I have been gongoozling at London’s Little Venice today

I HAVE LEARNED a new word today. It can be used as both a noun and as a verb. The noun is ‘gongoozler’ and the verb is ‘to gongoozle’. I came across it used as a verb on an information panel by the south side of the water basin at Paddington’s Little Venice, where the Paddington Arm of the Grand Union Canal enlarges to become a pond, from which the Regents Canal commences.

The word gongoozle might possibly derive from two words of Lincolnshire dialect: ‘gawn’ and ‘gooze’. Both these words mean to stare or gape. A ‘gawn’ can also mean a small freight-carrying boat such as a canal narrowboat.

Gongoozling usually refers to watching boats. And this is what we did today as we ambled lazily along the Paddington Arm and the shore of Little Venice. With the sun shining and a pleasant air temperature (about 21 degrees Celsius), this was an enjoyable way of passing time on a Sunday morning.

The West End is no longer the west end

LONDON’S WEST END includes the part of the city that contains areas such as Chinatown, Theatreland, Covent Garden, Leicester Square, Oxford Street, Mayfair, Soho, Fitrovia, and Bond Street. Before the 19th century, the western boundary of London was Park Lane, which runs along the west edge of the West End.

The west edge of London in about 1809: the dashed line that runs from north to south runs along Edgware Road and Park Lane. West of this libe was Hyde Park and open fields

Until the end of the 18th century and even during the early years of the 19th, west of Park Lane and the West End was the Middlesex countryside, which was dotted with villages such as (for example) Paddington, Kensington, Chelsea, Hammersmith, Fulham, Acton, Ealing, and Southall. In between these then separated places there were farms, heathlands, parks, stately homes (such as Chiswick House and Osterley Park), and highwaymen.

During the 19th century, several things happened. London expanded in all directions and spread into what had been countryside. The small villages in Middlesex grew in size. Some of them coalesced. Canals and railways were built, and along with them, building in areas that had previously been rural, caused them to become urban. In brief, London spread relentlessly westward. What was called the West End, and is still so-called today, was no longer the west end of the city of London.

Although many previously rustic settlements (such as Paddington and other places mentioned above) became engulfed in the metropolis, most of them have retained at least a few reminders of their pre-urban past. Currently, I am putting the finishing touches on a book about London west of the West End. In it, I hope to help readers discover more about London’s western spread and what has survived it (despite being surrounded by the city’s western expansion).

Mismatched signals

HOW RIDICULOUS IS THIS?

The newly opened Elizabeth Line is supposed to link east and west London. However if you wish to travel from a station east of Paddington to one west of it (or vice-versa), you have to change trains at Paddington. This is far from simple. The section of the line that runs west from Paddington is on one side of Paddington mainline station, and the section that runs east is far across the mainline station concourse at a lower level.

Platform lighting at Paddington Station (Elizabeth Line)

Today, I asked an official whether the east and west branches of the Elizabeth line will ever be connected, so as not to need to change trains at Paddington. He said that the infrastructure (tracks etc) are already in place, but there is a problem that still needs to be solved. The problem is that the signalling system on the western part of the line is completely different from that on the eastern part. Surely, someone could have solved this problem during the many years it has taken to construct the Elizabeth Line(s)?

Queen Elizabeth and the Elizabeth Line

THE VICTORIA LINE began carrying passengers in late 1968 when I was 16 years old. I remember when this happened and how exciting it was. Recently a new railway line opened in London: the Elizabeth Line. Originally named ‘Crossrail’, it began carrying passengers several years after it was supposed to have been completed. It is supposed to convey people from east of London to well west of the city. However, what exists now (July 2022) is not exactly what I expected. In order to travel from, say, Shenfield, at the eastern end of the line to, say, Maidenhead, west of London, you need to change trains at Paddington. Currently one section of the new line runs east from Paddington, and the other runs west from that station. Unlike Queen Elizabeth’s long continuous reign, the line named to honour her has a discontinuity at Paddington.

A visitor from abroad wanted to experience the new line today, a Sunday. He was looking forward to seeing the new station platforms on the line that heads east from Paddington. Sadly the section that fruns east from Paddington does not operate on Sundays at the moment. So, we had to head west. The Elizabeth Line trains are new, but the train follows tracks that were laid down as far back as the 19th century. Apart from being over efficiently air-conditioned, the new trains are comfortable and run remarkably smoothly.

