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England’s smallest cathedral city

Wells

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Wells Cathedral and Cathedral Green

We recently spent a few days in the Somerset city of Wells, often described as England’s smallest city. In fact, the City of London is smaller, but doesn’t feel like it, surrounded as it is by all the rest of Greater London!

Wells gets its name from the three wells found here – two in the Bishop’s Palace gardens and one in the market place. Thanks to them the Romans settled here, and after them the Anglo-Saxons. King Ine of Wessex founded a minster church here in 704. Two hundred years later it became the seat of the diocesan bishop, until in 1090 the bishopric was moved to Bath. Arguments ensued between the canons of Wells and the monks of Bath until 1245 when Pope Innocent V resolved the dispute by creating the Diocese of Bath and Wells. The cathedral was built around the same time, cementing Wells’ role as the principal seat of the diocese.

The main sights in the city all centre on its role as the bishop’s seat – the cathedral itself, the cathedral green and nearby Vicars’ Close, and the Bishop’s Palace and Gardens. These all lie within a walled precinct known as the Liberty of St Andrew.

Wells Cathedral

The cathedral is dedicated to St Andrew, as are the city’s three wells. Parts date back to the 10th century but most of it was built during the 13th. As it was never a monastic cathedral it survived the Dissolution of Henry VIII and the Reformation intact. It has been called Europe's first truly Gothic structure.

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The West Front, Wells Cathedral

The west front is broad and is said to have one of the most impressive collections of medieval sculpture in the western world. Almost 300 of the original 400 statues remain. According to the cathedral website, ‘They appear quite differently today to how they looked in the Middle Ages, when much of the Cathedral was painted inside and out in bright colours’. I think I prefer them like this, in the soft yellow local limestone.

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Two of the many statues

Inside, the fan vaulted ceiling is attractively painted, and the central tower supported by striking ‘scissor’ arches. These were added in the mid 14th century to prevent the tower from collapsing. This 1313 addition to the cathedral had been too much for the foundations, causing large cracks to appear in the tower’s structure. This elegant solution to the problem has become one of the building’s most beautiful features.

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The interior, with the famous scissor arches

There is some wonderful stained glass, most famously in the so-called Jesse Window. This dates from 1340-45 and depicts the Tree of Jesse (the family and ancestors of Christ), with the Nativity at its centre. Again from the cathedral website: ‘Dating from about 1340, it is still remarkably intact – it narrowly escaped destruction during the English Civil War and was protected during the Blitz of World War Two – so what we see today is much as the medieval glaziers designed it and as our ancestors viewed it before us.’ Unfortunately, COVID restrictions on access to the smaller areas of the cathedral meant that we were only able to peer at this through a screen at the far end of the choir, but we got some idea from there of its artistry and level of detail.

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The Jesse Window

The Chapter House was also off-limits, but there was plenty to see in the main cathedral building, including the astronomical clock in the north transept - the second oldest surviving clock in England after the one in Salisbury Cathedral. It dates from about 1325 and still has its original medieval face, although the mechanism was replaced in the 19th century with the original being moved to the Science Museum in London, where it still operates. In addition to showing the time on a 24-hour dial, its innermost circle shows the days of the lunar month and the phases of the moon. The astronomical dial presents a pre-Copernican view, with the sun and moon revolving round a central fixed earth.

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Astronomical clock, and one of the Stations of the Cross

I also liked the Stations of the Cross with colours that reminded me of Orthodox icons.

We followed a set route around the building, marked out on the floor to ensure social distancing – a necessary evil at the time of our visit. This led us to explore the tranquil Camery garden, laid out to the east of the cloisters on the site of the 15th century Lady Chapel of which only the foundation stones remain. The rest was dismantled during the 16th century so that timber and lead could be sold to provide much-needed funds to the cathedral. There were some good views of the cathedral tower to be had from here and some pretty late summer flowers to photograph.

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In the Camery Garden

We finished our tour by following the marked route, the ‘Pilgrim’s Footsteps’, around the cloisters. These date mainly from the 15th century and have been quite recently restored. The walls display monuments to illustrious locals, and/or those wealthy enough to afford an ornate cathedral memorial. My eye was caught by one in particular, to a soldier who served under a ‘Great General’ (I assume Wellington) and died in the Battle of Waterloo. Also commemorated is a young boy of the same family who was only five when he died and yet ‘had strong religious impressions’ – not something I feel would be said of today’s five year olds!

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In the cloisters

Vicars’ Close

Just to the north of the cathedral, still within the precinct of the Liberty of St Andrew, is a short street known as Vicars’ Close. Its houses were built in the 14th and early 15th centuries as homes for the group of priests who served in the cathedral, the Vicars Choral. This is said to be the oldest purely residential street in Europe to have its original buildings surviving intact. Unusually it was built with a deliberate narrowing towards the end furthest from the cathedral, to make it look longer than it is (and of course viewed from that far end it looks shorter). There were originally 22 houses on the east side and 20 on the west, but after the Reformation, when clerics were permitted to marry and households consequently became larger, some of the houses were knocked together and there are now 27 in total.

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Vicars' Close

At the north end of the street is the Vicars’ Chapel and Library, while at the south end, as you enter from the cathedral side, is an arched gate cut into the Vicars’ Hall. On the cathedral wall opposite the latter is a second clock face of the cathedral’s famous astronomical clock, driven by the same mechanism.

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Clock on the exterior of the cathedral, and detail on one of the houses in Vicars' Close

The Bishop’s Palace and Gardens

The Bishop’s Palace lies on the south side of the cathedral. It has been the home of the Bishops of the Diocese of Bath and Wells for 800 years and is a Grade I listed building. It is surrounded by a wall and moat intended to provide a defence if needed, although in practice it was never called into use for that purpose. However, the moat also serves to channel the water from the two wells in the grounds (which give the city its name).

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Moat around the Bishop's Palace

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By/in the moat

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The defensive wall from one of the towers

The main part of the palace was built in the 13th century, with additions in the 14th and 15th. Today the great hall is in ruins, and part of the rest of the structure still in use as the bishop’s house, but you can visit some of the rooms in the palace, where displays cover the history of the building and the bishopric. There is also a chapel, but that was closed for restoration when we visited.

