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.

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.

A London square lacking a soul and New Delhi

THE HIGHEST PLACE in north London’s Hampstead Garden Suburb (‘HGS’) is Central Square. Designed to be a focal point for people living in the Suburb, this often-windswept square is a dismal failure. Apart from the occasional communal fetes held on this large open space, this area is somewhere that people walk cross usually without stopping to linger. I was brought up in a house not far from the Square and rarely during the 30 or more years I lived in the area could this heart of the Suburb be described as a lively meeting place. Visits since leaving the area over 30 years ago, have never revealed much, if anything, going on in what might have been a wonderful heart for the local community.

Free Church, Central Square

HGS was created by Dame Henrietta Barnett (1851-1936), who was married to a cleric, Canon Samuel Augustus Barnett (1844-1913). The Barnetts lived close to the Spaniards Inn near Hampstead. The architect Raymond Unwin (1863-1940) was important in conceiving the layout and design for the Suburb. Another architect involved with the creation of HGS, especially the environs of Central Square was Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944).  Building commenced in about 1904/5. The plan for Central Square was finalised in 1911 after several changes in its design. These changes have been summarised as follows (https://londongardenstrust.org/conservation/inventory/site-record/?ID=BAR011):

“Raymond Unwin’s first design for the suburb (February 1905) had communal buildings including a church, chapel, hall, library and shops; the site of the square was to be levelled and extended to the north. Unwin and Edwin Lutyens, appointed architect in May 1906, proposed a more formal plan in 1906-7; this and a third scheme by Lutyens did not meet with Mrs Barnett’s approval. The final plan of 1911 of Central Square as built is a variant on Lutyens’ plan for a rectangle broken up into four clearly articulated spaces each defined by a double row of trees and a lily pond.” 

It was a shame that the shops and library never materialised. Had they been included in the final plan, the Square would have had a chance of becoming a vibrant communal centre and maybe the Suburb would not have developed into the staid and rather precious district that it has become. The architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner, who lived close to HGS in Hampstead’s North End, did not differ from my assessment of the Square:

“The omission of shops from Central Square has proved a disadvantage; the square has never become a real social centre. Not only shops, but also cinemas, pubs, and cafés have been refused admission. Institute education and divine worship have not proved to be as much of a lively attraction as the social reformers hoped for.” (“Buildings of England. London 4: North” by Bridget Cherry and Nikolaus Pevsner, published 1998)

As for the lily pond, if that ever existed, it had disappeared by the time I was a young child in the 1950s.

Apart from the four lawns separated by footpaths, the Square has the following notable features: a church on its south side; a church on its north side; tennis courts on its eastern edge and near them, a monument to the memory of Dame Henrietta Barnett; and on its east side a large building called ‘The Institute’, which houses Henrietta Barnett School. Central Square is flanked by two equally sterile rectangular open spaces: North and South Squares.

Lutyens was responsible for the design of many of the structures standing around Central Square: St Jude Church with its tall spire, constructed 1909-1911; the Free Church with its dome, begun 1911, but only competed in the 1960s; the Henrietta Barnett Memorial, completed about 1938; and the Institute’s design has some input from Lutyens. And that is not all. Lutyens also designed some of the houses in North Square and in Erskine Hill that leads north from it. Friends of mine lived in a pair of semi-detached houses designed by Lutyens on Erskine Hill. Externally, they were not unattractive buildings, but inside I was not impressed; the ground floor rooms were small and not well fed with daylight. Taken in isolation, one might forgive Lutyens for this defect in his design, but since first seeing my friends’ homes, I have discovered that Lutyens was prone to creating designs that were less than ideal.

When visiting Runnymede, where Magna Carta was signed in the 13th century, we saw a couple of lodges that had been designed by Lutyens. A friend pointed out that he had omitted guttering in their design, which is a strange thing to miss out in a country where rain is not infrequent. The result is that over the years water running off the lodges’ roofs have damaged the brickwork of their external walls. The latest “National Trust Magazine” (Spring 2021) highlights a design failure at Castle Drogo near Dartmoor in Devon, designed by Lutyens and constructed between 1911 and 1930 for the founder of Home and Colonial Stores, Julius Drewe (1856-1931). Designed to look like a mediaeval fortress, the place was equipped with the latest of 20th century features including electricity generated by a ‘hydro-turbine’. Despite all of its up-to-date furnishings, it is prone to old-fashioned water leaks. This was largely due to Lutyens’ choice of asphalt, a relatively new material as far as roofing was concerned. In addition, the article in the magazine reveals:

“The windows were designed without windowsills …this leaves little protection from the Dartmoor elements…”

In 1897, Lutyens married Lady Emily Bulwer-Lytton (1874–1964), who was daughter of Edward Robert Lytton Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Earl of Lytton (1831-1891), Viceroy of India between 1876 and 1880. In 1911, the capital of British India shifted from Calcutta to Delhi. And with this move, Lutyens was chosen to head an architectural team to design a new administrative complex in Delhi. His views on the kind of architecture that he considered suitable were disdainful of Indian architecture:

“Lutyens regarded Indian architectural interventions as mere ‘spurts by various mushroom dynasties with as much intellect as there is in any art nouveau’. Indian buildings, according to him, reflected a childish ignorance of even the basic principle of architecture. He also firmly believed that in countries outside of Europe ‘without a great architectural tradition of their own, it was even more essential to adhere strictly to the canons of the architectural style’.” (https://thewire.in/history/friendship-faltered-raisina-hill).

