archive for the ‘Days Out’ Category

Half-Day Sundays

Tuesday, February 1st, 2011


Battersea Power Station's hoardings, leafier than any at Greenwich


A Phantom cannot live by Greenwich alone. In order to fully appreciate just how fabulous our town is, we need to leave it. So today, I want to ask your advice.

Have you ever got to about 2.00pm on a Sunday afternoon, when you’ve finally done all the things you meant to do at the weekend and you suddenly find yourself with half an afternoon? (Yeah, yeah, I’m sure there are some workaholics who dream of such a problem, but stay with me.) It’s too late to do a day trip, or even, occasionally an afternoon trip. You want somewhere really different you can visit in a couple of hours. But your mind goes blank. There’s not a single place in the universe you can think of to visit, not a single activity to do.  And no, I don’t believe it’s just me.

Now, obviously, your first stop at a time like this is Ianvisits but by the time you get to this point in the day, it’s probably too late to do an actual one-off event.

Coldrum Long Barrow, North Kent


My plan for this year is to make a big long list of interesting places, attractions and things to do that are within a very short distance of Greenwich for just such moments. I was going to do it by myself, but thinking about it, this would be more varied and – let’s face it – just better – if everybody here suggests their personal favourite places.

The mysterious shell grotto at Margate


I don’t care what it is, as long as it’s interesting. A city like Canterbury, a Roman villa like Lullingstone, go-kart racing, strange tumuli,   London things, weird stuff, like the shell grotto in Margate (or the equally nutty Mad Hatter’s Tearoom, also in Margate, where it is forever Christmas, sometime between 1870-1945), the only constraints are that they have to be visitable in a shortish amount of time.

In order to entertain people that have more powers of organisation than me, I’ll open it out to being things that are visitable in a whole afternoon, or the odd day trip.

Mad Hatter Tea Rooms


I don’t mind what mode of transport you need to get there – walking, cycling, train, car – whatever, just make the journey doable in an hour and a half tops. If I manage enough suggestions, I’ll try to set up some sort of database thingy for days out from Greenwich (most days out features try to get people to go to it…). I might even make it a wiki if I can work out how the hell to do it. But in the meantime, I’d just like to cull a few ideas from you, even if only so I have something new to do of the odd Sunday half-afternoon. 

Lots Road power station, from the Southern Thames Path. Owned by the same people as Greenwich power station, they chose one to turn into luxury flats. Can you guess which one?

St Johns Jerusalem

Tuesday, April 20th, 2010

There are a lot of apple trees claiming to have been grown from the seed of the fruit that may or may not have fallen on Sir Isaac Newton’s head. And this may or may not be one of them. I never did manage to pin anyone down as to exactly which gnarled old tree in the delightfully overgrown orchard at St John’s Jerusalem is ‘the one,’ but that’s sort of beside the point with this incredible, secret place just inside the M25.

I know. It’s hardly Greenwich – but it’s a great afternoon out, and this is the time of year to go. Go, that is, if you can manage to get there for the four hours it’s open each week in summer (two hours in winter.) It took me years to get round to seeing it, as the National Trust in its wisdom chooses to open this utterly gorgeous garden on Wednesday afternoons, no exceptions.

It’s at Sutton-at-Hone, which is a cough and a spit from Dartford, or a hop over the fence if you’re on the M25, and it’s about as perfect an English garden as you’ll get. The house itself is what’s left of a 13th century commandry of the Knights Hospitallers of the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, who set up shop there in 1199. You can only admire it from the outside, sadly as it’s privately rented (how do you get those NT-tenant gigs?) but you can have a poke around the chapel, which takes about five minutes if you go slowly.

It’s the garden that’s the real star, and there is an advantage to the place being virtually unknown and only open on Wednesday afternoons. When I finally made it there, I had the place to myself – formal borders, cottage planting, a moat (fed from the river Darent), orchards, lawns, wild-gardens and a rather fabulous dovecote – all for me.

What’s so great about going this time of year (and why I’m telling you about it today in case any of you can make it down to Dartford for tomorrow) is the wonderful blossom as the fruit trees are in full bloom, happily buzzed-round by fat, fuzzy bumblebees.

