Piling it on along the canal

NEEDING BREAKFAST ON our way from Warwick to visit Baddesley Clinton House, we chose to stop at the Hatton Locks Café, which we had noticed on our road map. What we did not know is that the café is located next to the uppermost of a flight (or series) of 21 canal locks. The locks are situated on a stretch of the Grand Union Canal that was, when it opened in 1799, the Warwick and Birmingham Canal, which was built to carry locally mined coal for use in power stations and nearby factories (https://canalrivertrust.org.uk/enjoy-the-waterways/canal-history/history-features-and-articles/the-history-of-hatton-locks). It became an important transportation link between London and The Midlands.

 The 21 locks are spread along an almost 2 mile stretch of the canal and the towpath along this section of the waterway is popular with cyclists, walkers, and their dogs. Some of the locks are narrow. They were built when the canal was first constructed. Other locks on the flight are far wider. They were built in 1932 and allow two craft to use the lock simultaneously. The newer locks were built at a time when the canal system began to have to compete with motorised road and rail transport.

The café is about 310 yards northwest of a small car park and is reached by walking along the towpath. Near the café, there are some unusual looking tables and benches made of old timber. Most of the timber pieces are planks with a short semi-circular projection at one end. These wooden piles used to be driven into the floor of the canal between parallel wooden blocks that held them straight upright against the walls of the waterway. Their purpose was to prevent the banks of the canal from being eroded by the water flowing past them. Nowadays, they have been replaced by coir matting that serves the same purpose because it is considered to be more eco-friendly that timber. The wooden piles were driven into place by a mechanised hammer system aboard a motorised boat that plied along the canal. One of these boats, now disused, has been preserved near the café.

The locks on the Hatton Flight looked different from the many other canal locks we have seen on our travels around the country. Each lock is flanked by what looks like a pair of tall, stout candles. These things house the mechanisms that control the flow of water into the locks and are operated by canal users equipped with a special handle or windlass that fits onto a projection that is linked to the gearing that operates the valve.

The Hatton Locks Café is a real treat, both visually and gastronomically. Both inside and outside, it is decorated with a profusion of objects, some folkloric, some whimsical, and others related to the life and traditions on the canal. A team of friendly workers produce simple but excellently prepared English breakfast items as well as very acceptable coffees. So good was our breakfast that we made a detour to return to this place on the following morning. Most of the clientele seemed to be locals, many of whom were on friendly terms with the staff. Although we had only been once before on a busy morning, the staff remembered exactly what we ate and drank on the day before. When we are next nearby, we shall certainly visit this wonderful establishment again. On our next visit, we will join the other walkers and stroll past all the 21 locks.

Cafés with coffins in Ahmedabad and London

IN CENTRAL AHMEDABAD, a large city in India’s state of Gujarat, there is a curious café called Lucky. This popular eatery is not unusual because it does not serve coffee but because its tables and chairs are placed between Moslem graves. Lucky’s is sited on an old Moslem graveyard, but this does not put off a steady flow of customers from enjoying a wide variety of vegetarian snacks in this eatery. Closer to home, near the south side of London’s Lambeth Bridge, there is another café sited on a former graveyard. Unlike Lucky in Ahmedabad, which is housed in an architecturally unremarkable building, the café in Lambeth, The Garden Museum Café, is a marvellous example of contemporary architecture.

Café at The Garden Museum in London

The café, completed in 2018, is at the east end of the Church of St Marys, Lambeth, which now serves as the home of The Garden Museum. The church stands next to the main Tudor entrance of Lambeth Palace. The tower was built in about 1378. The rest of the church contains structural elements that were built in later eras. Appropriately for a museum dedicated to gardening history, the repurposed Church of St Mary’s is the burial place of the famous gardener and plant collector, John Tradescant the Elder (c1570s-1638). It is also the final resting place of Captain William Bligh (1754-1817) of The Bounty Mutiny (1789) fame. This famous mariner owned a house in Lambeth. Customers of the café do not sit on the graves of these two well-known persons, but on gravestones that, unlike the graves at Lucky in Ahmedabad which are raised above the ground, are level with the rest of the café’s floor.

