He lost his head but left a river

A GROUP OF AGITATED SWANS were on a stream beneath an iron bridge. A wire mesh stretched from one bank of the waterway to the other was the cause of their frustration because some of the birds were on one side of the barrier and the rest on the other, and they had not yet discovered a way to pass the obstruction. It was distressing to watch a swan on one side pecking at the mesh trying to reach the beak of another doing the same thing on its side. The purpose of the mesh was not clear to me.

The water beneath this bridge at the northwest corner of the Waterhouse Plantation in London’s Bushy Park is flowing along the man-made Longford River. It runs from the River Colne at Longford, which is on the western edge of Heathrow Airport, to the River Thames. After being diverted into several separate channels, its waters flow into the Thames at three points near Hampton Court and Bushy Park.  On reaching the northern edge of Bushy Park it flows under the bridge where I saw the frustrated swans and then through woodland until it reaches a large triangular pool, the Waterhouse Pond. From there, its waters flow through outlets controlled by sluices into a maze of streams, which water the grounds of parts of Bushy Park. The river and the Waterhouse Pond are elevated several feet above the surrounding terrain. This allows water to escape from the river via small channels and from the pond through the sluices, which have mechanical devices with taps to control the flow. Near the Waterhouse Pond there is a tall wooden totem pole, which was designed by Norman Tait and constructed in 1992. The pole was:

“Installed to mark the connection between Canada and Bushy Park, which housed a large Canadian camp during World War l.” (www.royalparks.org.uk/media-centre/factsheets-on-the-royal-parks/monuments/monuments-in-bushy-park)

The Waterhouse Pond was a noisy place when we visited it early one morning recently. Most of the noise was being made by pairs of Canada Geese, which was rather appropriate given that they were in sight of the totem pole. The geese were craning their long necks forward and cackling loudly, their reddish tongues very visible. Nearby, occasional Egyptian Geese with their characteristic ‘eye make-up’ colouring, were furiously proclaiming something that seemed most important to them. Elsewhere in the vicinity, there was a veritable symphony of bird calls including plenty produced by green parakeets which were perched on camellia bushes, some of them pecking away at the flowers, dislodging petals one by one as they searched for something tasty. It was pleasant to be in a place that humans were completely outnumbered by birds … and squirrels.

The Longford River that supplies the water lovely features in Bushy Park did not exist prior to 1638. In that year, in accordance with the wishes of the ill-fated King Charles I, the river (really, a canal) was constructed to bring water to Hampton Court and its neighbour Bushy Park. Twelve miles in length, it took only nine months to complete. Before the twentieth century, when it acquired its present name, the waterway was known variously as: the ‘New River’, the ‘King’s River’, the ‘Queen’s River’, the ‘Cardinal’s River’, the ‘Hampton Court Cut’, and the ‘Hampton Court Canal’ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Longford_River). There is another New River in Greater London, which, like the Longford, is man-made. The other New River, which retains its original name, was built in 1613   to carry drinking water from the River Lea at Ware in Hertfordshire to reservoirs in Islington.

The part of the Longford River, which I have been describing, runs through and irrigates the Waterhouse Plantation. This and its neighbour, another plantation, the Woodland Garden, where swamp cypresses with their curious aerial outcrops may be seen, were originally planted in the early 19th century (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1000281). Both areas are surrounded by fences to prevent the ingress of deer that reside in Bushy Park. They were redeveloped extensively between 1948 and 1949, and now look well-established.

After having been introduced to it by friends, who live not far away from it in Richmond, we have visited Bushy Park several times and enjoyed its variety and wildlife every time. If you are planning a visit – something I recommend highly – try to reach it early, prefer well before 10am so that you will have no difficulty parking and because at that early hour the park is reasonably empty of other visitors, many of them are dogs, which are excluded from the plantations, with their owners; joggers in expensive gear; and ‘yummy mummies’ with infants in tow or in and out of upmarket push chairs.

It was unfortunate that Charles the First lost his head, but fortunate for us that he created a waterway that makes Bushy Park so delightful today.

Hidden in Hyde Park

WE OFTEN CIRCUMNAVIGATE the Serpentine. Usually, when we stroll around this large body of water shared between London’s Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, we tend to look mainly towards the water with its busy groups of waterfowl, rather than inland away from the water. Today, in the last week of February 2021, we walked around the Serpentine yet again but this time as we rounded its westernmost end and began heading back along the northern shore, we noticed for the first time a clump of trees within which there is a group of buildings.

Sheep trough in Hyde Park

A wide path leads north from the water towards these buildings, first passing the small single storey Serpentine Lodge, which being close to the lakeshore footpath, I had noticed many times before. It was built in 1839 and was home to various officials connected with the park including the Head Park Constable Joseph Smith (1811-late 1880s), who was living there by 1871 and remained there until his death (https://ifthosewallscouldtalk.wordpress.com/2016/05/31/hidden-histories-serpentine-lodge-hyde-park-london/).  The lodge is now a private residence.  

