Saturday 29 June 2024

New views of Crossness Pumping Station


Crossness Pumping Station is one of those amazing places that are always worth revisiting. It looks pretty snazzy outside, but inside will consistently take your breath away. And it was designed to do so – even if its purpose was pumping sewage. 


Victorian London had a sewage problem. As the city and its population grew and grew, removing ‘night soil’ became more and more of a challenge. ‘Solutions’ included dumping it in the Thames - then still a major source of the city’s drinking water. The consequences were increasingly unpleasant, including several cholera epidemics and culminating in the Great Stink of 1858 when hot weather made the smell of the river/sewer unbearable. The Houses of Parliament, with their riverside location, were badly affected by the stench. After years of delaying and arguing about money, parliamentarians and local authorities were finally prompted into action.

Civil engineer Joseph Bazalgette created a sewage system which drew water from across the city into large outfall sewers – one each north and south of the river – and down the Thames. The outfall sewers sloped gently downwards so that gravity kept their contents flowing, but every so often they needed a boost. South of the river, Deptford Pumping Station raised the liquid enough that it could descend once more to Crossness which – like its northern counterpart at Abbey Mills – pumped the sewage into reservoirs before their release into the ebbing tide of the Thames, which would then carry the waste safely beyond the city. 


My most recent visit was organised by Subterranea Britannica, and we were hugely lucky to be able to go into areas not usually open to the public. They gave us a new perspective on the engineering and architectural wonders of this exceptional building. 

Sunday 5 May 2024

Signs through time: along the A10

A quick look at changing styles of street signs, all from a stroll along the main road from Dalston Junction to Stoke Newington stations. (It's the A10, although its name changes from Kingsland High Street to Stoke Newington  Road and then Stoke Newington High Street.) They are a great example of how the materials, typography, and styles have evolved - but also look out for the changing local authorities and postcodes. 

The oldest signs were not standard in format, and some are quite elaborate. 

On a brick wall, a stone tablet in a carved stone surround says 'Garnham Street'. To its right is a modern sign with black and red lettering on a white backround saying 'London Borough of Hackney Garnham Street N16'; above are traces of a painted sign.

Garnham Street has a rather rich collection: fantastic old, non-standard signs; the faint traces of a painted replacement; and below it, the current 'official' sign. And on one side of the street, there's also the faded remains of a painting on tile.

 On a brick wall, a painted sign in a moulded rectangular frame says Garnham Street. Above it is part of a tiled panel with painted figures faintly visible.

Brighton Road has traces of a sign painted directly onto the brickwork (once quite common) above a modern sign attached to it. 

 A rectangular sign with black border and rounded cornders says 'London Borough of Hackney Brighton Road N16' in black and red letters. Faint painted words are visible above.

This blue and white sign is quite unusual, with something of a French feel to it. It looks like a move towards the contemporary format, although it still has a way to go. 

 Photograph of a white, rectangular sign with royal blue letters saying 'BOROUGH OF STOKE NEWINGTON HIGH STREET'

The standard format has itself changed significantly. Sometimes the changes are subtle - look in particular at the 'of' and the '6' in these two signs. 

On a white background, red and black text says 'BOROUGH OF HACKNEY STOKE NEWINGTON ROAD, N.16.' The word 'OF' is in a smaller font and the stroke of the '6' extends above the height of the neighbouring characters.

Photograph of a street sign, black and red letters on white, saying 'BOROUGH OF HACKNEY SANFORD LANE, N.16.'

 A more modern version has no borough name; the postal district 'N.16' has faded from red to pink.

A sign reading 'STOKE NEWINGTON ROAD N.16'

There is a nice pair of modern styles on Beatty Road, showing how much they have changed even in recent decades.

 A section of wall with two signs for Beatty Road, each in a different but quite modern style.

Crossway shows yet another modern style and colour scheme, but there's an intriguing plaque alongside it.

