A fountain with a history

I LOVE WALKING IN LONDON because there is so much to see. Even when walking along a street that is familiar to me, a route that I have tramped many hundreds of times before, I see things that I have never noticed before. These are details that have been staring me in the face for years, but which I have unconsciously chosen to ignore. Then, I notice them and wonder why it has taken me so long to do so. During the strict phase of the covid-19 ‘lockdown’ when our walks have had to be confined to our neighbourhood, the number of interesting hitherto unnoticed details that I have ‘discovered’ for the first time has been enormous. Today for the first time, I walked along a road in Kensington, one which until now I have only driven, or been driven, along.

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Marloes Road runs south from Wright’s Lane (which links it with High Street Kensington) to the busy Cromwell Road.  It joins the latter a few yards west of a large branch of Sainsbury’s supermarket chain. This non-descript temple of retailing stands on the site of the long-since demolished West London Air Terminal, which was operational between 1957 and 1974. It served British European Airways passengers, who checked-in there before travelling by bus to Heathrow Airport. Today, there is no sign of, or memorial to, the building, which had six storeys above the terminal concourse.

On the west side of Marloes Road, I spotted a Victorian drinking fountain embedded in the wall of a building. This now non-functional water source bears the date 1893 and a plaque that reads:

“Lord from thy blessed throne

The griefs of earth look upon

God Bless the Poor

Teach them true liberty

Make them from strong drink free

Let their homes happy be

God Bless the Poor”

This was erected near the gates to St Mary Abbots Workhouse in February 1894 by the Church of England Temperance Society, no doubt to encourage the thirsty to reach for water rather than ale or gin. Constructed mainly with white Portland stone, the fountain was designed by the long-lived architect T Philips Figgis (1858-1948). His other works include two with which I am familiar. One of these is the domed Kennington Underground Station on the Northern Line. The other, which I have never entered but have often seen, is St Ninians (Presbyterian) Church in Golders Green. Its name has always intrigued me. I have yet to meet someone named Ninian. Built in 1911, soon after Golders Green began growing in earnest, the church has been re-named as Shree Swaminarayan Hindu Temple and was used as a Hindu temple between 1982 and 2013. The same sect of Hinduism was responsible for erecting the spectacular Shree Swaminarayan Mandir in Neasden, close to a well-known temple of commerce, IKEA on the North Circular Road,

As for the St Mary Abbots Workhouse to which the fountain designed by Figgis was attached, this has an interesting history. From about 1726, Kensington had a parish workhouse. This was located on Gloucester Road just south of Kensington Gore, the eastern continuation of High Street Kensington. In 1849, this was replaced by a new building on Marloes Road (which was then a part of Wrights Lane). This was under the care of the Kensington parish of St Mary Abbot. The workhouse, constructed in Marloes Road to the designs of Thomas Allom (1804-1872) in a combination of Jacobean and Elizabethan styles, must have been an impressive sight to behold.

Between 1871 and 1992, the former workhouse became part of St Mary Abbot’s Hospital. The hospital was one of four that closed when the newly built Chelsea and Westminster Hospital opened on Fulham Road in 1993. The site occupied by the former hospital and its predecessor, the workhouse, is now part of Kensington Green, an upmarket gated community protected by high security. Part of the palace-like edifice designed by Allom remains standing, but I could not see it from Marloes Road because it is surrounded by other buildings.

I would not have come across of any this information had I not spotted the well-conserved drinking fountain whilst casually strolling along Marloes Road. I took photographs of it just in case it proved interesting, which, certainly, it has turned out to be. Thus, a disused water source has given rise to a fount of historical knowledge.