Moving inland past the lodge, we soon reach an elegant brick-built two storey house with a triple bay on each side of the centrally located front door. This is the Ranger’s Lodge, which was built in 1831/2. It houses the park’s administrative offices. Attractive because of its age and lovely setting, it is not distinguished architecturally.  It stands next to a newer and far more elegant building, The Old Police Station. When I saw the chimney stacks which are built with layers of brick alternating with layers of white stone and the windows framed with white masonry, I was immediately reminded of the former police station and courthouse that stands on Rosslyn Hill in Hampstead. Both police stations, the one in the park (built 1900-02) and that in Hampstead (1912), were designed by the same architect, John Dixon Butler (1860-1920), who designed almost 200 police stations. Two police officers on horses told us that in the yard behind the station, there are stables for the horses of the Park Police.  The police station bears a memorial to Jack William Avery (1911-1940), a war reserve Metropolitan Police Constable, who was murdered near the station on the 5th of July 1940. He was stabbed to death by a homeless labourer named Frank Cobbett (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_of_Jack_Avery). It was only in 2007 that the memorial plaque was placed in the park.

New Lodge, a large Victorian villa with at least three storeys, built in 1876, now a private residence, stands a few yards north of the police station. This lodge as well as others in the park, like Serpentine Lodge, can be leased from the Royal Parks as dwellings by private individuals and their families.  A footpath leads northwest from between the police station and New Lodge and soon passes a disused water pump enclosed within a square area delineated by iron railings. A few feet north of the pump, there is what looks like a large bath next to a vertical pipe that might have once provided water. The map of the park describes these two items as “old sheep trough and water pump”. The bath-like object was the trough and is marked as such on a detailed map surveyed in 1862-6. This map also marks a small “fire engine house”, which no longer exists.

Another structure that no longer stands is a few yards west of Serpentine Lodge. It is commemorated by a stone lying in the grass. The stone bears an inscription that says that it marks the spot where there once stood the ‘Receiving House of the Royal Humane Society’. It had been erected on land granted by The Crown in 1774 and was severely damaged by a bomb during WW2. Its story and that of other receiving houses is related in an interesting article I found on the Internet (https://ifthosewallscouldtalk.wordpress.com/2016/05/31/hidden-histories-serpentine-lodge-hyde-park-london/):

“In 1774 two London doctors, William Hawes and Thomas Cogan, formed the ‘Society for the Recovery of Persons Apparently Drowned’ which later grew into The Royal Humane Society. The society was founded based on the doctors’ fears that people could be mistakenly taken for dead and thereby accidentally buried alive.

To combat this, a number of Receiving Houses were built along waterways in Westminster in the early nineteenth century. The Receiving Houses were designed as places where people could be taken into if they had gotten into difficulty in the water. A Receiving House was built in 1794 on the edge of the Serpentine…”

Judging by what is marked on a detailed map surveyed in 1914, the receiving house covered a considerably larger area than its neighbour, Serpentine Lodge.

Near to the marker for the former receiving house, there is an ugly black metal drinking fountain, marked on the park map as “Lutyens drinking fountain”. This was one of several similar fountains designed in 1950 by “Messrs Lutyens & Greenwood” (http://mdfcta.co.uk/fountains_lutyens.html). As the architect of New Delhi and Hampstead Garden Suburb, Edwin Lutyens, died in 1944, I imagine that the Lutyens who designed this ugly object might well have been his son Robert Lutyens (1901-1972), who published a book with his co-author Harold Greenwood in 1948.

The ugly drinking fountain no longer works. So, if you are thirsty having searched the hidden items that were new to us as described above, help is at hand a little further west, where there is an attractive modern wood-clad café kiosk, one of several of these designed trecently by the Mizzi Studio’s architects (www.floornature.com/).

A small zoo in north London

EVERY VISIT TO GOLDERS Hill Park in northwest London gives me great pleasure. Now officially part of Hampstead Heath, it contains a lovely feature, its small zoo. This consists of a large paddock containing deer and sometimes a rhea. Close to this, is a series of cages, an aviary, containing exotic birdlife including a laughing kookaburra. These are located next to an enclosure that contains a small group of ring-tailed lemurs. The lemurs’ neighbours are several wallabies and a couple of donkeys, named Sienna and Calypso. The wallabies and the donkeys have a long rectangular sloping field in which to wander.

I have written about the park and the zoo before, and published it elsewhere (https://adam-yamey-writes.com/2020/11/19/walking-past-wallabies/). When I wrote that piece, I did not explore the small zoo’s history. It was certainly present well over 60 years ago, when I was less than ten years old. As a small boy, I remember seeing wallabies and flamingos. More recently, the flamingos have disappeared and have been replaced by ibis and various other exotic fowl. Before my time, the flamingos used to reside in the duck pond next to the park’s walled garden (https://londongardenstrust.org/conservation/inventory/site-record/?ID=BAR027).

The zoo’s history is difficult to ascertain. After searching the Google entries relating to the park and its history, I found only one reference that alludes to the presence of the zoo prior to WW2. This consists of a recording of an interview (https://sounds.bl.uk/Oral-history/Science/021M-C1379X0029XX-0001V0) with the scientist Sir Anthony Seymour Laughton (1927-2019), an oceanographer. Laughton was born in Golders Green, began his education in Hampstead at Heysham School, a ‘dame school’ (private elementary school) in Branch Hill, and moved to Gerrards Cross during WW2 (https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rsbm.2020.0021). As a young child, Laughton lived in one of the small roads that lead of North End Road and back on to Golders Hill Park. He and his brother were often taken to Golders Hill Park where he remembered that there was a small zoo with wallabies. This would have been before 1939, when he and his family moved out of London. So, we can conclude that the zoo was in existence before WW2.