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The ruined Great Hall

In any case we were more interested in touring the beautiful gardens, especially as it was a lovely late September afternoon. The area around the great hall is laid out as lawns, including a croquet lawn. Elsewhere there are pretty flower beds surrounding one of the main features, the pools formed by the springs themselves. From here there are lovely views of the cathedral.

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Wells Cathedral from the Bishop's Garden

Nearby is a 15th century well house. A sign explains that in 1451 the then bishop, Bishop Beckynton, granted the town a supply of water from the wells within his garden. A cistern inside the well house collected water which was forced through pipes to the outlet in the marketplace. From here the water ran down gutters at the side of many of the streets, washing away blood and offal from the butchers’ shops. You can still see the water flowing in these gutters as you walk around the city, although I believe today’s butchers are no longer in the habit of using it to dispose of their waste! On the roof of the well house is a statue of the bishop’s favourite hunting dog.

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Dog statue on the well house

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Michaelmas daisies and butterfly

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Seed-head

Gates to the Liberty of St Andrew

There are three ancient entrances to the precinct – the Penniless Porch, The Bishop's Eye and Brown's Gatehouse, which were all built around 1450. The first of these leads to the cathedral green from the market place and is so-called because beggars used to wait there to ask for alms from those attending services.

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The Penniless Porch

The Bishop’s Eye also leads from the market place but towards the Bishop’s Palace. Brown’s Gatehouse lies to the north of these on Sadler Street and has been incorporated into a hotel, The Ancient Gatehouse. We ate dinner in their Italian restaurant one evening and afterwards I took some night shots of the cathedral from just inside the gatehouse.

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Wells Cathedral at night

Posted by ToonSarah 06:19 Archived in England Tagged buildings streets architecture england history houses garden cathedral Comments (13)

Yes, I remember ...

Adlestrop

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The only real street in Adlestrop

Adlestrop is for me one of the loveliest of Cotswold villages, made all the lovelier because very few people seem to know it or come here, despite the fact that it features in a well-known English poem. There is perhaps not much of note here, but that is part of its charm. A sleepy village street, lined with chocolate-box-pretty cottages; a thatched village shop still surviving when many in the country have sadly closed; a small green and a cricket pitch.

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A cottage in Adlestrop

This is the England that someone who has never been here might conjure up from old movies, thinking that most of us live in just such a place (although in fact only 80 people inhabit this tiny village). If you have an image of a perfect English village in your head and want to bring it to life, Adlestrop could be the place for you.

A famous poem

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Bus shelter

Adlestrop was immortalised by Edward Thomas, one of my favourite poets, in a poem first published in 1917. The poem describes an uneventful journey Thomas took on 23 June 1914 on an Oxford to Worcester express. Like several other poets, he is closely associated with the First World War period, but unlike them he wrote mostly, not of the war, but of the England for which he believed the soldiers were fighting. This is possibly a rather idealised picture of a pastoral idyll that was already being changed by industrialisation, but even today pockets of his England remain, and unspoiled Adlestrop is one of them.

Today a seat at a bus stop near the entrance to the village bears a plaque with the poem’s verses, and above it is a sign from the railway station that inspired them.

Adlestrop, by Edward Thomas

Yes. I remember Adlestrop -
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.
The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop – only the name
And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.
And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

Jane Austen in Adlestrop

The village also has another literary connection, with one of my favourite novelists, Jane Austen, who is known to have visited at least three times between 1794 and 1806 when Rev. Thomas Leigh, her mother’s cousin, was vicar, living at the Old Rectory. Jane Austen is thought to have drawn inspiration from the village and its surroundings for her novel Mansfield Park. The rectory is now known as Adlestrop House and is just by the churchyard. Although it’s not open to the public it's possible to peer through the gates and get a sense of the lovely views it commands - views that must be largely unchanged since Austen's time.

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A house opposite the church

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View with part of Adlestrop House

St. Mary Magdalene

St. Mary Magdalene's church in Adlestrop sits on a knoll at the end of the village street, which here turns into a track. The tower is the first thing to catch the eye. This is 14th century, and consists of three stages, with the lowest serving as the church porch. Much of the rest of church was rebuilt between 1750 and 1764, though so sympathetically that the building retains much of its earlier feel.

The oldest part is the 13th century chancel arch, on either side of which are two 18th century memorials set high into the wall. These are to members of the Leigh family, relatives of Jane Austen’s mother. Other reminders of the same family can be found elsewhere in the church, including gravestones set into the floor of the chancel and memorial windows.

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Adlestrop church, and a Leigh memorial

Talking of windows, many of them have lovely stained glass, and were looking especially good on the sunny day when we last visited. Look out too for the 15th century font.

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Stained glass window

The peaceful churchyard has some 17th century chest tombs, a cast iron entry gate and lantern which commemorates Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897, and a sundial built to commemorate the golden jubilee of Queen Elizabeth in 2002. A rare Elizabethan memorial (from 1594) is built into the exterior south wall of the chancel. From this churchyard you can look past Adlestrop House to the beautiful rolling hills beyond - the view in my photo above. I like to stand here and think that Jane Austen too would have stood and admired this very same view, perhaps after attending a service taken by her mother's cousin. And you can't get more quintessentially English than that!

Posted by ToonSarah 06:54 Archived in England Tagged monument history views church village houses poetry literature cotswolds author world_war_one Comments (17)

In Metro-Land

Ruislip

Ruislip is a pleasant suburb in north west London, with an ancient village at its heart which was mentioned in the Doomsday Book. It is also the town where I grew up, and where my parents continued to live until old age and ill health necessitated a move away for the last few years of their lives.

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Domesday Book info in the library

When the Doomsday Book was written, in 1086, Ruislip was known as Rislepe, ‘leaping place on the river where rushes grow’, and (as I was always told as a child) had more pigs than human inhabitants. These pigs roamed the extensive woodlands, and Ruislip Woods remain to this day, although smaller than they once were.