The graves at Lucky in Ahmedabad are coffin shaped and probably contain the remains of the deceased. I am not sure whether there are human remains beneath the grave slabs in the floor of the café in Lambeth. A young waiter, whom I asked, was concerned to reassure me that he believed that there are no skeletons beneath the gravestones upon which customers walk and sit. I wonder whether this is really the case.

The Garden Museum was founded in 1977 by Rosemary and John Nicholson in order to preserve the church, which was due for demolition (https://gardenmuseum.org.uk/the-museum/history/). In 2015, the museum was closed for a year and a half whilst it was being redeveloped. Part of the improvements made was the construction of an extension at the eastern end of the retired church. The new construction, designed by Christopher Bradley-Hole and Dan Pearson, includes the café and other structures that together surround a new courtyard that contains a lovely garden, The Sackler Garden designed by Dan Pearson. It contains several tombs including that of the Tradescant family and of Captain Bligh.

The café borders the western side of the courtyard. Its mainly glass walls provide good views of the garden, the buildings across the river and the leafy remains of the churchyard west of the café. Where there is no glass, the walls are covered with overlapping brown coloured metal panels. Serving great coffee and both snacks and meals, the legs of the chairs and tables rest on the gravestones that form part of the floor.

Compared with Lucky, which is in a very busy part of Ahmedabad, the Garden Museum café, although close to a busy main road, is far more peaceful. However, both are delightful places to enjoy refreshments.

An invisible abbey and Vietnamese food

THERE IS A SUPERB Vietnamese eatery on London’s Bermondsey Street, called Caphe House. After eating a tasty banh mi, a baguette filled with meat and fresh vegetable, a dish no doubt inspired by the French occupation of Vietnam, and a pho, a clear broth with meat, vegetables, and noodles, we crossed the road to examine a sculpture. This eye-catching artwork had not been present when last visited Caphe House, sometime before the pandemic and well before October 2019. It consists of a row of seven piles of stone carvings of differing heights, resembling short totem poles. Made of Portland stone, Bath stone, marble and other materials found in the River Thames, this was created in 2020 by Austin Emery and members of the local community.  Over 100 members of the community made carvings in a workshop, and these have been assembled by Emery to create what we saw, an artwork named “Cornerstone”. Cornerstone also incorporates fragments from Southwark Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, London Bridge Station, and bones from the Thames.

Cornerstone, a sculpture in London’s Bermondsey

After admiring this unusual and intriguing sculpture, I spotted a notice nearby. It relates to the history of Tanner Park, where the sculpture stands, and includes the following:

“… Originally part of the grounds of Bermondsey Abbey the site of the Park was later in use as a Tannery …”

Reading this notice, I realised that this was the first time I had seen mention of an abbey at Bermondsey.

There had been an abbey in Bermondsey since the early 9th century (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bermondsey_Abbey). This was centred on the site of the present-day Bermondsey Square, about 390 yards south of the Cornerstone sculpture. The abbey to which the notice at Tanner Park refers was a Benedictine abbey, which was dedicated to St Saviour and was founded in the early 11th century. A wealthy religious establishment, it was, like so many other similar institutions,  dissolved by King Henry VIII in the 16th century, in 1537. But where was it?

By 1822, only tiny fragments of the abbey were still standing. Today, nothing remains, although occasional archaeological digs have exposed parts of it, albeit temporarily.  Fathome’s map of Southwark compiled in 1643-48 shows that then the abbey was still standing intact in its grounds (https://www.british-history.ac.uk/old-new-london/vol6/pp117-133). According to one writer (https://knowyourlondon.wordpress.com/2018/07/06/bermondsey-abbey/), who does not give the source(s) of his information, the site of the abbey was:

“The abbey lands extended from the present church of St Mary Magdalene, across today’s Tower Bridge Road.”

A map included by this writer marks the abbey church as lying along Abbey Street with the nave to the west of Tower Bridge Road and the chancel east of it. A wall plaque (www.londonremembers.com/memorials/bermondsey-abbey) which I have not yet seen informs that the abbey:

“… occupied ground between Bermondsey Street, Abbey Street, and Grange Walk…”

The church of St Mary Magdalen stands on Bermondsey Street just before its crossing with Abbey Street. This stands on the site of a church that existed in 1290 and which served lay workers of the abbey. This was demolished in 1680, but the late mediaeval tower was kept. It was rebuilt ten years later. During the 19th century, the exterior was covered with rendering and various other architectural modifications were made both internally and externally (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_Mary_Magdalen_Bermondsey). Apparently, the church’s mediaeval arches are visible inside the tower behind the organ and the church also contains some mediaeval stone capitals that might well have been parts of Bermondsey Abbey. St Mary Magdalen is the oldest surviving building in the area. It is open occasionally. I have entered it once, but that was long before I knew about the mediaeval remnants it contains.