It was, I understand, the first place to grow Kentish Pippin apples, one that you don’t see too often these days (the ones on Blackheath farmers market every week just seem to be mishapen versions of supermarket varieties, which is a shame. )

There is an extremely tenuous link with Greenwich here. Edward Hasted, who wrote the seminal History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent, from which most Greenwich history seems to be taken these days (and I raise a guilty paw myself here) lived here in the mid 18th Century and wrote said History there.

Although the formal gardens will have changed since then, I’m willing to bet that the orchard’s much the same as when Hasted lived there – and, presumably, entertained Sit Isaac Newton at some point, who, presumably ate an apple there. and was, presumably, a bit careless with the core. The volunteer was keen to tell me the story, but it never quite sank in.

If you do manage to go tomorrow, be careful how you go. You can only realistically get there by road, and you’ll probably end up driving straight past the entrance, even though you know it’s coming up. There’s a map here but you’ll need a bigger one as it’s a bit of a fiddly drive. I came off the A2 near Hall Place and carried on down the same road but then had to do a bit of jiggery-pokery. Despite the fact that the way I originally discovered the place was by accidentally driving past it, finding it again was a challenge.

Being National Trust, it’s free if you’re a member,£2 if you’re not. But with weather like this, the peace and beauty of St John’s is hard to beat. If you can get a Wednesday off, that is…

A Day At The National Archives

Thursday, March 25th, 2010

Very occasionally in Real Work I get to the end of the financial year with leave to burn. The ‘selling it back’ option is at such a piss-poor rate I might as well just take the time off. In this particularly circumstance, it was like finding a tenner down the sofa as I could have sworn I’d already taken all my leave when I was suddenly told I had to use up two whole days before the end of March. Yo!

So I decided to visit the National Archives and see just what Greenwich stuff there is secreted there that I could plunder at a later date.

First things first. Ignore the website when it says you don’t need a reader’s ticket. You do.

They actually don’t want people to visit the archives, however much they make the site look cuddly and open. They are utterly swamped with ladies of a certain age hoping to find their Great Uncle Albert who served in the war; they really don’t want anyone else turning up.

So the website goes on and on about how much archive material is online (and, admittedly there is a lot) and how there’s hardly any parking and it’s really out of the way etc. etc. (it’s about a five minute walk from Kew Gardens tube). It also says you only need a ticket if you want to look at original documents, and emphasises what a terrible palaver it is to obtain such an item so don’t even bother, okay. I was only going for a reccy and not bothered about ordering original documents to scrutinise, so I decided to forgo what seemed to be a really laborious procedure and not get a ticket.

What the website doesn’t tell you is that to even get into the map room on the second floor you need a ticket, whether you want to look at original documents or not.

Stupid Phantom as I am, I had taken the website at face value and was ever so politely stopped by a security guard and packed off (most apologetically, I suspect she gets it a lot) to the ticket room. I fished around in my cloak, under my tricorn and down my boots, but just couldn’t drag together the mountain of ID they require. Consequently, the entire second floor is still a mystery to me.

Don’t get me wrong – I think it’s right and proper they protect irreplaceable records, and I would have been only too happy to apply for a ticket and bring all the clobber needed. I just wish that they hadn’t been so busy telling people to do their research online that they’d failed to say a ticket was vital if you’re actually going to visit the place.

Instead, I contented myself with the first floor, which has much to enjoy. Dozens of computers, mainly occupied by the aforesaid genealogists, but if you look hard enough there are one or two that haven’t been jealously guarded with the proprietorial pencil and notebook.

It’s very geared-up for family history seekers. There are a lot of leaflets telling you how to find your relative if they were in X Squadron or worked in the tin industry; fewer telling you what stuff they actually hold.

Much of it’s catalogues; some good old-fashioned drawers of cards, some paper books, a declining number of microfiche stations, but most of it is online nowadays. There are various search mechanisms within the computer network, though of course, much like the British Library, you have to know what you’re looking for in the first place. If you don’t know (or at least suspect) a document exists before you go in, chances are you still won’t know when you come out, though there seem to be more helpful staff, actually there to assist searches rather than act as threshold guardians to the documents, than at the British Library, and they are far less disapproving of the public too. One might even say friendly.

What IS really good is the access to the fantastic British History Online which is only available in cut-down form if you don’t have a subscription elsewhere. At the Archives you can read it in full (if you have a spare ten years or so – it’s huge.)

You know, I think I need to go on a ‘how to go about researching stuff’ course. There’s clearly an art to finding your way around records and my usual approach of wandering around until I find something that interests me is clearly a bit hit-and-miss. My day at the Archives only told me what I knew already. I am a rank amateur.

