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.

The lost city

IN DECEMBER 2005, we spent a Saturday night at a bed and breakfast in a remote spot near Winchelsea in East Sussex. In those days we still had our own car and could stop where we wanted on or even off the route.One of our stopping places was Redhill in Surrey. We wanted to visit its contemporary Roman Catholic church of St Joseph and St Paul’s, but not for religious reasons. The architects, who had designed it, knew that my late uncle WS Rindl, an accomplished structural engineer, was a keen amateur sculptor. They asked him to make some decorative features and a crucifix to adorn the exterior of the church. In addition to the concrete crucifix, my uncle designed and constructed concrete gargoyles to run off rainwater from the roof. Each of these gargoyles is decorated in bas-relief with castings of the tools used by builders and engineers. On one of these drainage spouts there is a representation of what looks as if it were an early rather bulky model of a pocket calculator. The church, completed in 1984, is a lovely example of imaginative 20th century architecture, well worth a detour to see.The rurally located bed and breakfast was housed in a building that was at least 300 years old if not older. The accommodation was comfortable but the breakfast was disappointing. The fried eggs served seemed as if they had been made long before breakfast and kept warm; they were not as fresh as the frost that had coated the surrounding countryside overnight. We made a brief visit to Winchelsea, a place that has always fascinated me. Founded as ‘New Winchelsea’ by King Edward the First in the 13th century, the town was a coastal port, complete with city walls. By the 1520s, what had been a thriving centre of trade declined rapidly because of shifting of the coastline resulting from silting up of its harbour. Apart from some of the town’s mediaeval gateways and the large church of St Thomas the Martyr, it is difficult to imagine that Winchelsea was once a bustling metropolis. The decline of Winchelsea is one of many examples all over the world of how environmental changes can affect the ability of civilisations to thrive. In January 2020, we visited Lakhpat in Kutch, a part of Gujarat in western India. This huge walled city, far greater in size than Winchelsea, was a thriving seaport until the early 19th century when an earthquake caused the sea inlet on which it stood to become transformed into a salty desert. Today, the seven kilometres of intact city walls contain not a city but only a few widely separated dwellings and a Sikh Gurdwara. The church, which dates back to the 13th century, looks large. However, what can be seen today is all that is left of what had once been a far larger cathedral-like building.On the Sunday morning when we entered the church, a service was being held. There was the priest and his congregation of less than eight people, looking a little lost in the huge church. Seeing the three of us entering, he welcomed us, and said in a pleading voice:
“Do stay. Come and join us. You will help swell our numbers.”
This ancient church, although beautiful, was sadly unused in comparison to the modern one we had seen at Redhill.We could not stay for long because we had a prior arrangement to meet our friend Tony at the art deco De La Warr Pavilion at Bexhill on Sea. He had invited us to view an exhibition of 20th century furniture being held there. I was amazed to find that many examples of the kind of furniture my parents had bought in the 1950s and 1960s were now regarded as classics of design and commanded high prices at the sale. I remember that some of that furniture was comfortable and some it looked good but was uncomfortable. We revisited Bexhill on Sea recently to see an exhibition of works by the op-art artist Bridget Riley. We stayed in a lovely Airbnb near the pavilion. On this visit, we had time to wander around the town, a paradise for lovers of charity shops that raise money for good causes. Bexhill is also a popular town for retired people to live out the rest of their lives.Our Airbnb was next to one of Bexhill’s numerous charity shops. This particular store, which lay between our accommodation and the Pavilion, specialised in secondhand wheelchairs, walkers, bedpans, and Zimmer frames. I guess that there is a high turnover of such items in the town.