Near the shops: a chapel in Kensington

HIGH STREET KENSINGTON is not amongst my favourite London thoroughfares, but streets leading off it take one to places of considerable interest. One of these, Allen Street, offers a view of a building that outshines many of its close neighbours. But, before we reach this short side street, here are a few words about High Street Ken.

Even before the covid19 pandemic, High Street Kensington has been declining in importance as a centre of retailing activity. The retailing boom that made the street into a rival of, for example Oxford and Regents Streets, began in the mid-1860s. Prior to that:

“…most trading and manufacturing activity around Kensington High Street was on a small and local scale. An exception must be made of the Catholic candle-making business owned successively by the Wheble, Kendall, Tucker and Smith families from about 1765 until 1908. Its founder was James Wheble (1729–1801), scion of a prominent recusant family in Winchester. By 1766 at the latest Wheble was based in Kensington, and within a few years occupied miscellaneous properties on the present Barkers site, both in the High Street and on the west side of Young Street, where a warehouse was rated in his name from 1772 onwards.” (https://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol42/pp77-98).

This mention of candle making interested me because my great grandfather Franz Ginsberg (1862-1936) established a factory making candles in King Williams Town in South Africa in the 1880s.

From the late 19th century until a few years ago, High Street Ken was a healthily flourishing retail centre. In its heyday, it boasted of three large department stores, Pontings, Barkers, and Derry & Toms. The impressive buildings that housed the latter two still stand and are fine examples of art deco architecture. They are located close to the Underground station, which has been in service since the late 1860s.

In recent years, the advent of on-line shopping, high rents, and the proximity of the Westfield mall at Shepherds Bush (opened 2008), which has good parking, have all conspired to make High Street Ken less appealing to shoppers. Consequently, at any one time a large proportion of shops remain empty awaiting new tenants. Sadly, what was once (especially in the 1960s and ‘70s) a bustling high street with trendy shops like Biba and the ‘funky’ Kensington Market, has become slightly dreary.

Various short streets lead off the south side of the high street. One of them, Young Street, leads to Kensington Square, which is well worth visiting to explore its exciting range of houses dating back to the 18th century and earlier (see https://londonadam.travellerspoint.com/41/). Another road, Allan Street, west of the station, leads south from the high street. This street was a quiet cul-de-sac until 1852 when it was extended southwards. After that date, many more buildings were erected along it including the extensive Wynnstay Gardens, luxurious mansion flats, which was constructed between 1883 and 1885 on a site previously owned by Thomas Newland Allen (1811-1899), who was born at Chalfont St Giles (https://www.captaincooksociety.com/home/detail/chalfont-st-giles-buckinghamshire). A monument to Captain Cook, the explorer, stands on the estate where Allen was born.

Wynnstay Gardens is not a particularly attractive set of buildings. However, south of it and on the other side of Allen Street, there is a lovely neo-classical building just south of Adam and Eve Mews, which runs along its northern boundary. For many years, I had noticed it from a distance when wandering along High Street Ken, but it was only yesterday that I decided to take a closer look at this church.

Currently called the ‘Kensington United Reformed Church’, it was originally named ‘The Kensington Chapel’. Built in 1854-55 and designed by Andrew Trimen (1810-1868), it replaced the Hornton Street Chapel (north of the High Street), which was built 1794-95 (https://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol42/pp386-394#h2-0005). Trimen was a prolific architect and also published a book in 1849, “Church and Chapel Architecture with an account of the Hebrew Church. 1,000 authenticated mouldings”, which was (https://manchestervictorianarchitects.org.uk/architects/andrew-trimen):

“… the first major publication to consider non-conformist architecture.”

The church, clad in ochre coloured Bath stone, and its impressive pillared portico,  is an elegant addition to an otherwise undistinguished street.  Its corner stone recalls that the church replaced the one in Hornton Street and that it was laid by the Reverend John Stoughton on the 26th of June 1854. If you walk along Adam and Eve Mews, you will notice a pair of doors at the east end of the north wall of the church. Above them are the words ‘Lecture Hall’. According to a plan of the original building, this led into a ‘schoolroom’ (built 1856) attached to the east of the church. This was used to accommodate ‘British’ and ‘Sunday’ schools.