Browsing is not the best way to approach the National Archives and since browsing is how I find out most of my favourite stuff, I decided to look on the bookshelves instead. Victorian telephone directories, street maps and record books promised rich rewards, and although the library is no way comprehensive, I spent most of the day in the London and Kent sections with old record books of Greenwich charities, Admiralty expense accounts and sundry Royal Assizes (and no, I’m still not quite sure what they are), using my patent ‘scattergun’ research technique.

You’re allowed to take in a notebook, pencil and a camera, as long as you don’t use a flash, and since photocopies are 20p a shot, I now have a lot of fuzzy photos of articles to squint at on the screen at home. My eyes are already cursing me for being so cheap.

It’s an interesting day out (there’s a nice cafe, a little museum that contains a copy of the Domesday Book and a mummified rat from the days when the archives weren’t so carefully looked after, and a shop that sells family history magazines and books about Hitler) and I’m glad I went. But I’d say that unless you’ve got something absolutely specific in mind, you’re best off with Greenwich Heritage Centre for local stuff.

Michael Faraday’s Shed

Friday, October 23rd, 2009

Well – not actually his real shed – but a teeny-tiny installation/museum that’s been set up inside the old shipyard’s clerk’s ‘office’ (looks exactly like a bog-standard B&Q garden shed to me) at Trinity Buoy Wharf.

Being such an artistic crew, the guys at TBW couldn’t just leave a boring old shed on the site, so Ana Ospina has decorated it, using antiques, found objects and things ‘of the sea’ such as fishing nets and those lovely glass weights that I only seem to see decorating the homes of friends who live by the sea, rather than actually at the seaside itself, to create some sort of imaginary ‘study’ for Victorian science-hero Michael Faraday.

If that sounds a bit random, there is a reason for putting it there – Faraday worked out of Trinity Buoy Wharf for some years, helping to develop lighthouses, in between inventing the Faraday Cage – a structure based on Benjamin Franklin’s somewhat risky studies in storm-management (using kites) ensuring that lightning or other electromagnetic charges strike round something rather than through it, and discovering the Faraday Effect, which is something to do with the polarisation of light in relation to magnetic fields, the details of which, frankly, evade me.
Faraday’s work on the Trinity Buoy Wharf lighthouses (my favourite mental image is definitely of how they were tested – some poor sod used to be sent up to Shooters Hill of dark winter’s night to see if they could spot it…) is being celebrated in this minute work of art – with the usual sound effects, words, images and atmosphere – and it’s really rather fun. The artist has a beautiful (but tricky to navigate) website here

When I first saw The Faraday Effect (the shed is named after the phenomenon I don’t understand above), it was tucked round the back, next to Fat Boy’s Diner, but I went back the other day and noticed it was gone.

Slightly worried, I had a poke around and realised it’s been moved to the wharf-front, much closer to the lighthouse itself, not far from the entrance to Jem Finer’s Longplayer, which I’ll get onto another day. It’s open every weekend (as is Longplayer) between 11am and 5pm

Thames Barrier Park

Monday, September 7th, 2009

Pontoon Dock

I haven’t been on a local ‘excursion’ for ages – but yesterday was sunny and bright and I wanted something different.

I’d noticed the strange lines of undulating hedges of the Thames Barrier Park from the DLR; I thought it would be fun to walk among them. After all, we can’t be sure how many warm, sunny Sundays we have left.

I entred via those hedges – a living scuplture called Green Dock by Alain Cousseran and Alain Provost – who I could have sworn was a racing driver ;-) – past some fountains which, I’m happy to say, were playing at 11.00 on a Sunday morning (so many features like that get quietly turned off after the grand opening.)

I wandered up and down beautiful – and slightly unsettling, not sure why – lines of alternating hedges (a bit on the fluffy side just now, they could do with a haircut) planted with good late-summer flowers, towards what I assumed was a viewing point at the end.

It’s a surreal walk once you get down amongst those hedges, which are much higher than they look from above – with an almost Alice In Wonderland feel to it. It wouldn’t surprise me to see the White Rabbit run out, looking at his pocket watch, or to look down another row and see the Mad Hatter having a tea party. Under the hedge, a caterpiller on a mushroom would be puffing away at a dodgy-looking concoction in a hookah. Of course, if I looked again, they’d be gone…

The weird Green Dock is my favourite bit, but I was staggered when I got to the top and realised that the weird hedges are just a tiny bit of this modern park. Yes, there are dramatic views of the barrier:

but there are also wide spaces, a little wilderness area, places for organised sport or a kickabout, and a kiddie’s playground.

