A place of greater safety

RICHMOND-UPON-THAMES WAS NOT a place that I would have associated with refugees until we went for a walk with some friends along the Thames footpath on the right bank of the river. We started at Richmond Bridge and headed towards Twickenham. Richmond Bridge is a handsome stone structure built by 1777. It was the eighth bridge to be built across the Thames and is now the oldest surviving bridge crossing the river.

B 5

Octagonal Room at Orleans House

A leafy footpath runs alongside the river in which pleasure boats and waterfowl can be seen. Soon we arrived at a carved stone monument, a twisted polygonal structure on which words have been carved in three languages: English, French, and Flemish. The base of the elegant but simple monument has the words “The Belgian Village on the Thames” and above them, the dates “1914-18”. Nearby, there are a couple of information panels describing the history of a Belgian settlement on the river between Richmond and Twickenham during WW1. A Belgian village? You might well wonder; I did.

On the 7th of October 1914, Charles Pelabon, a French engineer who had been working in Belgium arrived in Britain with some of his workers. By the start of 1915, he had set up a munition factory in a disused roller-skating rink in East Twickenham. The factory soon employed as many as 6000 workers, mostly recruited from the vast numbers of Belgian refugees who had fled their country after war had broken out. This led to the establishment of a sizeable Belgian community, with shops and Belgian schooling, between Twickenham and Richmond. Sadly, almost all physical traces of the community have disappeared. Where the factory once stood is now covered by blocks of privately owned apartments. Standing next to the elegantly designed monument, it is hard to imagine that this almost rustic stretch of the river was a hive of industrial activity and filled with people speaking in French and Flemish.

Currently, our government is holding out the offer of homes in the UK for up to many residents of Hong Kong. I wonder whether we will see the establishment of ‘Hong Kong Village(s)’ to accommodate ‘refugees’ from a part of China that is undergoing potentially serious changes to its hitherto special status.

Further along our walk, we reached the park surrounding Marble Hill House. This neat looking Palladian villa set back from the river was constructed between 1724 and 1729 and designed by the architect Roger Morris (1695 -1749). It was built for Henrietta Howard (1689-1767), who had been the mistress of the then future King George II. When she ceased to be the mistress of King George II, Henrietta bought land beside the river and built Marble Hill House, using the substantial financial settlement she received from the King.

Crossing a small lane, one leaves the grounds of Marble Hill and enters the smaller grounds of Orleans House, or, at least what, remains of it. The house was a fine Palladian villa built for the politician and diplomat James Johnston (1635-1737) in 1710 to the designs of the architect John James (c1673-1746). In 1720, an octagonal room in the baroque style, designed by James Gibbs, was added. This was used to entertain George II’s Queen Consort, Caroline of Brandenburg-Ansbach (1683-1737). She regarded Johnston with ‘great favour’.

Between 1813 and 1815, Johnston’s house was home to another royal visitor, a refugee from France, Louis Philippe I (1773 -1850), the Duc d’Orléans. Soon after the execution of his father in 1893, he left France. Later, he returned to France where he reigned as King Louis-Philippe I, the last king of France, between 1830 and the year of revolutions all over Europe, 1848. A print by the French artist Pingret shows the King and Queen Victoria visiting Louis Philippe’s former home at Orleans House some years after his coronation. It was the first time that a British and French monarch had been together on British soil for 500 years (see: http://www.bbc.co.uk/ahistoryofthe…/…/NrKCqDE8Q-arYJHipxLXDQ). Although most of the house was demolished in 1926, the octagonal room was saved. I noticed a fragment of masonry in the grounds close to the remains of the house. It bears a crest on which there are two fleur-de-lys symbols. In the 21st century, a new arts centre, including an art gallery, was built that incorporates the octagonal room, which has been restored to its former glory.

Further along the river near a disused ferry landing stage, we came across the home of yet another refugee, the composer and conductor (Sir) Andrzej Panufnik (1914-1991). Born in Warsaw, Panufnik, a leading light in the Polish classical music community, ‘defected’ to the West in 1954 having become uncomfortable with the politically dominated cultural environment in Poland. He settled in Britain, becoming a British citizen in 1961. After marrying Camilla Jessel in late 1963, the couple bought the house near Twickenham that overlooks the Thames and now bears a light blue circular commemorative plaque with a red Polish eagle on it.

We returned to Richmond Bridge following the riverside path. We watched a plucky little dog rush into the water only to make a hasty retreat when swans hissed at him. Despite the birds’ unwelcoming threats, he dashed into the water several more times. We arrived back at Richmond Bridge after having enjoyed a pleasant stroll and seeing three places that have provided people from Europe with ‘a place of greater safety’, these being the words used by Hilary Mantel as the title of one of her novels.