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With my sister by Ruislip Duck Pond
- I am on the right

The village grew up around the 13th century parish church dedicated to St Martin. The barns belonging to the former Manor Farm, just to the north of the church, still stand. Nearby is the village duck-pond, where as a child I loved to throw bread to the ducks.

Ruislip remained quite small, and rural, until the coming of the Metropolitan railway at the start of the 20th century. At first the new line and station were used mainly by Londoners wanting to escape to the country for a day, but soon the charms of living here lured many to move out to the suburbs, and development in Ruislip mushroomed. The population rose from 6,217 in 1911, to 72,791 in 1961, and growth was especially fast in the 1930s, as the many houses from this era testify.

This was the period of Metro-Land, a vision of a suburban idyll developed as part of a Metropolitan Railway advertising campaign designed to lure workers away from their cramped homes in Central London and out to a supposed ‘paradise’ that was rural in appearance and lifestyle and yet was in easy reach of their jobs in the capital.

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Metroland poster
- (from wikicommons)

The notion was simple: the railway would buy the farmers' fields that lay either side of the newly expanding railway line and build on them. But while the posters that formed the bulk of the campaign showed a sylvan landscape where ladies in hats picked flowers and drifted through sun-speckled meadows, and families picnicked in perpetual sunshine, of course the building programme destroyed the very landscape that these posters seemed to sell. Meanwhile, the occasional attractive mock-Tudor house shown in those same posters was the exception rather than the norm – most of the construction being of functional brick and pebble-dash terraces.

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Typical 1930s terraced housing

I lived for ten years of my childhood in such a house – a comfortable if uninspiring family home in a street of many more such. But we were happy there, and it was a vast improvement on the tiny flat in Regents Park where my parents had started their married life together. The Metro-Land lifestyle was later immortalised by the poet John Betjeman:

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Ruislip Gardens station today

‘Gaily into Ruislip Gardens
Runs the red electric train,
With a thousand Ta's and Pardon's
Daintily alights Elaine;
Hurries down the concrete station
With a frown of concentration,
Out into the outskirt's edges
Where a few surviving hedges
Keep alive our lost Elysium - rural Middlesex again.’

Ruislip Gardens was my home from the age of four to fourteen, and I would often watch those red trains (or the 1960s maroon equivalents) from my bedroom window, as I waited for my father (not Elaine!) to alight and come home from work.

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Our (2nd) Ruislip home

Later my parents were able to buy a house in Ruislip proper that more closely fitted the mock Tudor poster image, an attractive early 1930s house. Living here as a teenager, and starting to take an interest in the history of Ruislip (now that we lived nearer to its historic heart), I was fascinated by the anecdotes of a neighbour, a woman then in her seventies, who had lived here since the street was first developed. She remembered having to wear rubber boots to walk across the fields that separated her house from the station, changing there into smart ‘town shoes’ and leaving the boots and a lantern with the station-master, to be collected on her return for the night-time walk home. Those fields have long since been covered by other streets and other houses, and even today development is on-going, with some of the larger houses built in the 1930s being pulled down to make way for modern apartments or smaller family homes.

But something of that earlier sense of living a little apart from the hustle of the city remains, and the modern-day equivalents of Betjeman’s Elaine still alight from tube trains each evening and breathe, no doubt, a sigh of relief at being somewhere calmer and quieter. For me, a city-lover, Ruislip now seems too quiet and remote from the action to appeal as a possible home, but I still have that same sense of a slower pace of life whenever I visit and I can understand why Ruislip still lures people to move here with a desire to experience that Metro-Land lifestyle.

And the ancient heart of the former village is still there...

St Martin’s Church

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St Martin's Church

The church of St Martin’s was built in 1245 and probably stands on the site of earlier wooden and Norman stone churches. A stone from the latter was found in the grounds, and some Norman stones appear to have been incorporated in this structure, as well as Roman tiles indicating that prior to all the churches a pagan temple may have stood here.

The name St. Martin is believed to have been given to the church by the Benedictine monks of the Bec Abbey, after Martin of Tours, a saint in Normandy. Ruislip had been given to the Abbey of Le Bec-Hellouin in 1087 by a Norman lord, Ernulf de Hesdin, who himself had acquired this land after the Norman Conquest. The present structure is of flint and stone, and has a bell tower added in the 15th century. This houses eight bells which are still rung every Sunday, I believe.

Inside there are some medieval wall-paintings, a priest’s door and two ancient wooden chests. The pulpit is from the 17th century and the stained glass from the 19th and 20th. I always look too for the memorial to Lady Mary Bankes, which bears this inscription:
‘To the memory of LADY MARY BANKES, the only daughter of Ralph Hawtry, of Riselip, in the county of Middlesex, esq, the wife and widow of the Honourable Sir John Bankes, knight, late Lord Chief Justice of his Majesty's Court of Common Pleas, and of the Privy Council of his Majesty King Charles I, of blessed memory, who, having had the honour to have borne with a constancy and courage above her sex a noble proportion of the late calamities, and the restitution of the government, with great peace of mind laid down her most desired life the 11th day of April 1661. Sir Ralph Bankes her son and heir hath dedicated this. She had four sons: 1. Sir Ralph; 2. Jerome; 3. Charles; 4. William (since dead without issue), and six daughters.’

My first school in Ruislip, which I went to from the ages of five to eleven, was named for Lady Mary – Lady Bankes School. The school’s crest bears an image of a castle, intended to represent Corfe Castle in Dorset. Lady Mary Bankes grew up in Ruislip as a member of the local ‘big’ family, the Hawtreys, and married into the Bankes family who owned the castle in the small village of Corfe. Following the death of her husband during the Civil War, she bravely and successfully defended the castle during a siege in 1643. However, during a second siege in 1646 an act of betrayal by a member of her garrison led to the castle’s capture by the Parliamentarians. They allowed her to go free out of respect for her bravery, but deliberately demolished the castle resulting in the dramatic ruin which today dominates that village.

