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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)

Britain’s maritime legacy

Greenwich

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View over Greenwich and beyond

When people ask on forums where they might go on a day trip within easy reach of central London I often suggest that they look no further than Greenwich.

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River view from a Clipper

It offers history in abundance, elegant buildings, fascinating museums, an attractive market, bars and restaurants to suit all tastes – all in a lovely riverside setting. And to crown it all, you can stand on the Greenwich Meridian, from which the world’s time and all east/west distances are measured.

You can travel to Greenwich by water (river bus or sightseeing cruise) or rail in less than an hour from central London. And a day wouldn’t be enough to see and do everything here, so you will be spoiled for choice.

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Greenwich Pier

My own favourite way to travel is by Clipper, the river buses that ply the Thames. They cost a fraction of the tourist sightseeing cruises and while you don’t get the commentary that those offer you don’t pay their high prices either. You can catch the boats from several points including on the South Bank (near the London Eye) and by the Tower of London.

Seating on board is plentiful (maybe less so during the rush hour) and there is a snack bar where you can buy coffees, beer and wine, crisps and chocolate etc. The boats are fully wheelchair accessible and there are accessible toilets on board. All in all, this is a very comfortable way to travel.

The boats arrive at a pier right next to the famous Cutty Sark, so that’s as good a place as any to start our explorations.

The Cutty Sark

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The Cutty Sark

This beautiful ship was built in Scotland in 1869 as a tea clipper – the fast sailing ships which brought tea from China to Europe. Every season merchants competed to be the first with the new crops by employing the fastest ships, so the Cutty Sark was designed for speed – her owner John Willis had ambitions for her to be the swiftest of all the clippers. Between 1870 and 1878 she made eight voyages between London and Shanghai, taking manufactured goods and wine, spirits and beer to be sold in China and returning with her precious cargo of tea. But she never did win that annual race to be first with the new season’s tea.

By the end of that decade steamships had started to dominate the tea trade as they were able to use the newly opened Suez Canal (sailing ships needed to stay in the open sea to get the trade winds). So the Cutty Sark started to take different cargoes around the world: coal from Nagasaki in Japan to Shanghai; jute from Manila to New York; and jute, castor oil, tea and the Australian mail from Calcutta to Melbourne in March 1881. The 1880s and ‘90s saw her mainly carrying wool from Australia, and she established herself as the fastest vessel, the ‘last chance’ ship to make the English wool sales each January. But steamships moved into this trade too. For a while the Cutty Sark was under Portuguese ownership, sailing between Oporto, Rio, New Orleans and Lisbon, before returning to Britain in 1923 when she was bought by Wilfred Dowman who restored the ship to a close approximation of her appearance as a tea and wool clipper. She was used as a training ship for cadets but her condition and usefulness gradually declined. In 1954 however she was taken over by the National Maritime Museum who brought her to Greenwich where she has remained ever since.

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The Cutty Sark seen in the distance from a Greenwich street

She sits in a dry dock here, as she has done since she was towed here. Initially restored then, and opened to the public, she was again thoroughly restored between 2006 and 2012, a process that was held back for a while by a major fire. Luckily some of her most ornate parts, such as the figurehead, were not on board at the time because of the restoration process, so these escaped the blaze.

It is some years since I was on board, but I remember especially the large collection of figureheads which fascinated me as a child and continued to do so as an adult. These date mainly from the 19th century and came from a variety of merchant vessels. They portray characters from history, legend and literature, such as Florence Nightingale, Elizabeth Fry, William Wilberforce, Disraeli, Hiawatha and Sir Lancelot. The Royal Museums of Greenwich website explains more:

‘Figureheads are carved wooden sculptures which decorate the prow of a sailing ship, and were thought to represent the vessel’s spirit. It was believed that they offered the crew protection from the harsh seas and safeguarded their homeward journey. The figureheads were also used to identify a ship—one of a range of subjects would be chosen, reflecting the name of the ship from mid-18th century onwards.

The figureheads in The Cutty Sark Collection were produced by professional figurehead carvers, who lived and worked by the docks. Hard woods, such as oak or teak, were used and might have been treated with resins to increase the figure’s resistance to water, rot and wear. They were lovingly cared for by the crew, who took great pride in the appearance of their ship and its figurehead. The superstitions of seamen meant that the figurehead held great significance to those on board and they would go to great lengths to protect it.’