A blue sign with white text says 'LONDON BOROUGH OF HACKNEY CROSSWAYS N16'. It seems 'N16' has been placed on later. Also on the wall is a shield-shaped plaque.

A closer look at the plaque shows that it is a boundary marker - not for a parish but for the Borough of Stoke Newington. It is dated 1901; today, the borough is no more. As the street signs tell us, it has been absorbed into the Borough of Hackney.

A shield-shaped metal plaque on a wall. It is streaked and darkened, but says 'Borough of Stoke-Newington boundary centre of road 1901'.

Other signs have fared badly but still share their information as best they can. We can see that in fact, they tell us more than their words alone spell out!

A metal sign for Belgrade Road has been painted over in the same cream paint as the wall behind, but the raised lettering is still visible.

A sign for 'Tyssen Road' is a patchwork of different colours and texts - the borough and postcode details appear to have been stuck on later.


Saturday 27 April 2024

Baker Street's posters from the past

Baker Street Station is one of the oldest on London's Underground. It was one of the seven stations on the first line, the Metropolitan, which opened in 1863. The Metropolitan Line grew, the Circle and Bakerloo Lines were added, and the number of station users increased, so the decision was taken to rebuild the station from 1910. Unsurprisingly, there are all sorts of historical features and traces of the past still present today - including some vintage advertisements. 

One is visible on the platform, advertising 'London's new restaurant' in Chiltern Court. Don't be fooled! Chiltern Court is very much there, but its restaurant 'open to non-residents' is long gone. 

Photograph of an advertisement, now behind glass, reading 'Metropolitan Line. Chiltern Court - London's New Restaurant - Baker Street Station. Entrances from Booking Hall and Station Approach. Open to non-residents.'


The reference to non-residents may sugggest a hotel - and indeed that was the original plan for the building above the station. However, the First World War prevented the hotel from being built and instead, Chiltern Court was constructed in the late 1920s. It opened in 1929, the largest block of flats in London. Amenities included the Chiltern Court Restaurant, convenient for occupants and, as our advertisement points out, non-residents too. Luncheon, afternoon tea and dinner were all offered, with a table d'hote dinner costing six shillings and sixpence in 1933.

The restaurant survived long enough to get a mention in Metro-land, the 1973 documentary written by Sir John Betjeman. He asked, 'Is this Buckingham Palace? Are we at the Ritz? No.' It later closed and was used for a spell as the London Transport Recruitment Centre. Today, it is open for dining again (albeit without 'perfect cuisine and faultless service') as the Wetherspoons-owned Metropolitan Bar. Look at the ceiling for a glimpse of its past glories!

Photograph of dirt-stained, tattered theatre posters. Fragments of the names of Shakespeare plays are visible, and the words 'Tilly of Bloomsbury' are large and legible in the centre.

To see the other poster, you need to take a Hidden London tour of the station (highly recommended: there's lots to see!). In a disused passage, once providing access to lifts, is an advertisement for theatre performances. 'Tilly of Bloomsbury', playing at the Apollo Theatre, is the most legible. This 1919 play, a comedy, tells the story of a poor young woman who falls in love with an aristocrat. She pretends to be from a noble background but the truth is eventually exposed when his family meet hers. The play continues to be perfomed, albeit generally by amateur companies rather than in West End theatres; it was also made into a film two years later, and again in 1931 and 1940. The BBC televised a live studio production of it in 1948. However, we can date this poster more closely: fragments of the names of George Grossmith Jr and Edward Laurillard are visible at the top. They produced the play at the Apollo in 1919 and then managed the theatre between 1920 and 1923, before terminating their partnership. These posters are even older than the restaurant advert, then, but they too provide a tantalising glimpse of interwar London life.

The fine meals and comic performances may be long gone, but their ghosts linger below Baker Street. 

Friday 22 December 2023

Myths in concrete

In Rainham Marshes, at the edge of the Thames, lie strange and abandoned craft. These odd survivors are concrete barges, stranded by the shore and surrounded by myth. 

