A canal cruise and a cricket ground

BEFORE THE ADVENT of railways, transportation of goods across England (as well as Wales and Scotland) was heavily dependent on an extensive canal system constructed mostly in the 18th  and early 19th centuries. Freight was carried along these canals in the holds of long narrow barges, more correctly known known as ‘narrow boats’. They had to be narrow enough to negotiate some of the narrower canals that formed part of the canal network.  Prior to the development of steam and other kinds of engines, and even for some years after these became available, the narrow boats were towed by horses. These creatures walked along paths known as ‘towpaths’ that run along one or other side of a canal, except when a canal passed through a tunnel. In the tunnels there were no towpaths, and the boats were propelled by the feet of men lying either above the load on the boat or sometimes on planks projecting from the sides of the vessel, a process known as ‘legging’. The boatmen’s feet literally walked along the tunnel walls, thus moving the boat. Meanwhile, the towing horses walked over the hill through which the tunnel passed. All of this interesting but becomes even more so if you can experience a trip on a canal in a narrow boat.

Several companies offer canal trips between Little Venice (near London’s Paddington) and Camden Lock, east of it. We chose to travel on “Jason”, a narrow boat built in 1906 and one of the last of its era, which is still in use. “Jason” has been little modified compared to others that ply the route along the Regents Canal, a branch of the Grand Union Canal system. “Jason”, which was originally horse-drawn, has been fitted with a diesel engine that occupies part of the small rear located cabin that was once the home to a boatman and his family. Passengers sit in the long, narrow freight hold of the boat under an awning that was added when “Jason” was converted from a freight carrier to a tourist vessel, which has been doing the tours since 1951. Unlike most of the other tourist boats, there are no windows separating passengers from the exterior. This provides for great viewing along the route without the hindrance of sometimes not too clean glass, which might be encountered in other vessels.

The tour starts from a landing stage next to Blomfield Road, close to the cast-iron bridge that carries Westbourne Terrace Road over the Paddington Arm of the Grand Union Canal. At the other end of the trip, passengers disembark or embark next to the popular (not with me) and rather ‘tacky’ Camden Lock Market. The cruise between the two landing stages takes 45 minutes and is highly enjoyable. Travelling eastwards from Little Venice, we were given an extremely clear and intelligent commentary by a lady called Sarah. Various things she told us made a strong impression on me.

The Regents Canal that links Paddington Basin to Limehouse Basin in east London, where it leads to other canals, used to carry a wide range of goods, from coal to cocoa. The waterway passes under both rail and road bridges. Many of the latter have curved arches over the canal; are made of stone; and look older than the rail bridges, most of which have rectangular arches with roofs consisting of metal plates screwed together. Over the years, the tow ropes drawing the narrow boats have cut grooves or notches in the corners of the bridges next to the towpath. Some of the bridges have been protected from this damage by iron brackets placed so that the ropes passed over these instead of the masonry of the bridge. These metal protectors, which were easily replaceable, can now be seen to be notched where the ropes have abraded them.

“Jason”, like most other narrow boats, has a flat bottom and a shallow draught. This is because the water most of the canal system is quite shallow, usually not more than 6 feet deep. The bottom of “Jason” is made of wood (probably elm) and iron, a combination known as a ‘composite’ construction. Few narrow boats with this kind of construction exist today.

The most fascinating thing that Sarah told us related to the history of Lord’s Cricket Ground. In 1787, Thomas Lord (1755-1832), a professional cricket player, opened his first cricket ground in what is now Dorset Square (close to Baker Street Underground station). In 1809, Lord shifted his cricket ground to another location because the rent at his Dorset Square site became too high. The new location was on some disused ground just south of the present Lord’s Cricket Ground. It was where today the Regents Canal emerges from the eastern end of the 272-yard-long Maida Hill Tunnel. Let me explain.

