Monday 30 July 2012

The world welcomes London (updated)

People enjoying the sunshine by the river came across a lot of red-themed activity at London Bridge. Switzerland has taken over Glaziers' Hall for its Olympic House, and has thrown open the doors to the public. You can eat Swiss food, taste Swiss chocolate, experience Swiss mountains and enjoy Swiss cultural events. It's open daily until 11pm, and more information about its activities is here

While many other countries' headquarters are less welcoming to the general public, some which are inviting us in throughout the games include:

  • 53 African nations have come together at Africa Village, Kensington Gardens, and it is well worth a visit. Many countries have stands, with varied contents which include art, craft demonstrations, local products and Ethiopian coffee. Open 9am - 10pm daily until 12 August, admission free. However, it MAY HAVE CLOSED EARLY
  • While you're in Kensington Gardens, you can also visit Russia's Sochi Park with its ice arena and interactive, 4D Visitor Experience Pavilion - also until 12 August. It looks very entertaining - but with ticket prices to match, starting at £18 for a standard adult ticket. (I did visit on a weekday and they were letting people in for free, so it might be worth checking. It's a slightly odd experience: you are escorted by guides throughout.)
  • Casa Brasil at Somerset House. Since Rio are hosting the games in 2016, expectations of this venue are high. There are free exhibitions, open daily (8am - 7pm) until 8 September, and regular events. 
  • The themed events at Imagine Denmark include two days of LEGO activities! It's a largely-outdoor venue, with a Viking ship and some great Lego including a model of the Olympic Park. Find details of its 'spotlight events' and regular activities at St Katharine's Dock here. It's open from 11am-10pm daily, 27 July - 12 August.
  • The sporty red bus outside Czech House at the Business Design House has already become an Olympic landmark; inside, there are exhibitions, a souvenir shop, bar, concerts and visiting athletes. It's open daily until 12 August (10am-midnight, Sundays 10am - 10pm) and entrance is £5 on the door, £3 online
  • Maison d'Haiti is an exhibition of Haitian art, clothing and furnishings at William Road Gallery (7-9 William Road NW1, 26 July - 15 August). 
  • Belgium House in Middle Temple costs £5 to enter, with the promise of learning about Belgium and its sportspeople as well as enjoying Belgian beer - but their Cycling Paradise exhibition is free. Visit daily until 12 August, 11am - 2am (the exhibition closes at 7pm). 
  • German House, in Museum of Docklands, is open to the public daily from noon, until 12 August, with admission £10 after 5pm. There are German specialities and live entertainment on offer. 
  • South Africa's national house, named Ekhaya, is at the South Bank Centre until 12 August. As well as an exhibition there are daily performances of various kinds at 12 noon, 2.30pm and 4.30pm. 
  • Casa Italia in the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre is open daily, noon to 8pm, until 12 August. Admission to its exhibitions, live events and sponsor displays is free.  
  • Although Austria House occupies Trinity House, the public events are in its Tyrolean Alpine Gardens in front. If you fancy schnapps, apple strudel and yodelling, it will be open until 12 August. There are also various tourist brochures and maps and some special Olympic bread!
  • Bayt Qatar in 2 Savoy Place includes an exhibition, partly in support of Qatar's own bid to host the Olympics, and some rather nice seating areas with complimentary fruit drinks. It opens 3pm - 3am, again until 12 June.
  • A late starter is Jamaica House, which doesn't open until 5 August - but from then until 12 August dedicates itself to celebrating 50 years of independence. Go along to the O2 between 4pm and midnight for music, cultural events and food. It's free, although other events in the O2 celebrating Jamaica do have admission charges.
  • While most of these houses are intended as showcases for their countries, some are very much bases for existing supporters. Club France offers French visitors a place to watch the games on a large screen, surrounded by their national media and sponsors - plus an Adidas shop full of France-themed products. Their venue at Old Billingsgate is open to the public 9am-7pm daily (27 July - 12 August), at a cost of £5 (they'll also want to see identification). A zippy video offers a preview, albeit with more logos than information.
  • Conforming to national stereotypes is Irish House, based in a pub (Big Chill, King's Cross) until 12 August and open daily from 10am to 2am. Access to its live screenings, entertainment and barbeque is £10 (£15 after 6pm). 
  • Nearby, in Granary Square, is Kiwi House, base for New Zealanders, which offers barbeque food and entertainment. It costs £5 per day, more for some special events.  
  • Perhaps most in tune with the corporate nature of the games is Holland Heineken House (no prizes for guessing who's sponsoring it). It has taken over Alexandra Palace with shops, cafes and a programme of events. You need to buy a ticket in advance and take your passport/ID card to get in. 