Taking the plunge

MOST COFFEE DRINKERS will be familiar with the cafetiere or French press (‘caffettiera a stantuffo’ in Italian and ‘Stempelkanne’ in German). The earliest versions of this were patented in the 1920s. For those not familiar with these devices, let me explain how they are used. Coffee grounds and hot water are introduced into an open topped cylindrical vessel, often made in glass but also in metal and plastic. After waiting for the coffee to brew, and people argue how long this should be, a plunger that snugly fits the opening of the vessel is placed on the surface of the hot coffee mixture. The plunger has a metal sieve that does not permit the passage of coffee grounds through it. This plunger is attached to a metal rod, by which pressure can be exerted to drive the sieve through the liquid towards the bottom of the vessel. As it moves downward, the coffee grounds become separated from the liquid (the brewed coffee) above it. Then the coffee, free of grounds, can be served.

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In the early 1960s, the cafetiere became a fashionable way of preparing and serving coffee. My mother and her sister were quick to buy one for each of their homes. They were elegantly designed with clear glass vessels and shiny steel holders with black handles. And, the coffee they produce is good.

My mother kept using our cafetiere until disaster struck. It did not happen to her but to her brother-in-law. One evening after dinner, my uncle began plunging the filter through the hot coffee when something slipped causing the plunger to descend far too rapidly. As it shot down into the boiling hot coffee, the liquid shot up onto my uncle’s arm and caused him serious burns. Hearing of this unfortunate event, my over-cautious mother decided that far from being useful, the cafetiere was a potentially lethal weapon. So, our cafetiere was decommissioned, never to be used again. My uncle’s family continued to use their cafetiere(s) despite the accident.

Many years later, my wife and I were entertaining guests one evening. My wife had filled a large glass cafetiere with coffee and hot water and told me to plunge the filter whilst she sat down with our friends. Usually when you press the filter plunger into the brew, there is some resistance as the coffee grounds begin the reduce the flow of water through the fine filter mesh. On this occasion, I encountered some resistance as expected but then something unexpected happened. Each time I applied pressure and then released it, the filter disc began rising up towards the opening of the glass vessel. This happened repeatedly and it became increasingly difficult to depress the filter. It seemed as if the coffee was fighting back, pushing the filter plunger upwards.

Eventually, I managed to force the plunger down sufficiently and I served the coffee, somewhat mystified. After the guests had left, I examined our weirdly behaving cafetiere. I removed the plunger and found a deformed stainless-steel spoon amongst the compressed coffee grounds. The formerly straight stem of the spoon had become bent into a ‘U’ shape. I had applied sufficient pressure to the plunger to bend the spoon. I felt as if I had become Uri Geller, famous for his spoon bending tricks. Fortunately, and amazingly, the glass vessel of the cafetiere did not break or even crack.

Breakages are common amongst the glass vessels used in cafetieres. It is not the making of coffee that breaks them but dropping them on hard surfaces does them no good. We now use cafetieres with stainless-steel vessels. Not only do these not break but also many of them have double walls to help keep the coffee warm.

The importance of being British

HBY 60s 36 HW BLOG

I HAVE ONLY VISITED CRETE once, and that was in the late 1960s with my parents and sister. We were based in Heraklion and made excursions from there around central Crete, visiting sites including Knossos, Matala, the windmills of Lasithi, Malia, Aghios Nikolaos, and Phaistos. This piece concerns three memories of my late mother on that visit.

The first recollection is of the rather non-descript but very comfortable hotel where we stayed in Heraklion. It had its own swimming pool. My mother, who could not swim, and was always a bad sailor, could not bear to look at the pool; it made her feel seasick seeing its water.

The next memory is of a hot day somewhere in the Cretan countryside. We were all thirsty and ready for a drink. We passed a house with a garden. Some people were sitting at a table sipping the tiny cups of coffee that Greeks favour. They were drinking what many people call ‘Turkish Coffee’, which many Greeks prefer to call ‘Greek Coffee’ or even ‘Byzantine Coffee’.

My mother walked up to the gate leading into the garden and using one of the few words of Greek that she knew, called out:

Kafenion?

Kafenion (καφενεῖον) is the Greek word for ‘café’. Another Greek word she knew well was ‘siga’ (σιγά), which means ‘slowly’. She used it almost in every car that we were being driven in Greece. She was terrified that others driving her would have an accident because as a child in South Africa she had been involved in a dreadful car crash.