We travelled (on a train bound for Heathrow Terminal 5) to Hayes and Harlington station, and from there headed to Barra Hall Park in the old part of Hayes. There, we enjoyed a picnic before walking to the mediaeval parish church, St Mary the Virgin. We had visited it once before, but were completely unprepared for what we saw this time. The hedges lining the path leading to the south door of the church were decorated with bunches of cut flowers. A cardboard cut-out of Queen Elizabeth II greeted us at the door. The lovely church was filled with attractively arranged bouquets of flowers. Quite by chance, we had arrived whilst the church’s 57th annual Festival of Flowers was being celebrated. We were fortunate because we arrived on the 3rd of July, the last day of the festival. The festival’s theme was “A Tribute to Queen Elizabeth”. How appropriate to have travelled to it on the Elizabeth Line.

A gothic church for the poor next to a canal

SPIRAL RAMPS LEAD up to the Ha’penny Bridge, which allows pedestrians to cross the Paddington Arm of the Grand Union Canal, where it runs between Delamere Terrace on one bank and Blomfield Road on the opposite one. A few yards west of the bridge and south of the waterway, there is a Victorian gothic church with a tall tower decorated with layers of red brickwork separated by layers of white masonry and topped with a white spire. It is St Mary Magdalene’s church.

The church was designed by George Edmund Street (1824-1881) and completed in 1878. It was built in what was then an area with poor quality housing, where several hard-up families lived crowded together under one roof. The parish in which it is located began life as an offshoot of All Saints in Margaret Street (near Oxford Circus). Like All Saints, St Mary Magdalene’s was established as an Anglo-Catholic church. Its website, grandjunction.org.uk, revealed that Anglo-Catholicism:

“… emphasises the Catholic heritage and identity of the Church of England. In the mid-nineteenth century Anglo-Catholicism was very controversial and provoked riots. Anglo-Catholic churches were often built in very poor areas, and their clergy believed that their services, full of light, colour, music and ritual, were likely to appeal to the poor.”

Like All Saints Margaret Street, the interior of St Mary Magdalene’s is a masterpiece of Victorian gothic extravaganza, a riot of colour. The nave has a magnificent painted ceiling which includes faces of various saints. This was painted by Daniel Bell, a Victorian artist. Sculptures of saints carved by Thomas Earp (1823-1893) look down on the nave. The floor of the vast nave is decoratively tiled. Street did not believe in fixed pews such as are found in many other Victorian churches and were rented out to parishioners to raise money. He believed in ‘free seating’, especially in a church like St Mary Magdelene’s that was built to serve the poor. The apse is unusual in that it is polygonal, reminiscent of apses that the widely travelled Street had seen in French and Flemish churches.

An unusual feature of this out of the ordinary church is that although the nave is flanked by a south and a north aisle, the latter is barely wide enough to accommodate one person, whereas the south one is almost as wide as the nave. The reason for the narrow north aisle was related to building regulations in force when the church was being constructed.

If it is open, and it was when I visited the church, it is worth entering the undercroft. This area beneath the church is flanked on its south side by a chapel that was undergoing restoration in February 2022. This is the chapel of the Holy Sepulchre created to commemorate the church’s founder and first vicar Fr Richard Temple West (1827-1893). Containing much decorative artwork and resembling a mediaeval chantry chapel, it was created by the architect Ninian Comper (1864-1960).

Outside the church, there is a WW1 memorial, added by Martin Travers in 1929. It is a gold-coloured crucifixion with a stone base on which are inscribed the Latin words “Infinitum est”, which is neither classical nor biblical; it means ‘It is not finished’, which are ominous words on a war memorial and are most portentous on a memorial to the first of (so far) two world wars.

Added on to the west end of the church, there is a modern extension, which houses a pleasant refreshment outlet called the Grand Junction Café. This is a good place to rest for a while after the excitement of seeing inside the spectacular church.

A bridge, canals, and a church in west London

THE GRAND UNION canal meets the River Thames at Brentford. From there, it runs towards the Midlands where it meets other waterways in England’s extensive network of canals, which was built for commerce, but is now used mainly for pleasure.