In 1813, Parliament altered the route of the proposed Regents Canal so that it passed right through Mr Lord’s recently relocated cricket ground (www.lords.org/lords/our-history/timeline). Mr Lord was unhappy about this and was not prepared to give up his ground without first going to court. According to our guide, Lord struck a deal with the government. He agreed to move to a new site providing he was given all the earth that was excavated during the construction of the Maida Hill Tunnel. He used the vast amount of excavated earth to lay out the ground on which the present Lord’s Cricket pitches are now located.

Concerning construction, Sarah told us that not only had the tunnels been dug by hand, but also the entire canal system. Most of the manual workers were Irish and were known as ‘navigational engineers’, or ‘navvies’ for short. The base of the Regents Canal is lined with compressed clay to make it watertight, a difficult process when the canal was built.

The cruise between Little Venice and Camden passes through a variety of landscapes, ranging from disused industrial to almost bucolic. The canal passes through the northern edge of Regents Park, where it is lined with trees and parkland. In this stretch of the canal, it is difficult to believe one is in the middle of a huge metropolis and not in the deep countryside.  The waterway also passes through the London Zoo. On one side, if you are lucky, you can catch glimpses of African hunting dogs and the occasional warthog in their cages overlooking the canal. Opposite them on the northern bank of the canal is Lord Snowdon’s aviary, now devoid of birds and awaiting a new purpose.

The 45-minute cruise provides an enchanting view of several districts of London. The commentary provided by Sarah and what she pointed out along the route helps recreate in one’s mind the golden age of canal transport. We enjoyed the cruise in both directions and hope that many others will take advantage of the special experience that it provides. For booking details and other practical information, consult “Jason’s” website: www.jasons.co.uk/the-tour

Where seven streets meet

SEVEN ROADS MEET at a point in London called Seven Dials. A column with seven sundials attached to it stands in the middle of the circle where they meet. Long ago, on the 5th of October 1694, the writer and diarist John Evelyn (1620-1706) noted that he went:

“…to see the building beginning near St. Giles’s, where seven streets make a star from a Doric pillar placed in the middle of a circular area; said to be built by Mr. Neale, introducer of the late lotteries, in imitation of those at Venice, now set up here, for himself twice, and now one for the State.”

The pillar with sundials facing in seven directions was erected in 1694 by Edward Pierce (1630-1695) and Thomas Neale (1641-1699). Pierce was a sculptor, architect, and stonemason. Neale was a Member of Parliament for 30 years; Master of the Mint; gambler; and entrepreneur. His achievements included:

“…development of Seven Dials, Shadwell (including brewing and Navy victualling), East Smithfield and Tunbridge Wells, to land drainage, steel and papermaking, mining in Maryland and Virginia, raising shipwrecks, to developing a dice to check cheating at gaming. He was also the author of numerous tracts on coinage and fund-raising and was involved in the idea of a National Land Bank, the precursor of the Bank of England. The extent of his interests – as a prominent Hampshire figure, as a member of the Royal Household, as a long-standing MP serving on dozens of Committees and as the promoter of an extraordinary plethora of projects” (www.sevendials.com/history/thomas-neale-1641-1699).

In July 1773, the column bearing the seven dials was removed because it was believed that there was a substantial amount of money hidden beneath it, so wrote Peter Cunningham in his Handbook of London (1850). None was found. Another theory suggests that the pillar was removed:

“… to rid the area of the undesirables who congregated around it. The remains of the column were later moved to the garden of the architect James Paine (Junior) at Sayes Court, Addlestone, but not re-erected.” (www.sevendials.com/resources/Seven_Dials_History_of_the_Area_by_Dr_John_Martin_Robinson.pdf)

It was not until 1989 that the demolished column was replaced. It was reconstructed according to Pierce’s original design that is lodged in the British Library. The new column was unveiled by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands on the 29th of June 1989.

