Secret garden

MUCH OF GREATER LONDON is green space, which has not been built on. According to one source of information, Greenspace Information for Greater London CIC (‘GiGL’; http://www.gigl.org.uk):

“Roughly 47% of Greater London is ‘green’; 33% of London is natural habitats within open space according to surveyed habitat information and an additional 14% is estimated to be vegetated private, domestic garden land.”

Of this ‘green space’, much is accessible to the public either free of charge (e.g. Regents Park) or for a fee (e.g. Kew Gardens). This piece is about an example of a type of green space in London that is open to a select few. I am referring to many of the gardens in London squares that are or were surrounded by residential buildings. Some of these (e.g. Gordon Square in Bloomsbury) have been taken over by local councils and are now open to the public in general. However, many of these garden squares contain gardens that may only be entered by people who are eligible to be able to pay a fee for a key to unlock them. Some of the squares confine those eligible for keys to residents in the square or in neighbouring streets. I know of one privately owned garden, that within Princes Square near Bayswater, which is open to anyone who can afford the annual fee. This square garden, being privately owned, is dependent for membership fees to ensure its maintenance. Those eligible to use the gardens within squares, whether privately or partially privately maintained, can be expected to pay something towards the maintenance of these often-beautiful local amenities.

Recently, a friend admitted us to the garden of Norland Square in Kensington. Like many of these limited access gardens, it is surrounded by formidable cast-iron railings. These railings were removed during the Second World War when metals required for war materials were in short supply. They were only replaced in 2007. Like most of these squares, the passer-by cannot see much within the garden beyond the railings because of hedges and other vegetation grown just within them to preserve the privacy of those using the garden. So, being allowed to enter Norland Square provided us a rare opportunity to examine the interior of one of these ‘secret’ gardens.

Norland Square takes its name from the Norland Estate, 52 acres of land bounded to the south by Holland Park Avenue, on the east by roads now named ‘Pottery Lane’ and ‘Portland Road’, on the west  by the boundaries of the parishes of Kensington and Hammersmith (www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol37/pp276-297). The northern edge of the estate was roughly 200 yards north of the present Wilsham Street. The estate passed through several owners in the 18th century. They lived in a mansion, demolished long ago, which used to stand close to the present number 130 Holland Park Avenue. The name ‘Norland’ was used as early as 1599 to describe the ‘Northlands’, the land in the northern part of the Parish of Kensington (north of the present Holland Park Avenue), which includes the estate (www.rbkc.gov.uk/sites/default/files/atoms/files/Norland%20CAPS.pdf).

Writing in 1878, Edward Walford, author of a series of books called “Old and New London”, noted that during the reign of William IV, the then well-wooded estate belonged to one of the Drummonds, a family of bankers of Charing Cross. Prior to these occupants, the first to live in the former Norland House was Thomas Marquois (died 1802), ‘Professor of Artillery and Fortification’, who used the building as an academy to teach both civil and military subjects to sons of the gentry, who were hoping to join the British Army. According to the website about the Norland Estate mentioned above:

“Board and lodging, plus instruction in Greek, Latin, French, writing and arithmetic could be had for thirty guineas a year, but fortification, mathematics, navigation, drawing, geography, dancing, fencing and riding were all charged as extras. Marquois’ prospectus contains a plan of the academy and its grounds, which were indeed very well suited to his purposes. Besides the house itself there were stables, a manege or riding house, a fives court, a cricket ground, gravelled drives for hack riding, and an artificial ‘mount’ from which the various activities of the pupils could be kept under constant review.”

Marquois relinquished the property after only four years in 1765.

In 1825, fire destroyed Norland House. In 1838, Benjamin Lewis Vulliamy (1780-1854), clockmaker to the Crown, who then owned the Norland Estate, sold it and the ruins of the mansion to a solicitor Charles Richardson, who raised money to develop the estate for building purposes. The layout and design of the southern part of the estate, including Norland Square, was carried out by the architect Robert Cantwell (c1793-1859). The houses on Norland Square were leased to their first occupiers by Charles Richardson in 1842 and 1843.

