Sunday, 17 June 2018

Ganllwyd, last ironclad mission hall in Wales

Ganllwyd Village Hall is not just a community facility. It's also a rare survival: the only surviving iron-clad wooden mission hall in Wales. This 'tin tabernacle' was built in around 1850. 

The hall is not the only special feature of this little village. It also has some exceptionally beautiful scenery, including these river views. 

Friday, 8 June 2018

Abney Park, doyenne of non-denominational chapels

In 1840, Abney Park cemetery chapel opened. It marked a key moment, not only for Abney Park but also for the ways in which cemeteries were developed and used.

One of London's 'magnificent seven' cemeteries, Abney Park sits behind Stoke Newington High Street and offers a popular green space amidst the built-up city streets. That is no accident: like its six sisters, this cemetery was always intended for recreation as well as for mourning: it was an arboretum (planted by famous local horticulturalists the Loddiges family) as well as a graveyard. Its broad welcome extended to those who could be buried there: unlike churchyards, or even the non-conformist burial grounds, this cemetery was open to members of all denominations. 

The non-denoinational approach was an innovation by Abney Park. Its sisters used a different strategy: Kensal Green, West Norwood, Nunhead, Tower Hamlets, and Highgate each had two chapels: one Anglican and another for Dissenters. Brompton has a single chapel, but it was originally Anglican; separate Catholic and Dissenting chapels were planned but never built. By contrast, Abney Park's chapel was always open to all denominations, and never consecrated.

Architect William Hosking therefore faced an interesting challenge: he had no precedents to follow in designing the chapel. His own background was non-conformist - he had apprenticed under Rev. William Jenkins, a Wesleyan minister as well as architect - although his major previous commissions had been in bridge design. 

The chapel was carefully designed for its non-denominational use. It is cruciform in shape, with four equal arms intended to reflect equality before God. It is simple, but not without interest: gothic overall, it has romanesque and neo-classical elements, and the rose windows reflect the rosarium outside, which contained over a thousand varieties of rose. 

Meanwhile, its use for funerals meant that hearses would be arriving in all weathers, and they are catered for by a porte-cochere. Its ceiling forms the floor of a gallery inside the chapel. 

The design was also influenced by the chapel's location at the heart of the cemetery. Since it was some way from the entrance, designed to be gradually revealed as visitors approached thorugh the tree-lined paths, it dominates by height rather than position. The chapel strives upwards, its spire projecting above the surrounding trees.  

Although it had its critics, the chapel was also much-admired by Hosking's contemporaries. That same year, he became the first professor of architecture at King's College London. 

Abney Park's chapel has suffered badly from vandalism and fire. It reached a low point in 2012, when Hackney Council had to close it for safety reasons. However, recent restoration work has stabilised it: now safe to enter again, the chapel can look forward to new life as an event and community space under the care of the Abney Park Cemetery Trust

I visited on a guided tour organised by the excellent London Historians. The cemetery has regular walks and events

Sunday, 27 May 2018

Reigate Caves ... that aren't

Reigate, Surrey is literally built upon sand - and even much of that is hollow! The extensive network of tunnels under the town centre are known as Reigate Caves, but in fact they are not natural features. They were dug over centuries, mostly as sand mines. 

The silver sand is very pure, making it highly desirable to glassmakers. Its lack of colour meant that good quality, clear glass could be achieved. In consequence, there was a lively trade between townspeople and London's glass industry. It ranged from individuals digging relatively small amounts from their own (and perhaps their neighbours') cellars, to larger commercial operations. That history can be explored in the Tunnel Road caves, opened to the public several days a year by Wealden Cave and Mine Society. Those on the west side of the road began life as sand mines, but the mining seems to have stopped after 1858 when a large section fell in. That would have done no more than hasten its natural end, however, as steam-powered equipment had made open-cast mining easier and cheaper. 

After the end of mining, the caves found plenty of new uses: this section has been home to a shooting club for over a century, while other parts of the network were used as stores, a wine bar, and a music venue. Several sections have been filled in, to ensure the stability of the roads and buildings above. In a reversal of its history, the cave occupied by the rifle club now has sand brought into it - because the Reigate sand is not of the correct grade for catching bullets behind the targets.

Inevitably, rubbish also got dumped into the tunnels. There is, of course, the inevitable shopping trolley - but from defunct chain Texas Homecare.