According to Pam Fox, author of “The Jewish Community of Golders Green”, Golders Hill Park was popular with local Jewish families, who went:

“Golders Hill Park on Sundays to watch the peacocks strutting around the grounds of Golders Hill House.”

The House was destroyed in 1941. Laughton did not mention these in his interview and, sadly, there are none to be seen today.

To discover whether the little zoo existed before Laughton’s childhood, that is prior to 1927, I looked at a detailed map, surveyed in 1912. This was after the park was opened to the public by the London County Council in 1899, making it the first public park to have been opened in what was then the Borough of Hendon (now incorporated into the Borough of Barnet). I compared what was on that map with what is on modern maps and found that the park’s layout has not changed much since 1912. The bandstand that you can see today is where there was one back in 1912. Where there is the deer enclosure today, there was a similarly shaped and located fenced field in 1912. The same is the case for the long narrow field where you can see the wallabies and donkeys today. The 1912 map does not show any buildings where the aviary is located today, but apart from that the pattern of land enclosures in the part of the park where animals and birds are kept enclosed today is remarkably similar. The question is, and I cannot answer it, was what is now a deer enclosure, then a deer or other animal enclosure? Here is another as yet unanswerable question: did the long rectangular field where the wallabies live today enclose animals for viewing by the public as long ag as in 1912?

Prior to becoming a public park, Golders Hill Park was the gardens of the now long-since demolished Golders Hill House, built in the 1760s for the merchant Charles Dingley (1711-1769), who traded with Russia (www.leeandstort.co.uk/Stort%20History/Charles%20DINGLEY%20Biography.pdf). I have not found any references to any collections of birds and animals in Golders Hill Park prior to the childhood of Laughton, the oceanographer. It is possible that the merchant Charles Dingley or later owners of the property might have kept deer and even exotic creatures, but there is no evidence to confirm or deny this.

What is important, is that the little zoo, which I remember from the 1950s, is still thriving today and providing enjoyment for children of all ages. Whether the various creatures ‘enjoy’ being caged-up and gawped at is a question I cannot begin to answer.

Where Londoners once had fun

BEFORE THE COVID19 PANDEMIC gripped the world, many Londoners made outings to pleasure grounds such as Legoland, Thorpe Park, and further afield to Disneyland near Paris. During the late 18th century, Londoners seeking entertainment headed for places such as Vauxhall Gardens, Ranelagh (now, the grounds of Royal Hospital Chelsea, site of the Chelsea Flower Show), and Cuper’s (across the Thames opposite Somerset House). These pleasure gardens began to decline, some before and others during the 19th century. However, in their wake, another such place came into existence in Chelsea, Cremorne Gardens.

Thomas Dawson, 1st Viscount Cremorne (1725-1813), an Irish landowner, possessed a plot of land on the north side of the Thames, just west of Battersea Bridge. There he had a mansion, Chelsea Farm, which was often visited by King George III, his wife Queen Charlotte, and the future George IV. In 1825, the property came into the possession of Granville Penn (1761-1844), a cousin of Cremorne’s widow.  Penn’s claim to fame is that he was involved in the establishment of what is now The Royal Veterinary College in London (www.rvc.ac.uk/about/the-rvc/history). Penn did much to improve the grounds of the estate, but later sold it. The house and grounds were bought in 1831 by Charles Random De Berenger, Baron De Beaufain (www.rbkc.gov.uk/leisure-and-culture/parks/), who created the Cremorne Pleasure Gardens.

The great beauty of the grounds led it to being opened by De Berenger as a public pleasure ground known at first as ‘The Stadium’. De Berenger was:

“… a sportsman and in the grounds opened Cremorne Stadium. Members who paid their two or three guineas could, under the Baron’s instruction, shoot, box, and practise “manly exercises generally” in the grounds.” (https://www.rbkc.gov.uk/pdf/CRA_Historical_Survey.pdf).

Today, there is a Stadium Street located in what would have once been part of Cremorne’s estate.

The Baron died in 1845 and the estate grounds were sold. They were laid out tastefully and the place, opened as a public pleasure ground that attracted large crowds of people seeking pleasure and entertainment, who were willing to pay modest fees for it. The gardens flourished between 1845 and 1877. In 1850, they came under the ownership of Thomas Bartlett Simpson, who also purchased Ashburnham House (an 18th century edifice) on the west side of the estate, which he used to house some of his visitor attractions. The grounds offered visitors many attractions including dancing; meals; secluded areas; firework displays; theatres for farce and vaudeville; ballets; puppet shows; trapeze artists; tight-rope walkers; a maze; and balloon ascents.

In his 1880’s “Old and New London”, Edward Walford describes some of the exploits with balloons, which were not without excitement. In 1839, whilst the gardens were owned by De Berenger, a Mr Hampton equipped with a parachute ascended two miles above the ground with a balloon and then descended to the ground with his parachute.  Some years later, Vincent De Groof ascended from Cremorne Gardens in a contraption, designed to help him fly, suspended from a balloon. After reaching a high altitude, something went wrong and poor De Groof fell to his death.