The entrepreneur Thomas Neale would have approved of a venture that commenced in his Seven Dials district in 1976. That year, Nicholas Saunders (1938-1998) opened his Whole Food Warehouse in a disused warehouse in Neal’s Yard (formerly ‘Kings Head Court’), named in memory of Thomas Neale. In Saunder’s words:

“I decided to start a wholefood shop which I would like myself – one that was cheap, efficient and would not make customers feel bad because they could not recognise a mung bean. At that time wholefood shops were mostly of the hippy style – folksy looking with open sacks and used paper bags; nice meeting places for the in-groups but hopelessly inefficient, expensive and tending to make ordinary people feel like intruders.” (https://nealsyardlondon.co.uk/history/).

His venture proved successful. Various other businesses including Neal’s Yard Remedies, Neal’s Yard Dairy, Casanova & daughters, and Wild Food Café, opened nearby. Saunders wrote:

“The Yard has developed into a social scene. Even though the businesses are each independent, everyone who works in them, and many of the regular customers, identify with the place. In fact most of the workers are customers who had asked for a job. My old idea of a village community has manifested in the form of a community of small businesses, each one individual and free to go its own way. It is rather like a family, with me as a father and the businesses as my grown-up children.”

Although we made our last visit to Neal’s Yard in the middle of the covid19 pandemic, when the place was empty and closed, it is safe to say that the Yard continues to be a vibrant ‘social scene’ and its shops are still thriving despite the fact that shops supplying ‘whole foods’ have multiplied considerably since Neal’s Yard was established. Saunders is commemorated in the Yard by a wall mounted plaque.

Apart from selling food and remedies, Neal’s Yard was home to the film studio run by Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam between 1976 and 1987. It was here that they edited the Monty Python series of films.

One of the entrances to Neals Yard is an alleyway leading from Monmouth Street (formerly ‘Great St Andrew Street’), one of the seven streets leading to the Seven Dials. The street is home to one of London’s older still existing French restaurants, Mon Plaisir, which is close to Neals Yard and was founded long before Saunders established his venture. The brothers David and Jean Viala started the eatery in the 1940s.

My parents moved from South Africa and settled in London in the late 1940s, by which time Mon Plaisir was serving customers. I do not know when my parents first ate there, but during my childhood I remember it as being one of their favourite places at which to to eat out. Until 1972, when new management took over the restaurant, Mon Plaisir occupied one shopfront. Its characteristic quirky décor rich in everyday French posters and other ephemera remains substantially unchanged since the 1940s. As a child during the 1960s, I was taken there infrequently. I remember liking it. One thing that I recall was that the toilets were approached through a doorway at the end of the restaurant furthest away from the street. An artist’s palette was nailed above the doorway. It bore the words “Le Pipi Room”. On a visit made this century to the enlarged restaurant, I noted that the sign had disappeared. When life returns to ‘normal’ again, another meal at Mon Plaisir is on our ‘to do’ menu.

During my childhood, the Seven Dials did not make any impression on me. I knew about Mon Plaisir, but never ventured south the few yards to the Dials. With the opening of the Donmar Theatre on Earlham Street, another of the roads leading to the Dials, in 1977, which we have visited often, the Seven Dials entered my London radar.

Before ending this somewhat rambling piece, here is a true story about the theatre. Soon after it opened, an American friend, a keen theatregoer who was midway in age between my parents and me, invited me to join her at a performance at the Donmar. It was a play with a Chinese theme. We were seated in the front row, literally on the stage. My friend who had long legs, stretched them out onto the stage and the actors had to take care not to trip over them. Halfway through one of the acts, my friend began fumbling in her large bag and withdrew a thermos flask. She removed the lid, which served as a cup, and gave it to me to hold. Then, she filled the cup with hot soup, which she proceeded to drink whilst the drama unfolded in front of us. I often wonder what the actors, who were so near us, thought when they saw a member of the audience enjoying her picnic in front of them.