This patronising and denigrating view of traditional Indian architecture that includes treasures like the Taj Mahal and the great stepwells in Gujarat and elsewhere, along with his dogged adherence to certain aspects of European classical architecture, are a poor reflection of Lutyens’ own aesthetic sensibilities and help to explain why I do not rate him amongst the best of 20th century architects. However, many might disagree with my judgement: chacun à son gout, as they say across The English Channel.

Although Lutyens’ creations in New Delhi are much admired, one part of his design showed lack of planning. This is evident in the Viceroy’s House, which he designed. It stands in a complex of buildings on Raisina Hill. Lutyens had wanted the House to stand prominently, like St Judes in HGS, so that it could be seen from all around. Unfortunately, Lutyens:

“…had seen the perspective plan of the buildings earlier but had failed to take adequate notice of the gradient. When he discovered it finally, it was perhaps too late. Lutyens wrote to his wife Emily: ‘I am having difficulty with Baker. You remember the perspective showing the secretariats with Government House. Well, he has designed his levels so that you will never see Government House at all from the Great Place. You will [only] see the top of the dome.’” (https://thewire.in/history/friendship-faltered-raisina-hill)

Well, in my humble opinion, a top-rate architect should never have made such an error and even worse blamed it on his colleague, the eminent architect Herbert Baker (1862-1946). To some outcry in India, there are plans to replace some of Lutyens’ creations in Delhi (www.thehindu.com/news/national/what-is-the-project-to-redevelop-lutyens-delhi-all-about/article29865323.ece)

I have never visited Delhi, New or Old, but I hope that what Lutyens created there is more joyous than the sombre atmosphere that reigns in and around the soulless Central Square in the Hampstead Garden Suburb.

Where there are dolphins

I HAVE NEVER VISITED MOSCOW, but I imagine that the huge, rather forbidding looking apartment block on Grosvenor Road facing the River Thames, would not look out of place in the Russian city. Covering seven and a half acres of land, built with twelve million bricks and almost seven thousand external window units, and containing at least twelve hundred flats, this mammoth building complex, which has been home to many of the famous and infamous, was completed in late 1936. This enormous residential complex is called Dolphin Square.

Maps surveyed in 1869 and 1913 reveal that the land on which Dolphin Square was built, which is west of St Georges Square, used to be the site of the several long buildings that together made up the Royal Army Clothing Department and its storage depots. Before that, the land was occupied by the work premises of the developer and builder Thomas Cubitt (1788-1855), who built much of Belgravia and Pimlico. A few years after his death, the army leased the site and the depot stood there until 1933, when the lease reverted to the Duke of Westminster (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Royal_Army_Clothing_Depot).

An American firm, Fred F French Companies, bought the freehold of the former army clothing compound, and then, discovering it had insufficient funds to develop it, sold it on to Richard Costain Ltd. Costain commissioned the architect Stanley Gordon Jeeves (1888-1964), whose other works include the now demolished Earls Court Exhibition Centre and the still standing large, art-deco Latimer Court at Hammersmith, to design the residential complex that exists today. Writing soon after it opened, the writer AP Herbert (1890-1971) wrote a book extolling the virtues of Dolphin Square. He wrote that it is:

“…a city of 1,250 flats, each enjoying at the same time most of the advantages of the separate house and the big communal dwelling place …”

Commenting on the fact that the complex included a restaurant, he wrote:

“…fortunate wives will not have enough to do. A little drudgery is good for wives, perhaps. The Dolphin lady may be spoiled.” (quotes from www.theundergroundmap.com/article.html?id=2792)

From outside the building, Dolphin Square looks monolithic and forbidding. However, on entering the huge courtyard within it, this impression changes. For, the courtyard contains a lovely garden, which was designed by Robert Sudell in about 1937 (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1455668). Though much modified since then, the formal garden retains much of the original design concept including an axial avenue lined with chestnut trees. Appropriately, the middle of the garden is adorned with a fountain with three sculpted dolphins. Created by the sculptor James Butler (born 1931), this was placed in 1987 to replace an earlier fountain. This pleasant garden would be one good reason to entice me to live in this extraordinarily massive complex. 

As mentioned already, Dolphin Square offers its residents a restaurant. It also contains an arcade of shops, a café, a gymnasium, a swimming pool, a laundrette, underground parking, a bar, a brasserie, a hotel, a tennis court, and more. And all of this is within a short walk of Westminster and the Houses of Parliament. This proximity to the centre of government means that many MPs have made use of Dolphin Square as their London ‘pads’.

Apart from politicians, including Harold Wilson, William Hague, David Steele, and many others, Dolphin Square has been home to people of fame and notoriety. According to an article in Wikipedia, some of these include Oswald Mosley and his wife Diana Mitford; the novelist Radclyffe Hall; Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies; the comedian Bud Flanagan; the spy John Vassall; and the tennis player Rod Laver. Princess Anne lived in Dolphin Square briefly in 1993, General de Gaulle based his Free French Government in part of the Square in WW2, and Sarah, daughter of Sir Winston Churchill, was:

“…evicted from the square for hurling gin bottles out of her window.” (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-33785352).

It seems that a fascinating book about the residents of Dolphin Square is waiting to be written.

I had passed Dolphin Square plenty of times before entering its garden recently, but until now I had no idea that this far from attractive building was home to such a fascinating range of people nor that it contained such a fine garden. Just as one should not judge a book by its cover, it is a mistake to judge Dolphin Square from its exterior.