Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Hestercombe House

Hestercombe Gardens are beautifully restored formal and landscape gardens near Taunton. They attract many visitors, but the house itself is now used as offices and not open to the public.

Although the landscape gardens date from the eighteenth century, most of the house is more recent. The estate was owned by the Warre family from the fourteenth century; in 1718, it passed to Sir Francis Warre's daughter Margaret Bampfylde and stayed in the family until 1873, when the first Viscount Portman bought it.

The house was substantially remodelled for the Portman family, who owned it until 1944. The Honourable Mrs Constance Portman kept a staff of thirty in the 1920s; there were geese, a dairy, orchards, greenhouses and kitchen gardens as well as formal gardens designed by Gertrude Jekyll and Edwin Lutyens. Despite the property's subsequent use as an army camp in World War II, and latterly as offices, the house retains many beautiful original features:

Related post: Hestercombe Gardens

Monday, 29 September 2008

Admiral Blake in Bridgwater and Greenwich

On the wall of the old naval hospital (now the visitor centre) in Greenwich are reliefs of various naval heroes, including Admiral Blake. Seeing him made me feel at home, since I used to live in Bridgwater which has a full-size statue of the admiral in the centre of town (as well as Blake School, Blake Museum, the Admiral Blake Fish Bar...). So who was he?

Robert Blake was born in Bridgwater in 1598, and later went to Oxford University but didn't succeed at an academic career. He returned to the town, and became its MP for a few months in 1640 - but another election was called which he lost, cutting short his political career too. He may also have been working in the family business, but we're not sure - so the merchant life seemingly wasn't somewhere he made a mark either.

All these career worries came to an end with the English Civil War. In 1642 he joined the Parliamentary Army and became governor of Taunton. When the town was besieged by the royalists, he led its defence - the town was largely destroyed, the people were starving, but the castle had held out and Blake was hailed as a hero. He went on to capture Barnstaple and Dunster Castle. He also became MP for Bridgwater once more. So here he was in his mid-40s, now a man of status, but still not connected to the navy. How did he become a celebrated admiral?
The answer is, he was simply appointed to it, as one of three commanders of the English Navy. Only one of the others had any naval experience, but that was no disadvantage at the time. The navy was still partly loyal to the royalists and not fully trusted, so putting army officers in charge of it seemed a good idea. Luckily, Blake adapted quickly and well to naval life, blockading the Royalist fleet that winter and then leading expeditions against royalist privateers in the Scilly Isles and Channel Islands. He went on to fight the Dutch; after that war ended, he went to the Mediterranean. While he was there, he attacked the Turkish fleet in harbour to secure the release of English prisoners.

Blake returned to sea again to blockade several Spanish ports, followed by an attack on Spain's treasure ships at Santa Cruz. The result would be the admiral's final victory - his health was poor and he wished to reach England once more before he died. In July 1657 he headed for home, but died as the ship reached Plymouth Sound. His body lay in state at Greenwich before receiving a state funeral in Westminster Abbey. Among his bequests were £100 for the poor of Bridgwater.

Blake's military victories are not all that matters about his career. He was also responsible for significant improvements to the navy such as promotions on merit, better welfare for sailors, and developments in techniques such as naval blockades, and he won the admiration of those he commanded. So why is he almost forgotten today? That's largely due to the restoration of the monarchy shortly after his death. Charles II had Blake's body moved out of the Abbey to a common grave, and there was a deliberate attempt to forget his achievements. However, they are still remembered in Bridgwater where the Blake Museum (his former home) has displays about his life and career as well as many other aspects of local history.

Sunday, 28 September 2008

Somerset's extraordinary early computer

The town of Bridgwater in Somerset is still known for its annual Carnival, and many people who travelled to the south-west before the M5 was built remember the smell of its Cellophane factory, but it has a far more curious claim to fame. Now almost forgotten is the invention there of a bizarre early computer called Eureka.