Six miles along the canal from Brentford, there is an important junction. Here at Bulls Bridge, the Paddington Arm branches off the main Grand Union canal. From beneath the bridge, the Arm runs 13 ½ miles to Paddington. Near its destination in central London, the arm flows through a large body of water, known as Little Venice. From there, two canals, the continuation of the Arm and the Regents Canal, link Little Venice to Paddington Basin and Limehouse Basin respectively.

The Paddington Arm was opened for use in 1801. The Bulls Bridge is a single-arch brick bridge spanning the Paddington Arm a few feet east of its junction with the Grand Union Canal. It stands amidst a dull landscape filled with industrial units and large supermarkets.

Following the towpath along the Grand Union Canal away from Bulls Bridge in a north-westerly direction for 177 yards, we reach a bridge that carries the canal over a narrow stream, the River Crane. a tributary of the River Thames. According to a website, touristlink.com, the course of the Crane is as follows:

“The River Crane is 8.5 miles (13.6 km) in length. Its source is taken to be a point south of North Hyde Road in Hayes, Hillingdon, from where its course is generally in a southerly, if near semi-circular, direction, before it joins the River Thames at Isleworth. Its name is a back-formation from Cranford, London. Formerly it was called the Cranford River. The River Crane creates the boundary between the London boroughs of Hillingdon and Hounslow.”

What could be seen from the bridge carrying the canal over the Crane was a deep weed-filled fissure in the depths of which there was a narrow stream. This lies in the shadow of an elevated road, the busy Parkway (A 312) that links both the A40 and the M4 with Heathrow Airport.

Continuing north-west along the Grand Union, the canal passes beneath a series of railway bridges that carry trains to and from Paddington Station. Nearby is Hayes and Harlington station, which stands in a part of Hayes, which was once the village of Botwell. This is now a shopping area with supplied with lavishly stocked fruit and vegetable shops and a branch of Lidl’s supermarket chain. Lidl’s faces a Roman Catholic Church, Immaculate Heart of Mary, built in 1961, which according to Pevsner, contains a painting by Pietro Annigoni (1910-1988). Near the station is a less attractive church, St Anselm, built between 1926 and 1928.

Even at the beginning of the 20th century, Hayes in Middlesex was a village north of Botwell and separated from it and other neighbouring settlements by open countryside. By 1940, Hayes had begun to be engulfed by London’s western spread. The village was, according to James Thorne, writing in 1876:

“… quiet and respectable, and chiefly dependent on the wealthy residents … consists of a few ordinary houses and shops.

Today, it is still quiet, the commercial district being in Hayes Town, the former Botwell, near the railway station.

There is one good reason to visit what was old Hayes. That is to see the parish church of St Mary the Virgin. It stands on the eastern side of Barra Hall Park, which are the grounds of the former manor house, now much modified. The church is mediaeval. Its lychgate is probably early 16th century.  Its chancel is late 13th century, the tower and the north aisle are 15th century, and the main aisle is 16th century. The church has beautiful timber ceilings and a 12th century font. On the north wall there is a large wall painting of St Christopher carrying the Christ child. Pevsner did not consider this image was painted before about 1500.

The church is full of fine funerary monuments. These include elaborate memorials for Sir Walter Grene (1456); the judge of the King’s Bench Edward Fenner (died 1612); Roger Jenyns (died 1693) and members of his family; Richard Lugg (1697); and Thomas (died 1576) and Elizabeth Higate. There are plenty more monuments to be seen as well as several fine brasses. Fenner’s monument consists of an effigy of Fenner lying recumbent supporting his head on his right hand. This is framed by marbled pillars supporting an elaborate carved stone semi-circular canopy, which is flanked by a pair of sculpted figures.

Although Hayes is not high on most tourist’s lists of what to see in London, the old church parish church of Hayes is certainly worth a detour. As for Bulls Bridge, visiting it is only for dedicated enthusiasts of  desolate landscapes and inland waterway history.