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St Martin's Church details

St Martin’s was substantially restored by George Gilbert Scott in 1870 and the lych-gates added at that point, which do set off the building rather nicely. It is today a protected building, having received Grade B listed status as an Anglican church in 1950. Located at the top of the busy High Street, both it and its churchyard are a peaceful haven from the bustle of shopping and well worth turning aside to visit. Unfortunately when I was last there a small weekday service was in progress (this is a very active parish church as well as a historic site) so I had to content myself with just one shot of the interior taken from the porch. I will have to go back!

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Inside the church, and detail of the lychgate

Almshouses

Backing on to the churchyard of St Martin’s Church is a row of 16th century almshouses. Originally this was a single dwelling, built in 1570 and serving as the parish house. It was converted in 1616 into ten small alms- or church houses (five at the front, five at the back, each with one room downstairs and one up) to provide accommodation for the poor and needy of the parish.

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The almshouses from the churchyard

The block was known as the Church House, and there are many old references in the parish accounts to its inhabitants, which give an idea of the need for such a facility:
'June 1665 – Widow Fearne of the Church House, several times in her sickness, 13s 0d
Mar 1666 – Paid to John Bates for carrying 50 bavins (bundles of kindling) to Widow Fearnes, 1s 9d
1726 – Moving three women to the Church House, my cart horse, 15s 0d
Paid the carpenter taking down the beds and setting them up, 3s 0d.'

In 1787 the vestry agreed to give poor families living in the Church House ‘a bed and bolster, a pair of blankets, a pair of sheets and a rug each’. In 1789 it was decided that more room was needed to accommodate the poor and destitute, so a purpose-build workhouse was constructed on a site near Copse Wood. But poor families continued to live here too, for some time at least.

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The almshouses from Eastcote Road

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Window detail

In 1938 four of the tiny cottages were knocked together to form a house for the verger, and in the 1950s the middle four were also knocked together, this time to accommodate the curate. These were used until the mid 1970s, but the buildings were by then in a bad state of repair and threatened with demolition. They were saved however, modernised, and now form four flats and a maisonette owned by a Housing Association.

Manor Farm: the Great Barn

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West side of the Great Barn

There was a farm on this site (at the northern end of what is today Ruislip High Street) from the 9th century until relatively recently, and several buildings remain from various periods in that farm’s existence. Of these the Great Barn is the most impressive and the most noteworthy. It dates from the latter part of the 13th century, around 1280, and is the second largest barn in Middlesex (the largest is in Harmondsworth, near Heathrow Airport), being 120 ft (36.6 metres) long and 32 ft (9.75m) wide. It was built with oak, probably from nearby Ruislip Woods, in a design known as an aisled barn, with smaller out-shoots running alongside the main supports under a single roof.

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East side of the Great Barn

The barn has been very well-preserved over the centuries and, along with the rest of the Manor Farm site, was restored with Lottery funding in 2007/2008. It is regularly used for local events, including crafts and farmers’ markets. It makes an impressive setting and the bustle of human activity is dwarfed by, and therefore serves only to emphasise, its great size. But we are very lucky to have it. At the start of the 20th century there were plans to develop this site for housing and all of Ruislip’s historic buildings, with the exception of St Martin’s Church, would have been lost. Amazingly (even for those days I think), no one seemed to oppose these plans, and it was only the intervention of the First World War that halted building work before it had barely begun. When, in 1919, work was able to resume, it was significantly reduced in scale owing to the poor economic situation of those times, and before the historic buildings had been affected the Royal Society of the Arts had stepped in and designated a number of buildings in Ruislip that should be preserved, including not only this barn but other buildings on the Manor Farm site and beyond, such as the old post office.

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The great doors of the Great Barn

Manor Farm: the Little Barn

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The raised threshing floor

Very near the Great Barn is another, somewhat smaller but still impressive. This is the Little Barn or Tithe Barn, and since 1937 has been the unusual location for Ruislip Library – a library I once worked in (many years ago!)

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Old beams in the Little Barn roof

This barn is of more recent origin, having been built in the 16th century, and is a Grade II listed building. Despite its conversion into a library, and the further modernisation that took place in 2007, its original role is still very apparent in its high beamed roof (with many original timbers) and other features, such as the slightly raised floor at one end – the former threshing floor. The windows have heraldic shields, one of which is of Kings College Cambridge, the estate’s earlier owners.

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The library from the bowling green

Just south of the Little Barn is a bowling green, on the site of the farm’s former rick-yard. Looking across this towards the library it is not too difficult to imagine the rural scene that was the norm here until just eighty or so years ago.

Manor Farm: the house

The third of the larger buildings on the Manor Farm site is Manor Farm House itself. This is an early 16th century house that was built of the site of a motte-and-bailey castle. The latter is thought to have been a wooden structure dating from soon after the Norman Conquest, built for Ernulf de Hesdin who had been given control of the manor of Ruislip in recognition of his loyalty to William the Conqueror. This castle in turn was built within an earthwork, possibly from the 9th century, that has been traced in an almost complete circle round the old village of Ruislip.

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Manor Farm House and moat

The castle does not appear in the 1086 Domesday Book and so could have been demolished or changed significantly by that time. But it is known that at some point a priory was also built within the moated area, under the aegis of the Benedictine Bec Abbey of Normandy. The Abbey had been granted Ruislip by Ernulf de Hesdin around 1087 and held it for 300 years.

The site was appropriated by the Crown and granted to King’s College in 1451, and the priory abandoned, falling into ruins. Those ruins would still have been here, however, when the Manor House was built between 1506 and 1511 over a number of building seasons, from Easter to Michaelmas. The house was built in the latest style of the period and was designed to showcase the wealth of the owner, with a decorative frontage and moulded ceiling beams.

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Manor Farm house seen from the cow byre

The house served two purposes: courthouse and farmhouse. Courts were held here until 1925, and the farm remained until the 1930s. Court cases were heard twice a year in the main hall of the house. Two types of court were held:
Court Leet – cases involving land disputes, assaults and minor offences;
Court Baron – administrative matters, deeds, wills etc.

Of course the house has been somewhat altered over the years. In the 18th and 19th centuries the windows and doorways were replaced and an extended kitchen was installed, with the latter being replaced in 1958 when the house was modernised. Today it serves as a meeting place for various community groups, such as the Women’s Institute, and can be hired for conferences. The line of the old moat can still be traced around the garden.