The Seven Dials and the streets radiating from the column are full of fascinating buildings, some old and others new and there are plenty of shops to explore apart from those pioneering wholefood shops in Neals Yard. If you can manage to get a ticket to the Donmar, and this is quite hard if you are not on their advance booking scheme, then it is often worth watching a performance there.

Watching stars where horses drink

FOUR MILES FROM ST GILES Pound and four and a half miles from ‘Holborn Bars’, there stands a white stone milepost close to a pond at one of the highest places in north London. This pond in Hampstead got its name Whitestone because of its proximity to this white milepost.  Originally known as ‘Horse Pond’, it was a place where horses could drink and wash their hooves. The pond was supplied with ramps to allow easier access for the horses. These were preserved when the pond’s surrounding banks were extensively renovated in 2010.

The pond used to be supplied by dew and rainfall but was later kept filled by water from the mains water supply, which is fortunate given how little rain falls during some periods of the year. Being a shallow pool in an exposed location so high above sea level (443 feet), it is often covered with ice in cold weather.

A tall flagstaff stands a few feet west of the pond. This marks the spot where there was once a beacon that formed part of a network of beacons that could be lit to communicate with each other during the 16th century when the threat of invasion by the Spanish armed fleet was feared. The beacon by the Pond was the most northerly of a series of beacons which originated on the cliffs at St Margarets near Dover. This network can be seen on old maps such as that drawn by William Lambarde (1536-1601) in 1570, several years before the arrival of the famous Spanish Armada. Currently, the only purpose of the tall white pole is to fly the red and white flag of the City of London high above the pond.

High as the pond is, it is not the highest point in Hampstead. That honour goes to the small observatory on the top of the reservoir just south of the pond. This point is 449 feet above sea level. The reservoir is a:

“… wonderful example of mid Victorian architecture … The reservoir and railings were constructed in 1856 for the New River Company to serve Hampstead with the water being delivered by pipes from Highgate. The company was absorbed into the Metropolitan Water Board in 1902.” (http://www.ianclarkrestoration.com/122/Hampstead_Reservoir,_London_-_Thames_Water/).

This structure is inaccessible to the public, but the observatory perched on top of it is, in normal times, opened to the public occasionally.

The small observatory topped with a dome was established in 1910 by the Hampstead Scientific Society (www.hampsteadscience.ac.uk/astro/history.html). It can be seen best from Lower Terrace. The first secretaries of the Society were two keen astronomers, Patrick Hepburn and PE Vizard. The first telescope, a ten-and-a-half-inch reflecting telescope, was donated by Colonel Henry Heberden on condition that it be used by members of the public. In normal times, the observatory is still open to the public on clear nights. At the beginning of the 20th century, nights were much clearer than they became later and valuable observations could be made. As time passed, both dust and light pollution have rendered it far more difficult to make any observations at all. In addition to astronomical uses, the observatory is home to a collection of devices used in meteorology. The weather station at the observatory has the longest continuous record of climate measurements for any still extant meteorological site in Greater London, having begun in 1909 (www.weather-uk.com/page2.html).

Returning to the Pond, I remember that during my childhood, the traffic around it was terrible, especially during rush-hours. It became even worse when police officers arrived to try to control it. While I was studying at Highgate School, there was an extremely bright boy in my year group, ‘B-W’ was his surname. During physics classes, he appeared not to pay attention to the teacher because he was too busy designing complicated electronic circuits. When we took our physics mock-O’Level examination, he was the only person in the class to pass it, exceeding the pass mark by a large margin. My result in this test was a miserable 15%, which was five times higher than the boy with the lowest mark. In case you are wondering, I did well during the actual examination a few months later.

One morning, B-W arrived at school and showed us a complicated diagram. It was his proposal for a scheme that should allow traffic to flow smoothly around Whitestone Pond (where five major roads meet). It is a long time since I saw the scheme that he designed, but I would not be surprised if it is much the same as the much-improved traffic flow system that exists today and was only instituted a few years ago.