Russian music with an Albanian conductor in a London church

THE ALBANIAN CONDUCTOR Olsi Qinami, who began studying music in Tirana (Albania), lives in London. He certainly knows how to get the best out of the orchestra he helped to found, the London City Philharmonic. On Saturday the 2nd of October 2021 he conducted the orchestra in a wonderful concert of music by three Russian composers, two of them from the 19th century and the other from the 20th. The musicians performed to a large and enthusiastic audience in the church of St James in Sussex Gardens, Paddington. Many of those present were Albanian speakers and amongst them the Albanian ambassador, Qirjako Qirko.

Olsi Qinami

The church, a fine example of Victorian gothic, was built to satisfy the spiritual requirements of the rapidly growing population of 19th century Paddington. Designed by George Edmund Street (1824-1881), the building was completed in 1882 on the site of an earlier, smaller church that was built in the neo-classical style in about 1841. Apart from being a highly successful example of gothic revival, the church is notable for having been that in which the unjustly vilified writer Oscar Wilde married Constance Lloyd in 1884. Despite being a large, spacious building, the church’s acoustics coped well with the orchestral music.

The concert opened with a spirited rendering of the “Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor” by Alexander Borodin. This piece holds a special place in my heart, as I will now explain. In the late 1950s, my parents bought or were gifted an LP entitled “Classical Music For People Who Don’t Know Anything About Classical Music”, which I played often in my childhood. Its cover has a sketch of four people in the living room of a very modern looking house, even by today’s standards. A lady, looking pleased with herself or the music or both, stands next to a gramophone player clutching a record cover (sleeve). Behind her, three people are seated in armchairs: one looks puzzled; another looks a bit bored; and the third has fallen asleep with a drinking glass resting on his armrest. One of the tracks on this LP was the “Polovtsian Dances”.

Borodin’s piece was followed by Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet Overture”, with which I am less familiar than the “Polovtsian Dances”. Although this brief piece was nicely performed, it is unlikely to enter my list of favourite works by this composer in the near future.

After the interval, we were treated to an exciting and brilliantly performed rendering of the 5th Symphony by Dmitri Shostakovich. Olsi Qinami and the orchestra handled the constant alternation of the composer’s triumphant sounding sections of the symphony with its comparatively peaceful, lyrical sections with exquisite mastery.

Shostakovitch completed his 5th Symphony in 1937, soon after having been heavily criticised by Stalin for his opera “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District”, first performed in 1934. Had the Fifth Symphony not been so well received and liked by Stalin, the composer’s future might have become exceedingly grim. As Olsi Qinami pointed out in a brief speech before conducting the symphony, the piece, which was praised by the authorities, contains subtle musical messages expressing the composer’s criticism of the ruling regime. Whether or not one was able to detect these messages did not matter because the performance we heard was exciting, uplifting, and invigorating. In the last minutes of the symphony, I noticed one of the violinists breaking into a wonderful smile, no doubt because she and the rest of the orchestra had so successfully mastered this complex and difficult piece of music.

An odd thought occurred to me whilst listening to the Shostakovich piece. It was composed in 1937, when life for ordinary people in the USSR cannot have been at all easy. Although the situation here in the UK in 2021 is hardly comparable to that distant time in Russia, we are also going through times far more difficult than anyone has experienced since WW2, what with the covid 19 pandemic, Brexit-related problems, and shortages in shops and filling stations. It must have been a source of great solace for Soviet citizens to escape from their daily problems, if only for a few hours, by joining an audience at a concert of fine classical music. Well, that is how Olsi’s joyous concert felt for me as soon as he lifted his baton, and the orchestra began to play.

An actress on the village green

SHE SITS THERE MOTIONLESS, day after day and year after year, watching the traffic on Westway either rushing past or crawling along in a traffic jam. In her heyday, before being captured in stone, instead of the noise of motor vehicles, she would have enjoyed the sound of the applause given by audiences in dimly lit theatres. She was the actress Mrs Sarah Siddons (1755-1831), and her carved stone statue stands facing the elevated Westway in Paddington Green, just west of the Edgware Road.