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The Cutty Sark figurehead on a stormy day

The Cutty Sark’s own figurehead is a young witch named ‘Nannie’ who was a character in the poem 'Tam O'Shanter', by the famous Scottish poet Robert Burns. In this poem the witch chases Tam dressed only a ‘cutty sark’—an archaic Scottish name for a short nightdress. You can read the full story on the Maritime Museum’s website.

Old Royal Naval College

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The Royal Naval College

The river bank in Greenwich is dominated by the stunningly elegant buildings of the Old Royal Naval College. And don’t just take my word for it – UNESCO described this as the ‘finest and most dramatically sited architectural and landscape ensemble in the British Isles’!

The buildings were the work of Sir Christopher Wren, who designed St Paul’s Cathedral and many of the City’s churches. One look at the domes that crown the main buildings tells you that – they are so reminiscent of his most famous work. They were built between 1696 and 1712 to house the Greenwich Hospital, a home for disabled sailors, on the site of the former Greenwich Palace. The latter was a Tudor royal palace – the out-of-town pleasure palace of Henry VII and Henry VIII. Queen Elizabeth I was born here and loved it too, but under the Stuarts it fell into disuse and, by the middle of the 17th century, into disrepair.

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More views of the Royal Naval College

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The domes are very reminiscent of St Paul's Cathedral, Wren's most famous work

The new buildings were the naval equivalent of the Chelsea Hospital for retired soldiers. Wren gave his services free of charge, as did his assistant Nicholas Hawksmoor, because of the charitable nature of the project. His design was the result of restrictions imposed by the then queen, Queen Mary II, who didn’t want her view of the river from the Queen’s House to be blocked – hence the division into two main blocks and the consequent very pleasing symmetry. You can see in my photo below how the Queen’s House, nearer the camera, can peep between these two blocks to see the river beyond.

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The Queen's House and Royal Naval College from the park

Greenwich Hospital was closed in 1869 as with more peaceful times there were fewer seamen in need of the facility. The buildings were taken over by the Royal Naval College which needed to expand from its original Portsmouth base. For over 100 years sailors trained here, at first just men and then from 1939 onwards, women from the Women’s Royal Naval Service – the so-called WRENS. In later years there was even a training facility for nuclear-powered submarines which necessitated a small nuclear reactor on the site (unknown to local residents in Greenwich who might not have been keen to have such a thing on their doorstep). The college closed in 1998 as the numbers in the Navy were declining and sailors could now be trained alongside their Army and Air Force equivalents in the Joint Service College at Shrivenham.

Today the college is maintained and run by a charitable foundation which provides access to the three main attractions, the Discover Greenwich Visitor Centre, Painted Hall and Chapel. All are open daily with free admission, and there are also regular events held here. Even if you aren’t coming to see any particular sight or attend any event, a stroll around the grounds is a real pleasure, especially on a sunny day when the architecture is to be seen at its best and the river sparkles in the background.

The Painted Hall at the Royal Naval College

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The Painted Hall

This hall is one of my favourite sights in Greenwich, and I never tire of introducing visitors to its glories (although on my most recent visit that wasn’t possible as it was undergoing major restoration during the summer of 2018). It was built by Wren to serve as the dining room for the naval veterans. After its completion in 1703 James Thornhill was commissioned to paint the walls and ceiling, and instructed to include many references to the importance of the navy in Britain’s fortunes.

Thornhill was paid only £3 per square yard for the ceiling, and just £1 per square yard for the walls. However, he did receive a knighthood in 1720 (the first English artist to receive this honour) and is generally considered to have created the finest painted architectural interior by an English artist. The work took him 19 years and as a result of his achievement here the Painted Hall was felt to be now far too grand for its intended purpose! Instead it became a visitor attraction - one of London’s first tourist attractions in fact. ‘Respectable’ visitors were admitted for 3d (the equivalent of about £1.80) and could hire one of the resident Pensioners to give them a guided tour.

It was also a place for significant events to be held. For instance, in 1806, 3 months after the Battle of Trafalgar, the body of Horatio Nelson was brought to lie in state here. A side room today is devoted to Nelson memorabilia. Between 1824 and 1936 it was home to a naval art gallery, displaying about 300 naval-themed paintings.