Sunday 29 July 2012

Deptford X -citement

It's the annual Deptford X art festival again, and as ever there is a full programme of events and exhibitions. Dodging the showers and thunderstorms, I visited a diverse sample of them. 

My favourites were site-specific. Locally-based artist Sue Lawes has used both wild flowers and blue-and-white crockery in previous works. This year, she combines both by using china to create 'new "wild flowers" of Deptford' at the Creekside Discovery Centre. 

In the gallery of St Paul's Church, Pleonasmos also uses everyday objects in surprising ways. Charlotte Squire's piece is designed to reflect both the architecture of the church and the Anglo-Catholic rituals reiterated within it. 

Philippa Johnson's Outside In makes the shop window, rather than its contents, the focus. At first glance just another empty shop, this former opticians' has been transformed into an intricate artwork. 

Another building finding a new function is the former site of Tidemill School, now covered by Hew Locke's Gold Standard. The work involves painting onto old share certificates - this one from the Chinese Imperial Gold Loan. 

Deptford X often has pieces which use the whole area, and this year Heather Burrell has scattered her horses across local windows. They have Just Dropped In, a reference to the equestrian events happening a short walk away in Greenwich Park. 

The art festival continues until 12 August: full details are on its website. I would also recommend buying the programme - for just £1, it not only helps fund the event but also provides the information in a portable and, I think, easier-to-use format. 

Thursday 26 July 2012

Ghost signs (74): Hulbert, Dinard

The Breton seaside resort of Dinard is well-known for its blue-striped beach tents, but there's another stripy eye-catcher in the town. This sign makes up in cheeriness what it lacks in age: it's advertising an electrical goods shop which offers TVs, videos and household appliances. 

However, that all breezy, modern promise has gone the way of the video recorder. The address is now occupied by a bank. 

Tuesday 24 July 2012

Four per cent industrial dwellings

A very Victorian archway stands in Wentworth Street, E1. If you didn't know its age from the date, 1886, helpfully embossed in the keystone, then its inscription should summon up an atmosphere of nineteenth-century philanthropy. 'Erected by the Four Per Cent Industrial Dwellings Company Limited', its language and approach are typical of the era. 

The company was established two years earlier by leading Jewish philanthropists including Nathan Rothschild and Frederick Mocatta. Its aim was to provide housing for the industrial poor, which would not only be more sanitary and commodious than their current homes but would also bring in a return of four per cent for investors despite modest rents. Octavia Hill employed a similar approach, promising investors a five-per-cent return on money invested in her social housing. 

While all around them were overcrowded slums, the company's flats had toilets, sculleries and balconies - the kitchen and toilet shared with a neighbour - so it's no surprise that they were over-subscribed. More developments were built in other areas, from Camberwell in the south to Hackney in the north. 
The first dwellings were in Flower & Dean Street, Spitalfields - the housing now gone, except for this archway. The company, however, lives on although its name was changed first to the Industrial Dwellings Society and then to IDS

Saturday 21 July 2012

Secret Cabinet War Rooms

In Dollis Hill, North London, is a little-known and, thankfully, little-used bunker. This was the alternative cabinet war room: although its better-known Westminster counterpart offered some security, it was not bomb-proof. Had air raids made it unusable, Churchill and his cabinet would have moved north to this bunker, code-named PADDOCK.

Since the end of the First World War, the government had been aware of the need for secure facilities should there be another conflict - although, in the way of governments, it didn't do much about this until the Second World War was fast approaching. At that point, though, PADDOCK was built in 13 months and was ready in 1940. 

On 3 October that year, Churchill and his cabinet met in the bunker. The Prime Minister was keen that his colleagues should be familiar with the accommodation, in case it became necessary to use it. However, he wasn't too enthused about the prospect of spending much time there - perhaps because of the facilities. These did include air filtration, battery room and plant rooms, telephone exchange, map rooms, cabinet room with leather armchairs, and kitchen. However, they didn't include toilets!

There would be only one more cabinet meeting in these unfavoured rooms, in 1941. The Australian prime minister was present to report on his country's war effort, although Churchill (conveniently?) had a sudden cold and was replaced by Clement Attlee. 

After the war, the bunker was used for a while by the Post Office research department. They left in 1974; the bunker has been left empty, with water seeping and mould growing, ever since. When new housing was built above a decade ago, the bunker was finally made safe for visitors (by pumping out water and installing lighting) and is occasionally opened by Subterranea Britannica - I'd highly recommend a visit if you have the chance. More information about the structure and its history is available on their site



Friday 20 July 2012


If your address is a half-number, perhaps it makes sense to have a half-width door too! 

