Tuesday 30 November 2010

Saucy seaside snap

Food models are a seaside staple, and sometimes a little scary, but this example has to be one of the more disturbing. The outsize hot dog stands on Weston-Super-Mare pier, anointing itself with ketchup as it leers at passers-by!

Monday 29 November 2010

Weston Pier, Grand again

The Grand Pier at Weston-Super-Mare is now rebuilt and reopened. Saturday may have been freezing cold, but there were plenty of people inside the new pavilion when I hedonistically gambled away, oh, about £1! It's good to see traditional arcade games still going strong alongside the new rides.

Sunday 28 November 2010

From the archives: Christmas lights, a brief history

As many of London's lights have been reused this year - the belly-flopping stars in Regent Street are on at least their third appearance - a similarly sustainable recycling of this post seems rather apt!

One of the (few) joys of shopping at this time of year is seeing the christmas lights. Granted, some are dull and uninspired, others are blatantly commercial and sponsored, occasionally they miss the seasonal point altogether, and the saddest are just a bit sparse. Regent Street's belly-flopping stars (above) just make you think, 'why?' A happy few, like these fab giant snowmen on Carnaby Street and Jermyn Street's christmas trees, do get it pretty much right. Nonetheless, however imperfect they may be, seasonal lights definitely make the dark evenings that bit more bearable.

While lighting festive candles in winter has a very ancient history, the displays we see today are obviously more recent in origin: they depend upon the availability of electricity. The first electric christmas lights appeared in 1882 - just three years after the invention of the light bulb - when Edward Johnson of the Edison Electric Light Company lit up a christmas tree in his New York home. Its eighty lights were red, white and blue. By the end of the century strings of lights were being mass-produced, and by 1900 the department stores had taken up the new technology.

In the mid-twentieth century, the lighting displays spread out of the stores and into the streets (see a gallery of photos here). Regent Street first lit up in 1954, after an article in the Daily Telegraph commented on how drab London looked; except for a gap in the 1970s, it has had an annual display ever since. Oxford Street followed suit in 1959 - with a decade-long break from 1967 to 1978 - and trips to see the christmas lights have been a valuable way of attracting shoppers. The switching on of the lights continues to be a feature of the seasonal calendar - although it now seems to have moved back to early November.

And those light-less years in the 1970s? They were due to a recession - so perhaps we should all make a special effort this year to enjoy our christmas lights while we can!

Friday 26 November 2010

Trinity Almshouses

Since Trinity House had its roots in Deptford, it's natural that it had almshouses there too. They were built in 1670 on land given by Sir Richard Browne, Master of the Corporation, and stood near St Nicholas' Church at the north end of Church Street.

The body responsible for licensing Thames pilots (and later, for looking after after Britain's lighthouses), Trinity House was also a guild whose services to members included providing housing for the needy. These 56 residences were specifically for 'decayed masters and commanders of ships, mates, and pilots, and their wives or widows'.

The Deptford almshouses were demolished in 1877. These photographs, taken by Thankfull Sturdee, provide a record of what was lost.

Monday 22 November 2010

Spa Road, Bermondsey

I've posted before about Deptford Station, one end of the first suburban passenger railway, so a post about the other end of the line is rather overdue. Spa Road Station, Bermondsey is now closed, but a few traces remain.

They are not in fact traces of the original station, as it was resited when the viaduct above was widened to accommodate more lines. (By the turn of the century, there were twelve.) However, as the railway got busier, the station did not. After its ten months of glory as the northern terminus, the more usefully-located London Bridge Station opened. Passenger numbers dropped off, despite rebuilding of the wooden original and even a minor relocation. Finally, the station closed during the First World War, never to reopen.

The initials SE&CR stand for South East & Chatham Railway. Its scope, so much larger than that of the London & Greenwich Railway which first used the station, tells its own story of rail expansion. If you cannot take the time to visit these remnants in the backstreets of Bermondsey, however, other phantoms haunt the rails themselves. Between Deptford/New Cross and London Bridge, at the point signposted as Spa Road Junction, some of the old platforms remain stranded between the lines.

Sunday 21 November 2010

From the archives: Paris's shopping passages

I love exploring the covered passages in Paris. Often run down today, nonetheless traces of their past remain: a rather more glamorous past, as I explored here.