Despite the fact that Bermondsey Abbey is now merely a historical memory, Bermondsey Street is an interesting place to visit. Amongst its attractions are Peter Layton’s glass studio, where you can watch glassblowers creating fantastic artworks in glass; Rachel Eames Gallery, which often has good exhibitions of contemporary artists’ works; The Fashion and Textile Museum; The White Cube (Bermondsey), which hosts spectacular shows of contemporary art; and the Cornerstone sculpture, described already. I suggest starting your visit with an early lunch at Caphe House, rounding it off with Vietnamese filter coffee, and ending it with another good coffee at the cheekily named, quirkily decorated Fuckoffee café.

An oasis near Oxford street

CLOSE TO SELFRIDGES, there is a less well-known attraction for Londoners and visitors to London. We visited it today, the 7th of October 2021, for the first time since we last went there in March 2017. Back then, I wrote about the place and posted my piece, reproduced below, on a travel website. When we went there today, we found an attractive temporary art installation, “Sonic Bloom” by the artist Yuri Suzuki (born 1980). This colourful and imaginative artwork is supposed to emit sounds, but when we visited it was silent. The café that we saw when we went to the place, Brown Hart Gardens, has been replaced by a new one run by a Sicilian. Far from offering the usual café fare, this decorative, stylish eatery serves pizzas, lasagnes, burratas, caviar, champagne, as well as coffee.

NOW HERE IS WHAT I WROTE BACK IN 2017:

“I have often walked south from Oxford Street along Duke Street, and always noticed the raised pavilion with a dome on the right. It stands in what appears to have once been a square. The dome surmounts four neoclassical porticos each supported by a pair of columns with florid capitals. I have always wondered about it, but until recently did nothing about researching it. It was only lately that I explored it and its companion on Balderton Street, which runs parallel to Duke Street.

We had arrived early in Balderton Street, where we were meeting foreign guests at their hotel, The Beaumont. With time to spare, we took a closer look at these pavilions. Staircases on either side of both pavilions lead from street level to a raised or elevated roof garden, which is about twelve to fifteen feet above street level. There is also a lift. The garden looked recently designed, and at the Balderton Street end there is a modern café that looks like an elegant glass shoe box.

The raised structure with its roof garden, café, and pavilions occupies the centre of a rectangular ‘square’ surrounded by mostly residential blocks on three sides and the aforementioned hotel on its fourth. It occupies the space that would usually contain a garden in London squares.

The garden and the building upon which it stands form the centrepiece of Brown Hart Gardens.

Duke Street, which runs along the eastern edge of Brown Hart Gardens was laid out on the Grosvenor Estate in the early 18th century. It was extensively re-developed in the 1870s. The Duke Street Gardens, as Brown Hart Gardens was originally named, were laid out in in the 1880s. The blocks of flats built around the gardens date from this period.

From “Survey of London: Volume 40, the Grosvenor Estate in Mayfair, Part 2 (The Buildings)”, we learn that:

“…plans were in preparation for the complete rebuilding of Duke Street and for the blocks of industrial dwellings that were to be built around Brown Hart Gardens in 1886–8. The new Duke Street appears to have been conceived as a street of shops with somewhat better-class flats over, acting as an intermediate zone between the blocks round Brown Hart Gardens to the west…”

When the gardens and its surrounding buildings were being planned, The Duke of Grosvenor, the landlord of the Grosvenor Estate, wanted (according to the Survey, quoted above):

“… to have a ‘cocoa house’ or coffee tavern and a public garden. The coffee tavern was dropped for want of an applicant, but the I.I.D.C.’s contract included an undertaking to clear a space and provide a communal garden on the site between Brown Street and Hart Street. The duke soon took over the garden scheme except for the surrounding railings, and in 1889 it was constructed to the layout of Joseph Meston …”

The same source adds:

“…The simple garden included a small drinking fountain at the east end, a urinal at the west end and a shelter in the centre; trees were also planted. None of these features was to survive long…”

These features disappeared as did the garden itself. For, in 1902 the street level gardens were cleared away to make way for the construction of the Duke Street Electricity Substation. Partly above ground and partly below, this electrical facility was completed in 1906. It was built for the Westminster Electric Supply Corporation to the designs of C. Stanley Peach (a leading architect of electrical installations), with C. H. Reilly as assistant. The domed pavilions at either end of it were part of the original design. The Survey describes the building well:

“As built, the sub-station rose to a greater height than had been contemplated but retained Peach’s original layout, with a tall ‘kiosk’ or pavilion and steps at either end, a balustrade all round, and Diocletian windows along the sides to light the galleries of the engine rooms, which occupied deep basements.”

The company had managed to persuade the Grosvenor Estate to demolish the gardens because they said that they were being used by disreputable types. Of course, the presence of the new electricity building deprived the residents of the square of their garden. The residents protested. The electricity company laid out a garden on the roof of the substation, using trees planted in tubs. According to the Survey (quoted above):

“…the ‘garden’ is perhaps the only place in London where quarrelling is specifically forbidden by law.”

The garden survived until the early 1980s, when the then lessees of the plot, the London Electricity Board, closed it to the public.

In late 2007, the City of Westminster decided to spend money on improving public spaces. On the 7th of December 2007, its Press Department issued a release that included the following:

“Brown Hart Gardens, which has a closed off elevated 10,000 sq foot stone deck with two listed early 20th century domed features – is one of three schemes set to benefit from a proposed multi-million renewal of the open spaces and streets surrounding three of Grosvenor’s sites across Westminster… The proposals could see Brown Hart Gardens become a distinctive destination, opening up the square for the first time in two decades and possibly adding some much-needed greenery to the area.”

The gardens were re-opened to the public after more than twenty years.

In 2012, the gardens were closed once again, but this time for a short period. They opened again in 2013, having been fully and beautifully refurbished by the Grosvenor Estate.

The restored roof garden contains a café, currently managed by the Benugo chain. This contemporarily designed café is almost entirely surrounded by huge glass windows, making the place feel light and airy. Situated at one end of the Brown Hart Gardens roof garden, this place offers a lovely view of this horticultural oasis. So, finally, the former Duke of Grosvenor’s desire to have a café in his square has been realised.”

SO, THAT is what I wrote in 2017.

As mentioned at the beginning, Brown Hart Gardens has changed a little bit (for the better) since we visited in early 2017. So close to busy, brash Oxford Street, this lovely area provides a peaceful oasis for the weary shopper. It is so near the commercial hubbub yet feels so remote.

A post office in a church

WEST HAMPSTEAD, FORMERLY known as ‘West End’ in the time, before the 20th century, that Hampstead was a small town separated from London. Now, yet another of London’s numerous suburbs, West Hampstead has several churches as well as a synagogue. One of these places of worship, St James Church, is worth entering because it is not what it seems from its external appearance.

The large Parish Church of St James, built mainly with red bricks, was erected in about 1887 (www.lwmfhs.org.uk/parishes/6-middlesex/28-hampstead). It was designed by Sir Arthur William Blomfield (1829-1899), the fourth son of CJ Blomfield, Anglican Bishop of London between 1828 and 1856, who encouraged much new church building during the 19th century. This large church could seat 1000 people (www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol9/pp145-152#h3-0007) and has some fine 19th century stained-glass windows.

On entering the church through its electrically operated glass sliding doors, you will be surprised by what you find beneath its fine hammer beam timber ceiling. The west end of the nave is occupied by a post office, the first main-branch of a UK post office ever to be housed within a church. The north aisle of the church contains a children’s ‘soft play’ area, appropriately named ‘Hullabaloo’. The floor of the nave is filled with tables and chairs occupied by people of all ages, some enjoying refreshments from the church’s Sanctuary Café. All these things that you would not normally expect to find inside a church are part of The Sherriff Centre, a community organisation that began operating in 2014 (https://thesherriffcentre.co.uk/). The Centre’s activities also include a stationery store, a free food bank, live music as well as other events, free wi-fi, debt advice, and more.