Except for Norland Square Mansions on the south-west corner of the square, which has a few features slightly suggestive of art-deco style, the other houses surrounding the square are those built in the early 1840s. The mansion block occupies numbers 53 to 57 Norland Square. Interestingly, these plots do not figure in a list of the original lessees of the other plots in the square. Number 52, which neighbours the mansion block was leased to Robert Cantwell in 1842. A detailed map surveyed in 1865 shows that where Norland Square Mansions stands today, there were no houses but instead a garden extending between number 52 and a house, now no longer standing, on the corner of the square and Holland Park Avenue (then named ‘Uxbridge Road’). On a map dated 1913, the position of the mansion block was occupied by a school. This same building, which has a different ground plan to the current block of flats was still present on a detailed map surveyed in 1938. So, it would be reasonable to say that the mansion block was built after 1938.

Getting back to the present, we found that the ‘secret garden’ in the centre of Norland Square is both attractive and well-maintained. In addition to an extensive lawn furnished with occasional wooden benches and a table, there are plenty of shrubs and trees. There is a small well-equipped children’s play area at one end of the garden and tennis courts at the opposite end. While we spent time in the garden, a couple of elderly women were taking their daily walk around it and a young lady was exercising her dog. Areas like this are invaluable during periods of ‘lockdown’ during the current covid19 pandemic, offering lucky city-dwellers a welcome respite from being ‘confined to barracks’ and if they are fortunate to have a garden, they provide a much larger open space to ‘take the air’ than their own smaller patches. We were both grateful and happy to have been able to see and experience what is usually hidden from us by iron railings and curtains of dense vegetation.

Exhibitionism then and now

THE DIORAMA IN REGENTS Park is no more. However, the building on Park Square East (number 18), a protected edifice which housed it, still bears the word ‘Diorama’ prominently displayed. Designed by Morgan and Pugin, architects, and opened in 1823, this former London attraction, a mere 700 yards away from Madame Tussauds, a current attraction, was described in “Mogg’s New Picture of London and Visitor’s Guide to its Sights, 1844”

(quoted in www.victorianlondon.org/entertainment/diorama.htm) as follows:

“The Diorama, in Park Square, Regent’s Park, long an object of wonder and delight in Paris, was first opened in London, September 29, 1823. This is a very extraordinary and beautiful exhibition; it consists of two pictures that are alternately brought into view by a very ingenious mechanical contrivance; the interior resembling a theatre, consisting of one tier of boxes and a pit, being made to revolve upon a centre with the spectators, thus gradually withdraws one picture and introduces the other to the view. A judicious introduction of the light, and other contrivances, give increased effect to pictures beautifully painted, which, by a concentration of talent, completes an illusion that with perfect justice may be pronounced ‘the acme of art’.”

In 1844, the place was open from 10 am to 4 pm and the admission charge was steep for that era, two shillings (10p in today’s currency). The technology employed to create the show was invented by the Frenchmen Louis Daguerre (1757-1851), of photography fame, and Charles M Bouton (1781-1853). John Timbs in his “Curiosities of London” (published 1867) provided more details of the Diorama:

“The Diorama consisted of two pictures, eighty feet in length and forty feet in height, painted in solid and in transparency, arranged so as to exhibit changes of light and shade, and a variety of natural phenomena; the spectators being kept in comparative darkness, while the picture received a concentrated light from a ground-glass roof. The contrivance was partly optical, partly mechanical; and consisted in placing the pictures within the building so constructed, that the saloon containing the spectators revolved at intervals, and brought in succession the two distinct scenes into the field of view, without the necessity of the spectators removing from their seats; while the scenery itself remained stationary, and the light was distributed by transparent and movable blinds-some placed behind the picture, for intercepting and changing the colour of the rays of light, which passed through the semi-transparent parts. Similar blinds, above and in front of the picture were movable by cords, so as to distribute or direct the rays of light. The revolving motion given to the saloon was an arc of about 73º; and while the spectators were thus passing round, no person was permitted to go in or out. The revolution of the saloon was effected by means of a sector, or portion of a wheel, with teeth which worked in a series of wheels and pinions; one man, by turning a winch, moved the whole. The space between the saloon and each of the two pictures was occupied on either side by a partition, forming a kind of avenue, proportioned in width to the size of the picture. Without such a precaution, the eye of the spectator, being thirty or forty feet distant from the canvas, would, by anything intervening, have been estranged from the object.”

