Tuesday 25 December 2018

Growing Underground in Clapham Common

Clapham Common Deep Level Shelter was one of eight air raid shelters built below London during the Second World War and completed in 1942. Its neighbour Clapham South now features on London Transport Museum's Hidden London programme, but Clapham Common has been more difficult to access. 

However, the current tenants Growing Underground are currently offering tours of their extraordinary farm. Yes, farm! The former shelter is now used to grow micro herbs using hydroponics. A visit involves the amazing experience of standing among thousands of tiny plants bathed in pink light while Northern Line trains rumble nearby. 

Growing Underground is the world's first underground farm, and focused on sustainability - the lights are low-energy LEDs, for example. They go on at night and off in the day, so that their warmth is emitted when the tunnels are coldest and electricity - from green suppliers - is cheapest. The matting on which the shoots are grown is recycled carpet. And food miles are obviously minimal!

In one tunnel, seeds are sprouted and the finished product is cut, weighed and packed. In another, the sprouted seeds are grown to harvesting size - still tiny, meaning that they have powerful flavours. 

Conditions are carefully controlled to ensure a hygienic, nut-free environment. Visitors wear hairnets, coats and wellies, with the 'clean' side of the changing room entrance carefully divided off. That cleanliness and the white-lined tunnels make this visit rather different than a walk around Clapham South.  

Another difference is that it has a lift - invaluable for getting produce out. It's also handy if you don't fancy walking up 180 stairs to the exit.

If you'd like to try the produce from London's strangest farm (do - it's delicious), it's on sale in Ocado, Marks and Spencer and Planet Organic. Alternatively, take one of their tours and get the freshest of punnets to take away!

Sunday 2 December 2018

Arrested decay: Ally Pally theatre

Alexandra Palace's East Court is newly reopened, with an exhibition, coffee bar ... and theatre. 

Through the huge glass atrium is a very special space, reopened for performances after eighty years - but not restored. Instead, it has been put in a state of 'arrested decay' and this fantastic decision means it retains a unique atmosphere. 

The theatre first opened in 1875, but it wasn't the best design - its architect John Johnson had more experience of concert halls, and basically sized one up to accommodate a theatre audience of 3,000. The auditorium may have been unsatisfactory, but the stage machinery was state-of-the-art. By the end of the century, films were also being shown here.

During the First World War, Ally Pally held interned foreign nationals and the theatre became a chapel, although films were also shown. Further work was carried out for its reopening in the 1920s. It enjoyed a golden period under the management of Archie Pitt, husband of Gracie Fields. She trialled many of her productions here before taking the on national tours or West End theatres. By the 1930s, it was out of use and the BBC took it over as a props store. The 1980s fire at Alexandra Palace was the last straw, and the theatre became derelict.

A great deal of care went into keeping the decaying splendour of the theatre intact while also making it a safe, usable space for its users. The lath and plaster ceiling with its decorative mouldings (added in the 1920s) was stabilised, so it won't be falling on the audience's heads - but no more than that was done. Holes and exposed areas have been left unchanged. 

The floorboards were carefully lifted so the crumbling supports could be replaced, then laid back in their original positions. During the work, detritus which had made its way under the floor was retrieved and the best finds - including some fantastic old lightbulbs - are now on display in the East Court. 

Paintwork has also been preserved in its distressed condition. Loose detritus was carefully brushed off, then the panels were sealed with a clear coating.

Retractable modern seating and flexible staging will allow the theatre to be used for all sorts of performances - and have addressed some of the original theatre's flaws, for example by improving sightlines. Forthcoming performances are already proving popular, and it's wonderful to know that this theatre has a new lease of life - without losing any of its older charms. 

Thursday 29 November 2018

Ghost signs (136): you wait fifteen years...

There's a ghost sign practically at the end of my road, and it has been obscured by a hoarding all the time I've lived here. They did change the hoarding once, but waited until I was on holiday to do it. Now, at last, it's been removed - who knows for how long? I first saw it after dark. 

Happily, it was still exposed the following morning! Here, in all its glory (except for the lost strip on the left) is a painted advertisement for Lipton's Tea, 'the finest the world produces'. The date of the sign is unknown, but the slogan was certainly being used by Lipton's between 1901 and 1935

Sunday 4 November 2018

Greenwich Town Hall

Greenwich no longer has a town hall: when the borough was merged with neighbouring Woolwich, the new authority took the latter's town hall as its base. However, Greenwich used to have one - and it's still standing, but now known as Meridian House. The building was admired by Pevsner and is deservedly  Grade II listed

The tall, geometric design with its distinctive clock was built in 1939: a late example of Art Deco before World War II intervened. The architects, Culpin and Son, were heavily influenced by Hilversum Town Hall, built in 1930 by Dutch modernist architect Willem Marinus Dudok. 

Hilversum Town Hall 

The partnership of Culpin and Bowers had been known for its public housing projects. When it was dissolved in 1935,  E G Culpin formed the new firm with his son Clifford. Culpin senior was an advocate of the garden city movement and a Labour councillor (later Chairman of London County Council). He and Clifford had just completed Poplar Town Hall the year before. Clifford took the leading role on the Greenwich project. 

The brick is only cladding: the building is reinforced concrete. The glass near the top of the tower reminds us that it was intended as an observation deck with river views. Sadly, the public have not been allowed up there for some years. 