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Domed ceiling in the entrance of the Painted Hall

But back to Thornhill and his artistic masterpiece. On my first visit here, a few years ago now, I realised that I had seen the hall some weeks earlier in a BBC history programme about the Georgian monarchs, but had not registered then where it was. A happy coincidence, as I was able to recall some interesting information from the programme to share with our weekend guests. Well, I thought it was interesting! If you would also like to know more about the paintings (and don’t have the ‘benefit’ of my half-remembered explanations!) you can book a place on the daily tour (free, at 11.15 am) or pick up a leaflet for just 50 pence. This will explain all the scenes and the mythology and symbolism attached to them. On the main ceiling, for instance:

‘Enthroned in heaven are King William and Queen Mary. Above, the sun god Apollo sheds his light, while Peace, with her doves and lambs, hands an olive branch to William. He in turn hands the red cap of liberty to the kneeling figure of Europe.’

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William and Mary

On the ceiling of the upper hall is Queen Anne, the last of the Stuart monarchs. The TV programme I saw pointed out that Thornhill had relegated the old regime to the ceilings and in doing that had portrayed them as aloof and out of reach of ordinary people.

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George I and family

In contrast, the new king, George I, is shown on the far wall of this upper hall as a family man, surrounded by his children and grandchildren. Appearances are deceptive however; the truth is that he and his oldest son, also called George, hated each other, and there is a hint of this in the posing of the two figures, as the younger George turns pointedly away from his father (wearing a blue cloak towards the lower right corner of my photo). Also notable is the man standing in that bottom right corner by the pillar looking out at the viewer, as this is Thornhill himself.

Royal Naval College chapel

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The Chapel at the Royal Naval College

Facing the Painted Hall across a lawn is its symmetrical partner, the chapel dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul. Its neoclassical interior was the work of James ‘Athenian’ Stuart and William Newton, and is considered one of Britain's finest 18th century interiors.

The intricate mouldings of the ceiling are picked out in Wedgewood blue, a restful contrast to the splendours of the Painted Hall’s decoration. It was designed by the master plasterer John Papworth and its intricate central ornaments carved, rather than cast in moulds.

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Chapel ceiling

Much of the rest of the decoration follows a maritime theme, appropriate for the worshippers for whom it was built, the inhabitants of the Royal Hospital for Seamen. There is a ship’s anchor design in the centre of the black and white floor and wood carvings on the pews that resemble ropes.

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Showing the painting above the altar

The painting above the altar is by an American artist, Benjamin West. It depicts St. Paul on the island of Malta, where he miraculously survived being bitten by a snake. According to the account in the Acts of the Apostles, the weather was cold and wet, and the Maltese showed their hospitality by lighting a fire for Paul. As he gathered firewood, and laid it on the fire, a viper attached itself to his hand. He shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill-effects from the bite.

Various monuments in the vestibule commemorate the achievements of great sea-farers. Of these the most prominent is the marble Franklin Memorial which commemorates Sir John Franklin and the crews of the ships Erebus and Terror who lost their lives in the famous ill-fated 1845 expedition searching for the North West Passage.

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Detail of the Franklin Memorial, and statue of Charity

Also in the vestibule are four statues representing the virtues of Faith, Hope, Charity, and Meekness. My photo is of the statue of Charity. An inscription on the base of the statue reads: 'Whosoever shall give to drink unto one of these little ones a cup of cold water only in the name of a disciple, verily I say unto you, he shall in no wise lose his reward.'

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Carving details in the chapel

National Maritime Museum

This museum is located in a wing that had been added to the Royal Naval School in the 19th century, which was converted for its new purpose after the college left Greenwich in 1933, being finally completed only in 1951 (delayed no doubt by the war). It also has a new wing, the Sammy Ofer Wing, added in 2011 to house special exhibitions, a café and a library.

