Up and down Molesworth Street

YOU CAN BYPASS the small town of Wadebridge in Cornwall by speeding along the A39 road, which extends from Bath in Somerset to Falmouth in Cornwall, but that would be a pity because it is a charming town. Wadebridge thrives because of its fine bridge across the River Camel. The great writer Daniel Defoe (c1660-1731) wrote about the town and nearby Padstow in his “A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain”, published 1724-26, as follows:

“Padstow is a large town, and stands on a very good harbour for such shipping as use that coast, that is to say, for the Irish trade. The harbour is the mouth of the river Camel or Camal, which rising at Camelford, runs down by Bodmyn to Wodbridge or Wardbridge [sic], a large stone bridge of eight arches, or thereabouts, built by the general goodwill of the country gentlemen; the passage of the river there, before, being very dangerous, and having been the loss of some lives, as well as goods…”

Defoe noted that the passage from Wadebridge to Ireland via Padstow could be achieved in 24 hours. Thus, Wadebridge and its river crossing, now much widened since Defoe’s time, was an important stage for vehicles carrying passengers and goods between England and Ireland. The route for this transport would have been to first cross over the Camel on the bridge and then to proceed north westwards up the slope of Wadebridge’s then main thoroughfare, Molesworth Street. During daylight hours, most of this road is closed to motorised vehicles and provides a pleasant pedestrian precinct.

Molesworth Street is lined with shops, eateries, and some pubs. The Molesworth Arms, a former coaching inn, has existed since the 16th century. It was previously known by other names including The Fox, The King’s Arms and The Fountain. It got its present name in 1817. Nearer the bridge, there is The Swan Hotel near the old bridge, originally named ‘The Commercial’, is much newer than the Molesworth Arms. It was constructed the late 19th century.

I cannot explain why, but spending time on Molesworth Street always satisfies me. The recently opened (late 2021) Dollies café provides good coffee and exceptionally wonderful English breakfast items; everything is prepared freshly after ordering. Up the hill, stands Churchill Bars. Housed in the premises of the still functioning Wadebridge Conservative Club, it comprises a bar and a small restaurant named Winston’s. Popular with locals, this eatery serves generous helpings of lovingly prepared, tasty food. Its speciality, which is well worth trying, is roast belly pork served with roast potatoes, gravy, and vegetables (not overcooked). Unlike so many other places serving food in Cornwall, this place is good value and not pretentious.

Apart from several charity shops, a good newsagent, two butcher’s shops, a hardware store, banks, and so on, there is a small bookshop on Molesworth Street. This independent bookstore stocks a superb range of Cornwall-related books, both fiction and non-fiction. In a backroom, there is a large selection of second-hand books. Small booksellers such as this one on Molesworth Street make a welcome change from the countrywide bookshops such as Daunt’s, Waterstone’s, and WH Smiith’s.

Not as ‘trendy. as places such as Fowey, Falmouth, St Ives, and Padstow, Wadebridge seems a more ‘normal’ or ‘real’ kind of place, not wholly dependent on tourism. It is well placed to make excursions to places all over the county of Cornwall.

A Sunday afternoon in Hampstead and a bit of marketing

FROM CAMDEN TOWN, home of the busy Camden Lock and other popular markets, the 24-bus route more or less follows course of the now buried River Fleet, and ends at Hampstead’s South End Green. We disembarked at the Lawn Road bus stop on Fleet Road and walked the short distance to the Lawn Road Flats, also known as The Isokon. This building, inspired by the avant-garde housing projects in pre-WW2 Germany pioneered by the Bauhaus and similar institutions, was completed in 1934. A relatively bomb-proof structure, it was home to many people involved with cultural activities, including the author Agatha Christie (1890-1976), who wrote several of her novels whilst living there. The modernist block of flats still houses tenants. On Saturdays and Sundays, a small museum illustrating the history of this amazing edifice is open to the public. It contains photographs, information panels, and historical furniture items, all connected with the Isokon and its illustrious tenants. There is also a small, but well-stocked bookshop. It was here that I left several copies of my new book about Hampstead to be available for sale to visitors.

Bust of Agatha Christie at the Isokon Gallery in Hampstead

From the Isokon, we walked past South End Green and up Willow Road, which ascends ever more steeply as it approaches its northern end just near to Flask Walk and our next port of call, Burgh House. The house was constructed at the beginning of the 18th century. Here, we viewed the latest temporary exhibition, “John Cecil Stephenson: A Modernist in Hampstead”, which started at the beginning of April 2022. I will write more about this in a separate piece. Burgh House is home to a museum of the history of Hampstead and to a pleasant and popular café, which serves drinks and both hot and cold foods. The house also contains a small bookshop, well-stocked with a variety of books about Hampstead and artists associated with the place. I left several copies of my book about Hampstead to be sold there.

After spending a relaxing time in the Burgh House café, we wandered along Flask Walk, passing Keith Fawkes antiquarian bookshop, where copies of my book are on sale. Then, we walked onwards along the High Street and Perrins Court, where my father and I used to eat lunches at the Villa Bianca Italian restaurant. Reaching Heath Street, we passed the The Village Newsagent, which stocks my book (can you spot the theme emerging here?), and then entered Church Row. Halfway along it stands St John’s Parish Church.

The neo-classical church was completed in 1747. Twenty-three years before this, the “St Johns Passion” by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was first performed in the Church of St Nicholas in Leipzig. At 5pm on Sunday the 3rd of April (2022), we listened to a good performance of this wonderful piece of religious music in the Church of St John in Church Row. With a small choir, a competent orchestra, and excellent soloists, the acoustics were excellent. Very thoughtfully, foam rubber cushions are provided for improving the comfort of the seating in the wooden pews. I was pleased to note that the current (April) issue of the parish newsletter includes a note about my new book.