John Stoughton officiated first at the Hornton Street Chapel, starting in 1843, and then in the new building in Allen Street until he retired in 1875. His congregation was far from uninteresting as this quote from John Stoughton’s book “Congregationalism in the Court Suburb” (published in 1883) reveals:

“It may be mentioned that Kensington, on many accounts, has long been a favourite place of residence for artists and literary men, and a few of these became some occasional, others regular hearers [i.e. members of the congregation]  … Curious characters at different periods, it may be added would come into the vestry to have a little chat; a gentleman during the Crimean War gravely proposed to the preacher of peace a clever scheme for blowing up Sebastopol; and at another time one of clerical appearance repeated, with extraordinary rapidity, long passages out of the Greek Testament.”

Stoughton was such a popular preacher that by 1871, none of the 1000 sitting places in the chapel would be left unoccupied.

The chapel was damaged by bombing in 1940 and only repaired in 1952-53. Today, the building stands in all its glory and hosts regular religious services for its Congregationalist congregation (it is an autonomous protestant church, which governs its own affairs), but parts of it are now used for non-ecclesiastical purposes. Next time you wander along High Street Ken, make the short detour to see what I consider one of the finer buildings in the area alongside the unusual looking Armenian Church in nearby Iverna Gardens.

A short stroll in Kensington

BEDFORD GARDENS IN Kensington is a short street connecting Kensington Church Street at its eastern end and Campden Hill Road up the hill at its western end. The facades of many of the buildings along this thoroughfare are at least partly hidden behind foliage that can be very luxuriant in the warmer seasons of the year. We have walked along this street frequently, but it was only recently that we noticed two commemorative blue plaques, which record that someone famous lived in the buildings to which they are affixed.  Also, we looked at one building, which has no commemorative plaque, but does merit at least one.

77 Bedford Gardens

A rich network of leafy wisteria branches covers the façade of number 4 Bedford Gardens on the north side of the road. Partly hidden by this vegetation, there is a circular blue commemorative plaque that informs the viewer that the composer Frank Bridge (1879-1941) lived there. He did so for many years in this house that was built in the late 1830s (www.rbkc.gov.uk/virtualmuseum/general/default.asp). What little I have heard of his compositions has not appealed to me.

Further along the road and on its south side, there is a blue plaque on number 27. It tells us that William Beveridge (1879-1963), “architect of the Welfare State”, lived in this elegant brick house from 1914 to 1921. During this period of his life, this Liberal politician left the Board of Trade in 1919 to become Director of the London School of Economics, a post he held until 1937, a year or so before my father arrived at that institution as a post-graduate student from Cape Town.

Many years ago, if my memory serves me correctly, a friend of mine, who was studying history of art at the Courtauld Institute, spent several weeks as a lodger in the home of the art historian John Pope-Hennessy (1913-1994). I remember visiting my friend there once back in the 1970s. The famous art historian, whom I did not meet, lived for some years in Bedford Gardens (www.kensingtonsociety.org/wp-content/uploads/Annual-Report-1994.pdf) at number 41 ( according to a letter published in the “Times Literary Supplement” of October 29 1976). If there is a commemorative plaque for Pope-Hennessy on Bedford Gardens, I have not yet found it.

One house in Bedford Gardens that deserves a commemorative indication is a tall brick building with large studio windows on several of its five storeys. Built in 1882, it bears the numbers 77 and 79.  A sculpted head, looking like a classical Greek or Roman carving, is mounted centrally in the façade above the first-floor windows. This building was once used as artists’ studios; it might still be used by artists. According to an incomplete list (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bedford_Gardens,_London) of notable people who resided in Bedford Gardens, number 77 was used by the artists Robert Colquhoun (1914-1962), Robert MacBryde (1913–1966), Jankel Adler (1895–1949), and John Minton (1917-1957). Ronald Searle (1920-2011) also had a studio there but lived in nearby Bayswater and then Notting Hill (http://ronaldsearle.blogspot.com/2012/07/at-home-with-searles.html).

Minton lived at number 77 from 1943 to 1946 along with Colquhoun and his partner MacBryde (https://artuk.org/discover/artists/minton-john-19171957#). Colquhoun served as an ambulance driver in the Royal Army Medical Corps during WW2, but after suffering injuries in 1941, he moved to London where he shared studio space and his life with MacBride. The pair, who met at Glasgow School of Art in the 1930s, where their lifelong romantic relationship began, shared a house with Minton and after 1943 also with Jankel Adler ( http://www.blondesfineart.com/robert-colquhoun-artist). The parties these artists held at 77 Bedford Gardens were well-known in the artistic circles of London in the 1940s.