I had a coffee on the decking outside the cafe – I’m savouring each outdoor coffee I can get these days. I suspect it will be cosy behind those giant plate-glass walls in in the crisp Autumn mornings to come.

This is not a ‘day out’ in itself, but it’s a nice thing to do for different – a goal on a Thames Path walk, perhaps, or a quick trip along the DLR.

Opening hours are here.

An Act Of Royal Vandalism

Monday, September 22nd, 2008

“Goodness, what a lovely ceiling!”

“That old thing? If you like it so much do take it with you, My Dear.”

Don’t you just find yourself saying that every time you have guests round? It’s probably a good thing that Queen Anne, possibly one of the dullest monarchs and definitely the biggest Royal vandal Greenwich has known, didn’t spend much time at Greenwich, or we’d have lost the walls and floors of the Queen’s House too (we’ll get onto the name-’em-and-shame-’em commoner vandals on other occasions). It also points to the perils of painting beautiful ceilings onto canvas and pasting them onto the roof like Orazio Gentileschi did, instead of doing it properly by spending years on your back on a scaff-tower…

I hope you lot had a more productive Open House Weekend than I did. Of the six buildings I tried to visit on Saturday, I managed just one, largely due to sodding London Transport and sodding, sodding South East Trains who between them shut most of the tube and Maze Hill and Westcombe Park and North-sodding-Greenwich, and which meant it took me nearly an hour just to get out of Greenwich.

The one I did get to, though, I have been trying to visit for months.

Marlborough House, in Pall Mall, is a lovely place. One of the few remaining early 18th Century town houses in London, it’s a glorious Stuart affair, complete with extensive gardens and murals all over the place, but I can’t see that it would be much diminished had it had its own ceiling, instead of nicking ours.

Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, was a feisty woman, well-versed in the politics of her age, and afraid of no one. At first, the frankly wimpy Anne was impressed with her, and they played together at being ‘ordinary,’ taking tea together as Mrs Morley and Mrs Freeman, and giggling at the world. I’m not sure what Anne was doing visiting Greenwich – she certainly didn’t go there very much – but on one occasion she must have been accompanied by her Lady of the Bedchamber, who seemed to consider the Queen’s houses as her own personal shopping mall.

Talking of the Mall, the Queen had already granted Sarah a large chunk of her grounds between the Mall and Pall Mall so that she could build herself a grand house. The piece of land didn’t go quite up to Pall Mall, though, and Sarah was too mean to buy the little strip of land between her new gaff and the road, something she would regret later…

She admired the paintings on the ceiling at the Queen’s House, and from what’s left of them, there was indeed much to admire. Designed by Gentileschi along with Inigo Jones who built the place, they were painted in 1635, with or without (but probably without) his daughter Artemesia, and, as I mentioned earlier, painted on canvas stretched across wooden frames.

The pictures were based on a famous textbook, Cesare Ripa’s Iconographia, which had models for classical designs. This particular set shows Old Testament scenes – The Finding of Moses, Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife etc., a sundry group symbolising the Nine Muses and, in four separate panels the Arts – painting, sculpture, architecture and music.

I have never come across anything that was so heavily patrolled by people stopping other people taking photographs, and once they discovered my camera in the bag-search, I was a marked Phantom. No chance of a picture. I can’t find one on the internet either, so you’ll just have to imagine it.

But back to the Royal vandal. Anne gave the ceiling to Sarah as a gift. The canvases were ripped down and transported to Westminster where – OMG – they were too big. No one had bothered to measure them first. No problem, they thought. Better too large than too small. They just got the scissors out. The ceiling was hacked back from 5.5sq m to 4.6sq m. Bish Bosh. Tidy job, mate.