All the photos in this post show decaying, lichen-covered concrete barges at the edge of a river. Across the river and past the barges, industrial works are visible.

Why were they built? It's not certain, but evidence suggests that they were constructed during World War II. Given the shortage of steel for wartime construction, concrete vessels were a tempting alternative. They had been developed in the nineteenth century for use on European rivers and canals. In the 1890s, engineer Carlo Gabellini was building small ships. By the end of the First World War, ocean-going boats were being built in Norway and the United States. In World War II, the United States built concrete ships and barges; the latter did not have their own engines but were towed by other ships. 

But what of British barges? Almost 300 open barges were constructed, as well as 201 petrol barges including the Rainham Marshes craft. 

It is said that many were used during D-Day, bringing fuel and supplies for - and even forming part of - the Mulberry harbours, and legend has it that the Rainham barges were among them. However, there is a lack of evidence to support either claim. The open barges were used on inland waterways and did not make the crossing to Normandy. Some had been used as pontoons in earlier tests in Scotland but an alternative was chosen. Indeed, those built in London were intended to replace metal Thames lighters now being used as landing craft. It is uncertain how many of them actually fulfilled that role. 

Petrol barges, like those at Rainham, were indeed originally intended to be used for D-Day. However, that did not happen. They did not perform well in sea tests, and alternatives were used - most famously the PLUTO pipeline.

Whatever their wartime role, another question remains: how did the barges end up here? They were moved here in 1953. The Thames estuary's flood defences had been damaged by storms, so the barges were sunk at Rainham to provide some extra protection. However, they did not return from their mythical trip to Normandy - they were being stored nearby on the Thames.

So we know that the Rainham concrete barges had no role in D-Day. They never left Britain, but they have served several and now serve another - providing a nesting site for birds. 


Friday 15 December 2023

Bains de Chateaudun


A building facade with ornate, blue-painted woodwork; tiling says 'Hydrotherapie' and 'Bains de Chateaudun'.

I'm very fond of this Paris facade, on the rue du Faubourg Montmartre. It advertises hydrotherapy at the Chateaudun Baths, now long gone. There doesn't seem to be much information about what services were offered here - hydrotherapy is a general term for a whole range of therapies, popular from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, involving water. Some form of bathing seems the most likely in these Paris premises, although therapies could also involve sea water, thermal mineral springs, and so on. 

If anyone has more information on this little Parisian mystery, do leave a comment!



Friday 8 December 2023

Seeds of success


A white-painted building with a cross-shaped, curved glass roof.

If you don't know this building in St Albans, you might not guess its original purpose. The best clue is perhaps not the stained glass, or the curved gables, but the glass roof. 

The building was designed in 1930 by Percival Blow for Samuel Ryder, owner of the Ryder seed company. It was an exhibition hall, used to display their seeds and plants. 


A red brick building with terracotta and light-brown stone details including reliefs around round first-florr windows, stone reliefs under leaded rectangular first-floor windows, and a semi-circular stone pediment above the front door.

The hall was next to the company's head office, built in 1911 on the site of a 16th-century coaching inn. While it had been designed by the same architect, and both are Grade II listed, the two have little in common. The hall has the simple curves and clean lines of its era while the offices draw upon a range of influences, with arts and crafts notes, classical accents and terracotta reliefs. The listing text describes it as a 'combination of Arts and Crafts and Wrenaissance styles.'

Stone relief of an agricultural scene and scantily draped goddess.

The stone reliefs, aptly, show agricultural scenes. (They also have a scantily clad god and goddess in the foreground.) 

Stone relief of an agricultural scene and a naked god.

Ryder was not a St Albans native: he was born and grew up in the North West of England and only moved to the town in his thirties. The son of a market gardener, he realised that gardening was too expensive for many people and had an inspired idea. He sold penny packets of seeds by post, which proved both affordable for his customers and successful as a business. It had started in his garden shed in 1895; by 1903 it had 90 employees and had moved to Holywell Hill. Ryder chose St Albans for its good transport links and made it his permanent home. He served on the council, was an alderman and magistrate, and even mayor. 