By the 1870s, the Cremorne Gardens were becoming disreputable, especially becoming notorious for prostitution. After they closed (for financial reasons), the land became used for building houses and other buildings including the Lots Road Power Station.

In about 1846, the artist JMW Turner (1775-1851) moved into a house by the river on what is now Cremorne Road, close to Cremorne Gardens and to the Cremorne Pier. He constructed a kind of gallery on its roof, from which he could sit and observe the changing light on the river. According to a biography by Peter Ackroyd, Turner was unwell whilst he lived there, suffering from dental problems that caused him to lose all of his teeth, and consequent dietary-related illness. He remained in Cremorne Road until the last year of his life and died there.

Today, little remains of Cremorne Gardens except a few street names and a small park close named Cremorne Gardens next to the river. This delightful, small open space has a paved section as well as a lawn. It is a tiny fragment of the original Cremorne Gardens but a fitting memorial to a place that provided entertainment for Londoners over many years. A couple of piers project into the river. These were originally landing stages for visitors arriving at the Gardens by river boat. Another souvenir of the heyday of the Gardens is a pair of wrought iron gates that stand in the present plot, but not in their original position, now built over. Small though it is, with its superb views of the Thames, the present Cremorne Gardens is a pleasant place to visit, within a short distance from the fashionable Kings Road.

Feeling at home in the UK

ALBANIA. BULGARIA, AND YUGOSLAVIA are countries that I visited in the 1970s and 1980s. I visited the former Yugoslavia the most and acquired a smattering of Serbo-Croat, the main language spoken in that fascinating part of the Balkans. My limited knowledge of this language helped me get by in Bulgaria. My poor Serbo-Croat seemed to be well understood in Bulgaria. During my first visit to Albania in 1984, although we were prevented from communicating with the locals, there were plenty of examples of the Albanian language in the form of propaganda posters and political slogans written with numerous pebbles on the sides of mountains.

Until 1990, my vocabulary of words from various Balkan languages was of limited use to me whilst I was practising dentistry in England, first in north Kent then, after 1994, in London.

In the mid-1990s, I began treating patients who were refugees from parts of the then violently disintegrating Yugoslavia. Many of my new patients were from Bosnia and Herzogovina. Some of them had little command of the English language and were grateful that they were being treated by someone who knew ‘where they were coming from’, as the saying goes, and who knew some words of their own language. Sadly, some of them hearing me repeating what little Serbo-Croat I knew, assumed that I was fluent. I attracted a faithful following, some of whom were charming and a small minority, the opposite, On the whole, even the most difficult of my ex-Yugoslav patients were grateful and brought me gifts, often strong home-brewed alcohol sent from Bosnia, as a mark of their gratitude. One dear lady even brought me a pair of earrings that her uncle in Sarajevo had made specially for my wife.

Some years later, I began treating Albanian-speaking refugees from Kosova, a region of the former Yugoslavia that had and still has a population, which is mainly of Albanian heritage. Many of the recent arrivals from that country, who came to my surgery for dental care, had minimal or no English. My knowledge of Albanian was extremely limited. I could greet them with ‘diten e mire’ (‘good day’) or wish them ‘mirupafshim’ (‘good bye’), when they left my surgery, but I could say little else of any practical use. However, if I said ‘rrofte partia socialiste e shqiperise’ (‘long live the Socialist Party of Albania’) or ‘lavde shoku Enver Hoxha’ (praise Comrade Enver Hoxha’), which I had learnt from propaganda posters in Albania back in 1984, this caused many of my Kosovan patients to smile.  

Now that I have been retired for a few years, many of the new arrivals to this country from the troubled Balkans have settled down and contribute positively to life in the UK.  Only today, whilst waiting in the street for take-away coffees, we were joined by three other customers, workmen dressed in overalls. Seeing my furry ex-Soviet Army hat, they struck up a conversation. They were all from Serbia and were delighted that I knew some words of their language, if ‘samo malo’ (‘only a little’). I decided not to show off my knowledge of Serbian swear words that my friends in Belgrade had taught me long ago, and which I shall not share with you.

Just before reaching the café, we had been taking exercise in Holland Park. This park, like many others in London, has wooden benches, often inscribed with words to commemorate lost member(s) of a family. I was idly looking at a row of benches opposite the curious “Annunciation” sculpture, a structure consisting of horns and cogs, when I spotted one with words that are not English:

“Detikuar prinderve  tane  te dashur sabri dhe behije preci”

I recognised this as being in Albanian. Google translates this as:

“Dedicated to our dear parents Sabri and Behije Preci”

Until today, I had not seen a park bench with an Albanian dedication. Seeing this typically British form of memorial made me feel that members of communities that have had to flee from their war-torn homes in the Balkans are beginning to feel that Britain is now also a place they can call ‘home’, whose public amenities they are helping to cherish. 

Lamb or mutton

IT WAS ONE DEGREE Celsius and a bright sunny December day when we made our third visit to Bushy Park. When we arrived at about 9.30 am, the car park near the Pheasantry Café was almost empty. On this trip, we decided to walk along the long waterway that leads from the Diana Statue to the Leg of Mutton Pond. The stream flows through several ponds, which were partly covered with a thin layer of ice. Gulls and other waterfowl stood on the ice, there bodies being reflected in its mirror-like surface.