Although the Diorama was successful from a cultural viewpoint it was not commercially viable. By 1850, it had been sold. In 1852, the politician and engineer Sir Morton Peto (1809-1889) bought the building, and it was turned into a Baptist chapel (www.british-history.ac.uk/old-new-london/vol5/pp262-286). More recently, its interior has been modernised and converted to be used for various purposes.

The former Diorama faces the south east corner of Regents Park, the English Garden, where once a year this area briefly becomes host to a contemporary cultural event: The Frieze Sculpture show. Various commercial galleries display works of art from their collections in the open air in this part of the public park. It is a show that we enjoy visiting and this year, 2020, was the third year running that we have attended.

This year, the show runs from the 5th to the 18th of October, a shorter time than in previous years because of the covid19 pandemic. Realistically, it could have been held for far longer given that it is in the open air and crowding is unlikely. The 2020 exhibition comprises 12 artworks selected by curator Clare Lilley (Director of Programme, Yorkshire Sculpture Park). The artists whose works can be seen are as follows: David Altmejd, Fabio Lattanzi Antinori, Gianpietro Carlesso, Eric Fischl, Patrick Goddard, Lubaina Himid, Kalliopi Lemos, Richard Long, Sarah Lucas, Gavin Turk, Rebecca Warren and Arne Quinze. Of these, I had heard of some of them and already seen some of their art.

Without attempting to describe the artworks, all of them were visually intriguing, well-executed, and most of them evoked light-hearted feelings to a greater or lesser extent. The visitors who were looking at them seemed to be enjoying what they were seeing. Both children and adults were having fun. A lot of selfies were being taken, especially next to the sculptures that featured free standing doorways by Lubaini Himid and another by Gavin Turk. Fabio Lattanzi Antinori’s “viewing room” also attracted many people. This simple electronic sculpture flashed up a series of ridiculous but amusing messages such as “Culture is £1.28” and “Raju is £0”, which together formed a curious critique of today’s cultural values. An artwork which was somewhat macabre and delightfully weird was a collection of latex rubber animal heads scattered around in the grass. Each head also incorporated a mirror. This collection, entitled “Humans-Animals-Monsters (2020)” was created by Patrick Goddard. So, when a viewer looks at one of the heads, he or she not only sees the animal or monster but also his or her own reflection.  One sculpture, which I liked but my wife and daughter did not, was a tower of twisted torn metal sheets created by Arne Quinze. One work, which I did not particularly like, but was popular with small children was a sculpture depicting an oversize sandwich, created by Sarah Lucas.  The other six artworks, although not insignificant visually, attracted me less than those I have just described.

In brief, although a far cry from the long-lost Diorama, the outdoor Frieze Sculpture show is great fun and worth visiting if you can. Interesting artworks are displayed in a lovely environment. Some of them seem in harmony with nature and others deliberately clash with it. I must confess that I have a great fondness for outdoor displays of sculpture. Maybe, this derives from my childhood when my mother used to create sculptural works and displayed some of them in the garden of our home in northwest London. Recently, apart from seeing the sculptures at Regents Park, I have enjoyed seeing artworks displayed outdoors at Salisbury Cathedral, Compton Verney House (in Warwickshire), and at Henry Moore’s former home near Much Hadham.

PS: If you cannot get to Regents Park, the exhibition is on-line for a while at: https://viewingroom.frieze.com/viewing-room/

See a short video made by me at the exhibition by clicking here:https://youtu.be/Hg1IfB4jR9U

Camping under the stars

THE FIRST TIME I SLEPT in a tent was in 1972. With five other chaps including a friend from childhood and the now well-known Matthew Parris, we set out on a fortnight’s driving holiday around France. We did not stay in hotels. We camped in a large tent divided into two rooms. The inner one had its own fitted groundsheet. The outer one, which led to the inner, had no floor. So, it was necessary to lay out a separate groundsheet in this section. Without any prior knowledge or experience of camping (and without employing an ounce of common sense), I volunteered to position the outer groundsheet. I placed it so that the edge of one side of the sheet was just outside the wall of the tent.