Many of us are familiar with shopping arcades running between major streets, such as the Burlington Arcade off Piccadilly built in 1819. It inspired similar arcades in other cities: in 1847, for example, the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert were opened in Brussels.

From the end of the eighteenth century, there was also an explosion in the number of such arcades in Paris, where they are known as passages. The name alludes to their dual purpose: they offered themselves as quiet short-cuts between the dirty, overcrowded, traffic-filled streets, but once the pedestrian entered they did everything they could to keep her there. Their glass roofs made them light and attractive, while gaslight kept them bright at night in an era without efficient streetlighting; the surroundings were often elegant. Public toilets were a crucial innovation first found in the Galeries de Bois at the end of the eighteenth century. As well as shops, there were cafes, restaurants and even entertainments: concerts were held, many passages housed theatre entrances, and the Musée Grévin was located on the Passage Jouffroy and still has its exit there.

Built in 1847, the Passage Jouffroy lies between two others, the Panoramas and Verdeau - together they formed the largest covered walkway in Paris. While the earliest passages had been built in wood, the Jouffroy was the first entirely of steel and glass. It was also the first to have under-floor heating. To fit into the awkward space available, it is dog-legged, with a short flight of steps linking the two sections. This difficult location also gave rise to another interesting feature, the unusual shop shown here:

Looks like an ordinary second-hand bookshop? Well, in fact the whole of the shopfront in the photo is fake. Because of the constraints of space, the facade is in reality nothing more than a row of shelves with windows in front. The shop does have a modest interior at one end, but is nothing like the huge emporium the storefront suggests.

In their heyday, there were about 150 of these passages in Paris. However, once Haussmann remodelled the city with brighter, wider, safer boulevards, the passages began to seem dingy and dubious by comparison while their small shops were overshadowed by the new department stores. Many disappeared altogether during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Today, those passages which survived are popular once more and are home to a number of small, interesting shops.

Related post: Musée Grévin.

Thursday 18 November 2010

Mediaeval faces

All can be seen in the wonderful Musee de Cluny, France's national museum of the middle ages. As usual, click the photo to enlarge.

Wednesday 17 November 2010

Lost garden

Abandoned for years, slowly being made safe and improved, the Jardin d'Agronomie Tropicale is tucked into a corner of the Bois de Vincennes in north-east Paris. Its name translates as 'the garden of tropical agronomy', but that tells only half the story. In a sense, this place is a museum of France's colonial past.

Originally, the purpose of this site was as a place for agricultural experiment. Devoted to France's colonial activities, it allowed researchers to grow plants such as coffee. cocoa and vanilla - not out of general interest but so that they could be exported to French colonies. New growing centres could then be established for the various crops, increasing production.

Less than a decade later, the garden took on a new role as the site of the 1907 Colonial Exhibition. It housed five 'villages': Madagascan, Congolese, Indochinese, Sudanese and Touareg. Such voyeuristic exhibitions or 'human zoos' were not new; several pavilions were reused from the Universal Exhibition of 1900. This treatment of the colonised as 'other' was as much a part of the imperial project as the growing of tropical crops.

After the exhibition, there was a military hospital here during the First World War. As a result, memorials to soldiers from the former colonies were placed here. Then the site was abandoned and its buildings slowly rotted; it only reopened to the public in 2003. Among the exhibition buildings, the Indochinese pavilion is in the best condition and is currently being restored. It will become an information centre for the garden.

Today, there are visitors, but not many. The garden isn't in guidebooks: I only found out about it thanks to Invisible Paris. Its quiet is less peaceful than eerie: it sometimes comes as a relief to pass other walkers here.

Monday 15 November 2010

Chez Maigret

On Sunday, I took my umbrella and headed to Paris Noir, a festival of European crime literature and film. I love detective fiction, so the Maigret exhibition and guided walk were particularly appealing, although the opportunity to discover new books is always irresistible too!

Maigret lived in the 11th arrondissement of Paris, as did Simenon himself for some years. We were therefore on the Commissaire's home ground, although his address on Boulevard Richard-Lenoir proved to have no front door - the ground floor is taken up by a cafe. Was this a mistake, or a deliberate separation of fiction from fact?

