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.

Enjoying space in France

WE LIVE IN A SMALL flat without neither garden nor a balcony, but near the centre of London and two large parks. For several years, we used to drive to France, where we hired country houses in rural locations from an organisation called Gîtes de France. A ‘gîte’ is essentially a furnished house available for rent to holidaymakers.

The organisation used to issue handbooks listing the houses available in various regions. Each home is given a category between the lowest 1 and the highest 3 ‘épi(s)’ (ears of corn). When we planned our trips, we used to choose from the houses on offer in the 3 épis grade. We had several criteria that determined our choice of holiday home. First, it had to have at least 100 square metres of usable space because we wanted to experience living in a spacious place for at least one week per year. Second, it had to be equipped with machines both for both clothes and for dishes.  In addition to fulfilling these requirements, there was one more thing we always wanted: a barbecue.

My wife had hired gîtes before we married, which is why we considered doing this for our family holidays. The first one we hired was in a small village, Poilly-sur-Serein near the famous wine-producing town of Chablis in Burgundy. The building was easily large enough to house my wife, her parents, who had flown over from India, our daughter, and me. We used the barbecue almost every evening, preparing vegetarian kebabs for my in-laws and meaty ones for the rest of us. Staying in Poilly-sur-Serein whet my appetite for trying other gîtes.

One April, we hired a lovely house in the south of Provence, not far from Orange. It was next to a cherry orchard and had a large garden. We could not use the garden much during the day because that year there was a heatwave in the south of France. Temperatures were hovering around 37 degrees Celsius and the best place to be was in our air-conditioned car, in which we explored the local and not so local sights.

One of our favourite hires was also in the south of France, in the Aveyron region. The house was located inside the walls of the ruined Templar’s castle at St Jean d’Alcas, which is but a few miles south of Roquefort-sur-Souzon, the centre of Roquefort cheese-making.   We visited the small town of blue cheese fame several times and ate some meals in its restaurants. At one of these, a cheese trolley bearing thirteen different types of Roquefort was wheeled to our table. Although they looked alike, our waiter patiently explained the characteristics of each before advising us that it was best not to select more than four of them on a plate at any one meal. At another eatery in the town, I could not resist sampling the ‘Menu Roquefort’, a three-course lunch consisting of dishes that included the town’s famous blue cheese. My starter was an omelette which incorporated the cheese. This was followed by meat in a sauce based on Roquefort. The dessert was a Roquefort soufflé. Although this might sound heavy, it was not because whoever prepared it was a good cook with a light touch.

The gîte at St Jean d’Alcas was so lovely that we hired it a second time, a year after our first visit. During the second stay, there was a grand celebration in the tiny village. It was probably Bastille Day. Long tables were set out in the lane running alongside our house. In the evening, we were invited to feast with the locals, who had flocked in great numbers to the usually deserted village. We joined the friendly crowd seated at the tables and were offered one of two main courses. On offer from huge cooking vessels, there was either tripe in a delicious sauce or grilled local sausages. It was a fine occasion with unlimited wine. The following morning, the tables and benches had disappeared, and the picturesque village had returned to its normal sleepy state. 

There was only one shop in St Jean d’Alcas and its merchandise was limited in range but delicious. It sold bottles of a liqueur like ratafia, but with a different name. Apart from that, we had to buy our food supplies elsewhere, mainly in street markets and supermarkets. Shopping for daily needs was one of the many attractions of having our own home away from home.

One curious feature common to all the gîtes that we hired was that each of them had only one toilet/bathroom however large the building. In 2000, we hired a large house in the Haute Loire at a tiny village with a ruined castle, Arlempdes. Its location next to the castle walls was wonderful. It overlooked a sharp curve in the river. This four-storey building had accommodation for eleven people, but only one toilet and shower. Both were inconveniently located in the basement of the gîte. Had there been eleven of us, or even just five of us, having only one toilet would have been extremely inconvenient. As we were looking for extra space to enjoy, this property more than fulfilled our requirements.

We gave up driving through France several years ago. Most of the places we wanted to visit were more than a full day’s tiring drive across France. On the way out, this did not matter as we had an exciting holiday to enjoy. But the return journey was never much fun. There was the long drive through France towards the English Channel, much of which involved driving through the often-dreary areas of the northern part of the country. Then, there was a shorter but much more exhausting ‘schlep’ through Kent and south-east and central London … and the prospect of returning to work. By the time we reached our tiny flat, we were ready for another holiday.