Mrs Siddons

Paddington Green used to be part of an expanse of ancient wasteland located in an area now bounded by the Regents Canal, the Paddington Arm of the Grand Union Canal, and Edgware Road, but now much of this wasteland has been built upon. Writing in 1867, John Timbs noted:

“Paddington Green, now inclosed and iron-bound, was the green of the villagers, shown in all its rural beauty in prints of 1750 and 1783. Upon a portion of it were built the Almshouses, in 1714; their neat little flower-gardens have disappeared. South of the green is the new Vestry -hall. At Dudley Grove was modelled and cast, by Matthew Cotes Wyatt, the colossal bronze statue of the Duke of Wellington … it is thirty feet high, and was conveyed from the foundry, upon a car, drawn by 29 horses, Sept. 29, 1846, to Hyde Park Corner.”

Dudley Grove was in Paddington. What is now left of the wasteland consists of St Mary’s churchyard and next to it a small grassy area, still known as ‘Paddington Green’, and marked as such on a map drawn in 1815. It contains the statue of Mrs Siddons. The first written record of the Green is dated 1549. The Green contained a mediaeval chapel, now long-since gone. It has been replaced by St Mary’s Church, which was built in the Georgian style, in 1788. It was designed by John Plaw (1745-1820), who emigrated from London to the North American Colony of Prince Edward Island in 1807. His church in Paddington was later modified in the 19th century but restored to its original shape (a Greek Cross in plan) in 1970 under the guidance of the architect Raymond Erith (1904-1973), amongst whose other creations was the current form of the Jack Straws Castle pub in Hampstead.

The present church is the third in the area, which was halfway between the ancient villages of Paddington and Lilestone. The old Manor of Lilestone (or ‘Lilystone’) included the present Lisson Grove and extended as far as Hampstead. The earliest church was taken down in about 1678. The second church, which replaced it, can be seen in old drawings. It was a simple edifice with a single aisle and a small bell tower at one end. Edward Walford, writing in the 1880s, described it as:

“… not unlike the type of country churches in Sussex…”

The poet and preacher John Donne (1572-1631) preached his first sermon in the first church in 1615 and the painter William Hogarth (1697-1764) was married to Jane Thornhill (c1709-1789) in the second in 1729 without her parents’ knowledge.

Next to the western end of the church there is a single-storied rectangular, brick building decorated with trompe-l’oeil grisailles, one of which depicts Mrs Siddons. Today, this houses the Phileas Fox Nursery School. Built on the site of the old, now demolished, vestry hall (parish council meeting place), this building, the  church hall,  in a late Georgian style was designed by John Quinlan Terry (born 1937), an architect of the ‘New Classical’ style favoured by Prince Charles, and built in 1978-81.

Apart from the statue of Mrs Siddons on Paddington Green, most of it is surrounded by buildings or roads built either at the end of the 19th century or long after. At the eastern side of the Green there is what looks like a pair of either early 19th or possibly 18th century houses. The reason Mrs Siddons is commemorated on the Green is that she is buried in the adjoining St Mary’s Churchyard. Her gravestone is contained within a cast-iron enclosure that looks like a small cage. For some time, the actress lived in Paddington in a house which used to stand in the area around Westbourne Green, which is near the current Westbourne Park Underground station.  

Mrs Siddons was highly acclaimed as an actress by many. The critic James Henry Leigh Hunt (1784-1859) had reservations as he remarked in his autobiography:

“Want of genius could not be imputed to his sister, Mrs Siddons. I did not see her, I believe, in her best days; but she must always have been a somewhat masculine beauty; and she had no love in her, apart from other passions. She was a mistress, however, of lofty, of queenly, and of appalling tragic effect. Nevertheless, I could not but think that something of too much art was apparent even in Mrs Siddons; and she failed in the highest points of refinement.”

Although the poet and playwright Joanna Baillie (1762-1851), shared Hunt’s opinion about her, others held her in higher regard.

The statue of Mrs Siddon in Paddington Green was sculpted by the French sculptor Léon-Joseph Chavalliaud (1858-1919). In the 1880s, he moved to London from France and lived south of the Thames in Brixton. His Mrs Siddons, based on a portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds, was unveiled by the actor Sir Henry Irving (1838-1905) in 1897. It was the first statue of a woman, who was not royal, to be put up in London.

Paddington Green, like its close neighbour Paddington Station, figures in the history of London’s transportation. For, it was from here that the coachbuilder George Shillibeer (1797-1866) ran London’s first omnibus service to The Bank of England in 1829. He had got the idea from Paris, where he had been asked to design carriages that could carry up to 24 passengers at any one time.