Jesus is said to have thrown the moneychangers and others involved in commercial activity from the Temple in Jerusalem (“The Holy Bible”, John, Ch 2, v 13-16). However, he might have approved of the commercial activities within St James because profits from the sales outlets in the Centre are used to help finance charitable work. In addition to everything that I have already described about what goes on within St James, there is one more thing to mention. Despite the activities that you might not expect to find inside a church, regular religious Church of England services are held there. It is wonderful that St James, instead of becoming yet one more barely used Victorian church in London, has become a vibrant and beneficial part of a local community, catering to more than only just its by now small congregation.

From Hungary to England, Budapest to Hampstead

I ENJOY THE OBSCURE, or, at least, what is new and unknown to me. I am also interested in Hungary and the Hungarians. So, recently, when we were walking along Branch Hill, a road beneath and west of Hampstead’s Whitestone Pond, I spotted a circular blue commemorative plaque that I had not noticed before. Close to a house where the singer Paul Robeson lived for one year, it commemorates a celebrated Hungarian,  whom I had never come across before. The plaque reads:
“Alfred Reynolds, Hungarian poet and philosopher lived here 1980-1993”

Sadly, the two most knowledgeable Hungarians I knew, who could have told me something about him, the philosopher Imre Lakatos (1922-1974) and one of my father’s co-authors, the economist Peter Bauer (1915-2002), are no longer in the land of the living. So, I have had to resort to that font of all knowledge, Wikipedia, for information about Reynolds, a name that hardly sounds Hungarian to me. Searches of the internet reveal little other biographical information in English apart from what is noted on Wikipedia.

Alfred Reynolds (1907-1993) was born Reinhold Alfréd in Budapest, Hungary (the Hungarians put their surnames before their first names). His mother was Jewish and his father Roman Catholic. After graduating from the University of Leipzig in 1931, he founded a magazine called ‘Haladás’ (‘Progress’), which published the works of various Hungarian poets and was closed by the police soon after it began. Next, he founded another journal, a monthly with leftish tendencies called ‘Névtelen Jegyző’ (‘Anonymous Chronicler’), which was also soon closed by the police. After a brief spell as a member of the Communist Party of Hungary and a spell of imprisonment in Hungary, Alfred moved to the UK, to London, in 1936.

During WW2, Alfred served in the British Army, joining the Intelligence Corps in 1944. When the war was over, he became a leading light in the Bridge Circle, a group of libertarians. The group produced a journal called “London Letter”, some of whose articles were published in a book called “Pilate’s question: Articles from ‘The London Letter’,1948-1963”, which was released in 1964 and contains articles by Reynolds. In 1988, he published another book in English, “Jesus Versus Christianity”. The aim of this book was:

“…to redefine the prevailing image of Jesus of Nazareth. The author considers that Jesus remains a living figure reminding us of our humanity – the kingdom of Heaven within us. He argues that we should free the image of doctrinal encumbrance.” (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/4932942-jesus-versus-christianity).

Prior to his arrival in England, Reynolds published his writings in Hungarian and those of other Hungarian poets, mostly in the journals he founded.  Many of his papers, publications, and other memorabilia are currently on display at the Petőfi Literary Museum in Budapest.

And that is about all I can tell you about Reynolds who spent the last years of his life in a fine house that affords good views over Hampstead Heath. I wonder whether he ever frequented Louis on Hampstead’s Heath Street. Louis was opened as a Hungarian patisserie and café in 1963 by the Hungarian Louis Permayer (died 2017), who fled from Communist Hungary during the Uprising in 1956 (http://budapesttimes-archiv.bzt.hu/2014/10/04/louis-patisserie-a-hungarian-tea-temple-in-the-heart-of-north-london/). Louis still exists and has maintained its original wood-panelled interior décor that owes a lot to traditional Central European taste. It was where my wife and I had our first ‘date’. Today, the café is under different management from what it was when Reynolds moved to Hampstead.

Yet again, whilst walking for pleasure and exercise, I have spotted something that intrigued me because it seemed so unfamiliar and made me want to investigate it.  Having discovered that there is not much information easily available about Alfred Reynolds, I am not surprised that I had never heard of him. The plaque commemorating his residence is unusual in that it does not state the name of the organisation or whoever it was that placed it. That adds to the mystery that partially shrouds this Hungarian refugee’s life and his relative obscurity that appeals to me.