The watercourse is part of the man-made Longford River, which I described recently (https://adam-yamey-writes.com/2020/09/20/diana-and-the-deer/) as follows:

“… King Charles I (reigned 1625-1649) ordered the building of a canal, the Longford River, which carries water for 12 miles from the River Colne (a tributary of the Thames) to the grounds of Hampton Court Palace. The man-made waterway, designed by Nicholas Lane (1585-1644) and dug by hand in only 9 months in 1638-39, flows through Bushy Park, supplying water to its numerous water features. The water is drawn from the river Colne at a point (Longford near Slough) whose altitude (72 feet above sea level) was great enough to ensure a fast flow to Hampton Court Palace, which is only about 13 feet above sea level.”

On an 1867 map of Bushy Park, the river is named ‘Queen’s or Cardinal’s River’. In the past, the Longford River has been known by these names as well as the ‘New River’ (not to be confused with the canal with the same name that carries river water from Hertfordshire to Islington) and the ‘Hampton Court River’ (https://freejournal.org/4020246/1/longford-river.html).  The river enters Bushy Park and divides into two main streams about 1.3 miles west of the Diana Statue that stands in the midst of a circular pond. One of the streams flows south into the grounds of Hampton Court Palace and the other flows east to the pond containing the statue. Some of its water is diverted to flow through the park’s attractive woodland gardens, which are separated from the rest of the park by a fence erected to prevent entry by the deer that roam around Bushy Park. From the statue, it flows eastwards through the Boating Pool, the Heron Pond and then to the Leg of Mutton Pond. From there, it flows under Sandy Lane and enters the Thames east of it, having travelled the last stretch beneath the ground.

The Boating Pool does not appear on the 1867 map. When we saw it today, people were propelling noisy radio-controlled toy boats across it, much to the dismay of the waterfowl bathing in the water. I did not spot a heron at the Heron Pool, but I did see cormorants perching on the Statue of Diana to which some Christmas hats and tinsel had been added. On my first visit to Bushy Park back in about September, I did see a heron on the edge of the round pond in the middle of which the statue stands. Although I saw no herons during my latest visit, there were plenty of gulls, geese, ducks, swans, coots, and moorhen on all three ponds that punctuate the Longford River.

The Leg of Mutton Pond, when seen on a map or from the air resembles the conical lump of meat, which rotates in front of a grill and from which shavings are sliced and put into ‘pita’ bread when ordering a Turkish döner kebab, rather than a leg of mutton. The pond tapers far less than most legs of mutton. Bushy Park is not the only place in London with a Leg of Mutton Pond. Other examples can be found on Hampstead Heath; near the Dollis River in Totteridge; in Barnes; in Richmond Park; and in Wanstead Park, there is even a Shoulder of Mutton pond.  

Mutton is not frequently eaten by people of European heritage living in the UK today. It is not so easy as lamb to find in shops. The consumption of mutton in the UK declined many decades ago. Tracy Carrol wrote (https://localfoodbritain.com/surrey/articles/forgotten-mutton-slow-food-worth-the-wait/):

“In Victorian times, mutton was the food of kings and paupers alike, yet things started to change when New Zealand and Australia found themselves with too many sheep as a by-product of the thriving wool industry. Once refrigeration came into being in the late 19th century, the solution was obvious – ship the meat to Britain to feed its hungry and growing population. This was the beginning of the end for British mutton and by 1925 lamb was beginning to appear more and more on our menu. It may not have had the depth of flavour of mutton, but this younger meat was more reliable, even in the hands of the careless cook.”

It is the depth of flavour of mutton that makes it a far better ingredient of curries. Providing one cooks it slowly and for much longer than lamb, it becomes a tender flavoursome meat, and the curry gains a rich flavour, rarely attained by using lamb. Given that mutton prevailed over lamb when long ago ponds were named, it is not surprising to find ponds named after mutton, rather than lamb. In fact, a search of Google or its maps for a ‘Leg of Lamb’ pond or other body of water yielded no results.

Given the ‘way back’ position of regular mutton-eating in the timeline of British food history, seeing the ‘Leg of Mutton Pond’ on the map of Bushy Park made me keen to see this venerable pond. Our walk from the car park to it was truly worthwhile. When we returned to our vehicle, the car park was almost full, as was another one close to the Diana Statue. So, if you wish to enjoy Bushy Park at its best, try to get there early in the morning, well before 10 am.

A year has passed

EXACTLY A YEAR AGO, at the end of November 2019, we were staying at the Tollygunge Club in south Calcutta. Every morning after breakfast, I would set out for a morning walk on the golf course as the air temperature began to climb rapidly towards 30 degrees Celsius. Being careful to avoid the golfers and their shots, I wandered away from the club buildings towards the far reaches of the luxuriant course. On my way, I passed the numerous obese dogs that hang around the club waiting for careless human snack eaters to drop bits of food. Further on, apart from the occasional players, I greeted the white egrets, which hastened away as I approached them. Then, as the club buildings grew smaller as I walked away from them, I often came across the jackals that sun themselves on the bunkers and putting greens. As I aimed my camera towards them, they would look at me suspiciously before slinking slowly into the clumps of bushes and shrubs dotted about in the grounds. Some mornings, I watched horses being taken for exercise and every morning I encountered people, both slender and not so sleek, either running or walking, usually viewing the screens on their mobile telephones. That was a year ago. And after leaving Calcutta, we told our friends and family there that we were sure to be back again in a year’s time.