There are other traces of Maigret's Paris here, not least this patisserie which is mentioned in one of the books. (Simenon wrote over 70 novels featuring the detective.) However, the rather fine shopfront is an illusion: it is now occupied by a clothing wholesaler. Indeed, this part of the neighbourhood bears little resemblance to the streets of small businesses the Commissaire would have known, as Chinese textile wholesalers have taken over almost all the premises - a complex issue considered by Invisible Paris.

Other changes have also taken place, and might have concerned Maigret more. The local police station has closed: where there were once four in each arrondissement, they have now been centralised. Investigations depend increasingly on scientific evidence, something for which Maigret had little enthusiasm. He preferred to rely on his own thoughts and feelings; as for evidence, he favoured confessions - not the perfect evidence in real life that they appear to be in crime fiction.

Our guide not only bore a resemblance to Maigret, complete with the requisite hat and pipe. He is also an ex-police detective and local resident. This exploration of a neighbourhood off the beaten tourist track, and its insights into both Maigret and Simenon, were well worth braving the rain for.

Sunday 14 November 2010

From the archives: Woolworths, New Cross

Today we're returning to last year's Remembrance Sunday post, which looks at one of London's major civilian tragedies in the Second World War. Since it was written, a further memorial plaque has been placed on the site by Lewisham Council.

At 12.44pm, Saturday 25 November 1944, Britain's worst V2 attack struck New Cross destroying the Woolworths store as well as badly damaging the neighbouring Co-op. 168 people were killed, 122 injured.

Unusually fine weather had ensured that plenty of people were out shopping that lunchtime, while workers from the neighbouring railway station and children returning from the swimming baths had gone into the store for a drink. Some accounts suggest that there had been a rare delivery of saucepans to Woolworths that day.

There was no warning before the rocket landed on the centre of Woolworths' roof. After a moment of silence the walls bowed, the building collapsed and exploded, and then caught fire. An army lorry was overturned and a double-decker bus spun round by the force of the blast. Rescuers, members of the emergency services and local people, worked to lift the rubble by hand but there was only one survivor. It took three days to clear the debris, which reached as far as Deptford town hall. Tony Rollins, then 13, has shared his recollections on the BBC website:
Sheets of corrugated steel had been placed along some of the gutters to cover what was left of people and blood was seeping out from beneath.There was debris everywhere.I saw several people dead beneath telegraph poles and there were bodies and wounded and maimed laying randomly all over the place.

Everybody who could was roped in to help clear debris and I did what I was asked to give a hand.
The site of the bombing is now occupied by Iceland and New Cross Library. A small plaque on Iceland's wall marks the disaster, while the memorial on Woolworths' own website is archived here. As well as the image above, it includes a full list of the names of those killed. Perhaps the saddest part of this is the final line: and 24 others who could not be identified.

Last year's Remembrance Sunday post is here; Colin Blythe, Deptford cricketer, was killed in World War One.

Friday 12 November 2010

Temperance Billiard Hall

The temperance movement of the nineteenth century lost ground, literally and metaphorically, in the twentieth. However, at its height this was a significant national and international movement, taken up at all levels of society, which made its mark upon our townscapes as much as upon those who had 'taken the pledge'.

The movement did not only seek to limit the use of intoxicating liquor; it also set out to provide alternatives. These were not limited to the stereotypical cup of tea and hymns around the piano in the church hall. Coffee houses, institutes and hotels proliferated, while London had a number of temperance billiard halls. The rather nice example here is on Battersea Rise. These establishments were popular because they offered a cheap way to enjoy a game hitherto only available in pubs.

It is a rather bitter irony, then, that so many of these premises have since been converted to the selling of alcohol. The Battersea billiard hall is no exception: it's now a bar.

Further reading: Andrew Davison's article on the built heritage of the temperance movement [PDF]

Thursday 11 November 2010

Eighteenth-century ostriches

The gateposts of Pallant House in Chichester are topped by unusual ornaments: rather chunky, improbable ostriches. It's no surprise that locally it's known as 'Dodo House' instead!