The Paddington Green police station building stands a few yards east of Paddington Green. Constructed in 1971, this used to provide local policing services as well as an interrogation centre for terrorist suspects. Suspects accused of terrorist activities were brought here for questioning from all over the UK. Although it was refurbished in 2009, the station was closed in 2018. The building’s future is in the hands of property developers, who plan to build new housing on its site.  

Until the beginning of the 19th century, Paddington Green was a bucolic environment on the edge of what was then London. Now, surrounded by buildings and highways, it is a green but noisy oasis in a highly urbanised area.

Wrecked, then recovered

Running track at Paddington Recreation Ground

PADDINGTON RECREATION GROUND, located between West Kilburn and St John’s Wood, was formally established in 1893. It was London’s first public athletic ground. From 1860 to 1893, it was a parish cricket ground. In 1888, a cricket pavilion was constructed. It is now named after Richard Beachcroft who was Secretary of the cricket club in the 1880s. Also in 1888, the grounds were opened to public access and a cycle track was laid out, which remained in existence until 1987 when the position of the cricket pitch was moved. In 1893, the Paddington Recreation Act was passed, authorising:

“…the formal acquisition of lands in the Parish of Paddington to “provide the residents with a public recreational ground.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paddington_Recreation_Ground).

In 2006, the grounds were completely refurbished by Westminster City Council. The centrally located cricket pitch and its Victorian pavilion are now surrounded by a children’s playground; tennis courts; an outdoor gymnasium; a running track; hockey pitches; a bandstand; a bowling green; and various fenced off enclosures containing gardens and an ‘environmental area’. The pleasant park with its café and other facilities covers 27 acres and is well used by locals.

The Paddington Recreation Ground was a place where two world famous sportsmen trained. One was the professional road and track cyclist Sir Bradley Marc Wiggins (born 1980), who won the Tour de France in 2009. He learned to ride a bicycle in the grounds. He attended the St Augustines Church of England School nearby. The other sportsman was a medical student at the nearby St Marys Hospital when he trained on a running track at the Recreation Grounds, and on the 6th of May 1954, he became the first man to run a mile in under 4 minutes. This man was Sir Roger Bannister (1929-2018).

The Recreation Ground has several entrances. One of these is a short path leading from Carlton Vale. It runs past a pub called ‘The Carlton Tavern’, which has a curious recent history. In 1918, a German bomb destroyed a pub that stood on this site. In 1921, this was replaced for the Charrington Brewery by a newer building designed by Frank J Potter (1871-1948), who also designed the observatory in Hampstead. During WW2, the pub was the only building in the street not to have been destroyed during The Blitz. This plucky little pub’s luck ran out in 2015.

In 2015, developers bought the Tavern with a view to demolishing it to create space to build luxury flats. A week before the pub was due to become a protected historical edifice, the developers, no doubt having learned what was in the offing, reduced it to rubble. They hoped that they would get away with being fined an amount, which they could easily recoup when they sold the luxury accommodation they were planning to build. Things did not work out in their favour. Local action groups fought for the pub’s reconstruction and won. The courts ordered the developers to reconstruct the pub brick-by-brick (www.standard.co.uk/news/london/developer-told-to-rebuild-maida-vale-pub-brick-by-brick-after-site-torn-down-without-notice-10211892.html). They did a good job, and today it looks much as it did before it was hurriedly demolished.

Both the pub and the Recreation Ground stand in the shadow of the tall tower of the Anglo-Catholic Church of St Augustin. Known as ‘the cathedral of north London’, the church was designed in the gothic revival style by John Loughborough Pearson (1817-1897), who also designed Truro Cathedral in Cornwall. St Augustin was consecrated in 1880, but the tower and spire were not completed until 1897-98. I have never been inside this building, but I have seen photographs of its interior, which looks superb.

The places described above are almost all that remains of an area which has been subject to much rebuilding since WW2. Visiting these places can make an interesting detour when walking near Little Venice along the Paddington Arm (branch) of The Grand Union Canal. I doubt that I would have visited the Recreation Grounds had I not been alerted to it and encouraged to pay it a visit by two sets of friends, to whom I am grateful.