 

adventure alps camp camping

]Photo by Sagui Andrea on Pexels.com]

At bedtime, I unrolled my recently purchased sleeping bag and wriggled inside it. I was assigned a position inside the outer room of the tent close to the wall mentioned above. I lay in my sleeping bag and felt every pebble and other irregularity of the earth beneath me through the bag’s meagrely padded material. Why, I wondered, was this uncomfortable bedding called a ‘sleeping bag’, when sleep appeared to be impossible inside it. Naively, I thought that a sleeping bag was supposed to encourage sleep. My fellow campers had all brought inflatable mattresses. I understood the reason but wished that someone had mentioned the necessity of these things before we had set off.

In the middle of the night, there was a heavy rainstorm with thunder and lightning. The inside of my sleeping bag began to feel cold. Soon, I realised that it was absorbing huge amounts of cold water. Then, I discovered why this was happening. My positioning of the outer ground sheet so that its edge was sticking out of the tent was the cause. Rain was hitting this exposed edge of a waterproof sheet, and then running into the tent.  After a sleepless night, my sodden sleeping bag was tied on to the roof of the car and it dried gradually as we sped along French D class roads (we avoided motorways) in the sunshine that followed the storm. When we reached the appropriately named town of Tonnerre, the name means ‘thunder’ in French, I purchased an inflatable mattress. Equipped with this, I fell in love with camping.

We had decided to have picnics for our midday meals, and to eat in restaurants every evening. My five travelling companions were far more energetic and adventurous than I was. It was important for them that we either had our picnic by a running stream (for cooling the wine) or at the summit of a slope (to enjoy a view). Reaching either of these ideal picnic locations usually involved climbing or descending sleep slopes. I was not good at either activity. I used to arrive at the picnic spot long after my companions had begun eating. So, after a while, I armed myself with a bag of sweets so that I could do something to assuage my hunger whilst struggling to reach a picnic spot.

The two-week camping trip in France whet my appetite for more camping experiences. The next trip I made was with my own one-man tent and rucksack. I went for a short walking trip in the Eifel Mountains in what was then West Germany. I disembarked from a train at Gerolstein and knew from my detailed map that I needed to walk past a certain hotel to find the footpath that led to my first night’s campsite. As I left the station, I asked a man the way to that hotel. He took one look at my heavily laden rucksack and recommended that I should go there by taxi. I had not the heart to tell him that not only was I going to walk to the hotel but then eight miles beyond it.

That initial encounter in a part of Germany famous for hiking was a foretaste of what was to follow. The Eifel mountains, full of former volcanic craters containing mirror smooth lakes, is criss-crossed, as is much of Germany, with well-made well-signposted footpaths. The signage on these wonderful  ‘Wanderwege’ is so thorough that you would have to be completely blind to get lost. Everyday, I left my campsite with my tent and rucksack and wandered along these paths to my next night’s stopping place. What I noticed was in accord with my brief meeting with the man at Gerolstein. The footpaths were largely unused apart from within less than a mile from a village. Near settlements, the footpaths were populated with men, often wearing lederhosen, and women out for a stroll. Almost all of them looked like professional hikers with proper boots and walking sticks often decorated with badges from places that they had visited in the past. However, none of them strayed more than a kilometre or so from their hotels and campsites. It was only I, who strode boldly through hill and dale from one village to another. My only companions were avian.  I came away from my enjoyable wanderings in the Eifel with my illusion that the Germans were a nation of keen walkers shattered. This did not put me off making another camping trip in West Germany in the late 1970s.

With my rucksack and tent in the hold of a Lufthansa domestic flight, I flew from Frankfurt-am-Main to Nuremberg, a short hop. At Nuremberg airport, I waited to reclaim my baggage, but it did not appear on the conveyor belt. After all the other passengers on my flight had left the airport, I reported my missing baggage to an official, who answered:

“That is not a problem. It will probably arrive in a few hours’ time on the next flight from Frankfurt. Just give me the address of your hotel and, surely, we will deliver it for you.”