The original owner of the house in 1711 was wine merchant Henry Peckham, and ostriches featured on the crest of his family coat of arms. However, the money for the house came from Peckham's older, wealthier wife Elizabeth. Its high cost (double the estimate) did little to help their shaky marriage.

Ostriches may seem fairly exotic for an English family, but these African or Arabian birds had long had a place in European culture. They were familiar to the Romans and in more modern times were valued for their skin and extravagant feathers. The Elizabethans prized their eggs, which were also a standard feature of eighteenth-century cabinets of curiosities.

Nonetheless, it's generally assumed that the stonemason who carved these examples had never seen an ostrich. True, they were hardly a familiar sight in Georgian Chichester. Are we being a little unfair, though? After all, a plump bird on long, thin legs poses serious practical problems for the carver so we might also wonder about Peckham's artistic knowledge and common sense.

It's easy to sympathise with the poor mason, faced with a perhaps lucrative but certainly impractical commission, yet not wanting to alienate a rich patron. He may have thought 'never mind. I can always try chunky legs and an odd sort of tree trunk thing to hold the whole thing up. And forget that rather fine plumage, big feathers will get the idea across. The neck needs to be a bit more substantial too. In fact, let's keep the whole thing chunky. I'm sure I can convince him this is a very good heraldic ostrich. '

Perhaps it would have been safer to stick with pineapples...

Wednesday 10 November 2010

Monday 8 November 2010

Hare to stay

In a happy update to this post, Hackney Council are no longer threatening to paint over ROA's rabbit/hare on the Hackney Road. From hopping mad to hopping for joy...

Graffiti and history

The Pointe de Grouin is a rocky finger pointing into the sea between St Malo and Cancale, Brittany. Today it's a haven for wildlife, but during the Second World War its extensive views across the Baie de Mont St Michel and the Channel gave it strategic value. It was thus the site of German fortifications: a network of heavy concrete blockhaus (bunkers). Several survive; visible inside the best-preserved are graffiti from 1944.

Vive L'Adjudant Lambert mort martyr. These few words refer to a horrific incident carried out by the Milice, a paramilitary organisation of French collaborators.

Broualan, near Dol de Bretagne, was a local centre of resistance activity. By 1944, it hid a transit camp commanded by Adjudant Lambert, a village baker. When a raid on the resistants' camp failed, the Milice returned the following day to the village itself.

Lambert was at his brother-in-law's house when the Milice descended upon the countryside. They searched a number of houses and farms, killing several villagers. Lambert, his brother-in-law and others were seized. Beaten and tortured, they were then taken towards St-Remy-du-Plain. A kilometre or so outside the town, the prisoners were taken out of the vehicles. After crossing a field of oats, they reached a disused quarry where eight of them including Lambert were shot.

Most of the other prisoners were interned but three were released. They told the inhabitants of St Remy what had happened and the mutilated bodies were discovered. In 1945, a monument was erected at the site of the killings; its inscription reads
To the memory of eight patriots
tortured and shot here by the Milice
7 July 1944

Saturday 6 November 2010

From the archives: the Silvertown Explosion

Although the Postman's Park memorial tells stories of ordinary individuals, these often overlap with larger events. The Silvertown explosion in the First World War is one of these.

On 19 January 1917 at 6.52pm, the Brunner Mond munitions factory explosion claimed the lives of 73 people in Silvertown, east London - the youngest only 4 months old.

During World War I, the former soda crystal factory was turned over to producing TNT explosive, despite being in a densely-populated area. Brunner Mond opposed this use of the factory: according to their head chemist, Dr F A Freeth, 'At the end of every month we used to write to Silvertown to say that their plant would go up sooner or later, and we were told that it was worth the risk to get the TNT.'

When a fire broke out in the melting pot room on 19 January, 50 tons of explosive ignited, destroying the factory and surrounding buildings. The explosion was heard 100 miles away, and burning debris was thrown for miles, starting further fires: a gasholder on Greenwich Peninsula was ignited and threw a huge fireball into the air. Hundreds of people were injured and thousands were left homeless. The exact cause of the fire is not known, but it was probably due to inadequate safety standards. A government report produced after the disaster (but not released until the 1950s) referred to TNT in torn bags and packages with missing stoppers; production and storage were in the same building.