John Clark grew up in the surrounding area, and became a printer in the town. However, in 1830 he had his brainwave. Forget the calculating machines which make far more obvious descendants for today's computers: this was a machine for composing Latin hexameter verse. The machine was duly built (it took 13 years), and Clark exhibited it at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly in 1845.

Eureka worked by having a series of cylinders, each accounting for one word and each cylinder dealing with one part of speech (subject noun, adjective, verb, etc). Each cylinder operated a series of staves with the alphabet, so that its movement caused the staves to form new words. The cylinders would rotate randomly so that a different line of verse appeared each time the machine stopped. It would then pause to allow spectators to read and write down the line before starting again.

The whole process took about a minute per line, but spectators were kept entertained as Eureka also played the national anthem. To warn visitors when a line was about to be broken up, it burst into a tune called 'Fly not yet'. The whole effect was clearly exciting enough to the early Victorians that huge numbers were prepared to pay a shilling to view it: the exhibition was a great success and Clark would retire after it. Since he was a member of the same family that founded Clark's shoes, the machine made its way to the Shoe Museum in Street. It is still there today, but not currently on public display. (Clark's display of financial acumen here was not typical: he also patented a method of waterproofing cloth, but to his financial loss, sold it to one Mackintosh).

Did it produce great poetry? Probably not: one line was 'BARBARA FROENA DOMI PROMITTUNT FOEDERA MALA' ('Barbarian bridles at home promise evil covenants'). However, it probably had the same appeal as various jargon generators do today - fancy creating a 'random Latin hexameter' website?

Friday, 26 September 2008

Open House (7): Limehouse Accumulator Tower

In the last of my Open House visits, I went to the Limehouse Accumulator Tower, just alongside Limehouse Basin. Vaguely associating the word 'accumulator' with electricity, I had very little idea what the tower's function had been (as we'll see, I wasn't alone in this). Luckily, an introductory talk made everything clear: the tower, built in 1869, was used for the storage of water under high pressure.

Back in the nineteenth century, before electricity came into general use, there was a demand for some form of instant power to operate machinery like cranes. (Steam power was less than instant: you had to get the fire going, heat the water...) Obviously, such demand would be particularly high somewhere like Limehouse Basin where coal was brought by ship and unloaded onto barges which would take it along the Regent's Canal. The answer was hydraulic power: water was forced under high pressure through pipes, until it reached a 'ram' which it would push into a cylinder, driving the machinery.

The pumping station itself has now gone; its role was to feed water under pressure of around 700 psi into a hydraulic main to which the machinery was connected. However, to ensure that the pressure didn't drop at times of high demand, water was kept under pressure in the accumulator tower by a large, gravel-filled weight case which forced a ram down onto the water. If demand exceeded supply, pressurised water would leave the tower, thus regulating the system. As the tower emptied, the weight case dropped so that the water remained under pressure.

Today, visitors to the tower can walk up spiral stairs inside the weight case to a viewing platform at the top of the tower. From there, we enjoyed views over Limehouse and the surrounding area, aware that we were standing on a near-forgotten piece of London's industrial history. So nearly forgotten, in fact, that the tower was only preserved in the 1970s under the mistaken belief that it was a railway signal tower.

Related post: Hydraulic power beyond Limehouse
For all Open House posts, click here.

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Secrets in plain sight

However often you walk down the same bit of road, and however observant you think you're being, sometimes something can just pass you by. That happened to me on New Cross Road, where this little treasure lurks among the satellite dishes and illuminated signs. It's above the post office at number 405, and it's a tobacco roll.

Back in the days when most people were illiterate, how best to let them know what your shop was selling? With no house numbers, how to make your premises distinctive? The answer was a shop-sign, and we're still familiar with some of these: the striped barber's pole, the pawnbroker's three balls. However, all sorts of shops had them in the past, and many tobacconists would display the tobacco roll. Usually it would be painted brown or black and yellow, which would make it stand out further; the one in New Cross Road has since been repainted in neutral tones.