Getting back to my story, the coffee drinkers invited us into the garden and asked us to join them. My mother was mildly embarrassed to discover that this was a private house, not a ‘kafenion’. Soon, we were all supplied with Turkish Coffee. One of our hosts spoke rudimentary English. He had been a sailor when younger and excitedly told us that he had been to ‘Kong Kong’, in his own words.

Then, my mother noticed a single brightly coloured flower in the hedge surrounding the garden. She pointed at it, exclaiming “oreia” (ωραία), the Greek word for ‘lovely’. Our hosts burst out laughing. They found my mother’s reaction to the flower hilarious. One of them took Mummy to the flower and showed her it was artificial, attached to the hedge with a fine wire.

The third thing I recall about our Cretan odyssey relates to a commodity that was in great demand recently here in the UK: toilet paper. When we used to visit Greece in the 1960s and 1970s, there were usually people sitting at the entrances to public toilets. These folk, often elderly women, were there to sell sheets of toilet paper to people about to make use of the facilities.

We were in one small Cretan village when my mother needed to answer Nature’s call. We found a public convenience. An elderly toilet paper vendor was sitting by its entrance. My mother rummaged in her handbag for small change. While she was doing this, the lady asked my mother:

“Deutsch? German?”

My mother answered:

“British.”

The lady handed her some toilet paper and would not accept the customary two Drachma payment.

We were in Crete at least twenty years after the German occupation of the island had ended in spring 1945. The Germans had perpetrated many horrific deeds on the Cretan population. The woman outside the toilet was certainly old enough to have had strong memories of that ghastly time. Had my mother been German, she would have had to pay for the toilet paper. Being British, she was like the great writer Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915-2011) who fought the Germans in occupied Crete, a representative of  a nation which helped rid the island of its unwelcome occupiers. This toilet attendant’s small act of kindness towards my mother helped drive home how awful it was to have been occupied by the Germans during WW2.

Save the planet, lose your life

 

In January of this year, I posted a piece about drinking straws, https://adam-yamey-writes.com/2019/01/24/drinking-through-a-straw/,  and how plastic straws are being replaced by paper straws, which go soggy before you finish your drink.

Well, now you can obtain re-usable drinking straws made of metal. Some of these come with fine brushes to help clean the straw after use. Great idea, you might think, although I would have some concerns about maintaining the hygiene of these straws. Also, I wonder how much energy needs to be expended to create a metal drinking straw.

Today, 9th July 2019, I spotted a worrying item in the Metro, a London daily newspaper. The article described a terrible accident during which someone fell on to her metal straw, which then pierced her eye and entered her brain. This resulted in the poor woman’s death.

Even if it does help save the planet, you won’t catch me using a metal straw!

 

 

No contact

skying

 

In India, many people ‘sky’ their drinks. This means that they take a drink from a container without letting it contact their lips or mouth. To ‘sky’ a drink means literally pouring a drink into your mouth from a distance. This method of drinking allows many people to drink from the same container without risking contamination of the drinks by any of the drinkers’ germs. 

 

PORRON

Drinking wine from a porro (source: wikipedia)

Spain, which is many miles away from India, uses special vessels known as porron (porro, singular) to ‘sky’ wine. These traditional vessels, popular in Catalonia, allow many people to imbibe from the same vessel without making any contact between it and the mouth. The design of the porro is such that the drink container can be held at a much greater distance from the mouth than in the Indian mode of sky-ing a drink. 

George Orwell was not keen on using porron. He wrote in his Hommage to Catalonia (published 1938):

A porron is a sort of glass bottle with a pointed spout from which a thin jet of wine spurts out whenever you tip it up; you can thus drink from a distance, without touching it with your lips, and it can be passed from hand to hand. I went on strike and demanded a drinking-cup as soon as I saw a porron in use. To my eye the things were altogether too like bed-bottles, especially when they were filled with white wine.