Tragically, a second, much larger (and safer) TNT factory had already been opened; its higher production made the Silvertown factory unnecessary. Nonetheless, the government insisted on keeping it open, with disastrous consequences. The site of the destroyed factory has not been built upon to this day: it is now a car park.

Among the dead was Dr Andreas Angel, an Oxford professor doing voluntary war work as the plant's chief chemist; he was attempting to help put out the fire. Station Officer S Betts and Fireman Yabsley were killed as they prepared their hoses to tackle the blaze, despite knowing the risk of explosion. The Watts Memorial commemorates a further casualty, PC Edward Greenoff, who helped to evacuate the factory. Aware of the imminent danger, he nonetheless remained outside to warn passers-by of the risk of an explosion. When that explosion did take place, the head injuries he suffered proved fatal; he died nine days later, aged 30. He was posthumously awarded the King's Police Medal. At the time of his death, PC Greenoff had an eight-year-old son, Edward, who would later become a police officer himself.

In the words of the Watts Memorial,


For all Postman's Park posts, click here.

Friday 5 November 2010

Visit Wallace & Gromit

Just a brief follow-up note to yesterday's post. First, the Royal Mail have a pop-up shop in Selfridge's. It has all sorts of postal gifts including a range of Wallace & Gromit items;the chance to make instant 'smilers' with your photo on alongside the christmas stamps; and best of all, one of the models created for the stamps themselves.

Second, I somehow forgot to mention the lovely dedicated website for the stamps. You can create an Aardman-style version of yourself as well as shop for stamps (and enter a competition, although I'd rather you didn't as I really covet that prize!).

Thursday 4 November 2010

Christmas stamps

Getting my first letter with a Christmas stamp might sound like a good excuse for a 'Christmas appears earlier every year' rant, but as it's one of the lovely Wallace and Gromit designs I'm not going to complain.

The first Christmas stamp appeared in Canada in 1898, although it's not a proper one. Rather, the words 'Xmas 1898' are simply written along the bottom of a regular stamp. Apparently they were added when the Postmaster General showed the design to Queen Victoria, remarking it would be issued 'on the Prince's birthday'. He had meant to please her, but remembered just in time that she didn't actually like the Prince of Wales very much so when she asked 'which Prince?', quickly improvised with 'the Prince of Peace'. The face-saving word was then added to an otherwise non-seasonal map design.

There's some discussion in the philatelic world about what exactly constitutes a Christmas stamp. However, by most definitions it was only in the mid-twentieth century that proper Christmas designs became common. Britain was relatively late in adopting the custom: there was reluctance for many years to move the Queen's head from the centre of the stamp. At last, in 1964, Tony Benn was Postmaster General and decided that we should have a special Christmas stamp designed by children. The monarch's head became a smaller silhouette in the top corner, a solution used for special issues ever since.

Further reading: the British Postal Museum & Archive has an online exibition, The Post of Christmas Past. For an international view, see the website of the Christmas Philatelic Club (their magazine is aptly named Yule Log).
Further viewing: the stars of this year's stamps are currently on TV in Wallace & Gromit's World of Invention.

Tuesday 2 November 2010

A timely bribe

When John Aylward, a London clockmaker, wanted to expand his business he turned his attention to Guildford, Surrey. However, he first had to persuade the town to allow him to trade there - and by happy coincidence, the Guildhall had been refurbished that very year, 1683. Aylward therefore presented a clock to the Corporation; to this day, it projects from the building facade. (It did take a brief holiday during World War II, when it was hidden at a secret location.)

The clock's workings are actually inside the building; it is wound three times a week. For a brief time, it was illuminated: the Victorians replaced the clock faces with glass dials so that they could be lit up by gaslight. However, these didn't last long and are now in storage while the original faces have returned to their rightful position.

If the clock was indeed a bribe (and records show a John Aylward being given freedom of the town the very next year), then Guildford made a good bargain.

Monday 1 November 2010

Victorian gothic

Hallowe'en may be over, but I haven't quite got over the spookiness - and nothing says 'spooky' like Victorian gothic. Here's the silhouette of St Pancras looming ominously over the rather more mundane canopy at King's Cross.