Today, the sign seems rather mysterious. However, in the past such rolls were common, made of twist tobacco. Leaves were braided into a rope, cured, and sold by weight; you could still buy twist readily 50 years ago. My father remembers it being sold in half-ounce and one-ounce quantities, for chewing or smoking. Miners would chew it and spit it out since smoking wasn't possible in the mines for obvious reasons! It also helped saliva to flow and kept their mouths relatively clear of dust. For smoking, it had to be rubbed between the hands until it broke up into strands. As well as twist, rubbing tobacco was also sold in half- or one-ounce quantities - it came in half-pound sticks about a foot long, marked into half ounces, and could be either chewed or, after rubbing until it came apart, smoked in a pipe.

However, tobacco roll signs vanished from our streets long before twist tobacco. By the late eighteenth century, the growth in literacy and appearance of street numbers saw a decline in the use of shop-signs. They have now all but disappeared, so this inconspicuous feature above a sub-post office is rather special, a rare survivor worth looking up for.

Many thanks to The Industrial Archaeology of South East London, a small book crammed with information, for mentioning this gem! I got my copy from the Greater London Industrial Archaeology Society.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Open House (6): amazing views

Of course, the main point of Open House is the buildings - but it doesn't hurt that some of them have amazing views too. Here are a couple, first from the Blue Fin Building:

And a few more from the Limehouse Accumulator, looking over the DLR tracks and Limehouse Basin:

For all Open House posts, click here.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Open House (5): Victorian extravaganzas

One of the great things about Open House is the chance to discover an amazing place completely by chance, just because you happen to be passing or because it's near somewhere else on your list. I had that experience with St Margaret's Church, Lee. The outside is pleasant but doesn't prepare you for the stunning Victorian interior.

The church was built in 1841 to replace a mediaeval one across the road. When the new church was remodelled in the 1880s, its interior decoration was entrusted to the firm of Clayton & Bell. They were connected with many of the leading figures in the pre-Raphaelite and Gothic movements - Clayton was a close friend of Rossetti and worked for Charles Barry at the Palace of Westminster - and as well as wall painting, developed great expertise in stained glass. All of these skills and influences are apparent in the decor at St Margaret's. There is currently an exhibition in the church, illustrating how the scenes depicted in these wall paintings have been portrayed through six centuries of art.

Very different in scale and purpose, but equally lovely, is this entrance kiosk for a Victorian Turkish bath (now Ciro's Pizza Restaurant) in Bishopsgate Churchyard. The actual baths/restaurant are underground, but far from gloomy since the decorative exuberance continues inside. Built in 1894, they were one of proprietor James Forder Nevill's chain of nine Turkish baths, and contained a shampooing room, three hot rooms, shower bath and plunge bath. Since it was aimed at City workers, admission was not cheap - 3 shillings and sixpence, less after 7pm.

The first public Turkish bath had come to London in 1860, and the fashion spread rapidly. Among its (fictional) fans was Dr Watson, although Sherlock Holmes was apparently rather less impressed:

"The bath!" he said; "the bath! Why the relaxing and expensive Turkish rather than the invigorating home-made article?"

"Because for the last few days I have been feeling rheumatic and old. A Turkish bath is what we call an alterative in medicine--a fresh starting-point, a cleanser of the system."

By 1902, however, Holmes's attitude had softened and he was a regular at one of Nevill's other establishments, in Northumberland Avenue:

Both Holmes and I had a weakness for the Turkish bath. It was over a smoke in the pleasant lassitude of the drying-room that I have found him less reticent and more human than anywhere else.

Sadly, most of these Victorian baths have disappeared; the Bishopsgate bath closed in 1954. However, a few later examples remain in full operation, notably the 1920s Porchester Spa and Islington's Ironmonger Row (1938). For a taste of the full nineteenth-century experience in London, though, it might be worth going for a pizza...

For all Open House posts, click here.