And very nice it looks too. Lots of gold and overpainting, joined by lurid paintings on the wall of an almost opposite subject – the sundry wars that the duchess’s husband had been fighting in. Some of the pictures are really quite eye-popping – complete with dead bodies, the rolling eyes of horses and peasant women stripping corpses. I’m not convinced much thought went into marrying the two subjects…

Sarah and Anne famously fell out, and the Queen probably regretted giving her ceiling to the duchess. Much as the duchess must have regretted not buying that strip of land. A woman with a talent for falling out with people (she fought with Sir Christopher Wren over the building of Marlborough House and finished it herself) she later clashed swords with the Prime Minister, Robert Walpole, who cannily built the 18th Century equivalent of a tower block between her and the road…

To cover up the edges, the ceiling was heavily overpainted, and bits added and subtracted. During the 19th Century, a minor royal wallpapered over the paintings (I’m not sure whether it included the ceiling or just those scary walls) but the place stayed a house of opulence and there’s no doubt about it, that ceiling does look good where it is.

But I can’t help feeling it’s wrong. The Queen’s House always seems so – well, austere, when it shouldn’t. It was designed to be every bit as fabulous as its later neighbour, the Painted Hall, and yet it is stripped. Elegant, yes, but denuded. There was a laser display panel which projected the ceiling until recently, when, presumably, it was commandeered by the BBC and redeployed for I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue…

There are two ways I can think of to see this ceiling. 1) You can become a head of state of one of the Commonwealth Countries – the building now operates as the Commonwealth Secretariat, or 2) you’ll just have to wait until next Open House Day. Sorry guys…

The Chingford Meridian

Monday, August 18th, 2008

Another in my Greenwich-related days out today; the glorious Chingford Meridian. Right at the top of Pole Hill, the highest point in Chingford, the then-Astronomer Royal, John Pond, erected an obelisk so that everyone north of the river could delight in Britain being the centre of the world. It was put up in 1824 under the excuse that it would help astronomers find True North from the transit telescope. It was the pride of Chingford.

Then disaster struck. Zut alors! The Meridian line changed. It wasn’t as bad as it could have been – Paris was most keen to become the city of the Meridian – but it did shift everything by the frustratingly short distance of 19 feet, in 1850. Suddenly the good folks of Chingford felt as though they were somehow committing a fraud – luring unsuspecting meridian-chasers up to the top of the hill, only to sell them a lie.

They considered just moving the monument – but it was solid granite and had been enough of a huff and puff the first time. No one wanted the job of moving it again…

It hung around like a bad smell, embarrassing the mayor and shaming the councillors for 34 years. When the new line was officially adopted in 1884, they decided enough was enough. A new, somewhat less attractive pillar was erected (I mistook it for some kind of MOD relic when I first saw it) and an apologetic plaque stuck on the old one.

Visiting the monuments is quite a fun quest, if you’re stuck for something to do in the long school holidays. We spent quite some time trying to work out exactly where it was, so you don’t have to – the map reference is here – and, in fact, once you actually have the map it’s quite obvious where it is – it’s the bit marked “Obelisk…”

You can drive reasonably close – go to the top of a loop-y road of a very residential nature and park as near the apex as possible. You have to climb the last 50ft or so, but it’s not a big deal – the grass is roughly cut and although there are no signs you just head for the top.

We had a fight against time – a massive storm loomed in the West – we watched it approaching through the handy gap in the trees (hence the moody look of the shot at the top – click on it to see it properly.)

I’d say that the very best time to go would be on a bright winter’s day, when the trees are bare. The view is of central London – the Gherkin, BT Tower, London Eye, etc. and very dramatic, but if the trees were leafless I’m pretty sure you could see Greenwich (after all it was intended for exactly that…)
Most of the time we were alone, though a snogging couple did turn up at one point, and thinking about it, it’s a perfect lovers’ walk. In between slurps, he loudly announced that the Meridian Line began at the Millennium Wheel. She ooohed and aahed appropriately.
They didn’t last long up there, and we didn’t last much longer than them - the storm was getting closer and closer. We left it as long as we dared, but still didn’t make it back down the hill before giant drops announced a torrential downpour. The last part was an undignified scramble down some rather muddy slopes in great stair rods of rain.
There’s one last oddity about this place. On the granite column, another small plaque tells us that TE Lawrence (of Arabia) and his friend Vyvyan Richards had intended to build a place to print copies of Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom on the top of the hill. It never happened – but Richards lived in a hut up here until 1922.

Random but fun…

Right Royal Car Boot Sale

Tuesday, May 13th, 2008

Q: What do The Greenwich Phantom and HRH The Duke of Edinburgh have in common?
A: When they went to the Historic Dockyards at Chatham they were both really only interested in seeing one thing – the bits and bobs of the Cutty Sark that are currently in storage there.