I have no idea when or where the habit of drinking without contacting the vessel originated. If anyone has any ideas, please let me know.

 

The top photo was taken in Mattancherry, Kerala, India

 

Tastes change

Once, long before ‘political correctness’ became fashionable, when my wife was an undergraduate student, she asked two Nigerian students whether they preferred their tea “black or white “. They looked at her indignantly before answering aggresively: “with milk“.

When I was a child, I drank tea without milk. That was the way my parents preferred it. That is what I became accustomed to. If I sipped even a little tea with milk, I felt nauseous. Tea with milk, as served in England, is made by adding brewed tea to milk or vice versa depending on your preference.

My prejudice against tea with milk persisted until I began visiting India in 1994. At first, I was suspicious of the “white” tea on offer, but soon began to enjoy it. I think that this is because it is made differently from that which is served in the UK.

In India, tea leaves are boiled vigorously with milk. Often additives such as sugar, crushed ginger, cardamom, mint, and lemon grass are added to the hot bubbling mixture. After a while, the boiled milky tea is passed through a strainer, often cloth, and served in cups. The resulting drink is a harmonious blend of the flavour of tea and the additives. In my opinion, it tastes quite different from, and much better than what is served in England.

I have visited India many, many times since 1994. Apart from developing a great fondness for the country and its people, my tastes in food have changed for the better as a result of my exposure to life in India.

Slurp, don’t suck

Currently, many people want to “save the planet”. This is a worthy desire.

One way to help save our planet is to ditch plastics, which are not biodegradable, and replace them with paper that can be degraded biologically. Thus, plastic bags are giving way to paper and cloth bags. Supermarkets in the UK are now charging customers, who have not brought along their own reusable bags, a fee to buy a new plastic bag in which to carry home the goods which the supermarket companies have packed in non-biodegradable plastic!

Now, enter your café and order a drink with a straw. Trendy cafés, which are trying to be eco-friendly, supply biodegradable drinking straws Instead of the old fashioned plastic ones. This offers no problems if you suck your drink rapidly. If you prefer to linger over your drink, the paper straw absorbs fluid and becomes soggy. You might well need to use more than one paper straw to finish your drink. This will result in creating more rubbish than using a single plastic straw.

One solution to the straw problem, which I favour, is not to use one, but to put your lips to the glass or bottle that contains your drink: slurp, don’t suck!

Finally, to escape from the humble drinking straw, let us raise our heads to the solar panels with which we adorn our roofs in order to reduce our consumption of the rapidly reducing sources of natural fuels. A learned friend once told me that in order to manufacture these panels, more fossil fuel energy is expended than will ever be saved by the panels!

Save the planet by all means, but make sure that these means will actually save the planet, rather than simply salve our consciences.

Things go better with Coke

It was the day after the much-loved fimstar Ambareesh died. He was a hero all over the Indian state of Karnataka. To respect him, alcohol sales were forbidden in Bangalore. It was what is called a ‘dry day’. One could not order any alcoholic drink at a bar, restaurant, etc.

So, being unable to order an alcoholic drink, I ordered Coca Cola.

“Coca Cola” the waiter queried, “it’s not available. Today is dry day, sir”

“But Coca Cola is not alcoholic” I protested, adding “Coke, you know”

“Ah, Coke, sir. I can bring you that,”the waiter said, at last understanding what I was trying to order.

Spaghetti House

My parents loved coffee. In particular, they enjoyed drinking well-prepared Italian espresso coffee. Every Saturday morning when I was a child in the late 1950s and early 1960s, we used to drive to the car park by Jack Straws Castle, a pub near Whitestone Pond in Hampstead. Now, the pub no longer exists; it has been adapted to become a block of flats. The car park behind it, where we used to leave our car, still exists.

We used to walk down Heath Street, passing the open-air art exhibition if it was summer-time. Our first stop was a café housed within a building with a triangular floor plan, which still stands on the corner of Heath Street and Elm Row. The Pimpernel café/restaurant, which was run by Italians, no longer exists, but this is where my parents used to take their espresso coffee on Saturday mornings.