Monday, 22 September 2008

Open House (4): Trinity House

Although today it has a rather grand building in Tower Hill, Trinity House's origins are in Deptford. The town's Guild of Mariners petitioned the King in 1512 to grant them a charter, probably at the instigation of Sir Thomas Spert. They argued that such a guild was necessary to ensure that young mariners were properly trained, and thus to safeguard Britain's security and naval superiority. Since Henry VIII not only placed great importance upon the navy but also had his first Royal Dockyard at Deptford, it's unsurprising that the petition was granted. The new Guild's duties were to defend and pilot the Thames; Deptford Dockyard was under their jurisdiction; and significantly, they could also make law for the 'relief, increase and augmentation of the shipping' of England. Sir Thomas Spert was their first Master.

In 1547, the organisation was given the title of 'the Corporation of Trinity House on Deptford Strand'. Twenty years later, it was granted authority to set up buoys on dangerous parts of the coast - from there, responsibility for lighthouses was a natural step and their first was built at Lowestoft in 1609. Such works were funded by the corporation's right to dredge shingle from the Thames and sell it to ships as ballast. However, as Trinity House grew in importance it also moved away from Deptford, with premises in Ratcliffe and then Water Lane, although the Corporation returned to Deptford every Trinity Monday until 1852 to elect its Court (governing body).

In 1796, the current building at Tower Hill was completed; 1836 saw it given control of all English lighthouses and navigation marks. Trinity House also continues to be a Deep Sea Pilotage Authority. It has also been engaged in charitable works throughout its history, from the almshouses established in Deptford and Mile End in the seventeenth century to the relief of mariners in financial distress today.

All these activities are evident in the 18th-century Trinity House. Badly damaged by a bomb in World War II, the interiors were magnificently restored in the 1950s. As well as original paintings and furniture, there are model ships, lighthouses, and memorials to prominent members and their charitable activities throughout.

Further reading - on this and most other aspects of London history: Weinreb, Hibbert, Keay and Keay, The London Encyclopaedia, Macmillan 2008
For all Open House posts, click here.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Almshouses in south-east London: Open House (3)

Almshouses are charitable homes for elderly people, an early example of social housing. They tended to cater either to a particular area or to a particular profession; the inhabitants also had to be respectable and capable of independent living. 'No common beggar, drunkard, whore-hunter, haunter of taverns nor ale houses, nor unclean person infected with any foul disease, nor any that is blind, or so impotent as he is not able, at the time of his admission, to come to prayers daily' was welcome at Trinity Hospital, Greenwich. Because of their age, many almshouses are beautiful, including the two I visited as part of Open House Weekend. Both of these, along with many others, are still operating today and provide homes for 36,000 people.

Although rules for contemporary residents are more relaxed, for much of their history almshouses set out stringent requirements for their inhabitants. Trinity Hospital imposed a daily timetable:
6am (8am in winter): rise, dress and say prayers.
9am: service in the chapel (or St Alfege Church on Wednesday and Friday).
Until 11am: free time (gardening and housework)
11am: lunch in the hall
3pm: church or chapel service, followed by free time ('weekly correction' on Saturday).
6pm: supper in the hall.
9pm: bedtime.
The gates were locked at 8pm (5pm in winter), but in any event residents could not leave the grounds without permission. However, that doesn't mean that life was miserable for occupants. First, the Hospital itself is beautiful, with gardens which retain their sense of peace even now that Greenwich's power station towers alongside. Similarly, the Merchant Taylor's almshouses are a tranquil green oasis beside Lee High Road. Second, communal life brought celebrations as well as discipline: two bowls of punch were drunk at Trinity Hospital to celebrate a new clock in 1841.

A chapel was integrated into Trinity Hospital's main building; Boone's Chapel was also central to life in the Merchant Taylor's almshouses, endowed by Christopher Boone in 1683. It has just been restored, and reopened three days ago for the first time since 1945. During restoration, a secret vault containing the coffins of Boone and his wife were discovered within it.

Boone was a wealthy wool merchant, originally from Taunton, Somerset. The founder of Trinity Hospital, Henry Howard, Earl of Northampton was from a very different sector of society: he was a favourite of James I and a Privy Councillor. Why did such varied kinds of people found almshouses? The reasons could be as complex and diverse as those behind acts of philanthropy today, but one clue is in the word 'alms'. It refers to acts of Christian charity, and at least part of the purpose in founding such institutions was to carry out one's religious, charitable obligations. Hence the centrality of the chapel to almshouse life.