The Duck Pond

At the southern end of the Manor Farm complex is the duck pond. I have many happy memories of coming here as child to feed the ducks – a valued treat.

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The Duck Pond

The pond though was not originally intended for ducks but for the farm’s horses, who would have been washed down here. Today the pond has given its name to the twice weekly Farmers’ and Food markets that take place in and around the Great Barn – the Duck Pond Markets.

The River Pinn

The River Pinn gives Ruislip its name, albeit indirectly. Ruislip derives from "Rush leap", a reference to the rushes that lined the river and the fact that here it was just narrow enough to be leapt over – although I have to say that I would not attempt such a feat! Maybe it has widened over the years?

The River Pinn rises on Harrow Weald Common and flows through Pinner and Eastcote before reaching Ruislip, and from here flows on to Ickenham and Uxbridge, where it passes through the grounds of RAF Uxbridge and Brunel University. It then continues on to Cowley where it joins the Frays River (a branch of the Colne) at Yiewsley. In total it is about 12 miles (19 kilometres) in length. In the past it has been prone to flooding (I remember one year in particular, probably around 1973 or 74, when several nearby streets were closed because of it), but some work has been carried out in recent years to reduce this.

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River Pinn, Kings College Fields

In the centre of Ruislip it flows through a fairly narrow strip of green space, with a pleasant walk alongside it, and to the east through the open spaces of King’s College Playing Fields (named for the former owners of the land in this part of Ruislip). This walk is part of the longer Celandine Walk, which follows the entire length of the river. But even if you don’t want to do the longer walk, a stroll by the river is a relaxing way to spend an hour or so in Ruislip.

Ruislip Woods

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Park Wood

Ruislip may be largely a built-up area today but a significant vestige of its rural roots remains in the large tract of woodland to its north. This is the largest block of ancient semi-natural woodland in Greater London and is important enough to have been designated a National Nature Reserve.

These woods are the remnant of ancient woodland after land was cleared for settlement and crops in medieval times. They consist of four separate woods: Park Wood, Copse Wood, Mad Bess Wood and Bayhurst Wood. The woods were mention in the Domesday Book of 1086, when they provided foraging for pigs and timber for building and firewood. Later, timber from these woods was used in the construction of the Tower of London in 1339, Windsor Castle in 1344, the Palace of Westminster in 1346 and the manor of the Black Prince in Kennington. They were coppiced on rotation throughout the years with the timber sold to local tanneries. By the time King's College took ownership of the manor, after it was confiscated from the Abbey, the woods were let for sport, with pheasants kept for shooting.

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Park Wood

Today the woods are crisscrossed with footpaths and bridleways, and many locals (and some from further afield) enjoy walking and riding here. There is a large variety of tree, plant and animal species. The most common trees are hornbeam, oak and beech – in particular, the mixture of hornbeam and beech in Bayhurst Wood is considered unusual. The information board below gives some idea of the extent of the woods still standing here.

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Sign in Park Wood

Modernist houses

In Park Avenue, near the woods, a row of three houses stands out from the rest. A whole estate of these Modernist style houses was planed for this part of Ruislip, but these three were the only ones to have been built. They were designed by the partnership of Connell, Ward & Lucas and completed between 1935 and 1938. They are now Grade II listed, meaning that they are considered of special architectural and historic interest.

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Modernist houses in Park Avenue

The Polish War Memorial

If a local is giving you driving directions to Ruislip it is quite likely that they will tell you to leave the main A40 road out of London ‘at the Polish War Memorial’. This impressive memorial has stood at this junction since 1948 when it was erected to commemorate the contribution of the Polish Air Force to the Allied victory in the Second World War, and to honour those who died. Many of those Polish airmen had been based at nearby Northolt Airport, and many chose to stay on in west London after the war, not wanting to return home to Soviet-occupied Poland.

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The Polish War Memorial

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The memorial was designed by Mieczysław Lubelski, who had been interned in a concentration camp during the war. It is made from Portland stone and Polish granite, with bronze lettering and a bronze eagle, the symbol of the Polish Air Force.

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I hope you have enjoyed this little wander through my one-time home - a typical and unremarkable London suburb at first glance, but with plenty of history for those who seek it out.

Posted by ToonSarah 06:03 Archived in England Tagged churches buildings trees architecture london history river houses woods family world_war_two Comments (18)

At the edge of England

Dungeness

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On the beach at Dungeness

As I said in the introduction to this blog, I plan to mix entries from recent outings and those taken some time ago, and to mix entries on London with some from further afield in the UK. So today we are on a short visit to the Kent coast.

For those who like a coastline to be photogenic rather than picturesque, and who are more interested in exploring than lying on a beach, Dungeness is close to perfect. But don’t come here expecting to swim, to eat ice cream and to make sandcastles. Dungeness is for fishermen, walkers, photographers and lovers of the wild and windswept. Oh, and it just happens to be Britain’s only desert – yes, really!

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Old fishing boats, Dungeness

We visited on a chilly but bright February day and we spent a couple of hours wandering around and taking photos. We were on our way to visit friends so couldn’t stay long enough to go to the nearby RSBP nature reserve, so that will have to wait for another day.

There’s lots more we didn’t have time for too, or weren’t able to visit because our timing was wrong. There’s an old lighthouse to be climbed (closed in the winter), fish and chips to be eaten at what has to be one of the more unusually-located pubs in the country, a lifeboat station to be visited and an old narrow-gauge railway to ride (but not in January or February). We will definitely have to return.

Houses at Dungeness

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Houses in Dungeness

Scattered almost at random across the shingle banks are a number of houses. Some are little more than shacks, others more sizeable, and a few are quite attractive, up-market looking homes. Many of the more down-to-earth properties are owned by local fishermen and you’ll see their boats pulled up on the shingle alongside. Others are the homes of artists who are drawn by the unique light and atmosphere. Some of the smarter ones are holiday homes, some of which can be rented. Many of the houses are made from old railway carriages, abandoned here when the old South Eastern Railway Marshlink line stopped serving Dungeness in 1937. You can still see the track in places too, and part of it has been repurposed as a freight only line to serve the power station.

