War and peacefulness

THE CRANE IS a tributary of the River Thames. Named after Cranford (Middlesex) through which it flows it is about 8 ½ miles in length. It rises as Yeading Brook and flows towards its mouth at Isleworth, just opposite the southern tip if Isleworth Ait. On its way, the Crane passes east of Heathrow Airport, Hounslow Heath, Whitton, Twickenham, and St Margarets. It also feeds the man-made Duke of Northumberland’s River, which enters the Thames about 610 yards downstream from the mouth of the Crane.

The shot tower at Crane Park

The Crane flows through beautiful, wooded parkland known as Crane Park. This incredibly peaceful open space, part of which is a nature reserve, is in Whitton near Twickenham. Part of the park is in the Borough of Richmond-on-Thames and the rest in the Borough of Hounslow. The Crane, which contains a wooded island and breaks up into rivulets occasionally, is bordered on both sides by the park. The island, Crane Park Island, now a lovely nature reserve, a peaceful oasis in a busy part of London, was created for a purpose that was far from peaceful: warfare.

In the 1760s, a gunpowder works was established in what is now the west part of Crane Park. The island was created to form a millstream for operating a waterwheel connected to a mill for grinding saltpetre (nitrates of either sodium, potassium, or calcium) used to make gunpowder. It was part of a complex of buildings that housed the Hounslow Powder Mills. Before the 19th century, what is now Crane Park would have been part of the then much vaster Hounslow Heath. The website of the Twickenham Museum noted that gunpowder mills were established on the Heath as early as during the reign of King Henry VIII.  

All that remains of the Hounslow Powder Mills is a tall brick tower topped with a lead roof and a small lantern with a weathervane. It resembles a lighthouse. This was built either late in the 18th century or early in the 19th. Lying near it are a couple of circular millstones, which might have been used for grinding gunpowder. Described by some as a shot tower, it might have been used to manufacture lead shot. Molten lead would have been poured through a copper mesh near the top of the tower, and as it fell downwards, it formed into droplets, which when cooled became pellets of lead shot. This is most likely, but others suggest that the tower was part of a windmill.

Manufacturing gunpowder was a hazardous procedure, and unintended explosions were not unusual. The Twickenham Museum’s website related:

“Joseph Farington noted in his diary on Monday 25 January 1796 that: “The Powder Mills at Hounslow were blown yesterday. The concussion was so great as to break the windows in the town of Hounslow. Hoppner having been to Eaton, on his return rode to the spot where the Mills had stood, not a fragment of them remained. They were scattered over the country in small pieces. Three men were killed”… Burial records note deaths from further explosions: 5 on 17 November, 1 on 19 June 1798, 7 0n 15 July 1799, 2 on 27 June 1801, and so on through the century. Abraham Slade noted in his diary for 1859 that: “On the 29 of March the Powder Mills blew up, sending 7 poor souls into eternity in a moment. It has broken a great deal of glass in Twickenham & neighbourhood. We thought the whole place was coming down.””

The last major explosion at the Hounslow Mill was in 1915.

The powder mills passed through the hands of various operating companies: Edmund Hill, John Butts and Harvey and Grueber until 1820, then Curtis and Harvey until 1920, and then by Nobel Industries.The licence for producing explosives at Hounslow Powder Mill was revoked in 1927. In 1927, a Twickenham councillor, Frank Yates, bought the site. Later, he sold part of it for housing and the rest to Twickenham Council, who used it to create what is now Crane Park.

In addition to the impressive tower and a rusting sluice gate, several other less impressive remnants of the manufacturing complex can be seen on the island in the form of the bases of engine housings: lumps of bricks and concrete with thick metal rods protruding from them. Apart from the tower and a few other barely identifiable remnants, it is hard to believe that the sylvan and peaceful Crane Park was ever a place where the material of warfare had been produced for several centuries.

Dusty no more: a town on the Thames

HENLEY-ON-THAMES is located at the Oxford end of a bridge across the River Thames, which separates the county of Oxfordshire from its neighbour Berkshire. Located on the old main road between London and Oxford, it retains much ‘olde-worlde’ charm. Its streets are lined with many buildings that were constructed in the 18th century and before. Some of these used to be coaching inns but are no longer. However, some of the hostelries that served wayfarers in times long ago are still serving thirsty and hungry customers today, for example: The Red Lion, where William III might have visited, now an upmarket restaurant; and The Catherine Wheel, now a branch of the Wetherspoons company. On a recent visit in April 2022, we enjoyed superb coffee at Pavilion on The Market Place, close to the Town Hall.