It is said that one should not count one’s chickens before they hatch. Little did we know back then in Calcutta that a year later at the end of November 2020 we would not be in Calcutta in the Indian winter warmth, but in Bushy Park (near Twickenham) on a misty morning when the air temperature was about 3 degrees Celsius. We had visited Bushy Park about a month or so earlier in bright sunshine when the large carpark was almost full of cars. Today, on the last day of November, the carpark was less than a quarter full and the mist almost hid the tops of the tallest trees. The damp air felt bitterly cold, a feeling enhanced by the gloomy grey sky overhead that became visible as the mist dispersed.

Despite the greyness and cool air and our frozen hands, we enjoyed a brief walk in the Woodland Gardens, which are surrounded by a fence to stop the entry of the local wildlife, not jackals as in Calcutta but numerous deer, formerly the prey of the aristocratic hunters of yesteryear. A stream winds through the woodland area, widening sometimes to become like a pond. No egrets here, but plenty of ducks, gulls, and a few Egyptian Geese. Nor were there any golfers with their caddies and trolleys. Instead, there were plenty of parents, mostly younger than us, with their infants in buggies, and also some grandparents. Instead of being able to retire to the Shamiana bar, after the walk, for a coffee or, more likely in Calcutta, a tea,  we headed for a small window in the otherwise closed Bushy Park Pheasantry Café to buy hot drinks to take away. The wooden tables and chairs under the trees nearby were, as a notice put it: “Out of Bounds”, just as Calcutta is for us now, because of the blasted covid19 pandemic.

Methods are being employed to attempt to reduce the spread of the virus both here in the UK and in India. Much emphasis is put on trying to minimise association with other people. We try to do this as much as possible, but this does not stop us from getting out and about.  In contrast, many of our friends and family in India have been far more cautious than many in the UK, hardly leaving their home for weeks and months on end. I am not at all sure that we could manage to remain inside our flat for so long especially if the weather here was as warm and sunny as it is in India. We wrap up warmly and venture out into the cold whenever possible and that has helped to keep us feeling sane during this frightening plague. As a Norwegian said on BBC Radio 4 some weeks ago:

“There is no such thing as bad weather. There is just bad clothing.”

Appeasement and leisure in a London park

NEVILLE CHAMBERLAIN (1869-1940) has earned a poor reputation, mainly because of his unfortunate policy of appeasement with Nazi Germany in the late 1930s, which included the Munich Agreement in September 1938, which allowed the Nazis to invade the Sudetenland, the western part of Czechoslovakia. It took the disastrous German invasion of Poland before the then Prime Minister, Chamberlain, finally made Britain declare war on Germany.

Today (24th of November 2020), we revisited Gunnersbury Park, which we ‘discovered’ for the first time a few weeks earlier. The front of the grand house, the Large Mansion, which was acquired by Nathan, a member of the Rothschild family, in 1835, has a terrace running next to its long rear façade. At each end of the terrace, there are two neo-classical archways, which we did not examine carefully on our first visit.

In one of these arches, there are two commemorative tablets inscribed in upper-case lettering. Both note the fact that Gunnersbury Park was opened for use by the public by “The Right Hon. Neville Chamberlain, M.P., Minister of Health”. The rest of the information on the tablets relates to the financing of the purchase of the park (from Lionel Nathan de Rothschild). One tablet commemorates that a quarter of the cost of the park, purchased by the Boroughs of both Acton and Ealing, was provided by Middlesex County Council. The other tablet recalls that in 1927, The Urban District Council of Brentford and Chiswick joined those of Acton and Ealing in the ownership and running of the public park. Thus, for a while, the park was managed by three different district councils. In 1965, Brentford and Chiswick became absorbed into the new Borough of Hounslow. That year, the Borough of Acton became part of the new enlarged Borough of Ealing. So, now the park is managed by two boroughs instead of three. According to a gardener, with whom we spoke, one of these boroughs has spent far more money on the park than the other.

In 1926, when he opened the park at an occasion that has been recorded on film (https://player.bfi.org.uk/free/film/watch-the-official-opening-of-gunnersbury-park-by-the-rt-hon-neville-chamberlain-m-p-1926), Neville Chamberlain was Member of Parliament for Birmingham Ladywood, representing the Unionist party, now part of the Conservative and Unionist party. Two years before he opened Gunnersbury Park, he was appointed Minister of Health by the then Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin.

Although he might have had good reasons for doing so, allowing the Germans to enter Czechoslovakia and overrun the Sudetenland seems unforgivable. However, and this by no means makes his policy of Appeasement more palatable, his opening the gates of Gunnersbury Park to the public has provided joy to visitors from near and far for many decades. I heartily recommend a visit to this lovely place filled with picturesque delights.