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The National Maritime Museum

The museum tells the story of the history of Britain at sea, including maritime art, maps and map-making, ship models and plans, scientific and navigational instruments. Its separate wing at the Greenwich Observatory focuses on time-keeping and astronomy. The children’s gallery has lots of hands-on fun, including loading cargo, a galley where you can ‘prepare food’ and a canon to shoot at a pirate ship. Other galleries cover a range of sea-faring themes including exploration, naval warfare and trade. One area focuses on maritime London, looking at life on the Thames, the growth of the docklands and how institutions like Lloyd’s of London and the Baltic Exchange were formed. Another celebrates the life of Lord Nelson and victory in the Battle of Trafalgar.

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Figureheads collection

I particularly like the display of ships’ figureheads dating from the 18th and 19th centuries, when the art of carving these was at its height. In the same area is the gilded state barge which was built for Frederick, Prince of Wales in 1732.

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Details of Prince Frederick's Barge

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Prince Frederick's Barge, and statue of William IV outside the museum

There’s a pleasant café here too (at the rear), with outside tables which afford a lovely view of Greenwich Park – worth a refreshment stop even if you aren’t visiting the museum. While here, have a look at (well, you won’t be able to miss!) Yinka Shonibare’s ‘Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle’. This was originally commissioned by the Greater London Authority for the Fourth Plinth project and was unveiled in Trafalgar Square in May 2010. It now has a permanent home here outside the Sammy Ofer Wing.

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Nelson's Ship in a Bottle

The Queen’s House

The Queen’s House was designed by Inigo Jones, who had studied Roman and Renaissance architecture in Italy, and is considered England’s first Classical building. His design reflects the Renaissance ideals of mathematical, classical proportion and harmony – for example the Great Hall here is a perfect cube. Much of its original splendour has been lost over the centuries, but you can still see the ceiling of the Queen’s Bedchamber painted in the ‘grotesque’ style, the wrought-iron balustrade of the Tulip Stairs (which was the first centrally unsupported spiral staircase in Britain), the painted woodwork of the Great Hall and its impressive geometrically-patterned black and white marble floor.

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The Queen's House

The house was built for Anne of Denmark, the wife of James I, who wanted a pavilion at Greenwich to serve as a place of private retreat and hospitality. The story is that the king gave it to her as a gift to apologise for swearing in front of her after she had accidentally killed one of his favourite dogs during a hunt. She however died before it could be finished and work only restarted when James's son Charles I gave Greenwich to his queen, Henrietta Maria. It was finished in 1638.

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A ceiling in the Queen's House

The house is supposedly haunted and a famous ‘photograph of a ghost’ was taken on the Tulip Staircase. You can see this photo and read all about it on the website: https://www.rmg.co.uk/see-do/we-recommend/attractions/queens-house-ghost

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The Tulip Staircase in the Queen's House

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Another view of the staircase, and a decorative detail

The house holds a significant collection of paintings, including works by Gainsborough, Hogarth and Reynolds among others. One highlight is the Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I, which has recently been restored to reveal the original colours after centuries of dirt and discoloration. It portrays the queen as a ruler in command of the seas and has been instrumental in shaping our vision of her.

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The Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I

The Queen’s House website explains:

‘Like many Tudor portraits, it is packed with meaning and metaphor. Elizabeth’s upright posture, open arms and clear gaze speak of vitality and strength. She is draped in pearls – symbols of chastity and the Moon.

Numerous suns are embroidered in gold on her skirt and sleeves, to signify power and enlightenment. She rests her hand on a globe, with her fingers over the New World, and above can be seen a covered imperial crown: both signal her potency as a ruler, not just of England but also as a monarch with overseas ambitions.’

The Royal Observatory

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The Royal Observatory's Flamsteed House on the hill

Crowning the hill that forms Greenwich Park is the Royal Observatory and the nearby Planetarium. The original part of the observatory is Flamsteed House (1675–76), which was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and was the first purpose-built scientific research facility in Britain. The ‘Time and Longitude’ gallery tells the story of the quest to find longitude at sea in the age before satellite navigation. You can also see the Astronomers Royal's apartments and the Octagon Room designed for the observation of celestial events such as eclipses, comets and planetary movements.

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The Royal Observatory South Building

On top of Flamsteed House is one of the world's earliest public time signals, the bright red Time Ball, which is visible from some distance as my photo above attests. This was added to signal the time to ships on the Thames and to Londoners in general. It was first used in 1833 and still operates today. Every day at 12.55 the time ball rises half way up its mast; at 12.58 it rises all the way to the top; and at 13.00 exactly, the ball falls, thus providing a signal to anyone who happens to be looking. Of course, you need to know to be looking, so you have to have a rough idea of the time already for this to be of help!