To be honest I didn’t really think they’d be in some place the public could go. And I certainly didn’t expect to see them in the open air. For some reason I just assumed that they would be being kept in a warehouse somewhere obscure, under lock and key. But on a family day out to Chatham Dockyard I just had to ask where it was.

The answer is on a very dull piece of dock, in between HMS Gannet and the submarine HMS Ocelot. All lain out on the ground, surrounded by metal fencing, like a giant car boot sale. I actually passed the stuff twice before finding it – it just looks like a pile of marine scrap – which I guess in some respects it is.

One of the orange-boiler-suited chaps who show people round, told me that the Cutty Sark guys rang round all the dockyards looking for space. Most of it’s here, but not all; it’s in various places – some’s even down in Portsmouth – which at least spreads the risk. And it is behind metal fence, and the whole site is locked at night. But somehow it just feels a bit – well – vulnerable, to me. After all, a chap in the Ropery on the same site said that a giant coil of 28″ rope that was not even useful to HMS Ark Royal got half-inched this winter – and some of the Cutty Sark’s parts are really quite small and must have ‘souvenir’ value…

But what I really find so odd about it all is that this is a museum with paying visitors – you’d think they’d make a bit more of it. There’s no sign, no note on it to say that this pile of junk is part of possibly the most famous ship in the world. You’d think they’d cash in, give it a sign and perhaps have someone dedicated to showing visitors what there is and what’s going on with it (complete with collecting box – they still have a few million to find…)

The guy (whom I had to seek out – he certainly wasn’t hanging around the stuff) told me that work has been done on it – especially the cabins (not that you’d notice it just yet) and people are interested – when The Duke of Edinburgh came to unveil a sculpture he was far more interested in making them show him round the Cutty Sark stuff (hooray – a royal patron who actually cares about their cause…)

And I really think that everyday visitors (and Phantoms, natch) would want to see it too – as it is I’d say that 99% of them will be just walking straight past this right-royal jumble sale, without even noticing it. I mean – I know the Dockyard’s being paid for it – but this isn’t the Big Yellow Self Storage Company looking after a couple of old wardrobes and some skiing gear here – they’re missing a trick. It’s all in full view – and yet somehow it’s invisible.

But whatever. The main thing is that it wasn’t on board the ship in Greenwich last May. And for that I am grateful. And there seem to be chalk markings everywhere so that the jigsaw will go back together again easily:

One other interesting thing about Chatham Royal Dockyard for Greenwich-o-philes (apart from the Chatham Chest) is that the guy also told me the giant 18th Century brick-built Dockyard Foundry (which has to be 150m in length) and which is being restored now:

will, by 2010, house the National Maritime Museum’s collection of model ships. Apparently whenever a new ship is built a model HAS to be made of it – and the NMM holds them all, currently in storage. We will be able to see them soon, thanks to a £13m lottery grant.

But don’t leave it that long – do give Chatham a visit. The guy told me (before he got called away to deal with a double-parked steam engine – I kid you not) that very sunny days like these are generally quiet because everyone goes to the coast instead…

Lesnes Abbey

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2008

By the time the hangover had worn off yesterday, it was almost dark, but I didn’t want to let the day go without doing anything some way useful – somehow it would have set a bad precedent for the year ahead. So we decided to try to find the abbey at Abbey Wood…

Lesnes was founded in 1178, eight years after the murder of Thomas a Becket, by one of the naughty boys who was involved. I can’t tell whether Richard de Luci actually plunged the dagger into Becket’s heart, or just held the big boys’ coats while they did the dirty deed with the dirk, but he certainly felt bad enough about it to build an abbey in penance.

It was an Augustinian order, which, it would seem, mainly meant the Vatican’s admin department. They did burials, baptisms, giving of penances – that kind of thing. The original Augustinians were pretty strict, but according to the sign-boards placed all over the site, this lot were more relaxed about the rules – presumably this translates that they were good-time monks.

They can’t have been very good-time. They were always in financial trouble (though of course that could have been from being good-time monks, though it’s politely implied it was more to do with constantly having to rebuild river defences) and by the time of the Dissolution, they were prime targets. Lesnes (do we pronounce this lez-nez, less-ness or even le-ney, French stylee?) was one of the first to cop it. Cardinal Wolsey strode in, the (presumably meagre) spoils intended for a new college he was building at Oxford.