Walking past wallabies

FILTHY SLIPPERY MUD deterred us from exploring a section of the path running beside a stretch of Dollis Brook in north London. After abandoning our attempts to negotiate this slippery, squelchy, wet path, we decided to visit Golders Hill Park, one of our favourite open spaces in north west London. I have been visiting this park since I was a small child, for over six decades. Formerly, the park was the grounds of a mansion, built for Charles Dingley (1711-1769), long since demolished (see: https://adamyamey.co.uk/waugh-and-pitt-hampstead-north-end/).

We sat on a bench near to the North End Road entrance to the park, which is close to where the demolished mansion once stood. From our bench, we had a fine view of the gardens, lawns, and mature trees, sloping away from us. It is a view that reminded us of the landscaped gardens that sweep away from fine mansions such as can be seen at Compton Verney (in Warwickshire), Osterley Park, and Kenwood House. I mention Kenwood House in particular because the man who had a hand in landscaping its grounds, Humphrey Repton (1752-1815), was also involved in the design of the gardens, now park, of the former mansion at Golders Hill.

We walked around the park, first passing a deserted bandstand. Soon, we arrived in the part of the park, which I loved as a child and still enjoy as I approach my ‘second childhood’. It is a small zoo. Although many would question whether animals are happy to be confined to cages, these creatures provide much pleasure to city dwellers. There is a vast field that contains various types of deer and occasionally a rhea, which looks like a kind of ostrich. Most of the other enclosures in this small zoo are smaller than the deer enclosure.

An enclosure, which used to house flamingos when I was a child, contains a variety of exotic waterfowl including some with long, slender curling beaks. Close to this, there is a larger enclosure in which three or four ring-tailed lemurs pass the time of day.

Another large enclosure, slightly smaller than that where the deer spend their time, contains what for me is the highlight of the zoo. These creatures, which intrigue me, are wallabies. They are Bennett’s (red necked) wallabies (Macropus rufogriseus). If you wish to see these in their natural habitat, you will need to fly to western Australia or Tasmania. I have not yet discovered when these cute looking creatures from ‘down-under’ first began to be displayed in the park, but they have been present in Golders Hill Park ever since I can remember, and that includes the late 1950s. A sign attached to the fence around the area in which the wallabies live describes the antipodean creatures as ‘The Golders Hill Mob’.

During our latest visit today, the 10th of October 2020, we saw a creature we had never noticed before. It was a bird of prey, a Laughing Kookaburra (Dacelo novaguinea), which like the wallabies, is a native of Australasia. According to the notice attached to its cage, this handsome bird uses its beak to kill its prey by hitting it against a hard surface. Well, you learn something new every day.

As mentioned already, Golders Hill Park is amongst our favourite open spaces in London. In my early childhood, I remember being taken to the park and passing the public tennis courts where my parents played occasionally. Seeing the park, its lovely trees, its tiny zoo, and the tennis courts, was as usual an enjoyable experience. It was a good place to remember my parents with great fondness. One of them died forty years ago, and the other quite recently at the ripe old age of one hundred and one years.

A lovely surprise in west London

DRIVING ALONG THE NORTH Circular Road, I noticed a long wall over the top of which I could see what looked like the pinnacles of a Gothic revival garden folly. We were driving past Gunnersbury Park in West London and did not have time to stop. So, the next day, we drove back to the park and spent some time exploring it. What we found was a fascinating estate consisting of beautiful park land and a series of architectural delights. This is hardly far from where we live, but it was the first time that we had visited it.  Had I not noticed what I did when on the North Circular Road, I am not sure that we would not have considered making a trip to find out what lies behind the wall next to which queues of slow moving traffic can often be seen.

The first impression one gets on entering Gunnersbury Park with its wealth of trees including many Cedars of Lebanon is that you are inside the grounds of a great house such as you can find at, for example, Ham House and Osterley Park. That impression is justified because Gunnersbury Park is basically what is left of the grounds of a mansion built in the Palladian style for the lawyer and politician Sir John Maynard (1604-1690) between 1658 and 1663. It was designed by the architect John Webb (1611-1672). Maynard died at Gunnersbury Park.

Between 1762 and 1786, Gunnersbury Park was used as a summer residence by Princess Amelia (1711-1786), who was King George III’s aunt (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1000808).  In 1761, she had bought the estate from George Furness (after 1688-1756). His father had been a ‘factor’ in the East India Company. George was a British merchant and politician as well as being an art collector. He was a Member of Parliament between 1720 and 1756 and had bought the property in 1739 from John Hobart (1693-1756), 1st Earl of Buckinghamshire, a British politician. Furness improved the grounds by employing the famous gardener William Kent (1685-1748). I am not sure how much of his original design has survived the passage of time.

Princess Amelia, the second daughter of King George II, did much to improve the grounds, by landscaping, arranging planting, and by adding ornamental buildings, which still add to the charm of the place. These buildings include the bath house and a neo-classical temple, which overlooks a circular pond.