In front of Flamsteed House is the Meridian Courtyard. Here you can stand on the world-famous Greenwich Meridian Line, which represents the Prime Meridian of the World, 0º of longitude. Every spot on Earth is measured in terms of its distance east or west from this line, which divides the eastern and western hemispheres of the Earth just as the Equator divides the northern and southern ones.

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The set of measures

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Standing on the Meridian Line

It has always seemed a bit unfair to me that you have to pay for this, probably because (puts on ‘grumpy old woman’ voice) when I was a child you could enter the courtyard and stand on the line freely. So I was gratified on a recent visit to find that you don't have to go far to be able do just that. If you look to the right of the courtyard gate (through which everyone will be peering for a glimpse of the line) you will see an old clock on the wall (an early example of an electronic clock) and below it a set of standard British measures.

To the right of these is a black metal kissing gate, leading to a narrow path that runs below the observatory's courtyard. You only have to walk a couple of metres along this to see the line running down the wall and crossing the path in front of you. Space is tight for photography but it's perfectly possible to stand on the line and get that souvenir shot, as my Virtual Tourist friend from Estonia, Mare, demonstrates.

I should add that I'm not for a minute recommending that you don't visit the observatory, which is very good, but if you don't have time for that or aren't very interested, at least you don't have to miss out on seeing the famous Meridian Line.

By the way, you don't even have to visit Greenwich to stand on the Meridian. This map shows other locations in the UK where it is marked.

As well as enjoying all that the Observatory has to offer, a climb up the hill in Greenwich Park is rewarded with some wonderful views as you can see. The elegant buildings of the Old Naval College, the Queen’s House and the Maritime Museum lie at the foot of the hill. The Thames flows beyond, with lots of river traffic coming and going. And on the far bank rise the dramatic skyscrapers of London’s Docklands. Further to your left (the west) you can see some of the buildings of the City, the Shard and even the London Eye.

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View from the hill

But if you can’t manage the hill, there are still good views to be had along the river bank, as my photo below shows.

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Canary Wharf from Greenwich

Greenwich Market

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Entrance to the market

As a contrast to all the history that surrounds you at Greenwich I think it is fun to spend some time in the lovely market. This is tucked between some of the streets in the town centre and has a variety of stalls but with three main focuses: crafts, antiques and street food.

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Wood turner

On one visit we bought a beautiful hand-turned wooden bowl as a wedding gift for friends. Each of these pieces is unique, so they aren’t cheap, but they are well worth the price. The same applies to some other of the crafts-people selling here, but you can also get lower-priced jewellery and pretty items for the home.

One of my most interesting purchases here, from one of the antique stalls, was a photo album which really captured my imagination. It dates from the 1930s and shows the travels of an English couple (I assume) in north Africa, pre-war Germany and the Mediterranean.

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Old photo album

I was so intrigued by this that I scanned all the photos and created a website in the hopes of tracing some information about those captured in them: http://sarahwilkie8.wix.com/travel-1930s-style. So far, sadly, no one has been able to identify them although one friend did point me towards some ships’ passenger inventories of the time which unfortunately failed to come up with any likely names.

At one end of the market there is a cluster of food stalls selling the cuisines of several countries: Brazilian churros, Indian street food, Ethiopean vegetarian dishes, sushi, noodles and much more.

Around the edge of the market are some interesting little shops with goods likely to appeal to those who also enjoy the market – more crafts, quirky fashions, art and items for the home. I can happily spend several hours (and more than a few pounds) here! There is also a good pub, the Coach and Horses, where I have had several pleasant lunches. As well as a cosy interior it has some tables outside in the market.