Kensington became a popular place with artists from all over Britain from the end of the nineteenth century onwards as this quote from a website (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1442898) illustrates:

“The late C19 saw a sharp rise in the number of artists’ studios in London, particularly in Camden, Hampstead, St Johns Wood and Kensington and Chelsea … Speculative studio development … started in the late 1860s in Camden, moving to Kensington in the 1870s, with the Avenue, Fulham Road built by Charles Freake (Grade II), and reaching a peak in the 1880s and 90s. By 1914, when the market virtually dried up, there were some 150 properties of this type in London ranging from pairs to groups of as many as thirty. Of these, approximately sixty multiple studios in Kensington and Chelsea contained 293 individual units. Consequently the number of artists recorded in these studios is extraordinarily high, counting many artists of great merit.”

77 Bedford Gardens was one of these developments. Today, few artists apart from the most successful of them could either afford a studio in this street or to live there. The accommodation in this short thoroughfare is now at the higher end of the property market. However, it costs nothing to stroll along this attractive little road, along which quite a few famous people have lived, and it is a pleasant thing to do.

Ulysses and the underground

THE IRISH AUTHOR James Joyce (1882-1941), author of “Ulysses”, “The Dubliners” etc., lived at number 28B Campden Grove in Kensington in 1931. While living in this flat, he worked on his novel “Finnegans Wake” (published in 1939) and married his long-term companion and muse Nora Barnacle (1884-1951). A blue plaque, which I had never noticed before during the 28 years I have lived in the area, on the house records his stay in Kensington. Joyce was not keen on this dwelling. In 1932, he wrote to Harriet Weaver Shaw:

“’I never liked the flat much though I liked the gardens nearby. That grove is inhabited by mummies. Campden Grave, it should be called. London is not made for divided houses. The little sooty dwellings with their backs to the railway line etc etc are genuine; so is Portland Place. But houses like that were never built to be run on the continental system and as flats they are fakes.” (quoted in http://peterchrisp.blogspot.com/2019/05/campden-grave-james-joyce-in-london.html

A few yards further west of Joyce’s temporary home, I spotted something else that I had not seen before and is relevant to what Joyce wrote.

The rear outer wall of number 1 Gordon Place is best viewed from near the end of Campden Grove just before it meets the northern end of Gordon Place. That rear wall is unusually shaped. Its windows are set into a concavely curved brickwork wall rather than the normal flat wall.

Today Gordon Place extends southwards, then briefly joins Pitt Street to run east for a few feet before making a right angle to continue southwards, crossing Holland Street and then ending in a picturesque cul-de-sac lined with luxuriant gardens. This has not always been its course. A map surveyed in 1865 shows Gordon Place as running between Campden Grove and Pitt Street. The section of today’s Gordon Place that runs south from Pitt Street to Holland Street was called ‘Vicarage Street’ and the cul-de-sac running south from Holland Street was then called ‘Orchard Street’. A map complied in 1896 reveals that Gordon Place was by then running along its present course. Vicarage Street had become renamed as part of ‘Gordon Place’.

Aerial views of the curved building, number 1 Gordon Place, show that its curved rear wall forms part of a deep opening that extends below the ground. Maps compiled from 1865 onwards show the presence of this hole and within it short stretches of railway tracks. The hole is a ventilation shaft for the Underground tracks, currently the Circle and District lines, that run just below the surface. Standing on Campden Grove close to the back of number 1 Gordon Place, one can hear trains clearly as they travel below the hole in the ground. How deep is the hole? The corner of Gordon Place and Campden Grove is 86 feet above sea level and High Street Kensington Station is at 43 feet above sea level.  The railway lines do not slope too much between the ventilation shaft and the station. According to Transport for London, between Notting Hill Gate and High Street Kensington, they descend by 12 feet (www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/70389/response/179967/attach/html/2/Station%20depths.xlsx.html). Using the information that we have, we can estimate the depth of the shaft to be at least 43 feet (i.e. 86-43 plus a little more because the rails are several feet below the surface).