“But, there is a problem,” I answered.

“And, what is that?”

“Well,” I replied, “My hotel is contained within my missing baggage.”

The official looked at me curiously. I explained:

 “I am planning to camp in Bamberg.”

“Ach, then you must wait for the next flight.”

I waited for about three hours in the empty airport accompanied only by the occasional security men with their Alsatian hounds at the end of stretched leads. My tent and other baggage arrived on the next flight, and I proceeded to Bamberg. I have no idea why I wanted to visit Bamberg, but I am glad I did. Many years later, I discovered that one of my mother’s ancestors, her great grandmother, Helene Springer, was born there in 1819.

From Bamberg, I travelled to Ljubljana in the former Yugoslavia. I made my way to an official campsite and pitched my tent. Then, I went into town for dinner. I ate a large and delicious fried breadcrumb-covered chicken breast stuffed with masses of molten cheese and salty ham. I returned to my tent, inflated my air-mattress, and settled down for the night. Two things troubled me throughout the night. The first was my digestive system that was struggling desperately with the extremely rich food I had enjoyed earlier. The second was incessant noise. The official campsite was located in a corner plot bounded on one side by a motorway, the main road from Western Europe to Turkey, and on another by a railway track, that which connected Western Europe with Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey. Between the roar of the traffic on the road and the noisy rumblings of trains passing through the night, sleep was impossible. The next day, I flew between Ljubljana and Belgrade, where my friends Mira and Peter welcomed me at the airport. I had the impression that they were shocked that I had even thought of camping on my way to Belgrade.

Despite various hitches, I remained keen about camping, something my parents never admitted to having done. Some years later, I had several highly enjoyable camping holidays in northern Greece, but these I will describe on another occasion.

 

A picnic to remember

 

I AM NOT A LOVER OF picnics. My perfect idea of eating outside my home is not squatting on a rug in a picturesque open-air location, but in a restaurant. In contrast, my wife and her parents loved picnics.

Many years ago, when both of my dear in-laws were still alive and healthy, that is well before 2006, we decided to have a picnic at the Big Banyan Tree just outside the city of Bangalore (India). Known in Kannada, the official state language of Karnataka, as ‘Dodda Aalada Mara’ that means ‘Big Banyan Tree’, this huge tree, an example of Ficus benghalensis which is about 400 years old, covers about three acres. It is located about 17 and a half miles west by southwest of the Bangalore Club in central Bangalore.

It is a popular local attraction for picnickers. This being the case and also the fact that I had never been there helped my in-laws decide that we should enjoy a picnic at the Big Banyan Tree. After thermos flasks had been filled, masala omelette sandwiches prepared, blankets packed, puri aloo packaged, bhakri boxed up in cylindrical steel containers with tight fitting lids, we set off: my parents in law, my brother in law and his family, my wife and our very young daughter, and me.

We arrived at the tree, which looked more like a dense, tangled forest than a single tree, but that is what banyan trees become when left to their own devices. After threading our way through the aerial roots hanging down from the tree, we found a small open space that looked nice for a picnic. At least everybody except me, not a lover of picnics, thought so.

We laid out the blanket, and put out the containers of food, and that is about as far our picnic was to resemble a normal meal ‘al fresco’. Moments after setting out the food, swarms of our closely related primates appeared. These monkeys had not come to keep us company or simply to watch their two-legged relatives eating. No, they had arrived to be fed. Their only intentions were far from friendly. They had come to steal our picnic. One by one they dropped out of the trees and approached our food. With great difficulty we were able to ‘shoo’ away these almost fearless raiders. At one stage, I resorted to throwing wet used teabags at them. They were very persistent, in fact so persistent that we decided not to persist with our picnic. We packed everything and made a hasty departure having eaten nothing.

This experience did nothing to remove my long-held prejudice against picnicking. It did the opposite. Wasps and other intruders are bad enough, but monkeys ‘took the biscuit’. Well, metaphorically if not in fact.