For all Open House posts, click here.

Saturday, 20 September 2008

Facts not opinions: Open House (2)

This stern exhortation appears above the first of two very contrasting properties which I visited today. It may sound rather grim, but at the Kirkaldy Testing Works factual accuracy could be a matter of life and death. David Kirkaldy designed and operated testing equipment which allowed iron, steel, concrete, fabrics, ropes, chains and other materials to be tested to destruction. In an age when engineering exploded in scale and ambition, knowing the limits of one's materials was all-important. Kirkaldy and his giant testing machine could provide that information.

The vital nature of Kirkaldy's work was recognised following the Tay Bridge disaster in which 75 people were killed. On the stormy evening of 28 December 1879, the central spans of the Tay Bridge collapsed. Bridge, train and passengers fell into the Firth of Tay; there were no survivors. Famously bad poet William McGonagall wrote a commemorative poem which ended with his own view of the cause:
I must now conclude my lay
By telling the world fearlessly without the least
That your central girders would not have given way,

At least many sensible men do say,

Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,

At least many sensible men confesses,

For the stronger we our houses do build,

The less chance we have of being killed.
However, 'facts not opinions' prevailed and samples of the girders were sent to Kirkaldy for testing. He confirmed that the cast iron lugs which fastened the strengthening tie bars to the bridge columns were inadequate: they failed at 20 tons' tensile load rather than the 60 tons whch had been specified. Thus although the girders and tie bars themselves were strong, these little fastenings were enough to bring about disaster. Tragically, they had not been sent to Kirkaldy for testing before the event.

Kirkaldy's work was continued by his son and grandson. The Testing Works only closed in 1974; they then lay unused until taken over by the Kirkaldy Museum Trust in 1983. The museum is only open occasionally, so Open House offered a special opportunity to visit.

Almost directly opposite is a very different building. Even the animated statue outside has a very different motto: 'non plaudite, modo pecuniam jacite' ('don't applause, just throw money).

In contrast to the stern, nineteenth-century workshop across the road, the Blue Fin Building is an airy, glass construction decorated with, er, blue fins. They are randomly placed, their positions decided on the throw of a dice, but their angle and density has been carefully calculated to control the sun coming in while allowing views out.

Inside, it's light, bright and very clearly designed for work a world away from the grease and steel of engineering. The home of IPC Media, it contains a restaurant, offices, rooftop gardens and the Decanter wine tasting suite. (The latter wasn't open but I stared in like a kid at a sweetshop window!)

They may be as different as can be in terms of design and purpose, but both buildings had one thing in common: their generosity in welcoming lots of visitors for the weekend. Everyone I spoke to was friendly and helpful, while huge efforts had been made to provide access and information (on-site and printed). A reminder that Open House weekend depends not just upon public interest in architecture, but also upon the efforts and goodwill of a huge number of building owners, staff and volunteers. Thank you to them all!

For all Open House posts, click here.

Friday, 19 September 2008

Open House (1): a look back

This weekend is one of my favourites of the year: Open House Weekend, when all sorts of London buildings open their doors to the public. In anticipation, here are a couple of local buildings I've visited in previous years.

Ben Pimlott Building (Will Alsop, 2005) is a striking feature of New Cross Road, and part of Goldsmiths College. It's named for the late Professor Ben Pimlott, a leading historian of the Labour movement and warden of Goldsmiths, who died the year before it opened. Visiting meant not only getting inside a local landmark, but also enjoying some amazing views over Deptford, New Cross and beyond.

The Stone House in Lewisham is very different. It hides modestly behind its walls; within is a stunning eighteenth-century home. Architect George Gibson designed it for himself, and without a client to please could produce a fairly eccentric combination of grand pillared, plastered porticos and rough stone walls; a square body with tall curved bays; and a cupola. Pevsner describes it as 'a very personal interpretation of the villa form'.