The Metropolitan Railway that included the stretch of track between Notting Hill Gate and High Street Kensington stations was laid before 1868, and from the 1865 map, it was already present before the date when the map was surveyed. According to a detailed history of the area (https://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol37/pp49-57), houses near the corner of Camden Grove and Gordon Place (and in other locations nearby) had to be rebuilt after the railway was constructed between 1865 and 1868.  The 1865 map shows no house at the site of the present number 1 Gordon Place. This building with its concave curved rear wall appears on a map surveyed in 1896. It would seem that the developer who constructed number 1 did not want to waste any of his valuable plot; he constructed the rear of the building right up to the circular edge of the ventilation shaft.

So, now we have an explanation for the curiously curved wall and for Joyce’s comments about houses with their backs to railway lines. Some friends of ours own a house with an outer wall that forms part of another ventilation hole on the District and Circle lines. They told us that should they need to make repairs to the outside of the wall that overlooks the tracks, they would need to get special permission from the company that runs the Underground and that many precautions would be needed to protect the workmen and the trains running beneath them.

Life is often far from straightforward, but London is endlessly fascinating. James Joyce preferred Paris to London, where most of his books were published. I hope that it was not his experience with trains running close to where he lived in Campden Grove that influenced his preference.

A brief video that I made gives another view of the ventilation shaft described above: https://youtu.be/js87XIWn1gU

Peel Street and paintings

WALKING ALONG A SHORT street in London’s Kensington recently, I observed things that I had never noticed before and was reminded of Tony ‘M’. When I was a student of dentistry at the University College Hospital Dental School, I first met Tony in the third year. In that year, we began to learn how to make crowns (‘caps’) for our patients. Instead of sending the work out to be done by technicians, we students had to learn the nitty gritty of fabricating crowns, mostly gold ones. We were assigned to one of three or four technician tutors. I was assigned to Tony’s group. Why visiting Peel Street in Kensington sparked me to think of Tony will be revealed later.

Peel Street in Notting Hill Gate lies in land that used to be known as ‘The Racks’. It was part of the extensive estate of Campden House, which was owned by the Phillimore family. In the early 19th century, the land was bought by John Punter and William Ward, who divided the land between them in 1823 after having agreed to lay out two roads: Peel Str and Campden Str. Peel Street lay in Punter’s share of the area. Although Punter retained several plots along Peel Street, the rest were sold to a variety of different people. Nearer the eastern end of the street several buildings were demolished between 1865 and 1875 during the construction of what is now the Circle Line. Though the tracks are underground, there are no buildings built above them. If you look through the gap on the north side of the road, you can see the rear of a brick building which fronts on Edge Street. Near the top of this place, some bricks have been made to project slightly and to spell the name ‘LESLIE’. The rear part of this L-shaped building is currently occupied by ‘The Spanish Education Office’. This building was flying Spanish and  EU flags. I have no idea about the significance of ‘Leslie’.

One of the houses on the south side of Peel Street used to be a pub. It still bears the lettering ‘Peel Arms’. It was probably in existence by 1889, but today it is a private dwelling. The pub’s clientele were probably mostly workers who toiled in the gravel pits that abounded in the neighbourhood. The pub is not far from the six-storey Camden Houses, brick-built blocks of flats erected in 1877-8 for labourers, some of whom might well have drunk at the Peel Arms. The blocks contain 125 separate flats. The entrances to the blocks have art nouveau features. The building were designed by the architect Edwyn Evans Cronk (1846-1919) for the National Dwellings Society Ltd. Cronk was born in Sevenoaks (Kent) and died in Redcliffe Square in South Kensington.

At the western end of Peel Street, there is another pub, The Windsor Castle. Unlike the Peel Arms, this is a working establishment, now popular with the locals, most of whom are not poorly paid labourers. It was originally built in about 1826 and then remodelled in 1933. The pub contains much of its original late Georgian building fabric and is a Grade II listed place. Although I have passed it often, I have never entered it or its reputedly fine garden. At the Eastern end of Peel Street, there is a wine bar, The Kensington Wine Rooms. When we were getting married, back in 1993, the premises were occupied by a branch of the Café Rouge restaurant chain. We held a pre-wedding dinner there. The premises now housing the wine bar once housed a pub, The Macaulay Arms.  It was listed as being in existence in the 1868 edition of “Allen’s West London Street Directory”. Thus, residents of Peel Street were only a few steps from three ‘drinking holes’.