The tunnels to the east of Tunnel Road were never mines, but were created as storage cellars for wine and beer. 

That history can be explored in the museum which now occupies them. It also dedicates galleries to their use as air raid shelters during the Second World War. As well as local people, Londoners also used to travel to the caves to take shelter. 

A barely-visible sign still warns visitors to 'always bring your gas mask' since the shelter was not gas-proof

The Barons' Cave, underneath the now-disappeared Reigate Castle, has a longer and more uncertain history. There are records of it dating back to the sixteenth century, but also indications that it may be much older. It may date back as far as the Norman period, and is probably mediaeval; it was most likely a sally port from the castle (ie an escape tunnel). We do know that the story which gave the caves their name is not true: the barons did not meet here to draft Magna Carta. (And they were sensible not to do so: a tunnel with one entrance, and no good reason for senior nobility to be sneaking into it, is far from ideal for a secret meeting!) 

It has a side passage which is much newer, and was probably dug as a sand mine. The other use which has left visible traces is as a place to leave graffiti. Names and dates abound, of course, but there are also images of human and animal heads. 

At the flight of steps leading down to its entrance is a sign telling would-be visitors to apply to the Head Gardener and pay a fee of three pence. While the Wealden Cave and Mine Society has taken overe the tours, their guides are excellent and entrance fees remain modest - although you will need more than a threepenny bit for admission. 

Sunday, 13 May 2018

Ghost signs (133): just Dubonnet

Things have been quiet here for a few weeks, mostly thanks to my being on holiday. And of course, no holiday would be complete without a holiday ghost sign photo!

Presumably, the instructions to this signwriter were to paint 'Dubonnet'. He did literally that. There are no flourishes, no slogans, not even a quirky misspelling. Just 'Dubonnet' in big, bold letters. Well, it certainly gets the message across!

The sign is in Saint Coulomb, halfway along the road between Cancale and Saint Malo, Brittany. The small town also boasts another bit of old signage, rather more satisfying, on a pleasingly idiosyncratic building. This is the post office - or 'Post, Telegraph and Telephone' office, as it was in 1930. 

Sunday, 1 April 2018

Hackney Round Chapel, Acousticons, and second chances

The Round Chapel in Hackney has an impressive exterior, but opportunities to see the interior are limited. I managed it a few years ago during Open House London - but then somehow lost the photographs! Happily, a second chance came when I attended a concert here.

The chapel is misnamed since, behind its rounded front, it extends straight back to make a horseshoe shape. (Admittedly, 'the horseshoe chapel' might have been a more confusing nickname.) The building opened in 1871 to accommodate a fast-growing congregation. They attended the non-conformist United Reformed Church which had been based at the nearby Old Gravel Pit Chapel since 1804, but now needed more room - not to mention that their first home had become structurally unsound, and its lease was coming to an end. Both the local population and the congregation had expanded rapidly in recent decades, prompting the building of a new chapel in a new suburb, Clapton Park. 

The Round Chapel's architect was Henry Fuller, who also designed other non-conformist buildings in the area. Perry and Co won the £10,000 tender to build it, although the final cost was more than double that. The money did pay for a fine building, with its attractively tiled and grated floors and soaring spaces.

The cast iron columns were rather controversial, associated more with railway stations and (gasp) music halls than places of worship. These are rather light and elegant, however, with their graceful lattices supporting a capacious gallery which runs around three sides.

The tiled corridor running around the outside of the auditorium allowed the large numbers attending to move around the building more quickly.

At the back of the chapel are several rows of pews, with doors at the ends. These were presumably intended to damp down background sound, for these seats were fitted with an Acousticon.

Several instruction plaques and one set of control buttons still survive. The Church Acousticon was a hearing aid system which could be installed in a place of worship for the use of its deaf congregants. An Ardente amplifier was wired in, and earpieces were then plugged into sockets at the seats. 

An advertisement from 1933 makes it clear that these devices were heavily promoted to non-conformist congregations, and offered on a free trial basis to them. The publicity claimed that it had been installed in over 4,000 churches including Wesley's Chapel. The remainder of the 4,000 would not all have been in Britain: the company was American, with General Acoustics their British agents. The aggressive marketing continued in the chapel itself: the instruction plaque concludes with the information that 'For hearing general Conversation, small portable sets, invisible when in use, can be obtained.' In the same period, Acousticon were also advertising to cinemas, warning them that without the devices they would lose their deaf customers thanks to 'Talkies'. Not only would the system pay for itself, but it could be obtained on 'hire maintenance terms' as well as outright purchase.

