Bulky rather than beautiful

DURING THE LAST YEAR or longer, we have visited plenty of ‘stately homes’ in England. Many of them are very fine works of architecture.Today, we visited Blenheim Palace for the second time in 12 months., It was built for the first Duke of Marlborough and is still home to some of his descendants.

Of the many grand homes that we have seen during our travels, Blenheim impressed me far, far less than many of the others. It is impressive in its bulkiness but, for me, it lacks the finesse that characterises so many of the other aristocratic homes we have visited.

PS: To be fair, Blenheim was not completed as originally planned because at some stage the funds for its construction became dramatically reduced.

Morocco and Meanwhile

FOR SEVEN YEARS, between 1994 and 2001, I treated dental problems at a dental practice in Golborne Road in North Kensington. The place was like a United Nations of bad teeth. My patients hailed from places including Brazil, the Caribbean, Spain, Zimbabwe, Ireland, England, Uganda, Portugal, St Helena, Italy, the USA, and North Africa. Most of the North Africans were from Morocco because many people from that country live in the housing estates that are close to Golborne Road. Although I used to make good use of the lovely shops and eateries on that road and nearby Portobello Road, I never bothered to walk northwest along Golborne beyond Trellick Tower (designed by Ernő Goldfinger and built in 1972), in whose shadow the road lies. Trellick Tower stands next to the Paddington Arm (branch) of the Grand Union Canal. At its base and running along about 450 yards of the west side of the canal, is the Meanwhile Gardens, which we visited for the first time last year, almost 20 years since I stopped working at Golborne Road.

Since the worsening of the covid19 pandemic in December 2020/January 2021, we have been on the lookout for shops where there are few other customers and there is plenty of space to avoid them. We have discovered that the Ladbroke Grove branch of Sainsburys, which is next to the canal towpath a few feet west of the bridge carrying Ladbroke Grove over the canal, is such a place. I have never been in a supermarket with such wide aisles; they are about 15 feet in width. It is also well-stocked, and the staff are helpful. The check-out area looks as if it has been designed with efficient ‘socialdistancing’ in mind. In addition, the large car park allows drivers to leave their vehicles free-of-charge for up to three hours. Do not worry, I do not have shares in Sainsburys.

After a spell of shopping, we tend to walk along the towpath that runs past the supermarket. Apart from joggers, who often feel (sometimes aggressively) that they have right of way over other pedestrians, and (usually considerate) cyclists, this path affords a pleasant and visually varied place to stretch one’s legs. Walking east from Sainsburys, soon the towpath runs alongside Meanwhile Gardens. There are several apertures through which one can enter the gardens from the towpath, and you can also gain access to the place from the streets that surround it.

The Meanwhile Gardens were conceived as a green space for the local, then generally low-income, mixed race community, in 1976 by Jamie McCollough, an artist and engineer (https://meanwhile-gardens.org.uk/history/16). They were laid out on a strip of derelict land, which once had terraced housing and other buildings before WW1, with financial assistance from the Gulbenkian Foundation and other organisations. They were, according to circular plaques embedded in the ground, “improved 2000”.

The gardens and the Sainsbury supermarket are in a part of London that used to be known as ‘Kensal Town’. Where the supermarket is now was part of an extensive gasworks, the remains of which can be seen nearby in the form of a disused gasometer. Residential buildings began appearing in the 1850s and many local people were employed in laundry work and at the gasworks of the Western Gas Company that was opened in 1845 (www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol37/pp333-339). In the 1860s and ‘70s, there was much housebuilding in and around the area now occupied by Meanwhile Gardens. Golborne Road was extended to reach this area in the 1880s. Many of its inhabitants were railway workers and migrants whose homes in central London had been demolished. The area was severely overcrowded and extremely poor. Few houses had gardens and the population density was high. After WW2, many of these dwellings were demolished and replaced by blocks of flats, including Trellick Tower, and smaller but salubrious shared dwellings. These residential streets contain the homes of many of my former dental patients.

A winding path links the various lovely parts of the garden including a sloping open space; a concrete skate park; a children’s play area; several sculptures; small, wooded areas; some interlinked ponds with a wooden viewing platform; plenty of bushes and shrubs; bridges; and a walled garden that acts as a suntrap. Near the latter, there is a tall brick chimney, the remains of a factory. The chimney was built in 1927 near to the former Severn Valley Pure Milk Company and the Meadowland Dairy. It was the last chimney of its kind to be built along the Paddington Arm canal and is completely dwarfed by the nearby Trellick Tower.

The Morroccan Garden, an exquisite part of the Meanwhile Gardens, was opened by Councillor Victoria Borwick on behalf of the local Moroccan community in 2007.  It celebrates the achievements of that community and is open for all to enjoy. A straight path of patterned black and white tiling leads from the main path across a small lawn to a wall. A colourful mosaic with geometric patterning and a small fountain is attached to the wall, creating the illusion that a tiny part of Morocco has been transported into the Meanwhile Gardens. Nearby, there are a few seats for visitors to enjoy this tiny enclave in the gardens.

Words are insufficient to fully convey the charm of the Meanwhile Gardens, one of London’s many little gems. If you can, you should come to experience this leafy oasis so near the busy Harrow Road. In addition, a stroll along the canal tow path, where you can see an amazing variety of houseboats and plenty of waterfowl, is bound to be rewarding.