Just two out of the thousands to choose from each year: it's well worth browsing the Open House website to find more local gems.

For all Open House posts, click here.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Lyon's cooking 'mothers'

I've already described some of Lyon's specialities: the traditional cuisine is based on tasty food made from good ingredients. Lyon has had a reputation for gastronomy since Roman times. However, much of its recent renown comes from its great chefs of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: the mères. (The word literally means 'mothers' but was also used as a respectful title).

Lyon suffered badly in the French revolution. In consequence, the bourgeois of the city preferred to do business over a meal at home, and women became used to cooking for others. Stendhal commented on the fact, and on the perfectionism and talent of such women: 'These gentlemen have women chefs, not male chefs ... I saw a touching spectacle, one of these girls, a fat plain woman of forty, cry with joy for a duck with olives: be assured that in Paris we only know an imitation of that dish.'

These women chefs later moved from private homes to their own restaurants. Their manner was often gruff; some were criticised for always serving the same dishes, but they argued that this was essential if they were to perfect them. One of the most notable such women, Mère Filloux, declared that 'the preparation of a dish demands years of experience. I've spent my whole life making four or five dishes, so I know how to make them, and I'll never make anything else.' That didn't mean that her menus were boring: for 3.5 francs she would serve you a charcuterie starter, truffled chicken, oven-baked fish quenelles in prawn butter, artichoke hearts with truffled foie gras, cheese, ice cream, desserts and wine.

Filloux's pupil Eugénie Brazier became the first woman to hold three Michelin stars - in 1933, over 70 years before Anne-Sophie Pic would repeat the feat - and was the first person ever to hold six stars (three stars each in two restaurants). She in turn would have as her apprentice Paul Bocuse, now one of France's greatest chefs. When there's yet another tired discussion of why women supposedly don't do well in professional kitchens, it's worth remembering the women of Lyon whose influence over the finest of French cuisine is still apparent.

For all Lyon posts, click here.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008


Just for a change, thought I'd share some amazing product packaging. Would you buy this catfood for your treasured pet? After seeing the fear in that cat's eyes? And then ... in the second shot, is it actually still alive??

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

London's buried bones

Today I went to the Wellcome Collection's exhibition Skeletons: London's buried bones. The concept and design are simple, but work really well: a small selection from the Museum of London's collection of 17,000 skeletons are displayed with panels setting out their age, sex, date of death, burial location and a short explanation of the information their bones reveal. Around the edge of the room are photographs of the burial sites today: most have long since been built over. The style is understated and respectful, with the focus on human and social history rather than morbid sensationalism.

Some of the skeletons' features are unsurprising: signs of rickets, broken bones (often connected to drunkenness in the days when beer was safer than water), syphilis and smallpox. Seeing the traces of these diseases, though, makes them much more real than written descriptions can. No one would imagine that congenital syphilis (contracted in the womb from an infected mother) would be anything other than unpleasant, but to see the terribly affected skeleton of an infected child really brings home the horror. Tuberculosis might be associated with the lungs, but left its mark on the bones too; by contrast, plague killed so quickly that the skeleton tended to show few signs - its presence in a plague pit might be the main evidence for the disease.

Less unpleasant were the green stains on some bones. They're bright enough to look like deliberate markings, but in fact were caused by copper, either from objects such as shroud pins or, in the case of one almost entirely green skull, by copper waste from the manufacture of coins seeping into the ground.

Diet and working habits, good or bad, all leave clues behind. Other features gave rise to more questions. For example, several skeletons had bathrocephaly, explained as a genetic trait manifested as a protruding ridge at the base of the skull. While the exhibition informs you that this was once common (present in one in ten Londoners), but is now very rare (affecting only one in a million people), it doesn't say why. Perhaps that's the sign of a good exibition - it leaves you wanting to learn more....

Practical information: the exhibition runs until 28 September, so you've still got time to go! It's open Tuesday to Sunday until 6pm (8pm on Thursday) and admission is free. The Wellcome Collection is at 183 Euston Road (nearest tubes Euston, Euston Square, Warren Street).
There's no photography allowed in the exhibition (the image above is from the Paris Catacombs).