Vintage advertisment: a woman holds a shield marked 'Herbs', which the tagline says are 'a sure shield'.

In 1920, Ryder and his brother set up another business, Heath and Heather, which continues to provide herbal teas and infusions today. (It also developed a chain of shops, later sold and now known as Holland  Barrett.) The original seed business, meanwhile, would be taken over by Suttons Seeds. However, Ryder's name is best known today through his hobby. He took up golf at the age of 49, became passionaately interested in it and turned the Heath and Heather business over to his daughter. Soon, he was golf club captain and began to sponsor tournaments. In 1927, he went on to found the Ryder Cup.

Sunday 5 November 2023

Inside the chapel dome: Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich


Exterior view of ORNC Chapel, a tall neoclassical building topped by a dome.

The elegant buildings of the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich are a familiar landmark beside the Thames, and the stunning interiors of the Painted Hall and chapel are a popular tourist desination. However, the dome above the chapel has been firmly closed to visitors ... until now. 

Section of the main spiral staircase (not the narrow one).
 The tour involves climbing 125 steps - some narrow and steep spirals, one even steeper flight of stairs.However, there are plenty of pauses and points of interest along the way. 

A stone column capital seen through a small-paned window.

 After all, the Chapel of St Peter and St Paul has had a fairly eventful history. Originally designed by Sir Christopher Wren, it had to be rebuilt after a fire in 1779. The flames destroyed the upper part of the building, so the dome is part of the eighteenth-century rebuilding by James 'Athenian' Stuart, pioneering neoclassical architect.

View of the matching Painted Hall dome in evening light

The building requires plenty of maintenance, and sometimes more extensive restoration, so these areas have seen plenty of workers over the years. And quite a number of them have left graffiti on its walls and woodwork. Some glaziers have been even more creative, etching their names and dates into windowpanes.

Graffiti on wood saying 'Harvey 1895' and JK Paris, Plumber, 1971

Graffiti on wood including 'HR, JH, Painters 1824' in flowing script.

Graffiti etched on a window pane including names of glaziers and the years 1794, 1860, 1885.

The rooms above the chapel hold many discarded items. One has a row of organ pipes, which have buckled or broken over the years. 

A row of damaged organ pipes on a wooden floor, in front of an arched window with many small panes.

Another holds woodwork including parts of the former pulpit. 

Discarded woodwork including some pulpit steps, in a room lined with tall windows.

In the back of the room, a chair sits with a coat over it, both worn and aged. They are left from when fire watchers sat here during World War II, using its circle of high windows to observe the surrounding area.  

A battered chair, its cane seat unravelling, draped with a worn, pale brown coat.

Up even higher, we enter the 'drum'. The ceiling of this round room is lower, and an inconveniently low, long beam bisects the room. On closer examination, it is not a solid beam but trunking, linking the clockwork to the clock face on this side of the dome. 

A low room with extensive woodwork on the ceiling and a 'beam' running across at shoulder height.

Clockwork including large golden cogs and green metalwork.

A final, steep flight of steps takes us into the dome itself. This is as high as we go - although a pair of ladders lead to a hatch which opens onto the weathervane. 

Section of the dome interior, with much woodword, and circular windows low on the walls.

View looking up to top of dome, including many vertical beams and a ladder.

The views are fantastic - and best of all, we have arrived in time for sunset.

Painted Hall dome outlined against an orange sunset.

View across Old Royal Naval College to the Thames.

View of the Quee's House and Royal Observatory.

After the tour, there is time for a look inside the chapel itself (open to visitors daily). Its original design was relatively plain, but it was rebuilt more decoratively after the 1779 fire. It deserves a visit in its own right - but I'd definitely recommend booking a tour to the secret spaces above it as well. 

Richly decorated chapel interior.