The directory ( https://www.gutenberg.org/files/58160/58160-h/58160-h.htm) lists the residents of Peel Street in 1868 as follows:

“1 Upfold George, sweep/ 2 Arnold F., carpenter/ 3 Miles Frederick, painter/ 23 Mansell H., painter/ 26 Redman J., marine stores/ 28 Redman J., beer retailer/ 37 Taylor W., gardener/ 46 Lucas Wm. Grocer/ 53 Hobbs Mrs. general shop/ 55 Horskins Thos. Baker/ 63 Pollett —, bootmaker/ Harris W., greengrocer/ 67 Smart M., The George Brewery/ 69 Dunnett Mrs. dressmaker/ 77 Elson George, oilman/ 80 Evans H., gardener/ 82 Atwood Mrs, dressmaker/ 83 Salmon —, bootmaker”

Most of the inhabitants appear to have been tradesmen, merchants, and craftsmen, rather than labourers. This is probably because the list was compiled before the Campden Houses were built to house manual labourers and their families. Incidentally, there is still a greengrocer on Peel Street. Jack and Jessie’s excellent shop is opposite the Kensington Wine Rooms.

Peel Cottage stands almost at the corner of Peel Street and Campden Hill Road. It is next to number 118 Campden Hill Road (aka ‘West House’), a building on the corner of Peel street designed for the artist George Henry Boughton (1803-1905) in the late 1870s by Richard Norman Shaw (1831-1912). New Scotland Yard and Lowther Lodge (home of the Royal Geographical Society on Kensington Gore) were amongst the many other buildings designed by Shaw. Another artist, the landscape painter Matthew Ridley Corbet (1850-1902) lived at number 80 Peel Street, where once lived the gardener, H Evans.  

The entrance to Peel Cottage, which is dwarfed by its neighbours, is partially covered with ivy. It was seeing the blue, circular commemorative plaque on the wall next to its entrance that reminded me of my former teacher Tony M. The plaque informs the passer-by that the artist Sir William Russell Flint (1880-1969) lived in Peel Cottage from 1925 until his death. This brings me back to Tony M, about whom you must have thought I had forgotten already.

As a dental student, I spent many hours with Tony M as I struggled to make decent gold crowns that would fit my patients’ teeth in the conservation clinics of the Dental School. Each encounter with Tony involved a trip to the canteen in the school’s basement. Tony was unable to function without a fresh cup of the school’s barely mediocre coffee. Over cups of coffee, Tony used to encourage us when the clinical teachers made our lives miserable, help with our technical work, and chat. During one of our sessions together, Tony, knowing that art interested me, suggested that I visit Cottrell’s showrooms in nearby Charlotte Street (numbers 15-17) to see the fine collection of paintings that hung on its walls. Cottrell’s were an important supplier of dental equipment and materials. Today, although it has retained its original Victorian frontage, it is the premises of the Charlotte Street Hotel.

Dutifully and because I was curious, I visited Cottrell’s showroom and looked at the framed watercolours hanging on the walls of the two ground floor showrooms. The paintings were all works of the inhabitant of Peel Cottage, William Russell Flint.

Flint was born in Edinburgh. He studied at Daniel Stewart’s College and then Edinburgh Institution. Between 1900 and 1902, he worked as a medical illustrator in London. Later, he produced illustrations for books and “The Illustrated London News”. He was elected President of the Royal Society of Painters in Watercolours (now the Royal Watercolour Society, of which my wife’s cousin, Varsha Bhatia, is a member), a position he held from 1936 until 1956. He was knighted in 1947. Flint produced many well-executed, delicately tinted water-colour paintings. He often visited Spain, where he made plenty of images that often included sensuous portrayals of women in various stages of undress. It was some of these titillating paintings that Tony had sent me to see on the walls of Cottrell’s showroom.

It was in the late 1970s or early 1980s (before 1982, when I qualified) that Tony M encouraged me to pay a visit to Cottrell’s in Charlotte Street to widen my knowledge of the world of art. Many years have passed since then, but a memory of that brief glimpse of Flint’s paintings lingers in the back of my mind. Visiting Peel Street and seeing Flint’s home brought that all back to the forefront of my memory.

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.

BLOG F1

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.