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In the market

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The Coach and Horses

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Inside the Coach and Horses

The O2

To the north of this main centre of Greenwich is an area called, unsurprisingly, North Greenwich. Here you will find the (currently named) O2 arena. In the run up to the year 2000 a number of Millennium projects were planned for London. Despite some teething problems, most people agreed that the new bridge was a great success, once it stopped wobbling, and of course everyone enjoyed the fireworks! But the biggest project, the Millennium Dome, was something of a PR and financial disaster – failing to capture the public’s imagination and attract the visitor numbers that would have covered the cost of building it. Perhaps that was because of the rather didactic nature of the exhibition it housed, the Millennium Experience. This was intended to be a World’s Fair style showcase of British life and achievement, but most of its 14 zones were lacking in content and rather dull (I know – I took my mother-in-law along and we were neither of us wildly excited by it, though I remember feeling that it was not as bad as some of the media had suggested).

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Looking north east from Greenwich Park
The Millennium Dome / O2 is visible centre left

The building itself also received mixed but largely unenthusiastic reactions. It is an interesting one however, its design full of symbolism. A huge white (today rather grey) ‘tent’ is supported by twelve yellow poles, one for each month of the year or each hour of the clock face – a nod to the nearby Greenwich Meridian and the importance of time to this part of the country. And it is 365 metres in diameter, one for each day of a (non Leap) year.

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View from the upper tier of the O2 -
tennis tournament

After the end of 2000 the exhibitions were dismantled, and for a while just the roof of the dome remained, a bit of a white elephant. There was much debate about what to do with it, and many more disparaging remarks. Eventually though it was developed as a sports and entertainment complex, with multiple venues sited under the main roof and a network of restaurants, shops, offices and housing around it. Today it is home to a cinema, bowling alley, a number of chain restaurants and an arena that hosts sporting and music events. In a fairly recent development you can also climb the roof for a view of London with a difference (and no, I haven’t done that – yet!!) But we did come here a year or so back to see the Masters tennis event, and were impressed by the excellent views even from our upper tier seats, so I think we’ll be back to see the rejuvenated Dome again.

There is even more to do in Greenwich than I have included here, as I haven’t talked about sights I am yet to visit (such as the Fan Museum). But I hope I have convinced you that it is well worth the trip from central London to spend a day here!

Posted by ToonSarah 02:04 Archived in England Tagged art skylines boats architecture london park history views church market river city museum science Comments (17)

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)

London Bridge to Rotherhithe

London

A Bank Holiday stroll

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Tower Bridge and St Paul's from Rotherhithe

The early May Bank Holiday this year was unusually warm and sunny, and like many Londoners (and visitors to the capital) we headed to the river to make the most of the weather.

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The Shard

We started our walk at London Bridge station, crossing Tooley Street (look up for a view of the Shard!) to reach Hay’s Galleria. This is a former warehouse and Port of London wharf which, like so many in this area, was redeveloped in the 1980s. Many have been turned into (expensive) apartments, but this one has a mix of shops, restaurants, offices and flats. The central walkway covers what was once the dock and to mark that heritage there is a bronze sculpture of a ship, called 'The Navigators', in the centre.

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Entrance to Hay's Galleria

As you emerge on to the river bank there are some great views of the City of London opposite, of the Tower of London, and of HMS Belfast, a former WWII Royal Navy ship now moored here and open as a museum. We visited years ago – it’s very well done and worth seeing if you have any interest in naval history or indeed in history in general.

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The Tower of London from near City Hall

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The City of London from near City Hall
(both the above were taken on a previous, winter, walk)

Today though we were more interested in heading east to the open space just east of City Hall known as Potters Fields. This small park takes its name from the Dutch potters who settled near here in the early 17th century after fleeing religious persecution at home. They established the Pickleherring Pottery on this site, which was later replaced by granaries and still later by warehouses. This park was created during the regeneration of the area in the 1980s when the by-then abandoned and dilapidated wharves and associated buildings were redeveloped. Today the park is often used for events and today was the venue for a Polish festival. There were lots of food stalls but we had already eaten lunch, so we just stopped for a short while to soak up the atmosphere.

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At the Polish Festival at Potters' Fields

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Passing under Tower Bridge

Just beyond Potters Fields the riverside path runs under the southern end of Tower Bridge. Emerging on the other side you are among the warehouses of Butler’s Wharf which were converted for (mainly) residential use. I remember coming here just before the redevelopment began, when the smell of spices still hung in the air, as an echo of the Port of London’s past. The path runs between them along Shad Thames, the river views cut off for a short stretch. There is an estate agents here if you want to check out the prices of these exclusive apartments – note how much more expensive it is to buy a place directly overlooking the water!