Unusually (in England at least) there is for the most part no distinct boundary to these properties which sit amongst the shingle. Their age and unusual design makes some of the more characterful of them ideal for photography, but remember that they are private property and keep a respectful distance – just because there isn’t a fence or wall, it doesn’t mean you should be peering in through the windows!

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On the beach at Dungeness

Along with the fishing boats, random bits of disused railway track and assorted rusting metal objects whose former use I could only guess at, the old houses and shacks made for some very satisfying photography and we spent a happy hour or so wandering around to get the most interesting viewpoints.

Prospect Cottage

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Prospect Cottage, Dungeness

While we were exploring the headland we were always on the lookout for what is probably the most famous house here, Prospect Cottage, the former home of the late artist and film director Derek Jarman. We didn’t see any sign so I decided to do a Google search on my phone to check where it was, and as soon as I saw a photo we realised we had parked right next to it!

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Prospect Cottage, Dungeness
- poem by John Donne

The house is quite striking, being of very dark tarred wood with cheerful yellow window frames. On a side wall raised letters form a quotation from a poem by John Donne, ‘The Sun Rising’:

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Prospect Cottage

‘Busie old foole, unruly Sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains, call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run?
Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
Late school-boys and sour prentices,
Go tell court-huntsmen that the king will ride,
Call country ants to harvest offices;
Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.

Thou, Sun, art half as happy as we,
In that the world’s contracted thus;
Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be
To warm the world, that’s done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere;
This bed thy centre is, these walls thy sphere.’

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Prospect Cottage garden

But the house is best known for its garden, made with pebbles, driftwood, scrap metal and a few plants hardy enough to withstand the bleak climate. The garden carried lots of meaning and was very important to Jarman. He had retreated to Dungeness, drawn by its desolation, and used it as the setting for a film, “The Last of England”, an allegory on the social and sexual inequalities in England under Margaret Thatcher. He had been diagnosed as HIV positive and started to campaign on gay rights while throwing his energies into the creation of this garden using plants that grow naturally in this environment and found objects.

The garden featured in his 1989 film ‘War Requiem’, and the next year was the focal point of ‘The Garden’ (which he described as, ‘a parable about the cruel and unnecessary perversion of innocence’), serving as both the Garden of Eden and that at Gethsemane.

Lighthouses old and new

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Dungeness lighthouses

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Distant view of the High Light Tower

This headland, though not rocky, sticks out into the English Channel and thus poses a danger to ships and sailors, so warning lights are needed. The first lighthouse was erected here in 1615, replacing a simple beacon. It was probably made of wood and had a coal fire at the top – which sounds a bit risky! As the sea retreated a new one was needed nearer the water’s edge, so in 1635 a replacement, known as Lamplough's Tower, was built.

But the sea continued to retreat, and more shingle was piled up on the headland, so in 1792 a third lighthouse was built. This was taller, at 35 metres, and was painted black with a white band, colours that are still used on today’s lighthouse. The light was powered with oil, though in the 1860s this lighthouse was chosen by Trinity House to pioneer the use of electricity, which however proved too expensive at that time. This third lighthouse lasted until 1904, when it was demolished (though some associated buildings, such as the keeper’s cottage, still remain).

The so-called Dungeness High Light Tower was built to replace it and was first lit on 31st March 1904, almost 110 years before our visit in February 2014. It was opened by the then Prince of Wales, later George V and its light, flashing every 10 seconds, could be seen from about 18 miles away.

This one still stands but is no longer in use, though it is possible to visit and to climb to the top for (I have read) great views of the headland. Unfortunately it was still closed for the winter when we were here so we couldn’t visit. Details of opening hours etc are on the website.

When the Dungeness Power Station was built in the late 1950s / early 1960s it blocked the view of the lighthouse from the sea, so this fourth one was decommissioned and a fifth built closer to the water’s edge, which opened in November 1961. This one is automatic in operation (that is, it needs no keeper) and is still in use today. In my photo above the old High Light Tower can be seen on the left, next to the power station, and the new lighthouse on the right.

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The new lighthouse

RSPB Reserve

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At the RSPB Reserve

The RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) has a nature reserve at Dungeness, located just before the land turns into shingle. We ran out of time to explore this properly, only stopping for a few photos by the roadside, but it seems to be such a worthwhile place to visit that I am including a mention of it here. You can find out all about it and see what’s happening at the time of your visit on the website.

As you’d expect given who runs it, the emphasis is on the local birdlife which is very varied. Many water species are attracted to these wetlands and there are hides from which to watch them and trails to follow. There are also special guided walks and events, all listed on the website.

Posted by ToonSarah 07:43 Archived in England Tagged beaches boats coast history houses lighthouse photography Comments (9)

Exploring Rotherhithe

London

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River view from Rotherhithe

In my previous entry I promised to write more about Rotherhithe. On that occasion we skipped exploring this area as we had visited just a few years ago with my Virtual Tourist friend Regina. But there is plenty to see in this small corner of London, as I hope to show you now.

The Brunel Museum

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The Brunel Museum

This small museum in Rotherhithe tells the story of the building of the Thames Tunnel by two of England’s greatest and best known engineers – Marc Brunel and his son Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The museum is located in the engine house built in 1842 to accommodate steam engines that drove the pumps to keep the Thames Tunnel dry.

When it first opened in 1843 the Thames Tunnel was described as the Eighth Wonder of the World. It was the first tunnel to be built with a tunneling shield under a navigable river and became an overnight tourist attraction. In those early days of the explosion of engineering techniques, every new achievement was a minor miracle and to the Victorians who flocked here the sight of the tunnel disappearing under the river would have been as impressive as the photos we see from outer space are to us – perhaps more so, because they could themselves walk through the tunnel whereas we can only marvel at the depths of the universe on TV or on our computer screens!

As I looked at the old pictures and read about the tunnel I imagined how those who visited must have felt. Were they scared to walk under the river for the first time or just excited?

The website explains, ‘On opening day 50,000 people walked through the tunnel paying a penny each. Within the first ten weeks 1,000,000 people had walked through. These were staggering numbers that any attraction would be delighted with today but bear in mind this was 1843 when the population of London was 2,000,000 people.’