A quaint country town near London

I WONDER WHAT KIND OF MUSIC the composer Gustav Holst (1874-1934) who is famous for “The Planets” suite, would have written had he lived in Thaxted under the flight path of most planes landing at London Stansted Airport. Fortunately for him, he lived in this charming Essex town between 1917 and 1925, long before the airport was built. Despite its proximity to an airport that is very busy in ‘normal’ times and not far from a major motorway, picturesque Thaxted feels as if the progress of time has left it alone. Recently, we visited Thaxted for a couple of hours and felt that we had ‘discovered’ a gem of a place rich in half-timbered buildings and other historic edifices. And, it is less than a couple of hours drive from west London.

blog thax

The construction of the huge cathedral-like Gothic parish church of St John the Baptist, St Mary & St Laurence began in the 14th century. Much of the financing of this building, which we were only able to enter for about one minute, was derived from the profits of the local industry, cutlery. By the 13th century, Thaxted, which is noted in the 11th century Domesday Book, became a centre for cutlery manufacture. It then rivalled a now more famous centre for that industry, Sheffield. The poll tax returns of 1379 recorded that of 249 males living in Thaxted, 79 were cutlers, 4 were sheath makers, and 2 were goldsmiths (see; “Mesters to Masters: A History of the Company of Cutlers in Hallamshire”, edited by C Binfield and D Hay). The cutlers lived in some of the fine buildings in the town. The well-preserved timber-framed Cutlers Guildhall makes for an interesting and beautiful focal point in the town’s broad high street, where Gustav Holst lived for a few years. The moot hall of this building stands above pillars below which there is a space open to the elements. Although simpler in construction, it brought to mind similar structures in Gujarat, the ‘mandvi’ in Vadodara and the ruined city of Champaner. We sheltered from a heavy rain shower under the arches of the Guildhall while we ate delicious sandwiches prepared at Parrish’s restaurant across the road.

It is not known why Thaxted became a centre of the cutlery industry for a few centuries. However, most are agreed that it was not because there were substantial deposits of the raw materials needed. The hamlet of Cutlers End a few miles outside Thaxted is a lasting reminder of an important source of Thaxted’s wealth in the Middle Ages.

An incredibly picturesque half-timbered building stands close to the Guildhall. Above one its doors, there is a name plate that reads: ‘Dick Turpin’s Cottage’. Unlike one of Thaxted’s famous inhabitants, Gustav Holst, it is unlikely that the highwayman Dick Turpin (1705-1739) either lived in the cottage or even in the town.

Apart from the splendid array of lovely old buildings that line the few streets that make up the town, there is another attraction within a short walk from the parish church. This is John Webb’s windmill, which was built in 1804. Its four long wooden blades (the ‘sweeps’) drive the milling equipment housed within a conical brick tower. It continued milling until 1907, when running it became uneconomical. It is the last survivor of several windmills that served the Thaxted district.

There are two quaint buildings near to the mill and the parish church. One of these is the long, low Chantry. This has a wonderful thatched roof and is at least three hundred years old. Opposite it, is another single-storeyed building, which was built in about 1714. It serves as an Almshouse. An informative website about Thaxted, www.thaxted.co.uk, states that this building was in 1830: “… occupied by sixteen aged persons: ‘13 widows, a man, a wife and a maid’”.

We saw all the places described in a leisurely couple of hours. We felt that we could have easily stayed much longer in this attractive place. Sadly, many who do not live in Essex or have not bothered to explore the county, feel that Essex has a poor reputation. This has no doubt been encouraged by bad-taste humour relating to ‘Essex man’ and ‘Essex girls’. The villages and towns in rural Essex easily outrival the busier and much more ‘twee’ villages in the Cotswolds.

PS Thaxted hosts an annual music festival, which cannot be held this year of the Covid pandemic.

Hair today, gone tomorrow

HAIR

 

The fastest haircut that I have ever had was in San Francisco (USA) in early 1995. The barber shop was staffed entirely by Chinese men, who were playing cards, maybe gambling, when I entered. Six minutes later, with my hair beautifully cut, I had already paid my bill. The barber could not wait to get back to his card game.

The slowest haircut that I have experienced (or, rather, endured), was in London. My wife suggested that I tried a salon near Holborn, which was also a training centre for budding hairderssers. For a modest fee, a student would cut one’s hair under the watchful eye of the professional hairdressing teacher. I was not against the idea as I had once had an excellent student cut at the London School of Fashion.

I don’t know whether the man allotted to practice on my hair was a complete novice or extremely nervous or just totally incompetent, but the experience was tedious to say the least. The appointment begun at 2 pm and was supposed to finish by 5 pm.  Throughout the afternoon, my student seemed to do little more than gather up swathes of my hair in his comb and then contemplate them. Very occasionally, he would snip a few strands of hair without much conviction. The afternoon wore on. 

By 4.45 pm, when all the other haidressing students had completed their tasks, my hair was much the same as it was at 2 pm. The teacher wandered over to me, pushed the student out of his way, and completed my haircut very competently by 5 pm.

Since then, I have had one more supervised student, which was performed by a very competent student, but she took much longer than an experienced hairdresser. Even if I have to pay more, I prefer my ‘short, back, and sides’ to be performed as rapidly as possible.