Over the centuries the place was gradually plundered for building materials, but the foundations remain almost intact, giving a very pleasing layout map of what it would have been like. It’s a sweet little place with all the necessary rooms you would expect in an abbey – a no-frills, EasyMonk monastery. A simple church with a raised altar and pillars, a cloister, somewhere to eat, somewhere to sit and and somewhere to ablute. The Abbot’s own lodgings were next door to the bogs, not a layout I would have chosen, but maybe that was part of Richard de Luci’s penance…

De Luci’s great granddaughter, Roesia, was so fond of the abbey that she had her heart buried there. In a slightly icky-moment, the casket containing said heart was discovered in one of several archaeological digs and that, along with sundry bits of stone carvings, tiles and a monument are apparently in Greenwich Borough Museum – a place I haven’t visited yet, its being situated most inconveniently in Plumstead, but which is definitely on my list for this year. Apparently there are also some finds in Erith Library, even less convenient, but I’ll be making a trek out there too at some point.

In the meanwhile, despite it being almost dark yesterday afternoon and the place being virtually deserted, a little, non-vandalised, ‘visitor centre’ was open, with some faded photographs and info, which, along with close-cropped grass somehow made the whole place seem a little less abandoned.

I have to say that labelling this as a “day out” in itself might lead to a small amount of disappointment unless you are some kind of ruined-monastery nut, but as one of those things to do when you’ve, ahem, wasted most of the day but want to do something interesting, it’s perfect.

Danson Stables

Thursday, July 26th, 2007

Have you ever had one of those Sundays where you’re desperate to “go out” but don’t have any real set plans? You know there are good places out there that you still haven’t visited yet, but somehow the weather’s not that great, your energy’s not that high and besides – you’re hungry?

That was us last weekend. I like to go out and do stuff but I’m not always quite as wired and targetted as I could be. “Let’s go and find a nice country pub we’ve not already been to,” we said, and set off with no plan at all in our heads.

This is always a bad thing. With theoretically all the time in the world, I reject places on the stupidest grounds. One pub is too noisy-looking, another is too rural. The next is too urban; I don’t care for the windows-or the hanging baskets-or the 4x4s- or the local herberts in another. “But do they do food?” I whine about the next, “Yes, but it’s family fun day” about the next (something I avoid at all costs.) And the weird thing is that the hungrier I get, the more pointlessly fussy I become.

We drove round and round – pretty much literally in circles until we had virtually decided to just come back to Greenwich or Blackheath, when it occurred to us to try the pub at Danson House

Danson Stables are just that – the old stable block, built just after 1800 from the remains of one of the wings of the house which had been demolished, all set in Capability Brown gardens – turned into a really not-bad-at-all pub. It’s kept the compartmentalised feel – there are lots of different rooms so that it feels quite nice and cosy – it’s a nice balance between bright and modern and traditional homely and a pleasant way to spend a lunchtime.

I get the feeling that this used to be a chain – there is something ‘corporate’ about the signage – but there is absolutely no indication of any kind of name, so I’m wondering whether it has been taken back into private ownership, just keeping the signs. A website I found said it was Bass, but it seemed out of date and I can’t find anything about it anywhere else. I asked a waitress and she didn’t know – a sure sign that there isn’t any big corporate owner, I’d have said.

The food is predictable pub grub, but no less enjoyable for it. The portions are large – almost too large – and generally well-cooked. The gammon steak was huge and came with so much veg you couldn’t see the plate. I suspect that my linguine had been made several hours beforehand and was the scrapings out of the the bottom of the pan – crispy and oily, but actually I confess I really enjoyed it – even the scrapy-bits. I felt sort of guilty for this since it was all the naughty oily cheesy sundried tomatoey bits and I should have complained – Gordon Ramsay would have had quite a lot to say about it – but frankly however ‘old’ it was, it was actually very yummy. So I have no taste. Shoot me.

There was music but it wasn’t overbearing, the service was friendly and the beer not bad. Generally all good things.

As luck would have it there WAS a family fun day going on in the grounds of Danson House, but the pub itself was large enough to cope and despite there being lots of families it didn’t encroach on us adult drinkers and the balance worked very well. The sheer number of people who had chosen to bring the kids indicates that the child portions are a hit.

I’d say this isn’t a bad place to while away a Sunday lunchtime – just avoid the linguine if you don’t get off on pan-scrapings. Me? I’d have exactly the same thing again…