Wednesday 18 July 2012

Fashion Street cavalry

One of my favourite pieces of street art spotted (fairly) recently in Fashion Street is this horse and cavalryman by Conor Harrington. It's particularly good to see a relatively complex piece which is painted rather than pasted onto the wall. 

An Irish artist, he is based in East London. Although he's best-known for large murals, the way this smaller image uses its site so well has a charm of its own. It was painted back in November, and is referred to as 'Decline of the West' on the artist's blog. He describes it as 'fading glory of former empires'. 

Sunday 15 July 2012

Seaside Sunday: boats' graveyard

Camaret-Sur-Mer, on Brittany's Crozon Peninsula, was once a leading sardine-fishing port, before specialising in crayfish. The decline of its fishing industry has given the town one of its more melancholy attractions: a graveyard of abandoned fishing boats. They slowly disintegrate in front of two other important symbols of the town's past: the seventeenth century Vauban Tower, part of the region's maritime defences, and the chapel of Our Lady of Rocamadour. 

Le Rosier Fleuri, on the left, was built in 1948 but has been sat here since 1962. Alongside it is another crayfishing boat, La Salle, built in 1954 and abandoned in 1985. 

Maitena, above and below, caught crayfish and tuna. It was built in 1954 and worked until 1991. It is a Mauritanien: a boat specially adapted for fishing off the coast of Africa. They had refrigerated chambers as well as tanks for storing live catches; Camaret's particular speciality was the pink crayfish, but catches became scarce in the 1960s and the town's fleet declined.  

The boats were generally difficult to convert to other uses. They have therefore been left on the foreshore to decay - although an alternative view is that they have a new career as a tourist attraction. 

The 'graveyard' site was originally a shipyard, where boats had been built since 1892. At the turn of the century it was still expanding, but by the 1950s boats were being abandoned here although the yard did not close until 1969.

The town's last Mauritanien, the red-and-white Castel Dinn, took its place here in 1998.

Further reading (in French) on Camaret's fishing fleet here

Thursday 12 July 2012

Mushroom ketchup in Soho Square

Among the exhibits at Crossrail's Bison to Bedlam was a bottle of Crosse & Blackwell's mushroom catsup. It raised two issues: the origins of the company in Soho, and the nature of the condiment itself. 

To begin with the sauce, catsup is an alternative spelling of ketchup (a word whose origins are Chinese and owe nothing to tomatoes!). Mushroom ketchup was a popular Georgian and Victorian condiment, made by salting field mushrooms before boiling them with water. The juice was strained, spiced and reduced, giving a thin, tasty sauce closer to worcestershire sauce than tomato ketchup. 

Our bottle refers to 'His Majesty' so is probably Edwardian or a little later. Among the suggestions for use still legible on the label are game hashes, fricasseed rabbits and - more surprisingly - fish of all kinds. For Mrs Beeton, 'This flavouring ingredient, if genuine and well-prepared, is one of the most useful store sauces to the experienced cook, and no trouble should be spared in its preparation.' Since her recipe took five days to make, it is unsurprising that the less-dedicated cook was happy to buy the condiment ready-made. 

Fortunately, Crosse & Blackwell had long been prepared to supply the need (as was George Watkins, whose mushroom ketchup is still on sale today). They were originally based in King Street, Soho but in 1838 acquired premises at 21 Soho Square. The building would remain their headquarters until 1925 although they had expanded through the area; their main warehouse later became the Astoria Cinema and Dance Hall. Crossrail, in turn, compulsorily purchased and demolished the Astoria; during the excavation of its site, the Crosse & Blackwell warehouse basement was rediscovered and our catsup bottle found. 

There is little sign of Crosse & Blackwell at Soho Square now. However, the statue of Charles II in the middle of the square does have a connection: when the gardens were redesigned in 1875, the statue was no longer wanted. Thomas Blackwell bought it and gave it as a gift to artist Frederick Goodall, who put it in his garden in Grim's Dyke, Harrow Weald. He in turn sold his house and garden to WS Gilbert (of Gilbert & Sullivan fame), and when his widow died it was returned by her bequest to Soho Square. 

Tuesday 10 July 2012

Mystery object answers

Here are the answers to the mystery object quiz (if you haven't tried it yet, click straight over and no peeking!).

Object 1

This was a novelty chamberpot - a survivor from the days when indoor toilets were a rarity. Variations on the 'what I see I will not tell' motto seem to have been popular. However, the alarming face staring from the bottom of the pot must have been disconcerting for the user!

