A hill of memories

PRIMROSE HILL IN NORTH LONDON is a delightful place to take exercise. From its summit at 210 feet above sea-level, it is possible to enjoy a superb panorama of London if the weather permits. At its summit, a low concrete construction is inscribed with the words the poet William Blake (1757-1827) told the lawyer, diarist, and a founder of University College London, Henry Crabb Robinson (1775-1867):

“I have conversed with the spiritual Sun. I saw him on Primrose Hill”

In one of his poems, Blake wrote:

“The fields from Islington to Marybone,

To Primrose Hill and Saint John’s Wood,

Were builded over with pillars of gold,

And there Jerusalem’s pillars stood.”

On a recent visit to Primrose Hill in January 2021, when the temperature was at the freezing point of water and London was covered by low cloud, we had no sight of the sun, spiritual or otherwise. Nevertheless, we had an enjoyable stroll that evoked many memories. One of these was when I studied at University College London. If I felt energetic, I used to walk the five or so miles to college from my home in Hampstead Garden Suburb. Part of my route was up and over Primrose Hill.

The gardens on the south side of Elsworthy Road back on to the northern base of the hill. It was on this road that my parents, newly married in 1948, lived briefly in a flat that they rented from the economist Ronald Coase (1910-2013). My mother told me that amongst the furniture in the flat there was a record player with a gigantic horn as its speaker. 46 years later, my father and my stepmother bought a house on the road. He lived there until he died last year.

Elsworthy Terrace, a cul-de-sac, leads from Elsworthy Road to Primrose Hill. The botanist and first female botanist to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, Agnes (née Robertson) Arber (1879-1960), lived at number 9 between 1890 and 1909, when she married the paleobotanist Edward Alexander Newell Arber (1870–1918). The Terrace leads to one of the many footpaths that form a crisscrossing network all over the grassy hill that has well-spaced trees of varying shapes and sizes. Plenty of these were covered with frost. Many of the paths meet at the treeless summit of the hill where, if you are lucky with the weather, you can enjoy a good view.

Primrose Hill, first opened to the public in 1842, was part of land appropriated for hunting by King Henry VIII. The earliest mention of its name was in the 15th century. In October 1678, the body of the anti-Catholic magistrate Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey (1621-1678) was found on Primrose Hill, marked with signs of strangulation and other bruises. The identity of his killer(s) remains a mystery. The hill was also the site of duels including one in about 1813 when the Italian patriot Ugo Foscolo (1778-1827) faced Mr Graham, the editor of the “Literary Museum”. The dispute that led to this was about his ‘Three Graces’:

“The Three Graces were his maidservants; two of them turned out to be prostitutes, and one of them ran off with his former translator. This led to a duel, whether in Regent’s Park or Primrose Hill is not clear; fortunately no blood was shed.” (www.regentsparklit.org.uk/authors_e_i.htm#Foscolo)

The southern edge of the hill is bounded by the Regents Canal, designed by John Nash (1752-1835), first used in about1816. We walked eastwards along the towpath from the elegant bridge number 10 to the point where the canal makes a right angle and heads under the Water Meeting road bridge and towards Camden Lock. This stretch of the canal has the London Zoo on both of its banks. On the north side of the canal, we passed the aviary designed by Lord Snowdon in 1964. One of Snowdon’s collaborators was Frank Newby, who was a colleague of my uncle Sven Rindl, a structural engineer at the Felix Samuely company.  On the opposite bank we passed the Giraffe House and the wild hunting dog’s enclosure, where we spotted several of these beasts prowling about. Moored at the corner where the canal changes direction, you cannot miss seeing an old-fashioned boat that looks as if it has sailed from China. This houses the ‘Feng Shang Princess’ floating Chinese restaurant, which was already built by the 1980s.

The Victorian gothic St Marks Church is flanked on two sides by the canal and on another by a short street, St Marks Square. The church, which is not particularly attractive, was consecrated in 1853, damaged during WW2, and rebuilt by 1957.  The northern edge of the church’s ground is on the southern side of Regents Park Road.

Heading west away from the church, we reach number 52 Regents Park Road. It was here that four of my good friends including the author and art historian Michael Jacobs (1952-2014) lived as ‘house-sitters’ for its then owner Rudi ‘G’ during the 1970s. The road flanks the north-eastern edge of Primrose Hill before curving eastwards and becoming an upmarket shopping street.