Saturday night feeder

BRUGES 65 BLOG

MY LATE MOTHER trained at the Michaelis Art School in Cape Town. She became a commercial artist. After she married my father in London in early 1948, she became a more creative artist, a painter and then a sculptor. Her interest in art was shared by my father, who became deeply interested in the history of art. Most of our family holidays were connected with my parents’ enthusiasm for art both old and new. I used to be quite envious of my friends whose parents took them to the seaside, but now that I am older I appreciate the special nature of our family holidays.

One of the places my parents enjoyed visiting was Bruges (Brugge) in Belgium.  We used to stay in the city’s Hotel Portinari. Once every visit, we did something that I found more enjoyable than visiting churches and museums. We took a boat ride along the city’s canals. These tours involved travelling in a small low boat powered by an outboard motor. The most exciting part of this voyage was when we passed beneath a particularly low road bridge. The tour guide would tell us all to duck our heads. My mother, who saw danger around every corner, always  emphasised how important it was to lower our heads as much as possible to avoid them being smashed to a pulp by the metal struts under which we were passing. In retrospect, considering the potential for experiencing this awful injury (possibly leading to death), I am amazed that my mother sanctioned these boat trips every time we visited Bruges.

My mother passed away, I married and in 1995 our daughter was born. Six weeks after her birth, we crossed the English Channel and we took our daughter with us. We were driving to Rotterdam in Holland to meet my wife’s parents, who were disembarking there after a cruise on the River Rhine.

We wanted to spend a night in Bruges on our way to Holland, but were unable to find accommodation in a hotel that we could afford. Instead, we booked a hotel at nearby Damme, which was said to be picturesque.

We arrived at our hotel in Damme on a Saturday afternoon. I remember that we had trouble getting hot water to flow in our shower. However much the hot tap was turned, the water remained icy cold. The problem was solved when a member of the hotel staff explained that the taps had been labelled wrongly: hot water flowed when the cold tap was opened.

 In the evening, the three of us went to a restaurant in Damme. The dining room was a long rectangle in plan. A long central ‘aisle’ ran between two lines of tables. Each table was occupied by late middle-aged couples sitting  with their backs to the walls and facing the diners seated opposite them across the aisle. Not one of these people looked as if they were enjoying their night out, or even being alive. They were a miserable looking bunch.

We were shown to the one remaining empty table. Within minutes of sitting down, our daughter decided that she needed a drink, not of Belgian beer but something that only wife could supply.

My wife asked the maitre d’hôtel whether there was somewhere that she could breastfeed our daughter discreetly. He pointed at a door. My wife stood up and walked towards it. Before she reached it, the hitherto seemingly moribund diners sprang to life. They told us that they did not mind if our daughter suckled in the dining room. They did not want mother and child to be exiled, or even self-exiled.

For the rest of the evening, our fellow diners remained animated, exclaiming how sweet our daughter was and offering much advice. Our arrival and our daughter, in particular, had made that Saturday evening a huge success for these ageing members of Damme’s  bourgeoisie.

 

Picture of the Minnewater in Bruges, taken in the early 1960s

 

With a baby in Belgium

baby seat

 

Young parents sometimes ask my wife and I when it is safe to take their baby abroad for the first time. Why they ask us is a mystery. We are not experts on child care. Our experiences in this field are confined to our only child, our daughter.

We first took our daughter abroad when she was six weeks old. We went on a driving trip from London to Belgium and Holland. After about an hour driving through northern France, our daughter began crying plaintively and continuously. We stopped, removed her from the baby seat, fed her some milk, and that brought the complaints to an abrupt end. At that stop, both my wife and I had separately thought that  we were not too far from home to turn back and abandon our trip. Neither of us expressed this thought verbally when we stopped, but later we discovered that we had had the same idea.

Several hours later, we arrived at our destination, Damme, which is close to Brugge (Bruges). After settling in the hotel, we  found a restaurant nearby. It was Saturday night. The restaurant occupied a long room. There were tables on both sides of a corridor that ran the length of the room. Most of them were occupied by frumpy-looking, late middle-aged, middle class Belgian couples, none of whom seemed to be having fun.

Soon after we settled at our table, our daughter began crying. She was hungry and my wife wanted to breast-feed her. She asked the head waiter whether there ws somewhere secluded that she could breast-feed. The waiter pointed to a back room. When my wife stood up, the hitherto silent and rather glum Belgian diners became animated. They told us that they did not want the baby to leave them. From that moment onwards, all of the diners cheered up and became lively, firing us with questions and advice about our tiny daughter. It seemed that our arrival was the best thing that had happened to them for many a year.

A few months later, we took our child to India, and that was also a successful trip. So, if you are crazy enough to ask my advice (based on a sample of only one) about travelling with a baby, my answer would be “go for it.”

 

 

 

Picture from argos.co.uk