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In the Brunel Museum

But this was never intended to be a tourist attraction, but rather a working transport link to carry cargo under the river and relieve the busy ferries. A bridge wasn’t practical here, as it would have to be very tall to allow sailing ships to pass underneath (and the technology to raise and lower a bridge did not yet exist). So Brunel proposed a tunnel and developed a special technique, using a tunneling shield to support the tunnel’s walls and roof. You can read more about how the tunnel was built, and all the difficulties they experienced, on the museum’s website.

However, the ramps needed to allow carts to pass through were never built, as the money ran out, so it remained a tourist novelty for a while. Later it was used for trains, and in recent years it has been reopened for use by a London Overground extension (yes, I know tunneling under the Thames isn’t exactly ‘over ground’ but that’s the name of the network!)

The museum has some interesting old pictures of the tunnel during and after construction, and informative panels about the work, as well as the lives of the two Brunels. But it isn’t large and you can see more or less everything in 15 minutes or so. When you’ve finished you can browse the bookshop (also small), have a drink in the café (ditto) or simply relax in the small square in which the museum sits. In this square you will see the shaft dug by Brunel to access the tunnel works, which after the tunnel was completed was turned into the Rotherhithe Grand Entrance Hall. It can’t be visited except on one of the museum’s twice weekly guided walks. Oh, and check out the benches in the square which are shaped like some of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s bridges.

Rotherhithe Picture Research Library (Sands Films)

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In Rotherhithe Picture Research Library

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Through a window

This is an amazing place – a treasure trove of images to support anyone researching costume, accessories, furniture and interiors etc. for plays or films. The collection consists of thousands of large loosely bound books classified by themes, countries and historical periods. There is a large collection of period costumes for hire which are regularly used by film companies, and also a costume workshop. The website lists many films and TV productions which have used costumes from Sands Films.

Now, almost certainly you are not a film, TV or theatre researcher, costume designer or similar! But don’t let that put you off visiting. For one thing, the building that houses it itself oozes history – a granary dating back to 1784, with thick wooden beams bleached by age holding up a rickety ceiling. For another, interspersed among the work desks and shelves of books are panels showing examples of embroidery and costume that were created from images held here, including slippers worn by Keira Knightly in ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and a waistcoat from the film ‘Young Victoria displayed alongside the original from which it was faithfully copied.

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Keira Knightly's slippers

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Young Victoria waistcoat -
original on the left, copy on the right

I think however that these exhibits were there on a long-term but not permanent basis when we visited (the website then referred to them being ‘currently’ on display, with no dates specified) so if you are going just to see these, check first. However I would recommend a visit in any case as it’s an intriguing space in its own right.

St Mary the Virgin church

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Plaque on the church wall

Unfortunately on several different visits we have been unable to go inside this historic church, as the doors have always been locked, but I can share some information here nevertheless. The church is closely associated with the Pilgrim Fathers. Some of the pilgrims first went aboard the Mayflower when it was moored on the Thames a short distance from here, and the Master of the Ship, Christopher Jones, was from Rotherhithe. His children were baptised at St Mary's and his body buried in the churchyard, although the exact spot isn’t known. The tablet commemorating the 250th anniversary of his burial is inside the church so I have never seen it. But there is a blue plaque on the outside of the tower. This was unveiled on Thanksgiving Day (25th November) 2004 by a descendant of the Pilgrim Fathers. You will see such plaques all over London – they indicate that someone of note once lived in the building, or in another building on the same site.

The plaque reads:

Sailing of the Mayflower
In 1620 the Mayflower sailed from
Rotherhithe on the first stage of
its epic voyage to America

In command was Captain
Christopher Jones
of Rotherhithe

The church was built in 1715 but has naturally changed a lot over the years. The photos of the interior on the website show that the old box pews and galleries that were the norm back then were removed as part of the late 19th century ‘modernisation’ of the church, but the ceiling and pillars especially seem to retain something of the elegance of that earlier age.

There is a striking modern sculpture in the churchyard. It isn’t labelled, and the church website makes no mention of it, but fortunately Google came up with the answer as to what it is – a memorial to the master of the Mayflower, Captain Christopher Jones, which was sculpted in 1995 by Jamie Sargeant. A stylised figure of St Christopher looks back to the Old World while the child in his arms looks forward to its future in the New.

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St Mary's church, and memorial to Captain Jones

The Bluecoat School

Opposite the church is the building that once housed the charity school associated with it. This is one of a number of bluecoat schools in London. The name comes from the costume formerly worn by the pupils. These schools date back to Tudor times and the long blue coat is a relic of the ordinary attire of schoolboys and apprentices of that time. Blue was a favoured colour for charity school children because in Tudor and Stuart times it was the cheapest available dye for clothing. Blue-dyed materials were economical, implying a humble status, and they were therefore avoided by gentlemen and the aristocracy.

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The Bluecoat School

The photo above was taken in 2013. If you compare it with the more recent one in my previous entry in this blog, London Bridge to Rotherhithe, and the one below, you will see that the statues have been restored in the meantime, and the girl has lost her white apron!

The plaque on the building reads:
‘ST MARY ROTHERHITHE
FREE SCHOOL founded by Peter Hill and Robert Bell in 1613.
CHARITY SCHOOL instituted 1742
Removed here 1797.
Supported by Voluntary Contributions’

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The Bluecoat girl today

Peter Hill was a master mariner to teach eight children, ‘sons of seafaring men'. Robert Bell was a friend of the rector of that time. Hill lived to the age of 80 and when he died left a bequest of £3 a year to the master, which was supplemented through church collections. A late 19th century rector of the parish, the Reverend Edward Beck, recalled that,

‘The Churchwardens stood at the church door at the close of the service with a Charity boy and girl at their side clothed in the quaint dress of the time, and a goodly collection was gathered in the old painted plates bearing the inscription “Remember the poor Charity children for God’s sake and your own.”’