Since 1979, a Greek restaurant called Lemonia has been flourishing in Regents Park Road. Originally, this was housed in premises on the east side of Regents Park Road. Then, it moved to larger premises across the road in 1992. For a while, its original premises, remained part of the restaurant but renamed ‘Limonaki’. This has disappeared. The lady, who has become my wife, lived for a few months during the spring of 1983 in an avant-garde dwelling in Eglon Mews, close to the shops in Regents Park Road. It was then that she ‘discovered’ Lemonia, which became one of our favourite restaurants for several years. We held a few birthday parties there. Much later, when my father came to Elsworthy Road, he and my Greek stepmother became keen users of this friendly eatery. Nearby, is the independent Primrose Hill Books shop, a handy source of reading matter for the many local inhabitants with intellectual leanings, real or imagined.

These long-established businesses are in the midst of a good range of shops, offering a wide variety of goods. as well as cafés and restaurants and a pub. I can heartily recommend taking some physical exercise on Primrose Hill before acquiring something to stretch your mind at the bookshop (sadly not open at the moment), and taking refreshment in a pleasant, faintly Bohemian but distinctly bourgeois environment.

Plants, electricity, and Mill Hill

AN AGED BRICK WALL, clearly once the boundary of the grounds of a grand house, runs along part of The Ridgeway in London’s Mill Hill. It bears a plaque commemorating the fact that this was once the site of Ridgeway House, the home of Peter Collinson (1694-1768), author, naturalist, and botanist. This was not a name with which I was familiar, yet he played an important part in the scientific life of 18th century London and further afield.

Peter Collinson, born a Quaker, the son of the owner of a textile business, was unable to attend university in Britain because in his time members of that branch of Christianity were not admitted. He inherited his father’s business and taught himself to such an extent and to such a high level that in 1728 he became a member of the prestigious Royal Society (www.londongardenstrust.org/features/millhill.htm provides a good biography of Collinson). His greatest interest was plants and gardening, and he was responsible for importing many plants such as magnolias, kalmias, rhododendrons, azaleas and cedars of Lebanon, which were then relatively new to the UK, into the country. He imported these plants in great quantities so that these could be planted all over the country and thereby enriched and transformed the landscape. His legacy may be seen in many of the landscaped gardens of the country’s great houses.

When Collinson’s father-in-law died in 1748, he inherited Ridgeway House in Mill Hill, which was built in about 1525, and moved there from Peckham. Apparently:

“The house had no particular architectural merit; it was described as “double-fronted” with French windows” that open onto the garden.”

Not only did he move his family from Peckham but also all the plants he had been growing there. At Mill Hill he created a wonderful garden, about which he wrote:

“Very few gardens if any excel mine at Mill Hill for the rare exotics which are my delight.”

(Both quotes from www.mhps.org.uk/collinson/botanical-contribution.asp#millhill).

Collinson became a good friend to a frequent visitor to England, the American Benjamin Franklin (1705/6-1790), who became a vegetarian in his teens, but is better-known for other achievements. Many of these were in the field of scientific research. The two men corresponded regularly (https://founders.archives.gov/search/Correspondent%3A%22Collinson%2C%20Peter%22%20Correspondent%3A%22Franklin%2C%20Benjamin%22). Much of the contents of their letters that sailed across the Atlantic concerned the exciting discoveries that Franklin was making in fields such as electricity. In the letter dated 28th of March 1747, Franklin thanked Collinson for his:

“… kind present of an electric tube, with directions for using it, has put several of us on making electrical experiments, in which we have observed some particular phaenomena that we look upon to be new. I shall, therefore communicate them to you in my next, though possibly they may not be new to you, as among the numbers daily employed in those experiments on your side the water, ’tis probable some one or other has hit on the same observations.”

Other matters were also discussed. For example, in a letter dated 9th of May 1753, Franklin wrote to Collinson:

“I have often observed with wonder, that Temper of the poor English Manufacturers and day Labourers which you mention,  and acknowledge it to be pretty general. When any of them happen to come here, where Labour is much better paid than in England, their Industry seems to diminish in equal proportion. But it is not so with the German Labourers; They retain the habitual Industry and Frugality they bring with them, and now receiving higher Wages an accumulation arises that makes them all rich.”

Much of Collinson’s correspondence with Franklin was to keep the latter up to date with scientific developments in Europe, especially those relating to new German experimentation with electricity. And much of Franklin’s correspondence with Collinson reported the results of his experiments with electricity in America, which Collinson conveyed to The Royal Society. It was these letters that were the basis of a book published by the Royal society in 1751, “Experiments and Observations on Electricity”, which is one of the most important scientific publications to emerge from 18th century America.

