I had to be in London, because it’s not every day my son gets a chance to sing in the Royal Festival Hall. Admittedly, he was only one of some 400 singers from Lewisham Choral Society and the Hackney Singers, who’d combined to perform Bach’s B minor Mass. What a privilege to hear so many voices give such a finely tuned and moving performance.
The other treat was that I was seated between my daughter-in-law, and a new friend made entirely thanks to blogging. She’d discovered my blog after following up a comment I had made on the wonderful ‘Spitalfields Life’. She commented – often – on mine, and eventually we met. I do like this blogging malarkey.
London, as seen from dry land the start of my journey.
…. which changed to this, as we started, ploughing through the water at a busy fast rate.
Anyway, I got to the Festival Hall from Greenwich by way of a commuter trip along the Thames. And on this journey I got a sense of densely packed communities, sometimes in tower blocks; and of the densely packed offices of Canary Wharf and the City.
I saw too the Docklands area, where once tobacco, ivory, spices, coffee, tea, cocoa, wine and wool were unloaded from densely packed ships along the quayside to be processed in wharfside buildings – once busy, crowded industrial sites, and now transformed into desirable apartments and businesses.
I saw the Tower of London, with the city behind showing itself developed in a manner unimaginable to the many unhappy souls who entered, never to return to life as they had known it …. or to life at all.
This journey is a treat which some lucky Londoners can enjoy every day as part of their regular commute.
Ten thirty on a damp Wednesday morning. The Horniman Museum was just opening its doors as William and I arrived, and we stomped downstairs to the aquarium.
We were the first arrivals. Here’s William, wholly absorbed in fish, frog and butterfly hunting. This peaceful moment didn’t last long. Within minutes one, two, then three parties of Reception age school children stormed noisily in. The fish continued their solitary swishing round their watery home.
I was in London this week, and on Monday had a day all to myself. After a morning at the wonderful Paul Nash exhibition at the Tate Gallery, I mooched around the area where I grew up.
Here, just at the back of Tate Britain, is the Millbank Estate. There was a penitentiary here till 1890, and when it was cleared away, 17 blocks of flats were built as social housing between 1897 and 1902, housing 562 families. They must have seemed palaces to the former slum-dwellers who moved here. Each flat had its own kitchen and scullery, its own toilet. The streets were tree-lined, and there was a communal garden besides. Even now these barracks-like buildings have an air of quality, of being built to last. Sadly, many of these flats are now in the hands of private landlords, who charge their tenants up to four times more than those who are still in the social housing system have to pay.
About five minutes walk away are the flats where I lived between about the ages of seven and fifteen, St. Augustine’s Mansions. Those of us who lived there were ordinary types. There was the little old Irish lady in the flat below; the man who worked at Manbre and Garton, the sugar refiners, who once a year would take us and his wife to the wharf-side where he worked to watch the Oxford and Cambridge boat race.
There was the Liberal Party activist, who was disappointed when my mother wouldn’t let me take the afternoon off school one day in 1958. Our activist friend hoped I would lay a wreath at the recently relocated monument to Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst. My mother, an early beneficiary of education for girls, didn’t approve of suffragettes. But later, we’d often go to our friend’s flat on Saturday evenings to watch That Was The Week That Was. I was by then the only child in my class not to have a TV at home.
Briefly, before he made the comparative Big Time, a singer lived on the ground floor. Was it Billy Fury? I can’t remember.
These ordinary flats are now a gated community. Look on Zoopla, and you’ll find that the larger ones change hands at £1,500,000.
I wandered on to Tachbrook Street. Now, as then, there is a market. Then it sold everything you’d need in a weekly shop. Now it’s street food from every continent, sold to the large local working community at lunch time. I can recommend the sumac chicken from Lebanon.
And here is a residential street. There won’t be any local working folk living in these handsome terraces any more. Zoopla again. £1,750,000.
It’s rather lucky that I neither want nor need to move back into the area.
St. Stephen’s Walbrook is built in the shadow of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, rather hidden away down the narrow street which gives it its name. After the Great Fire of London in 1666, Sir Christopher Wren designed no fewer than 51 churches to replace those that had been lost in the four-day conflagration. Saint Stephen’s was his first, and the one where he tried out ideas later realised on a grander scale in the cathedral.
I visited it while I was in London the other week. This was Wren’s own parish church – he lived at Number 15, Walbrook. It’s the very first English church to have a domed ceiling in the Baroque style, such as Wren had seen in churches he’d visited in France and Italy, and it enhances the feeling of airiness and space.
I liked this church immediately. On a grey, cheerless day, light poured in through the immense arched windows, glazed with translucent glass as in Wren’s day. Back in those early days, he’d had oak box pews installed, and the Victorians had later replaced the plain glass with richly coloured stained glass windows, which limited the light entering the building and was contrary to Wren’s own wish to have a classical, rather than a Gothic-inspired church. Fine woodwork dates from Wren’s day. Here is the pulpit and its magnificent tester.