Beer lovers will not need reminding that Henley is the home of Brakspear & Sons, the brewery company. Founded in Henley in 1722, beer was brewed in the town since then, although some of the comapany’s products are now brewed elsewhere. Many of the brewery’s older buildings, now converted for new purposes, can be seen alongside New Street. The company’s offices are now located on Bull Courtyard off Bell Street.

The stone bridge across the river was built in 1788. It is the finishing place of the annual Henley Royal Regatta held in summer, ever since its inception in 1839. Near the bridge, stands Henley’s parish church of St Mary the Virgin, which has a 16th century tower. The exterior walls of the southeast corner of the church is an eye-catching chequerboard of alternating masonry and flint squares. The church’s interior has been much modified by the Victorians. The churchyard north of the church is surrounded mainly by almshouses. Immediately next to the north side of the church stands a two-storied, half-timbered building, the Chantry House, some of whose beams come from trees felled in 1461 (according to scientific dating methods). Between 1552 and 1778, this edifice housed a school. Since 1923, it has housed the Parish Rooms.

The churchyard is filled with many gravestones. One of them immediately attracts the visitor as it is surrounded by generous amounts of fresh flowers. It is a memorial to the singer Dusty Springfield (1939-1999), who died in Henley. In the 1990s, Dusty lived by the Thames at Hurley near Henley. While in the area, she suffered from several bouts of breast cancer, the cause of her demise. Her funeral at St Mary’s in Henley was attended by many of her fans and leading lights in the British popular music scene including Elvis Costello, Lulu and the Pet Shop Boys. According to her wishes, Dusty was cremated, and some of her ashes were scattered in Henley and the rest in Ireland.

Dusty was not the only music celebrity to have lived in Henley. A man we met outside his house in the town reminded us that the Beatle George Harrison (1943-2001) had also lived in the town. He also mentioned that Henley’s former MP, the present Prime Minister Boris Johnson, had attended meetings in his home, and that he could tell us a thing or two … but he did not!

Image recalling lines of a verse

This photograph I took in Cornwall reminds me of lines from the first verse of a poem, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”, written by Thomas Gray (1716–1771). The lines are:

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,

The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea …”

Exhibitionism then and now

THE DIORAMA IN REGENTS Park is no more. However, the building on Park Square East (number 18), a protected edifice which housed it, still bears the word ‘Diorama’ prominently displayed. Designed by Morgan and Pugin, architects, and opened in 1823, this former London attraction, a mere 700 yards away from Madame Tussauds, a current attraction, was described in “Mogg’s New Picture of London and Visitor’s Guide to its Sights, 1844”

(quoted in www.victorianlondon.org/entertainment/diorama.htm) as follows:

“The Diorama, in Park Square, Regent’s Park, long an object of wonder and delight in Paris, was first opened in London, September 29, 1823. This is a very extraordinary and beautiful exhibition; it consists of two pictures that are alternately brought into view by a very ingenious mechanical contrivance; the interior resembling a theatre, consisting of one tier of boxes and a pit, being made to revolve upon a centre with the spectators, thus gradually withdraws one picture and introduces the other to the view. A judicious introduction of the light, and other contrivances, give increased effect to pictures beautifully painted, which, by a concentration of talent, completes an illusion that with perfect justice may be pronounced ‘the acme of art’.”

In 1844, the place was open from 10 am to 4 pm and the admission charge was steep for that era, two shillings (10p in today’s currency). The technology employed to create the show was invented by the Frenchmen Louis Daguerre (1757-1851), of photography fame, and Charles M Bouton (1781-1853). John Timbs in his “Curiosities of London” (published 1867) provided more details of the Diorama:

“The Diorama consisted of two pictures, eighty feet in length and forty feet in height, painted in solid and in transparency, arranged so as to exhibit changes of light and shade, and a variety of natural phenomena; the spectators being kept in comparative darkness, while the picture received a concentrated light from a ground-glass roof. The contrivance was partly optical, partly mechanical; and consisted in placing the pictures within the building so constructed, that the saloon containing the spectators revolved at intervals, and brought in succession the two distinct scenes into the field of view, without the necessity of the spectators removing from their seats; while the scenery itself remained stationary, and the light was distributed by transparent and movable blinds-some placed behind the picture, for intercepting and changing the colour of the rays of light, which passed through the semi-transparent parts. Similar blinds, above and in front of the picture were movable by cords, so as to distribute or direct the rays of light. The revolving motion given to the saloon was an arc of about 73º; and while the spectators were thus passing round, no person was permitted to go in or out. The revolution of the saloon was effected by means of a sector, or portion of a wheel, with teeth which worked in a series of wheels and pinions; one man, by turning a winch, moved the whole. The space between the saloon and each of the two pictures was occupied on either side by a partition, forming a kind of avenue, proportioned in width to the size of the picture. Without such a precaution, the eye of the spectator, being thirty or forty feet distant from the canvas, would, by anything intervening, have been estranged from the object.”

Although the Diorama was successful from a cultural viewpoint it was not commercially viable. By 1850, it had been sold. In 1852, the politician and engineer Sir Morton Peto (1809-1889) bought the building, and it was turned into a Baptist chapel (www.british-history.ac.uk/old-new-london/vol5/pp262-286). More recently, its interior has been modernised and converted to be used for various purposes.

The former Diorama faces the south east corner of Regents Park, the English Garden, where once a year this area briefly becomes host to a contemporary cultural event: The Frieze Sculpture show. Various commercial galleries display works of art from their collections in the open air in this part of the public park. It is a show that we enjoy visiting and this year, 2020, was the third year running that we have attended.

This year, the show runs from the 5th to the 18th of October, a shorter time than in previous years because of the covid19 pandemic. Realistically, it could have been held for far longer given that it is in the open air and crowding is unlikely. The 2020 exhibition comprises 12 artworks selected by curator Clare Lilley (Director of Programme, Yorkshire Sculpture Park). The artists whose works can be seen are as follows: David Altmejd, Fabio Lattanzi Antinori, Gianpietro Carlesso, Eric Fischl, Patrick Goddard, Lubaina Himid, Kalliopi Lemos, Richard Long, Sarah Lucas, Gavin Turk, Rebecca Warren and Arne Quinze. Of these, I had heard of some of them and already seen some of their art.

Without attempting to describe the artworks, all of them were visually intriguing, well-executed, and most of them evoked light-hearted feelings to a greater or lesser extent. The visitors who were looking at them seemed to be enjoying what they were seeing. Both children and adults were having fun. A lot of selfies were being taken, especially next to the sculptures that featured free standing doorways by Lubaini Himid and another by Gavin Turk. Fabio Lattanzi Antinori’s “viewing room” also attracted many people. This simple electronic sculpture flashed up a series of ridiculous but amusing messages such as “Culture is £1.28” and “Raju is £0”, which together formed a curious critique of today’s cultural values. An artwork which was somewhat macabre and delightfully weird was a collection of latex rubber animal heads scattered around in the grass. Each head also incorporated a mirror. This collection, entitled “Humans-Animals-Monsters (2020)” was created by Patrick Goddard. So, when a viewer looks at one of the heads, he or she not only sees the animal or monster but also his or her own reflection.  One sculpture, which I liked but my wife and daughter did not, was a tower of twisted torn metal sheets created by Arne Quinze. One work, which I did not particularly like, but was popular with small children was a sculpture depicting an oversize sandwich, created by Sarah Lucas.  The other six artworks, although not insignificant visually, attracted me less than those I have just described.

In brief, although a far cry from the long-lost Diorama, the outdoor Frieze Sculpture show is great fun and worth visiting if you can. Interesting artworks are displayed in a lovely environment. Some of them seem in harmony with nature and others deliberately clash with it. I must confess that I have a great fondness for outdoor displays of sculpture. Maybe, this derives from my childhood when my mother used to create sculptural works and displayed some of them in the garden of our home in northwest London. Recently, apart from seeing the sculptures at Regents Park, I have enjoyed seeing artworks displayed outdoors at Salisbury Cathedral, Compton Verney House (in Warwickshire), and at Henry Moore’s former home near Much Hadham.

PS: If you cannot get to Regents Park, the exhibition is on-line for a while at: https://viewingroom.frieze.com/viewing-room/

See a short video made by me at the exhibition by clicking here:https://youtu.be/Hg1IfB4jR9U