Monday, 15 September 2008

R Trickett, Deptford High Street

There are many ways to describe the shops on Deptford High Street - they're diverse, interesting, varied - but 'grand' probably wouldn't spring to mind. However, if you look above street-level, there are clues that some stores were rather more majestic in the past. In particular, the sign for Trickett & Co is rather fetching.

Although the current sign is dated 1889, the shop itself was older: see a picture of it in 1850 here. The new frontage dates from an expansion which saw it triple in size, from occupying 10 Deptford High Street alone to numbers 8-12.

What did it sell? The full title was Tea, Coffee & Colonial Merchant; there was also a wholesale warehouse in Deptford Church Street. To judge by the 1850 advertisement, the store did a lively delivery trade. It offered not only tea and coffee but also Huntley & Palmer's biscuits to go with them as well as 'foreign fruits, pickles, sauces'. Just the sort of fancy food that central London department store Gamages offered in its 1914 catalogue, too.

In 1862, a theft from Trickett's ended with an Old Bailey prosecution. The proceedings give some idea of the value of the stock: Lewis Lyons was accused of stealing a horse and a cart containing 111 pounds of tea, which Mr Trickett valued at £21 (several thousand pounds at today's values). We can also see that being the boss's son was no guarantee of an easy life, since the boy was working with his father and was even left in charge of the horse and cart, although he was only 10 years old. (He was also naive enough to be decoyed away by a fake message from his father - his evidence doesn't record how Mr Trickett reacted). The 18-year-old Lyons was convicted and sentenced to four years' penal servitude.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Silk cushions and silkweavers' brains

No, the title doesn't refer to some weird cannibalistic incident - le coussin and cervelle de canut are two of Lyon's gastronomic specialities. Neither contain actual silk or weaver...

The gaudy green chocolate here is a coussin, created in 1960 to commemorate a bit of local history. Back in 1643, a plague epidemic threatened the city so the aldermen offered the Virgin Mary a deal. If Lyon was spared, they would walk in procession up to Fourviere (now the site of the basilica) to offer a large wax candle and a gold coin on a silk cushion.

The epidemic was duly brought under control, and the procession up the hill became an annual event. The chocolate represents the silk cushion involved: it's made of cocoa flavoured with curacao liqueur, wrapped in green marzipan. Invented by the chocolatier Voisin, it's still the centerpiece of their shop window:

Less colourful but even more delicious is cervelle de canut, or silkweaver's brain. Far from being another of the city's offal specialities, this is actually a cheese. Fromage blanc, a very soft, mild cheese, is flavoured with garlic, chives and shallots. The resulting concoction can be eaten as part of a cheeseboard, spread on bread, or used as a dip for crudites. This one was part of my cheese plate at the Cafe des Federations.

For all Lyon posts, click here.

Saturday, 13 September 2008

The Lyon - Spitalfields connection

Lyon is famous for its silk-weaving industry (now almost disappeared). Traces of it are all over the city, particularly in the Croix Rousse district: for example, the traboules are narrow passages which allowed merchants to move silks from place to place under cover. During the Occupation, they were used by the Resistance to get around the city.

However, in the 16th and 17th centuries, France suffered a great deal of religious strife as protestants and catholics came into conflict. French protestants were known as Huguenots - and many of them were weavers. Their persecution reached a climax with the notorious St Bartholomew's Day Massacres of 1572 when public outrage triggered by the marriage of a French princess to a protestant led to the killing of over 2,000 Huguenots in Paris. The violence spread to other parts of France including Lyon. Life settled down again with the Edict of Nantes in 1598, which allowed them to follow their religion without persecution; but Louis XIV revived the pressure on the Huguenots to convert to Catholicism and revoked the Edict in 1685.

