Thursday, 12 July 2018

Ship Inn, Hart Street

An exuberant piece of vintage decoration between modern office blocks, the Ship Inn certainly draws attention. Its facade is elaborately embellished with maritime-themed decorations. Despite being in a bit of the City of London formerly rich with warehouses and naval connections - Hart Street, just behind Trinity Square and around the corner from the Navy Office of Pepys' time - it was not actually in sight of any ships, being a short walk away from the Thames.  Perhaps that's why it has so determinedly brought its own seascape with it.

The current building dates from 1887. It suffered bombing damage in the Second World War: planning permission for reinstatement was given in June 1949. It was listed at Grade II in 1972, in recognition of its value as an example of a decorated public house of the period. 

However, there was a pub here long before 1887. In 1791, the building was insured with the Sun Fire Office by a licensed victualler; the Ship's own website claims 'friendly service since 1802' which suggests either that they only have definite confirmation from that slightly later date, or that the previous landlord/landlady was not adept at customer service! 

Today's pub certainly looks inviting. It was restored in 2014, and is bright and cheerful (well, except for that dolphin...).

I am left with a question, though. As well as cascades of seaweed, the facade is wreathed with garlands of greenery bearing red berries. Are these purely decorative, or do they too represent some form of marine flora?

Sunday, 24 June 2018

Ghost signs (134): Reigate

Visiting Reigate for its caves, I also found all sorts of ghost signs. Some were in the cave system, some around it, and others unconnected. This post is using a liberal definition: not all are the classic ghost sign painted onto brick or stone, but are all worth a mention here. 

This one may be my favourite: a sort of double layer of ghostliness. The Market Stores are still a pub, but not a 'billiard saloon'. And certainly not ... well, whatever word has been wholly obliterated at the top of this sign. 

The pub was handily placed for the neighbouring Tunnel Caves, which were used at some points to store beer and wine. Indeed, the caves on the other side of the road were dug specifically for that purpose. The sign for Tunnel Vaults still stands out proudly. 

No canny trader would miss a chance to advertise, even if it was on an air vent!

Now a museum, the Tunnel Caves contain a few ghost signs of their own, albeit on enamel. 

They were repurposed as air raid shelters during the Second World War. A very faded sign faintly exhorts visitors to carry their gas masks, as the tunnel doors were not gas-proof. 

A walk from these to the Barons Caves takes us past the former premises of shoe shop Freeman Hardy & Wills, still commemmorated in this fine doorstep mosaic. 

And our final ghost sign is at the entrance to the Barons Caves: a reminder that they have long been a visitor attraction, even if the arrangements for visitors (and admission fee) have changed.

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.

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