I cannot discover for sure whether Franklin ever visited Collinson in Mill Hill. However, Collinson did host the Swedish naturalist Daniel Solander (1733-1782), assistant to the great Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), at Ridgeway House. Linnaeus had earlier visited Collinson in Peckham. The Victorian guidebook writer James Thorne suggests that Linnaeus himself  also visited Collinson at Ridgeway House.

Solander travelled to England in 1760 to promote the system of classification of biological organisms devised by Linnaeus. In 1753, Linnaeus named a genus of flowering plants, ‘Collinsonia’, to honour Collinson. It was Collinson, who got Solander the job of classifying the natural history specimens in Sir Hans Sloane’s collection, which formed the basis of the recently established (1753) British Museum, which opened to the public in 1759. It was the combined efforts of Collinson and Solander that persuaded the British to accept the Linnean system of classification. In 1768, Solander was one of the participants on Captain Cook’s first voyage to the Pacific Ocean, and thus became the first Swede to circumnavigate the Earth.

Collinson died in 1768. From 1801, his property at mill Hill was owned by the botanist Richard Anthony Salisbury (1761-1829), a founder member and the founder Secretary of the Royal Horticultural Society. In 1807, he sold it to the group who founded the Protestant Dissenters Grammar School. the forerunner of Mill Hill School. Apart from six trees in the school’s grounds, much of Collinson’s collection of plants has disappeared. Ridgeway House, which housed the school at first, was demolished in 1826 when the present grand school buildings were constructed. Collinson would have been pleased to know that Mill Hill School was:

“… first educational establishment to provide a first class education for the sons of dissenters, those whose religious or philosophical outlook did not conform to that of the state and who, like Collinson, a Quaker, were barred from the attending the established seats of learning.” (www.mhps.org.uk/collinson/botanical-contribution.asp#millhill).

When I saw the old wall running beside the Ridgeway in Mill Hill and what was written on the plaque affixed to it, little did I realise that such an important man in the scientific community of the 18th century had lived on the other side of it.

A beautiful bank

FOUR THOUSAND THREE HUNDRED FLOWERS of Crocus sativus needed to be picked in order to produce an ounce (about 28 grams) of saffron in the sixteenth century. I learned this from a magnificent guidebook to East Anglia, written by Peter Sager. The fields surrounding the town of Saffron Walden in Essex used to be filled with the crocuses that were the source of the precious food additive saffron. The saffron industry flourished around the town during the 16th and 17th centuries, but by the 19th century the fields that had once been filled with crocuses became filled with barley. Even though the precious product saffron is hardly produced any more, Saffron Walden is a pleasant small town filled with interesting old buildings. One of these, which is far from being the oldest, now houses the local branch of Barclays Bank.

The centre of the square marketplace in Saffron Walden contains a tall ornate Victorian drinking fountain. This was designed by J F Bentley (1839-1902; architect of London’s Westminster Cathedral) and erected in 1862 to commemorate the marriage of Edward, Prince of Wales. The sides of the marketplace are lined with interesting eye-catching buildings. The Saffron Walden Library on the west side of the square is striking. This building was once the Corn Exchange. It was built in about 1847, possibly designed by R Tress. There is a sculpted ram’s head above the neo-classical pillar-flanked main entrance, which is below an ornate clock tower. I noticed that depictions of animals also adorn the façade of the former Corn Exchange in Bury St Edmunds.  Peter Sager wrote that the ram is placed there in memory of the former, now demolished Woolstaplers Hall that once stood where the library now stands. During the 20th century, the building’s interior was modified to accommodate the town’s library, which was founded in 1832.

SAF 2

The south side of the square has a building with a ground level loggia and elegant half-timbering covering the upper storeys.  It looks mediaeval at first glance. But it is much too well-preserved to be that old.  This Victorian construction, now the Saffron Walden Tourist Information Centre, is also the Town Hall. The structure was built in 1761 and then extensively remodelled and enlarged in 1879 with money donated by George Stacey Gibson (1818-1883), a former Mayor of the town about whom I will soon reveal more.

The Saffron Walden branch of Barclays Bank is on the east side of the square and faces the library. The brick building that houses it, and which was designed by WE Nesfield (1835-1888) and built in 1874, is imposing. It has a large area of windows, each one framed by white masonry. A decorated lead frieze runs above the second floor and below the tiled roof with dormer windows and attractive brick chimney stacks. The main entrance is beneath a gothic arch, which is flanked by bas-relief depictions of birds with long necks and beaks, probably pelicans. Wooden doors near the entrance bear wood carvings that depict the letters “TG” and the date “1874”. Well-worn brass plates on the bank’s inner set of entrance doors read “Gibsons Bank”.