This led to a wave of emigration in which many French silk weavers relocated to England, where they brought new skills and techniques. (England hadn't previously had much of a silk industry: famously, James I's attempt to introduce one failed when he planted the wrong sort of mulberry bushes). A number of weavers settled in Spitalfields which fell outside the City of London, and so outside the control of the guilds. The weavers built homes and established a strong community; there were 9 Huguenot churches here by 1700. One of the former weavers' houses is now open to the public: 19 Princelet Street, London's museum of immigration.

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Friday, 12 September 2008

A mini Eiffel Tower

Blackpool isn't the only town to have a mini Eiffel Tower: there's also one overlooking Lyon, right alongside its Basilica. It was built in 1894 for Lyon's own Universal Exhibition and had an observatory and restaurant at the top. The attraction closed, and was nearly demolished, during the Occupation but survived to become a television relay tower. Sadly, the conversion involved removal of the lift and the tower is no longer open to the public.

It may not have much of a name - 'la tour metallique' (the metal tower) - but it is the highest point in Lyon, thus outdoing its neighbour which was built a few years earlier. This is no coincidence: the basilica's guidebook explains that for unbelievers, free-thinkers and republicans, the church was a provocation, a 'citadel of superstition'. A battle for height therefore took place - and the tower won by a few dozen metres.

Today both monuments dominate the skyline, by night as well as by day. The basilica, unlike the tower, remains open to visitors - and it's well worth going to look at the stunning, high Victorian interior. However, neither party would win prizes for subtlety. While the church might have lost out in terms of height, its giant golden statue of the Virgin Mary perched at the top made a pretty distinctive landmark. The statue is currently at ground level while its tower is being restored.

For all Lyon posts, click here.

Thursday, 11 September 2008

Fifth-storey Lyon

As I climb the endless stairs to my fifth-floor hotel room, I remind myself of one consolation: a chance to be on the same level as architectural details I'd normally have to peer up at. All the better, then, that the nearest building isn't some concrete block but the rather florid Theatre des Célestins.

Originally there was a convent on the site, built in 1407, but in 1786 it refused to obey an edict from King Louis XV. After long court proceedings, the building was returned to the King of Sardinia (a descendant of the Duke of Savoy who had originally given the convent land). He sold it in 1789 for demolition and conversion into houses and a theatre.

You can see from the picture on the left that this building is rather more recent than that. The original theatre was destroyed by a fire in 1871; six years later, the current theatre was completed. Its architect, local man Gaspard-Abraham André, had won the competition to design a building suitable for 'comedies, vaudeville, dramas, extravaganzas, operettas, and similar genres'.

Another fire in 1880 left the facade intact but destroyed just about everything else - it didn't help that the on-site firemen were drunk at the time. André took on the work once more and the theatre reopened the following year. Its most recent renovation was in 2005 - luckily, not after yet another fire!

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Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Eating out in Lyon

Barely back in London, and here I am in France again! This time it's for work, but I couldn't ignore the fact that Lyon is one of the great culinary cities so tonight I went out to the most Lyonnais of restaurants, a bouchon.

A bouchon is an informal, bistro-style restaurant serving local specialities. I went to one of the most traditional, the Café des Fédérations, 'founded a long time ago'. It's typically furnished: nothing glamorous or contemporary, just relaxed and homely with red checked serviettes, friendly service and a menu heavy on local dishes and ingredients.

Pig products feature heavily, and my aperitif came with a basket of pork scratchings. The starter was a huge assortment of charcuterie, lentil salad, and a salade lyonnaise with bacon, croutons and egg. The choice of main courses included boudin noir (black pudding) and apple, calf's head, andouillette (chitterling sausage) with mustard, and quenelle with prawn sauce. Hardly a vegetarian paradise, I'm afraid! I chose the quenelle, which is a sort of fish dumpling and very much a Lyon speciality. It isn't pretty, but it is tasty. By contrast, the cheese plate was both pretty and tasty - although by this stage in the meal, I could barely scratch the surface of it!

As well as having a great meal, I really enjoyed having the opportunity to experience an amazing bit of the city's heritage. With a few glasses of wine, it was also a lot more relaxing than museums and the like...

For all Lyon posts, click here.