Very soon you can turn left, along a narrow passageway with the intriguing name of Maggie Blake's Cause, to reach the river bank again. Maggie Blake was a local community activist who, together with other Bermondsey residents, campaigned to retain access to the river front for both locals and visitors. Access was threatened by the redevelopment of Butler’s Wharf and adjacent warehouses. The developers wanted to limit riverfront access to those would occupy the smart new apartments and riverside restaurants. But Maggie Blake and her supporters thought otherwise and fought a spirited campaign which saved the historic riverfront and its wonderful views of Tower Bridge for anyone who cares to explore this area.

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Tower Bridge from Butler's Wharf

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Thames seagull

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New Caledonia Wharf

Following the river bank again now, you will pass some restaurants and the old Design Museum building (it has now moved to Kensington) before reaching a small dock. The main path turns away from the river to go around this, but there is a modern steel footbridge across the water which we crossed to reach another group of converted warehouses, New Concordia Wharf. Despite the ‘gentrification’ there are still signs of this area’s past history; the buildings have lots of character and little details will no doubt catch your eye.

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Old sign

There is still development going on here – at one point we had to turn away from the river as the route was blocked by hoardings around a building site. But soon you will come to a more open area. On the right is a small grassy square – unassuming now but look carefully and you will see the remains of a couple of walls half-buried in the grass. This was once the Manor House of King Edward III, the king who started the Hundred Years War and ruled during the period of the Black Death. Surprisingly, he chose Rotherhithe as a place to build a royal residence – surprising because in those days it was just a small hamlet set in low-lying marshland. The house was built on a small island directly next to the River Thames and consisted of a range of stone buildings around a central courtyard. There was a moat on three sides of the property, with its north side being completely open to the River Thames, allowing the king to arrive here by boat. It is not known for certain why he chose to build a house in this location, but the most popular theory is that he came here to practice falconry, with the birds being able to stay within eye sight as they flew across the flat marshlands and the River Thames.

The ruins are, as I said, very insignificant – so much so that I neglected to take a photo. But you can see what they look like, and read much more about the house, on the informative Historic UK website: https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryMagazine/DestinationsUK/Edward-IIIs-Manor-House-Rotherhithe/

Opposite this grassy area is a spot offering some great views back towards Tower Bridge and some seating from which to enjoy them.

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London view from Rotherhithe

When we were here this seating was full of people enjoying drinks from the nearby pub, the Angel, but before being tempted to join them it’s worth taking a look at a group of statues here, collectively known as Dr Salter’s Daydream. Alfred Salter was a doctor and Labour Party politician who practiced medicine in Bermondsey in the early years of the 20th century, when poverty here was widespread. Most local men worked as casual labour in the docks and Salter and his wife Ada worked hard to improve their lives and those of their families. Among other things, he offered free medical care to those who couldn’t afford to pay for it, paving the way for the as-yet unestablished National Health Service. He became MP for Bermondsey in 1922, and in the same year Ada was elected Mayor of the borough – the first female mayor in London and the first female Labour mayor anywhere in Britain. A detailed information board here tells the story of their lives, explaining:

‘She and Alfred launched what was later called the “Bermondsey Revolution”, an experiment in municipal government that attracted attention throughout Europe.

Alfred promoted free medical treatment using modern methods: a health centre, a solarium for TB sufferers, and educational films about hygiene shown from vans on street corners. By 1935 infant mortality had fallen from 150 to 69 per year, and not one mother died in childbirth. This was his “NHS before the NHS”.

Meanwhile Ada’ Beautification Committee transformed the slums. She planted 9,000 trees, offered prizes for best window boxes or gardens, and filled all public spaces with playgrounds, musical events and sports. She was a “Green before the Greens”….

The Salters destroyed the worst of Bermondsey’s slums. Alfred pushed through a vast slum-clearance programme admired all over the country, while Ada was in charge of designing the model council houses still to be seen in Wilson Grove.'

But as the sign goes on to explain, their personal lives were not happy, as they lost their only child, Joyce, to scarlet fever at the age of just eight. ‘To win trust, and to avoid privilege, they had chosen to live amongst the disease-ridden slums and have their daughter educated locally, but the cost proved high. Though Joyce’s death bonded the Salters forever with the people of Bermondsey, they were inconsolable.’