The first room that is reached from the entrance contains its original decorative features. These include a patterned stuccoed ceiling, a stone-framed fireplace with a colourfully tiled interior and fancy brass fire irons. There is wood panelling above the hearth and along the top of the windows in the wall separating this room from others deeper inside the building. The strip of panelling above the internal windows is richly carved with a variety of animals and birds. The rooms further inside the bank have been modernised to serve the requirements of current banking procedures.

Gibsons Bank, or to give it its full name ‘Gibson, Tuke and Gibson’, was also known as ‘Saffron Walden and North Essex Bank’, and ‘Saffron Walden and Bishop’s Stortford Bank’. It was established in 1824 by the Gibsons, a local Quaker brewing family. In 1863, Murray Tuke joined the surviving member of the Gibson family as a partner in the bank, hence the ‘TG’ we noticed on the door. That surviving Gibson was Tuke’s brother-in-law, George Stacey Gibson.

George joined the family bank in 1836 and became a partner in 1840. In addition to attending to the bank and innumerable civic duties, he became a renowned book collector and a serious botanist. In 1862, he published a flora of Essex. “This identified over 1,000 species of flowering plants and ferns, including four that were found only in Essex. “Flora of Essex” sealed Gibson’s reputation as a botanist and for the next century it was regarded as the definitive work on Essex botany” (see: http://www.hundredparishes.org.uk/). He was also the ‘discoverer’ of five flowering plant species that were new to Britain in the early 1840s.  

After his father died in 1862, George had to dedicate most of his time to the bank, his work on the Town Council, and charitable commitments, many of which related to the Society of Friends. He died at the Devonshire House Temperance Hotel in Bishopsgate Street, City of London, from inflammation of the kidneys.

In 1896, the bank, which had been associated with Fordham, Gibson and Co of Royston since 1880, became one of the twenty banks that joined together to form the Barclays Bank consortium. Another bank to join this group in 1896 was Goslings in London’s Fleet Street. Happily, Barclays have managed to preserve some of the original architectural features of both Gosling’s and Gibson’s historic premises. Even if you do not need to cash a cheque or deposit some money, visits to both of these formerly independent banks will provide a feast for the eyes.

PS: I have concentrated on the buildings in the marketplace of Saffron Walden, but must tell you, dear reader, that there is plenty more to see in the town including a fine parish church, many picturesque old buildings,  and the impressive ruins of a mediaeval castle.

Good lasters

 

My fiancé and I were walking through a shopping mall in Gillingham (Kent) in about 1993 when we spotted a flowers seller. We stopped to look at what he had on offer and spotted a kind of flower that we had never seen before.

Later, I discovered that they were bunches of alstroemeria flowers. Also known as ‘Peruvian lilies’ and ‘lily of the Incas’, they were named ‘alstroemeria’ by Carl Linnaeus in honour of his friend Clas Alströmer (1736–1794), a Swedish baron.

We bought a bunch from the florist. As we paid, he said:

“They’re good lasters. Should last you a week or two.”

And, so they were. Now, over 25 years since we married, whenever we see alstroemeria on sale, we buy them not only for their longevity, but also because they are very attractive.

 

Glass in the garden

 

Once again, London’s Kew Gardens is hosting an exhibition of glass sculptures by Dale Chihuly (born 1941). The amazingly crafted glass artworks of often quite complex design have been placed both in the open-air and inside some of Kew’s lovely old glass-houses. 

The curvy tubes with pointed ends shown in my photograph have been tastefully planted in a grassy field dotted with tulips. In the Temperate House, a large glass mobile has been suspended from the ceiling and smaller objects mingle with the plants. Wherever you look, you will find glass artefacts in  intimate contact with the plants growing around them. In the Water-Lily House, large glass sulptures evoking the flowers of water-lillies mingle with the real plants whose fronds float on the water.

As time passes and the plants grow more, some of Chihuly’s colourful glass objects will become harder to find.  The plant-like forms of many of the artworks mix with the plants to provide in some cases a stark contrast or in others they almost blend with the plants around them.

It is well worth visiting Kew whilst these sculptures are on display. However much I like the glass artworks, the stars of the show are for me the plants themselves (rather than the sculptures). This highlights how difficult it is for man to compete with nature on the aesthetic playing field.

 

The Chihuly works are on display at Kew Gardens until the 27th October 2019