However, by the time the system was installed, the chapel's best days were already over. Its congregation declined throughout the twentieth century, and finally left it in the 1980s. In 1991, Hackney Historic Buildings Trust took over the chapel, which was substantially restored. It is now enjoying a new life as an events venue, a role to which it is very well-suited.

Friday, 23 March 2018

Tunnel Visions: Array

Beech Street tunnel is generally a rather uninspiring and polluted space, taking pedestrians and vehicles underneath the Barbican complex. Unless you're using the bus stop, you're unlikely to want to linger. However, for a couple of days, people were queuing to get in! 

On 17 and 18 March, the tunnel was closed to traffic and became the venue for a sound and light installation, Tunnel Visions: Array. Sheltered from the snow falling outside - if not from the freezing temperatures - the audience experienced a half-hour show. Contemporary classical piece Karawane, by Esa-Pekka Salonen, played as banks of projectors played a digital artwork across the tunnel ceiling and walls. 

For the length of the performance, the space was 'animated' by art as the organisers intended. Unfortunately, it's not an effect which can survive the return of traffic; but for a few hours, the tunnel was truly transformed.

Saturday, 17 March 2018

Acme Electric Co (Finsbury)

An exposed shop sign on Great Eastern Street, Shoreditch reads 'Acme Electric Co (Finsbury) Ltd'. It looks like a momentary exposure, while work is carried out, but similar photos were taken over a year ago so work must be progressing slowly. 

There is very little information online about this company, but they were the distributors for Ajax calculators and transistor radios, and a 1970 copy of Billboard's International Tape Directory lists them under audio tape 'playback equipment manufacturers and importers'. The company had been dissolved in 1968, but was incorporated again at the beginning of that year. It is unclear how long this second incarnation lasted, but it is now dissolved. 

Like the shop, electric calculators and cassette recorders have largely disappeared from our everyday lives - but this sign offers, for now, a little reminder of that not-so-distant technological past. 

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Napoleon in York

Think of Napoleon, and what other word comes to mind? It might be France, Emperor, or Waterloo - maybe 'short' since the myth of his small stature has proved remarkably persistent - but it probably won't be 'snuff'. Yet that was exactly the association a York tobacconist expected their customers to make. 

The wooden statue of Napoleon is now in the Merchant Adventurers' Hall in York, but for a century and a half he stood outside the premises of Mr Clarke in Bridge Street. He had been brought over from France in 1822, along with two other Napoleons who went to Leeds and London; neither are thought to have survived. Apparently, they cost £50 each - equivalent to several thousand pounds today - and he is carved from oak. 

York's Napoleon had his own misadventures: during the Second World War, celebrating soldiers threw him in the River Ouse; and once, accidentally left out overnight, he was taken into police custody and had to be retrieved from the cells. In 1973, Napoleon moved to Judith Thorpe's shop in Lendal, York, where he was apparently particularly popular with French visitors. He stayed outside the shop until moving to the Hall in 1997. 

But still, why Napoleon? The answer is that he was known for taking snuff. However, if his valet is to be believed, that reputation was somewhat overblown: 
although he wasted a great quantity of it, he really used very little, as he took a pinch, held it to his nose simply to smell it, and let it fall immediately. It is true that the place where he had been was covered with it; but his handkerchiefs, irreproachable witnesses in such matters, were scarcely stained, and although they were white and of very fine linen, certainly bore no marks of a snuff-taker. Sometimes he simply passed his open snuff-box under his nose in order to breathe the odor of the tobacco it contained.
Nonetheless, it may have had a special resonance in York: one of the Yorkshire regiments, the Green Howards, hold a gold snuffbox given by Napoleon to Marechal Ney. The treasure, with its portrait of the Emperor on its lid, was seized from Ney's coach at Waterloo and became a prize exhibit in the regimental museum. Perhaps that helps explain why York kept its wooden figure long after London. 

As for that statue of Napoleon in London, I haven't yet found where it was displayed. If anybody has information about it, please share it in the comments. 

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