Happily, another feature remains accessible. The mosaic in the side entrance was created by Carter and Co, tilemakers in Poole, Dorset whose subsidiary Carter Stabler and Adams became Poole Pottery. Meanwhile, Carter and Co made both ornamental and functional tiles - including many of those lining London Underground, as well as the LCC and GLC's blue plaques. 

Carter and Co tiling, Poole Arms, Poole

The identity of the mosaic artist is not certain, but was probably David Evans who had worked with the Culpins on other projects including Poplar Town Hall. The work is a jaunty combination of the maritime - a ship and telescope - and celestial zodiac symbols.

While no longer used by the council, much of the building is occupied by Greenwich School of Management and it remains a striking landmark. (The situation of its large public hall, Borough Hall, appears more uncertain as recent occupiers Greenwich Dance left earlier this year.) 

Image of Hilversum Town Hall: Roundtheworld, shared under a Creative Commons licence

Sunday 21 October 2018

Hawksmoor, Wolfe, and Fuller's Earth: St Alfege Church crypt

St Alfege Church is a Greenwich landmark, standing in its centre since the eighteenth century when it replaced its collapsed predecessor. It was designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor and funded as one of the Fifty New Churches - of which only a dozen were built.

However, one of the most interesting parts of the church goes almost unseen - the crypt below. (Although not entirely below ground - a trick to raise the main body of the church and make it seem more imposing.) It is currently only open for tours on special occasions, although there are plans to make it accessible in future. 

A narrow staircase leads from an external door into the crypt, where bodies were interred in family vaults until 1859. They included John Julius Angerstein, a prominent businessman and underwriter, chairman of Lloyd's in the 1790s, and art collector whose paintings became the core of the National Gallery's collection. He is controversial today since the extent of his involvement in the slave trade is contested. 

Another vault is slightly cryptically occupied by 'Martyr's'. This is the name of a local family rather than a description of the occupants.

The most famous occupant was General James Wolfe, celebrated for victory over the French at Quebec in 1759. He was fatally wounded in the battle, and this 'martyrdom' made him the most celebrated military hero of his period. However, he had already made a name for himself through improving weapons skills and tactics and achieved his position as major-general aged just 32. He had fought at Culloden in 1746, where he allegedly refused to shoot a wounded Jacobite despite orders to do so. 

When interments ceased, the vaults were filled with Fuller's earth, an absorbent clay - just visible through a grille at the front of each vault.

Not all the vaults held wealthy families: there is also a church vault. In total, the crypt held over a thousand bodies. Below its floor are even more, burials from the earlier church building including the composer Thomas Tallis. 

Sunday 30 September 2018

Cabot Cafe, College Green

In the heart of Bristol is a fish and chip shop - not that exciting, until you look up above the modern shopfront. On the upper floors of the facade, beautiful details of the original Cabot Cafe remain.
It was built in 1904 by James LaTrobe and Thomas Weston, architects whose other Art Nouveau buildings in Bristol included a primary school. By 1921, their Whiteladies Picture House cinema showed clear Art Deco influence. The Cabot Cafe was commissioned by Walter Hughes, a local estate agent who had experience of property development on the Green: he had been responsible for building the Royal Hotel forty years earlier.

The colourful tiled mosaic catches the eye first. It was the work of Catherine Hughes, the client's daughter. She took the design from the 1891 binding of A House of Pomegranates - surely a daring choice less than a decade after the prosecution and disgrace of its author Oscar Wilde.

Less bright, but equally beautiful, are the copper panels to either side. These continue the pomegranate theme and are pure Art Nouveau. Other details, by contrast, are more baroque (a mixture of styles characteristic of LaTrobe and Weston's work).

Cabot Cafe suffered damage in the Second World War. We are fortunate, then, that this intriguing facade nevertheless survived to delight us today.

Monday 17 September 2018

Dinosaurs up close!

Crystal Palace is home to the fantastic, much-loved dinosaur park - or more accurately, prehistoric animal park, since it has more than dinosaurs. Its most famous residents are on an island, usually firmly off-limits to the public.

However, the Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs offered a very special opportunity to cross a temporary bridge onto the island during its Dinosaur Days. Our guide was Anthony Lewis, creator of a fantastic 'Lost Valley of London' video about the dinosaurs. Close up, they are full of usually-unseen details. 

There was even an opportunity to look inside one of the dinosaurs. These models are hollow, with a brick framework. Their creator Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins carefully developed scale models based upon the latest research, then made a full-size version of clay with wooden supports. This was used to create a mould, from which cement sections were cast. For the larger dinosaurs such as the iguanadons, a brickwork structure was built around a metal frame, then given shape with iron hoops and tiles. Finally, mortar was used to attach the cement cast sections and to add details. Lead teeth were fastened into the dinosaurs' gums with pins, and the whole model was painted.

Not all of those details are happy ones. The Grade-I listed dinosaurs require ongoing conservation, suffering as they do from exposure to the elements (and, sadly, sometimes deliberate vandalism). 

Fancy making the trip? Opportunities are rare at the moment, because a bridge has to be temporarily (and expensively) constructed each time. However, the Friends are crowdfunding for a permanent bridge: if the money can be raised, then we will all have more chances to walk among dinosaurs!