In those far-off days, espresso machines were not equipped with pre-set electronic controls as they are today. The person making the coffee had to pull down a leaver, which forced the hot water through the powdered coffee and into the cup waiting below it. The speed at which the leaver is pulled determines the rate at which the hot water flows through the coffee and the length of time that the water remains in contact with the coffee grains. These factors help affect the taste and quality of the final cup of espresso and are dependent on who operates the lever. Thus, using the manual espresso machines requires skill and experience. In my parents’ view those who worked at the Pimpernel had these skills. Whenever we visited this café, the kindly staff would give my sister and me a small matchbox sized piece of Italian nougat (‘torrone’). I remember that the piece of torrone was coated on two sides with thin edible rice paper. That there was paper which was edible really impressed my young mind.

There was another place, whose coffee gained my parents’ approval during the 1950s. This was the Bamboo Bar on Finchley Road in Golders Green. It was located under the Northern Line bridge which straddles Finchley Road close to Golders Green station and opposite a now disused covered walkway which was once an entrance to the station.

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Although the walkway and the Bamboo Bar have been closed for many decades, there is still an eatery in the same place, the popular Artista Italian restaurant. The latter is much larger than its predecessor.

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The walls of the Bamboo Bar were lined with bamboo. It was run by two Italian men, Lorenzo Fraquelli and Simone Lavarini. My parents, who both loved Italy and her people, enjoyed chatting with these fellows. In 1955, they opened the first branch of what was to become the now widespread, extensive chain of Spaghetti Houses.

As mentioned, the Bamboo Bar closed years ago. Sometime in the 1960s, another café, Bar Linda, opened next to the bus station at Golders Green. This souvenir of my childhood still survives and is thriving.

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One branch of the Spaghetti House chain made headline news in 1975. It was the branch, now closed, in Knightsbridge. This was the branch where managers of the various outlets of the chain would meet occasionally to deposit their takings before they were deposited in a nearby bank’s night-safe. On the days of the meetings, this restaurant was closed to the public. On Sunday 28th September, three armed men burst into the restaurant and demanded the takings that had been collected from the branch managers, who were meeting there. They bundled the managers in the basement. Luckily, one of the managers escaped and alerted the police, who arrived promptly.  The bandits held the managers hostage for three days before giving themselves up to the police. This event became known as the ‘Spaghetti House siege’. I am pleased to report that nothing remotely exciting as that has ever occurred during my years of visiting this restaurant chain.

SPAG 4

The first branch, which still exists, stands on the corner of Goodge Street and Whitefield Street (see picture above). When I was a young boy, my mother often treated me to a meal at this restaurant. We became quite familiar with the staff.

Many years later in 1970-71 during my first year as a BSc student at University College London (‘UCL’), I used to treat myself to lunch at the Goodge Street Spaghetti House. It was more expensive than the numerous canteens that were available on the UCL campus, but the food was far better. The ground floor of this multi-storey restaurant, like the Bamboo Bar, had walls covered with bamboo. This has long since been replaced by newer wall coverings.  Some of the waiters who were working at the Goodge Street Spaghetti House were getting on in age by the time I began my undergraduate studies. At least one of them used to greet me as she remembered me as a child. Not only had she worked at the Spaghetti House since its opening, but she told me that she had also been a waitress at the Bamboo Bar.

We still eat the occasional meals at various branches of the Spaghetti House chain. The food is usually of a good standard. A few years ago, I met a chap with whom I had been to school before 1960. I had not seen him since about 1971, and then only extremely briefly. We agreed to meet up at a Spaghetti House restaurant. He told me that he preferred meeting people on ‘neutral territory’ in places like restaurants, rather than in homes. Although he had aged quite a bit since we were both 8 years old, he was recognizable. Almost as soon as he met me, he said to me:

“Oh, I thought I was meeting someone else, not you.”