Fading with time

SINCE THE IMPOSITION OF ‘LOCKDOWN’ in the UK, use of public transport has been discouraged, as has wandering too far from home when taking exercise. While not exactly ‘confined to barracks’, the distance that we have been allowed to move away from home has been limited, more or less to the amount of distance that we can manage to walk (or, not in my case, cycle) comfortably, without exhausting ourselves. This meant that for many weeks we have been walking around our local area. A friend of ours in Dublin told us, half-jokingly, that during the Irish lockdown, he felt that he had got to know every blade of grass in his neighbourhood. I understood what he was saying.  For me, greater familiarity with our immediate locality has not bred contempt for it, but the opposite. We have been walking along small streets we never knew existed and discovering interesting details in those thoroughfares that we thought we knew so well.

HORNTON 2 BLOG

I have been walking along Sheffield Terrace, which leads off Kensington Church Street, two or three times a week for the last 25 years, yet it was only yesterday that I noticed a small square metal plate on the wall of a house in that thoroughfare. It recorded the fact that the author GK Chesterton was born in that house on the 29th of May 1874. A few doors away on the same street, there is a much larger and far more obvious plaque commemorating that the founder of the Church Army, Prebendary Wilson Carlile (1847-1942) had lived there. I had often noticed this memorial, but I had never noticed the far more discreet memorial to Chesterton, which looks like a simple grey wall tile from a distance.

Sheffield Terrace leads to the northern end of Hornton Street, which is marked on 19th century Ordnance Survey maps as ‘Campden House Road’.  Hornton Street leads south and downhill towards High Street Kensington. Once again, this is a street along which I have walked several times a week over a period of at least 25 years. Various roads lead off Hornton Street. The short Pitt Street is one of these. On the corner of Pitt and Hornton Streets, there is a faded rectangular sign that I have always assumed carried the words ‘Hornton Street’. However, I had not looked at it closely enough until yesterday.

I do not know what made me examine the faded sign closely, but I am glad that I did. Some of the letters on it have disappeared. The following are just about visible, and even more so on enhanced digital photographs: H, O, R, N, …, D, G, E. The last three letters are not ‘E, E, T’, which you would expect to see if the sign had read ‘Hornton Street’. I wondered if the sign had originally read ‘Hornton Lodge’. I went home and searched for ‘“Hornton Lodge” Kensington’ on Google.

One of the most useful things that came up amongst the Google search results was an offer on eBay for two pages of the issue of “Country Life” magazine, dated 21st of March 1968. These pages contain an article about Hornton Lodge on Pitt Street. The article bore the title “Serene Vision of a Modern Interior”. It describes the interior of a house built in 1948 on a bomb site and owned by Mr and Mrs James Melvin. The house, a long rectangular building, was called Hornton Lodge. The fading sign is all that remains of the house described in the magazine. Currently, builders are erecting a new building on the part of the plot nearest to the corner where the sign can be found. This new construction is, according to a planning application submitted in December 2019 by Nash Baker Architects, to replace an:

“… early post war semi-detached property … constructed circa 1948-49, on the site of a former villa known as ‘Hornton Lodge’. The architect/owner, James Melvin, was a partner in major architectural firm: Gollins Melvin Ward Partnership. However, at the time it was constructed, the firm was in its infancy, and this project was a modest family home for a young architect and his family; designed with modernist intentions during a time of austerity.”

I found references to a ‘Red House’, also referred to in at least one item, maybe erroneously, as ‘Hornton Lodge’.  The Red House was built by Stephen Bird in 1835. It was also known as ‘Hornton Villa’. This was not the property on Pitt Street demolished by a bomb in WW2 because it stood across Hornton Street opposite the western end of Holland Street, which is south of Pitt Street. A future president of the USA, Herbert Hoover, lived at that address between 1907 and 1918. Hornton Villa, The Red House, was demolished in in the 1970s, and on its site stands the architecturally undistinguished Customer Service Centre of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.

There is more evidence of a Hornton Lodge, quite distinct from the Hornton Villa, mentioned above. Joseph Foster’s “Men-at-the-bar : a biographical hand-list of the members of the various Inns of Court, including Her Majesty’s judges, etc.” (published in 1885) published the address of a barrister Richard E Webster (1842-1915; called to the Bar in 1868), Lord Alverstone, as “Hornton Lodge, Pitt Street, Kensington W”. He became Attorney General between 1885 and 1886.  Even earlier than that, “Allens West London Street Directory” (published in 1868) lists a Theodore Aston as living at Hornton Lodge.