A statue to commemorate Dr Salter was first commissioned in 1991 and moved here from a previous location nearby in 2003. It consisted of three pieces – the doctor himself, Joyce and their pet cat. But in 2011 the statue of the doctor, which sat on a park bench, was stolen (probably for the value of the metal from which it was shaped). Joyce and the cat were put into safe storage and local people campaigned and fund raised to replace the work and add a sculpture of Ada. The local council match-funded the money raised. In 2014 the new statues were unveiled. Rather than a park bench Dr Salter now sits on a granite one looking towards his daughter leaning against the embankment wall. Further down the cat sits on the wall, and Ada walks, with spade in hand, from the planting beds towards her daughter. The idea was to show Dr Salter in his old age, sitting remembering Joyce as she was when still alive. Ada is represented with a spade because she was so active in tree and planting schemes for the area, and her left hand is designed to hold real flowers. Knowing their story makes an already interesting grouping of statues more poignant.

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Ada, and Joyce

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The cat

But I mentioned the Angel pub nearby. On this sunny holiday weekend it was unsurprisingly busy, with most drinkers choosing to sit or stand outside. A queue to be served half-blocked the doorway but we decided it would be worth the wait. When we did eventually get our drinks, we opted to enjoy them inside – partly for a break from the sun and partly because it meant we could have glasses made of glass, rather than the plastic variety (drinks never taste as good from the latter). Checking the first floor we found an almost-deserted room with fantastic views of the river and a pleasant breeze drifting in through the open windows. We grabbed the best positioned table – in a corner with windows on two sides and the best view in the house! What a great spot in which to enjoy a relaxing break on our walk.

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Boats on the Thames near Tower Bridge, from the Angel, Rotherhithe

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Tower Bridge, St Paul's and the Monument from Rotherhithe

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St John's church, Wapping,
from Rotherhithe

After leaving the pub we continued east and soon came to another open space, King’s Stairs Gardens, where local families were enjoying picnics and ball games. There were more good views here across the river to Wapping, where we had been walking quite recently (I will blog about that in a future entry no doubt). Approaching the main part of Rotherhithe the path again leaves the river’s edge and the views are blocked by houses. No matter though, as there is plenty to see in this small patch of London. Again, I will focus on Rotherhithe more in a future entry, as it merits proper exploration. But on this occasion we just meandered around taking a few photos of the church and surrounding area.

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Old warehouse in Rotherhithe

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Sign in Rotherhithe

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Bluecoat School in Rotherhithe

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In Rotherhithe gardens

This church, dedicated to St Mary the Virgin, was built in 1716 to replace an earlier 12th century one on this site. It was designed by John James, an associate of Sir Christopher Wren. I have never managed to go inside – today as on previous occasions it was locked. It is best known for its connection to the Pilgrim Fathers, but that too is a tale for another entry …

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St Mary the Virgin, Rotherhithe, and in the grounds

Posted by ToonSarah 01:27 Tagged bridges churches art architecture london history views river pubs city garden sculpture Comments (7)

Introduction to this blog

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A travel photography exhibition in London

You don’t have to go far from home to feel like a traveller, if you set out with a sense of exploration – and, in my case at least, the essential camera. This blog will focus on more local adventures – walks in and around London, plus some visits to different parts of England.

There will of course be plenty of photos. I will show you the sights, naturally, but also include images simply because they please me, like the one above - street photography, wildlife, landscapes - all the thing I most like to photograph.

Entries here will not necessarily be chronological, as I will mix recent outings with some older ones, reusing some of the material I wrote for Virtual Tourist. I hope to introduce you to some of my favourite parts of my home city and country.

Here are a few more random photos to whet the appetite.

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Adlestrop, Gloucestershire

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Beach with huts for drying fishing nets, Hastings Old Town

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The Thames and city skyline, London

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Dungeness: at the edge of England

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Syon House, near London

Posted by ToonSarah 05:58 Archived in England Tagged landscapes beaches architecture london views village river city photography street_photography Comments (6)

(Entries 1 - 5 of 5) Page [1]