Then came World War II. A bomb plummeted through the roof. The church was saved from destruction because the bomb didn’t explode. But the interior was ravaged, the glass shattered. Restoration of the church proved controversial. Wren’s own desire to have plain glazing was respected, but his box pews are no more. Light-coloured wooden seating now surrounds a monumental white polished marble altar, the work of Henry Moore. It has been placed in the centre of the church, immediately beneath the dome.
This must now be a magnificent, as well as an intimate space in which to worship, or listen to a concert. Yet the congregation had to battle for several years against diehards who tried to vandalise both windows and altar, objecting to what they saw as a desecration of a historic church.
I got chatting to the verger, who was sweeping the floor as I arrived. He told me about the topsy-turvy lives of City of London churches. Almost nobody lives in the city these days, so Thursday is the new Sunday, with worshippers consisting of the working population, and retired folk from the suburbs who return to support the church they’d loved in earlier years.
He told me that Samaritans, the 24 hour telephone support service for the depressed, those contemplating suicide, began here when its founder Chad Varah, was minister here.
I’d popped in originally as I was exploring the part of the city my grandfather would have called home in his childhood. His house is no more – everything in his street was destroyed in the Blitz. This church is near enough to his home that he may have visited it from time to time, though his family’s own church is likely to have been All Hallows by the Tower, the oldest church in London. That will be my next port of call in search of his roots, next time I am in the city.
It’s just over a year since I first blogged about the Horniman Museum. Last Saturday we were there again. It couldn’t have been more different, even though so much was still the same. William is no longer a cheerful little bundle to be toted about in the arms of a willing aunt or granny. He’s a running, jumping talking live-wire of curiosity, demanding to be taken to see the ‘dugong’ (yes, really), or the owls, insisting on commentating, as far as he can, on everything he spots.
That’s a dugong, that is.
An owl takes centre stage at the European Wildlife Photographer of the Year Exhibition. William approves.
Last year, after our museum visit, we enjoyed strolling outside in crisp winter sunshine. This year there was heavy mist, obscuring the views of London. Instead of strolling round the gardens, or visiting the farmyard creatures, we settled for the small farmers’ market that’s there on Saturdays. There were stalls selling vegetables, and cheeses, or locally cured meats. There was street food. Tom and Sarah bought a goose for Christmas. We sampled spicy Iranian tit bits. And best of all, we had an early lunch. Look at this from the Smeltery. Tasty, chewy sourdough toast, topped off with melted raclette, bacon, chimichurri and some onion chutney, together with a handful of toasted walnuts. It’s perfect winter picnic fare.
A Smeltery sandwich in preparation…
… and on its way….
… here it is.
But all the same, enough was enough. Next time, we’ll go when the sun is shining.
I’ve loved the Horniman Museum since I was a small child. We would make the long and slightly awkward bus journey there from our home in Victoria, over the Thames at Vauxhall Bridge, through dingy Brixton and elegant and well-heeled Dulwich to spend the day at this special place.
I can’t remember those visits in detail really. I’ve got memories of awe-inspiring and crowded cabinets of strange birds and unfamiliar animals, collected and stuffed many years before: of colourful displays of traditional costumes and artefacts from Africa. Somewhere or another I probably still have the odd sepia-and-white postcard, bought as a souvenir of our day out.
And now it’s set to be a go-to destination for new grandson William. He too will be able to enjoy the bus journey there and back, and a Grand Day Out, as we all did last Sunday.
The museum is so much more than I remember from those days in the 1950s. Those collections – and more – are still there. They’re still arranged, particularly the Natural History collection, with a nod to the days when simply everything was displayed, all the better to fascinate you. There’s that wonderful walrus, stuffed by a Victorian taxidermist who hadn’t had the benefit of watching David Attenborough’s wildlife programmes. He filled out the creature full to bursting, not a wrinkle in sight. Everyone loves him.
But the African Worlds gallery reflects more modern ideas of interpretation. You’ll find, alongside objects from traditional African cultures, more modern artefacts from countries strongly influenced by the African populations that arrived there during the years of slavery, such as Brazil and Trinidad.
Ijele: masquerade of the Igbo
A colourful collection of parakeets.
We were keen to see the griffon vulture because we’d seen so many in la Rioja, in Spain.
Surely that aquarium wasn’t there 50 years ago? And all those wonderful things happening in the gardens – I can’t even remember any gardens. I can’t remember the spectacular views across London. Even if I could, I wouldn’t remember this view. Look.
I’m sure there wasn’t an Animal Walk. This is where William got the chance to come face to face with an extremely short-legged goat, a large and very industrious white rabbit, a couple of hens and an alpaca. Now there are flower beds showing plants that give us dyes for cloth. There’s an exciting space full of – are they sculptures? No, we can all go and make music there, strumming, pounding, plucking, experimenting. And so much more …. so much more. I’d happily go and explore this wonderful outdoor and indoor site every time we go and visit… and I know William will want to come too, when he’s old enough to have an opinion.
And a hen meets William.
Wandering round the Horniman Gardens.
William meets a goat.
Round the back of the Horniman.
Tom makes music.
Autumn’s not a tidy season. But this is an oasis opf peace in London.