Close examination of a sign that I have passed and seen many thousands of times, assuming it bore a simple faded street name, has revealed that I had never looked at it carefully enough before. The constriction of my field of activities to a small part of London has, to my surprise, heightened my powers of observation rather than blunted them, which could have easily happened when visiting the same locality repetitively.

Soon, the faded sign on the corner of Pitt Street will either be removed or become even more illegible. I am glad I noticed its clue to the past before either of those things happen.

 

 

The leaning tree

LATE 18 leaf

“A PICTURE IS WORTH A THOUSAND WORDS” It is not known exactly when this well-known sentence was first used, but an article in Wikipedia suggests that one of the first times it appeared in print was in an advertisement for a Texan newspaper, the “San Antonio Light”, in 1918. I do not know whether I can write a thousand words to put the attached picture in context, so you will have to make do with what I am able muster.

Just over a year ago, my wife and I were ‘wintering’ in India. We left our daughter looking after our flat in Kensington. One day, she sent us a message informing us that one of the old trees in our street had toppled over in the middle of the night.

The tree that fell always looked precarious as its trunk leaned over the road at quite a sharp angle, making it tricky to park a car next to it. A neighbour told us that it had done so for well over a century. His evidence was that the very same tree can be seen leaning over the road in an old photograph of our street taken about 150 years ago. So, the tree was not inherently unstable.

Many years ago, while walking through woods with my old PhD supervisor (and by then a close friend), he pointed out the variety of shapes and inclinations of the tree trunks around us. He wondered how a tree ‘knew’ how to grow in various directions whilst maintaining a centre of gravity that stopped it toppling over. Clearly, our late lamented leaning tree ‘knew what it was doing as it had been leaning seemingly precariously for at least a century and a half.

After we returned from India, there was a bare patch where the tree had stood for so long. A neighbour, who makes it his business to find out in detail what happens in our small street told us what befell our tree. The local council decided to move the position of the curb and so to widen the pavement around the tree, the idea being to narrow the road at that point and thereby prevent parking next to the tree.

Unfortunately, the workmen assigned to carry out this job managed to cut through part of the tree’s root system. This destabilised the tree, which then fell over across the street. While falling, the tree damaged a first-floor balustrade and terrace on a building across the street. Luckily, there were no human casualties.

For some months, the site of the fallen tree remained treeless. Then, a small tree with a slender trunk, a sapling, was planted by the council. Day by day, we watched it producing leaves. These changed colour in the autumn, looked sickly, and fell off, leaving a sad looking spindly tree. Then, we spent another winter in India.

When we returned in late February this year (2020), the young tree was still standing and still looking lifeless. As the weeks passed, we were very pleased to see buds forming on its slender branches. These buds have grown in size and are, at last, unfurling to reveal the tiny leaves seen in the photograph.

It is pleasing to see that even in these troubled times, nature has something positive to lift our spirits.

Well, I have reached about 580 words, not quite a thousand. However, as the saying goes, I hope my photo is worth at least a thousand words and is something to enjoy.

A musical offering

Maestro_240

 

This evening, I attended a performance of A Musical Offering by JS Bach (opus BWV 1079) at the Royal College of Music in Kensington. Each of the sections of this work was introduced by the conductor, Joe Parks, who explained what was musically interesting about them.

The whole piece is based on a theme composed by King Frederick II of Prussia. He gave it to Bach on the 7th of May 1747, and challenged the composer to do something interesting with it. A Musical Offering is what Bach did with the King’s theme. I am no musician, so can hardly explain the compositional procedures with which Bach exploited the King’s somewhat dull theme. For example, in one of the sections improvisations on the theme are played with musicians simultaneously playing the modified theme both forwards and in reverse. In another section, the theme is improvised in a range of different keys. In brief, this piece by Bach is both intriguing and challenging for musicians. Although this aspect of the music is lost on me, my enjoyment of the work was not impaired.

What fascinates me is that a piece of music so full of compositional twists and turns is a delight to hear. Bach has not only satisfied his desires to hone his compositinal technique in this piece, but also he has created a work that is highly satisfying to the listener.

Great music like great paintings reach into the the inner subconscious of the listener or viewer and thereby evoke an almost visceral sensation of joy. It does not matter that the music is full of compositional magic or the painting might be impressionistic or abstract because the great artist knows how to produce a work that reaches those hidden parts of the body that evoke feelings we call emotion. Without doubt, A Musical Offering did that for me.