After watching a colourful sunset, we took a bus to Paddington, where we enjoyed a tasty meal at the Malaysian Tuk Din restaurant not far from the station.

My book “Beneath a Wide Sky: Hampstead and its Environs” is available in Hampstead at the following locations:

THE CAMDEN ART CENTRE (Arkwright Road)

KEITH FAWKES (Flask Walk)

ISOKON GALLERY (Lawn Road)

THE VILLAGE NEWSAGENT (Heath Street)

BURGH HOUSE (New End Square, near Flask Walk)

The book (and Kindle) is also available from Amazon (https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B09R2WRK92)

A bookshop in my memory

I HAVE LOVED BOOKSHOPS ever since I can remember. In my teenage years, I used to haunt the shelves of Foyles, a multi-storey bookshop in Tottenham Court Road. The store is named after its founders William and Gilbert Foyle, who established their business at Station Road in Peckham in 1903. A year later, they moved it to Cecil Court, an alley near Leicester Square, which still contains several bookshops. By 1906, Foyle’s had a branch on Charing Cross Road, which is where I got familiar with it.

BLOG FOYLES by Tarquin Binary

In the second half of the 1960s, Foyles was a very well-stocked bookstore even if it seemed a bit confusing to its customers. There were separate departments specialising in various topics distributed over at least three floors. I discovered soon enough that behind the bookshelves in some of the departments there were yet more shelves, and these contained second-hand and remaindered books often at reasonable prices. It was amongst these hidden shelves that I found a rather useless but picturesque road atlas to Bulgaria, published in Bulgarian, and a wonderful detailed street map of East Berlin, “Haupstadt der DDR”. This map carefully avoided mapping the city’s contiguous West Berlin. It gave the impression that East Berlin bordered the edge of an area of uninhabited desert.

The language department was very interesting. It stocked books on every language from A to Z. It was there that I discovered a copy of “A Short Albanian Grammar” by SE Mann, published in 1932. This hardback book with dark green board covers was priced at 15 shillings (i.e. 75 pence). I was particularly excited to find this volume as my interest in Albania was already becoming quite well-developed. However, 15 shillings was way beyond my budget in 1968. That year, I began studying biology for the A-Level examinations that had to be passed to enter university. It was then that a chance to obtain this book arose.  

During the first year of the A-Level course, I entered the school’s Bodkin Prize biology essay competition. I wrote a long treatise on the life of the woodlouse. This was my first ever bit of serious research. I visited the Science Library, which was then housed in a part of the then disused Whitely’s department store in Queensway. There, I translated a long article written in French about the reproductive system of the woodlouse. From what I can remember, the woodlouse can reproduce asexually, a process known as parthenogenesis.  I was awarded the second prize. The only other contestant was my classmate Timothy Clarke, whose older brother, Charles, was to become Home Secretary between 2004 and 2006. Tim won the first prize.

Thesecond prize was 15 shillings to be spent on books. I asked the school to spend that money on procuring me the copy of the Albanian grammar book in Foyles. To my great annoyance, my choice was turned down and I was asked to choose again, making sure that at least one book was a hardback, because it was to be embossed with the school’s crest. I chose two books. One was a costly paperback on genetics and the other was the cheapest hardback I could find. To this day, I still do not possess a copy of Mann’s book.

Returning to Foyle’s, let me tell you about its payment system, which resembled, so I was told, the system adopted by shops in the Soviet Union. First, you had to find a book you wished to purchase. Then, you took it to a desk in the department where it was shelved. A shop assistant took the book and wrote out a paper bill. Next, you had to take the bill to one of the few cash desks in the shop. After queuing, you parted with the correct amount of money and then the paper slip was stamped. Following this, you returned to the department where your book was being held and queued up again to exchange your stamped paper slip for the book, which you were then free to take away. This laborious payment system survives today in the government run khadi (home-spun materials) shops in India. These old-fashioned shops, often smelling of moth balls, are picturesque to say the least.

Foyles was bewildering to the newcomer stepping off the street. Like the tiny alleyways in Venice, it was a great place to lose your way. However, if a customer was looking for something specific, this was not helpful. So, quite sensibly, there used to be staff standing near the entrance to help customers find what they were seeking. Some of these no doubt poorly paid staff had poor command of the English language. On one occasion I heard the following:

“May I help, Sir?” asked a young lady with a strong Eastern European accent.

“I am looking for choral music.”

The assistant hesitated and then pointed at the escalator while saying:

“Please try the engineering department.”

That was long ago, back in the late 1960s.

Foyles moved out of its home on Charing Cross Road in 2011 and occupied another building a short way from it on the same street. Its current premises occupy part of the former St Martin School of Art, where my mother used to work in the sculpture studios in the 1960s. I no longer shop at Foyle’s but remember it fondly.

 

Picture by Tarquin Binary from Wikipedia

Something I am missing

BOOKS

During this time of avoiding other people for very good health reasons, many of the pleasures of normal life have become temporarily unavailable. Theatres, museums, pubs, restaurants, and  travel (foreign or local), are things we will only be able to enjoy again in some distant future.

Even though I am surrounded by, nay drowning in, more than enough unread books for several long lifetimes, I miss browsing in the local second-hand bookshops. I do not actually need to buy another book, but I know I will be purchasing many more, most of which might never be read for many years to come. 

I have an urge to browse regularly in bookshops. It does not matter if I come out of a shop empty-handed, because running my eyes along the shelf gives me an enormous amount of satisfaction. Yes, I need my regular fix of bookshelf browsing. Let it not be long before I can resume this enjoyable activity.