The princess held fabulous parties at Gunnersbury. In “Handbook to The Environs of London” by James Thorne, which was published in 1876, the politician and intellectual Horace Walpole (1717-1797), author of the Gothick novel “The Castle of Otranto”, who attended some of these parties, is quoted thus:

“Ever since the late king’s death, I have made Princess Amelia’s parties once or twice a week … I was sent for again to dine at Gunnersbury on Friday, and forced to send to town for a dress-coat and a sword. There were the Prince of Wales, the Prince of Mecklenburg, the Duke of Portland, Lord Clanbrassil … The Princess, Lady Barrymore, and the rest of us, played three pools at Commerce till ten … While we were at the Dairy, the Princess insisted on my making some verses on Gunnersbury. I pleaded being superannuated. She would not excuse me. I promised she should have an Ode on her next birthday, which diverted the Prince; but all would not do.”

The next morning, Walpole composed three verses for the Princess. One of them (quoted in a letter from Walpole to HS Conway dated 18th of June 1786) reads as follows:

“Oh! Why is Flaccus not alive,

Your favourite scene to sing?

To Gunnersbury’s charms could give

His lyre immortal spring.”

Walpole admitted in his letter to Conway that his poem was not one of his best. He wrote:

“If they are but poor verses, consider I am sixty-nine, and was half asleep, and made them ex-tempore – and by command!”

Following the death of the Princess, the Palladian mansion was demolished in 1801. Its contents were sold by auction and the 205 acres of its grounds were divided into lots and sold at the same time. Most of their area was bought by Alexander Copland (1774-1834), who built a new house, which forms the basis for the present building, which now houses a museum, which is currently closed because of the covid19 pandemic. Copland, a builder and business partner of the architect Henry Holland (1745-1806), was a son of Alexander Copland and his wife Barbara (née Smirke). The Alexander, who bought Gunnersbury was a cousin of the architect Robert Smirke (1780-1867), whose brother, also an architect, Sydney Smirke (1797-1877) designed the Orangery, which was built at Gunnersbury Park in 1836, and has been restored beautifully.

Copland built The Large Mansion (now the museum). Either Stephen Cosser or Major Alexander Morrison, a retired East India Company officer who bought the plot from him, built the so-called ‘Small Mansion’ to the east of the Large Mansion, which is currently in a poor state of repair. A gardener explained to us that it was supposed to be cared for by one London borough whereas the Large Mansion was under the care of another. In 1828, the part of the estate with the Small Mansion was bought by Thomas Farmer, who lived there as Copland’s neighbour until 1835.

In 1835, Copland’s Large Mansion was bought by the banker Nathan Mayer Rothschild (1777-1836). After his death a year later, his widow Hannah (née Barent-Cohen; 1783-1850) used Gunnersbury Park as her second home and employed the architect Sidney Smirke to make alterations to it (https://family.rothschildarchive.org/estates/37-gunnersbury).  Following Hannah’s death, her oldest son Lionel Rothschild (1808-1879), the first ever practising Jew to become a Member of Parliament, took over the property and enlarged its park as well as improving the house’s facilities. After his death and that of his widow Charlotte, the estate moved into the possession of their youngest son Leopold de Rothschild (1845-1917).

In 1889, Leopold purchased the Small Mansion and thereby reunited the two parts of the original Gunnersbury estate. Under the ownership of the Rothschild family, many improvements were made to the grounds, some of which I will mention soon. After Leopold died in 1917, the estate was broken up and parts were sold off. In 1925, both mansions and about 185 acres of attached grounds were purchased for public use by the then Boroughs of Acton and Ealing. Now, the park and its mansions are maintained by the boroughs of Ealing and Hounslow.

The Large Mansion is elegant but not as attractive as the one which was demolished long ago and can be seen in old drawings. Nearby, the temple that overlooks a pond is delightful and reminded me of some of the garden architecture at Stourhead (in Wiltshire). Wandering around the garden, you will come across the Gothic revival architectural features I saw when driving past Gunnersbury Park on the North Circular Road. These are built around ‘Princess Amelia’s Bath House’, a garden folly built in the 1780s. Not far from this, there are very picturesque ‘Gothick’ ruins near to the estate’s farm buildings. These might be the remains of the dairy mentioned above in the quote from Horace Walpole or possibly later additions to the grounds constructed by an owner who bought the Princess’s estate. One source (https://brentfordandchiswicklhs.org.uk/publications/the-journal/journal-10-2000/princess-amelias-bath-house/) suggests that what is now called the ‘Bath House’ might have been the dairy in Amelia’s time at Gunnersbury. Whatever its history, lovers of romantic Gothic revival ruins will get great pleasure from what can be seen at Gunnersbury Park.

The Orangery stands next to a large pond. This structure was built whilst the Rothschilds owned the estate. It was constructed in 1836, designed by Sidney Smirke. The family were responsible for another water feature on their estate. It has a name that intrigued us: the Potomac Pond. This almost circular water body is surrounded by a fence and almost hidden by the trees and other vegetation growing around its perimeter. It is only accessible to members of a local angling club. The Rothschilds had purchased a former clay pit and converted it into the pond. One of the claypit’s kilns was rebuilt to create a Gothic revival tower on its shore. This lovely folly, which would look at home in a painting by the German Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840), might have once been used as a boathouse.

I have described a few of the features that make it well worthwhile to visit Gunnersbury Park, whose history is not exactly simple. The place is so near to London and the M4 motorway, yet it feels so far away. If it were not the background roar of the traffic and the low flying aeroplanes descending towards Heathrow Airport, fewer than usual these days, it would be hard to believe you were not deep in the countryside.