He also described how the 40 boys and 25 girls who attended the school at that time were clothed yearly and ‘taught the principles of the Christian religion’. All were taught to read and write, and boys were taught to ‘cast accounts’, while girls were taught to knit and sew. One of the Girls would be taken into the School House, lodged, boarded and instructed in household work, ‘in order to render her more completely fit for service’.

Either side of the plaque you can see the typical statues of children, a boy and a girl, dressed in their blue uniforms, which distinguish these schools. This building is today used as offices, but some bluecoat schools still remain as such. Nowadays though, most of these establishments are bluecoat schools in name only, having long ago abandoned the cassock-like bluecoats, knee breeches and stockings in favour of a more modern uniform. However, a number of schools still retain the traditional bluecoat costume for special occasions, and pupils at the most famous bluecoat school of all, Christ's Hospital (in Sussex), wear it at all times, keeping alive a tradition that dates back to the mid 16th century.

The Mayflower pub

This cosy little pub claims to be the oldest on the Thames! It is certainly old, having been established in 1621, just a year after the Pilgrim Fathers left on their historic voyage. Although it is well known that they sailed from Plymouth, and named their new settlement after that town, not everyone knows that their first departure point was Rotherhithe, very near this pub – hence the name, the Mayflower.

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The Mayflower pub, and its wind vane

The pub’s website explains:

‘In July 1620, the Mayflower ship took on board 65 passengers from its London homeport of Rotherhithe on the River Thames. Rumour has it that Captain Christopher Jones cunningly moored here to avoid paying taxes further down the river. The Mayflower journeyed onwards to Southampton for supplies and to rendezvous with the Speedwell but after many delays, false starts and a devastating leak, the Speedwell’s journey with The Mayflower was abandoned. On 6th September 1620, Captain Jones, along with 102 passengers and approximately 30 crew members, set sail from Plymouth on what William Bradford described as "a prosperous wind”.

After sighting land on 11th November, 1620, strong winter seas forced the Rotherhithe captain to anchor at Cape Cod, much further North than the original destination of Virginia. To establish legal order in their new homeland the settlers agreed, whilst on-board, to write and sign "The Mayflower Compact"; the first written framework of government in what is now the United States.

Captain Jones later returned to London on the Mayflower, arriving at the home port of Rotherhithe on 6th May 1621. He died less than a year later and was buried at St. Mary's church in Rotherhithe, close to the mooring point of the Mayflower where she lay to rest in the Thames, no longer useful as a ship.’

The pub has a welcoming if small interior for chilly days (there was a real fire when we last visited in poor weather) and an outside garden terrace overlooking the river, although space in the latter is at a premium when the sun shines, especially at weekends.

The Sunbeam Weekly and the Pilgrim’s Pocket

Near the Thames in Rotherhithe is this intriguing sculpture. If you like your art to tell a story, this one is for you. Created by Peter McClean’s in 1991, it shows a 17th century pilgrim such as might have sailed with the Mayflower. He is looking over the shoulder of a newsboy who is reading a 1930s paper, the Sunbeam Weekly, which tells the story of the Mayflower and also of modern America – look out for the Statue of Liberty and Empire State Building among the ‘illustrations’, along with cars, a train and a plane, a rodeo rider and more.

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The Sunbeam Weekly and the Pilgrim’s Pocket

At their feet a Staffordshire terrier begs for attention. Be sure to look in the pilgrim’s pocket – the sculptor has created a little joke, as he carries a London A-Z atlas dated 1620, as well as a crucifix and (inexplicably, to me at least) a lobster’s claw!

Surrey Quays

The nearest station to this area is unsurprisingly Rotherhithe, part of the London Overground network. But a short walk south will bring you to Canada Water, a Tube station (Jubilee line). If you decide on this route you can take a short detour to the east to pick up the paths that follow the waterside of Surrey Quays.

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Bridge, Surrey Quays

London’s docklands have changed so much in recent years, and Surrey Quays are a good example of those changes. Everyone knows the tall skyscrapers of Canary Wharf but this quiet residential area is also Docklands. Until 1970 this was the site of the Surrey Commercial Docks – so called because this was once the border between the counties of Surrey and Kent. Many would have liked the area to retain the name of Surrey Docks, but perhaps those who developed the site and built the pleasant-looking family houses that line its waterways felt that ‘Quays’ sounded less industrial?

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Surrey Quays

Whatever the reason, they’ve created a tranquil corner of London where I imagine it is a pleasure to live. The canals have something of a look of Amsterdam, with their distinctive bridges. But the ducks are those you will see on any park lake in England – mainly mallards, coots and moorhens, and I also once spotted a couple of tufted ducks and another species I couldn’t identify.

And look at the cute duck houses that sit on one stretch of water.

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Duck house, Surrey Quays

The names of other docks in this area reflected the many countries with which England traded, their ships arriving regularly in the Port of London to off-load their goods and pick up others – Greenland Dock, Russia Dock, Canada Water. A walk around this part of London will conjure up the ghosts of a very different city, when trade by sea drove the economy of the capital rather than trade in currencies and stocks.

Canada Water Library

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You may not want to necessarily visit a library while in London, and in any case would not need to travel so far from the centre to do so, but if you’re at all interested in modern architecture and the design of public buildings, this one is worth the detour. It naturally has everything you would expect of a modern library – plenty of computer access, wifi, study space, a small café, and of course books.

But what makes it stand out is its design, which was carefully thought out to make the most of the water-side setting while compensating for the fact that the space allocated to the library in this development was rather smaller than the local council (Southwark) would have liked. The architect’s solution? To build an inverted pyramid, so that the upper floors could be larger than the small ground floor footprint of the building. This design makes for a striking building from outside, and when you get inside, the beautiful curved staircase is just as striking.

If you’re interested in the history of the old docks in this part of London the top floor has a series of panels on the wall which tell the story. But bear in mind that this is the quiet study area of the library, so you’ll need to explore in relative silence.

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In Canada Water Library

The café has lovely views of the water outside and would make a good place in which to relax before making the journey back to the centre of town from the nearby Tube station.

Posted by ToonSarah 01:48 Archived in England Tagged churches architecture london water monument history river houses museum sculpture libraries Comments (6)

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