A fragment from the side has parts of a verse visible. The whole verse was probably a standard one: 'This pot it is a present sent/Some mirth to make is only meant/We hope the same you'll not refuse/But keep it safe and oft it use/When in it you want to piss/Remember them who sent you this'. The occasions on which such chamberpots were given? Weddings.

Object 2

Perfect for days when the Thames froze over, these ice skates were made from cow bones. They were used between the eighth and sixteenth centuries, and these examples were found in Broadgate, Liverpool Street.

In 1173, William FitzStephen described such skaters:
When the great marsh which washes the northern walls of the city freezes, crowds of young men go out to play on the ice. Some of them fit shinbones of cattle on their feet, tying them round their ankles. They take a stick with an iron spike in their hands and strike it regularly on the ice, and are carried along as fast as a flying bird or a bolt from a catapult.
Object 3

This is not any old pot, but a Roman poppy head beaker. Usually black or grey, as here, they were shaped like the seedheads of poppies - originally there would have been a flared rim around the top of the beaker, increasing its resemblance - and the dot decoration is typical.  

Most are associated with burials, as this one was. Uncovered at Liverpool Street, it would have been just outside the city wall near the main road to York. It dates from the second century. 

Object 4

It was probably James Potter of Scotland whose surname was stamped on this Victorian firebrick. He owned brick and fireclay works around Falkirk, although this item ended up in the Limmo Peninsula. 

Firebricks were designed to withstand high temperatures. They were used in various settings, from furnaces to fireplaces. 

Do the crooked letters suggest that the impression was made letter-by-letter rather than with a single stamp? It seems a laborious approach (and examples of brick stamps on this site suggest a single stamp was typical), but using a wonky stamp was surely rather careless. Or perhaps the firing process was responsible? If anyone knows the answer, I'd be fascinated to hear.

Object 5

These jars were used for meat paste or, here, for beef extract. Fragments of labels show that they contained Extractum Carnis  - Latin for 'extract of meat'. It was developed by Liebig's - later Oxo - and although originally intended as a cheap meat substitute, was marketed instead as a dietary supplement. 

Sunday 8 July 2012

Seaside Sunday: Dinard - Saint Malo

Here's (another) view of Saint Malo, taken from Dinard; and below, a view of Dinard taken from a ferry leaving Saint Malo. As usual, click to enlarge. 

Saturday 7 July 2012

Mystery object quiz

Here's a bit of weekend fun: mystery objects from Crossrail's Bison to Bedlam exhibition. How many can you identify? Add your suggestions in the comments; answers in a few days. 

Object one is smashed - but what got broken?

Object two: what are these and what are they made from?

Object three: what is it, and do you have any idea of its period?

Object four: I love the wonky lettering, but what was it stamped onto? 

Object five: any idea what these small pots once held?

Friday 6 July 2012

Bison to Bedlam

If you have an hour free tomorrow, and are in central London, it's worth going along to the Music Room at Gray's Antiques for Crossrail's exhibition on London archaeology. As the rail scheme digs into London's soil, it is providing an opportunity for archaeologists to find out more about our city's history. They are halfway through their excavations, and are displaying some of the discoveries made to date. 

The objects on view are certainly some compensation for the disruption happening above ground. The oldest is a piece of amber, age about 55 million years. The other objects are much newer, but still range across the whole of London's history - from prehistoric bison bones to all sorts of Victoriana. 

Some objects speak of everyday life - the domino discarded at an eighteenth-century tavern, the railway crockery found at Paddington. 

An empty bottle of Mushroom Catsup, its label still largely intact, reminds us that Crosse & Blackwell were once based in Soho. Nearby, a chunk of mediaeval clinker-built boat is being sprinkled with water to keep it in good condition. 

The star of the show is the skeleton, unearthed near Liverpool Street. However, while he may catch visitors' eyes as they enter the exhibition,the smaller objects exert their own fascination as we learn which parts of London's story they are telling. There's so much here already that the prospect of another two years' worth of finds still to come is very exciting. 

The exhibition is fascinating, and information boards provide context and images to accompany the objects on display. Unfortunately it's open to the public for one day only, but there are hopes of finding other venues. Let's keep our fingers crossed that a longer opening is possible in the near future as this deserves to be enjoyed by many more people than can visit in a day. In the meantime, if  you can - go!

Practical info: Bison to Bedlam is open Saturday 7 July 2012, 10am-5pm, at the Music Room, Grays Antiques, 26 South Molton Lane, London W1K 5LF (nearest tube: Bond Street). Admission free. 

Further reading: IanVisits was also there.