The Pond has been part of my life intermittently since my earliest days. In the late 1950s, and early 1960s, my parents and I used to walk past it every Saturday morning on our way to the shops in the centre of Hampstead. During the ‘80s, and ‘90s, I used to drive past it on my way to see my father and other members of my family, who lived in the Hampstead Garden Suburb, which is north of the Pond. More recently, my wife and I have been finding that visiting Hampstead, which has a rich history and many attractive old buildings, is a lovely way to pass time and enjoy fresh air. Whitestone Pond and the carpark nearby make for a good starting point for a stroll through a part of London that has to a large extent resisted the ravages of time and so-called ‘progress’.

A year has passed

EXACTLY A YEAR AGO, at the end of November 2019, we were staying at the Tollygunge Club in south Calcutta. Every morning after breakfast, I would set out for a morning walk on the golf course as the air temperature began to climb rapidly towards 30 degrees Celsius. Being careful to avoid the golfers and their shots, I wandered away from the club buildings towards the far reaches of the luxuriant course. On my way, I passed the numerous obese dogs that hang around the club waiting for careless human snack eaters to drop bits of food. Further on, apart from the occasional players, I greeted the white egrets, which hastened away as I approached them. Then, as the club buildings grew smaller as I walked away from them, I often came across the jackals that sun themselves on the bunkers and putting greens. As I aimed my camera towards them, they would look at me suspiciously before slinking slowly into the clumps of bushes and shrubs dotted about in the grounds. Some mornings, I watched horses being taken for exercise and every morning I encountered people, both slender and not so sleek, either running or walking, usually viewing the screens on their mobile telephones. That was a year ago. And after leaving Calcutta, we told our friends and family there that we were sure to be back again in a year’s time.

It is said that one should not count one’s chickens before they hatch. Little did we know back then in Calcutta that a year later at the end of November 2020 we would not be in Calcutta in the Indian winter warmth, but in Bushy Park (near Twickenham) on a misty morning when the air temperature was about 3 degrees Celsius. We had visited Bushy Park about a month or so earlier in bright sunshine when the large carpark was almost full of cars. Today, on the last day of November, the carpark was less than a quarter full and the mist almost hid the tops of the tallest trees. The damp air felt bitterly cold, a feeling enhanced by the gloomy grey sky overhead that became visible as the mist dispersed.

Despite the greyness and cool air and our frozen hands, we enjoyed a brief walk in the Woodland Gardens, which are surrounded by a fence to stop the entry of the local wildlife, not jackals as in Calcutta but numerous deer, formerly the prey of the aristocratic hunters of yesteryear. A stream winds through the woodland area, widening sometimes to become like a pond. No egrets here, but plenty of ducks, gulls, and a few Egyptian Geese. Nor were there any golfers with their caddies and trolleys. Instead, there were plenty of parents, mostly younger than us, with their infants in buggies, and also some grandparents. Instead of being able to retire to the Shamiana bar, after the walk, for a coffee or, more likely in Calcutta, a tea,  we headed for a small window in the otherwise closed Bushy Park Pheasantry Café to buy hot drinks to take away. The wooden tables and chairs under the trees nearby were, as a notice put it: “Out of Bounds”, just as Calcutta is for us now, because of the blasted covid19 pandemic.

Methods are being employed to attempt to reduce the spread of the virus both here in the UK and in India. Much emphasis is put on trying to minimise association with other people. We try to do this as much as possible, but this does not stop us from getting out and about.  In contrast, many of our friends and family in India have been far more cautious than many in the UK, hardly leaving their home for weeks and months on end. I am not at all sure that we could manage to remain inside our flat for so long especially if the weather here was as warm and sunny as it is in India. We wrap up warmly and venture out into the cold whenever possible and that has helped to keep us feeling sane during this frightening plague. As a Norwegian said on BBC Radio 4 some weeks ago:

“There is no such thing as bad weather. There is just bad clothing.”