A sculpture, a steeple, and stucco

LANCASTER GATE IS ten minutes’ walk or a three-minute bus ride away from where I have lived for over 29 years. I have passed it innumerable times, yet I have never explored it. Yesterday, the 30th of October 2021, I decided it was high time that I took a closer look at the place. The name refers to an entrance to Kensington Gardens as well as a nearby network of streets. The network includes a long street extending from east to west between Craven Terrace (near Paddington Station) and Leinster Terrace. The section of road between Craven Terrace and Bayswater Road is also called Lancaster Gate. Midway along the long east-west section of the Gate, there is a wide street, almost a square or piazza, that leads to Bayswater Road. This rectangular piazza is south of a rectangular loop to the north of the east-west section, in the centre of which there is a 20th century building called Spire House. If this sounds confusing, then please look at a map!

What I have called the ‘piazza’ opens out onto Bayswater Road. In the middle of it, there is a monument topped with the weather worn sculpture of a seated child, probably male. The sculpture sits above a bas-relief depicting the western façade and the dome of London’s St Paul’s Cathedral. Below, on the south side of the pedestal, there is a bas-relief, depicting the face of a man with a bushy moustache and a long luxuriant beard.  Weather and/or pollution has worn away details from his portrait. At first sight, I thought that it was a representation of George Bernard Shaw as an old man, but it is not. It is, according to the almost undecipherable inscription beneath it, the face of Reginald Brabazon, the 12th Earl of Meath, who lived from 1841 to 1929. The words on the plinth include that he was “a patriot and a philanthropist”.

Brabazon was Anglo-Irish and born in London (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reginald_Brabazon,_12th_Earl_of_Meath). Educated at Eton, he became a diplomat, but resigned from the Diplomatic Service in 1877. Ten years later, he joined the House of Lords as a Conservative peer. Reginald and his wife, Mary, devoted much of their lives to relieving human suffering and ameliorating social conditions. Amongst his many good works was the establishment (in 1882) of a charity called the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association, whose aim  was the preservation of public open spaces and the creation of new ones, which might explain why the memorial to him faces Hyde Park. The Portland stone monument, known as The Meath Memorial, was designed by Joseph Hermon Cawthra (1886-1971) and unveiled in 1934.

A few feet north of Brabazon’s memorial, which stands on a wide traffic island, there is a slender stone column topped by an ornate octagonal structure surmounted by a shiny metal crucifix. The base of this column reveals that it is was built as a WW1 memorial. In the pavement between the two memorials, the City of Westminster has set several informative panels about the history of Lancaster Gate. The development of Lancaster Gate, originally known as ‘Upper Hyde Park Gardens’, began in the late 1860s, an initiative of the developer Henry de Bruno Austin. Many of the houses he built have rich stucco facades and porches supported by neo-classical style pillars. Quite a few of them are now hotels. These buildings are interspersed with a few newer buildings, presumably where the originals were bombed during WW2. However, most Lancaster Gate’s houses are those built in the 19th century.

The name Lancaster Gate was chosen to honour Queen Victoria, who was amongst many other things, the Duchess of Lancaster.

Before Lancaster Gate was developed, it was mostly agricultural land. Until 1775, the composer, actor, botanist, and playwright John Hill (1716-1775) had his Physic Garden here. By 1795, visitors flocked to the area to enjoy the springs and fresh air at the Bayswater Tea Gardens, which later was renamed the Flora Tea Gardens, and then the Victoria Tea Gardens. This establishment closed in 1854.

At the southern end of the loop and towering above the plaza with its two monuments, there is a tall church tower with a spire. This is all that remains of the Christ Church, Lancaster Gate, whose construction began in 1854. The last service to be held in the church was in 1977, by which time the roof was badly infected with dry rot. The church was demolished, but the tower retained. Where the body of church stood, there is now a block of flats. Opened in about 1983, it is appropriately named Spire House. Its 20th century architecture is quite attractive and contrasts dramatically with the stuccoed Victorian buildings that face its west, north, and east sides. Spire House has external concrete supporting pillars that suggest an updated version of the flying buttresses used in mediaeval church architecture.

Lancaster Gate is a relatively unspoilt example of mid-Victorian town planning and worthy of a short visit. While walking around the area, I only spotted one blue plaque, commemorating a resident worthy of note. It recorded that the “Chemical Scientist” Sir Edward Frankland (1825-1899) lived in Lancaster Gate from 1870 to 1880. He was one of the founders of organo-metallic chemistry and a discoverer of Helium. Also, he took an active interest in the problem of pollution of rivers and the quality of London’s water. I trust that he would be pleased to know that fish have returned to London’s once filthy River Thames.

After exploring Lancaster Gate and its sea of stuccoed facades, head east into Craven Street, where you can find several cafés and at least one pub.

Victoria slept here once

LOVINGTON BAKERY AND CAFÉ in Wincanton (Somerset) provides a superb range of breakfast items, all prepared beautifully. No effort was spared to ensure that we had a most enjoyable breakfast. The café, which is housed on the Market Place close to the Town Hall, is almost opposite a former coaching inn, once called ‘The Greyhound’.

The elegant three-storey building that used to be the Greyhound has a centrally located archway that has a cobbled driveway passing beneath it. There is a bas-relief depicting a royal coat of arms above the archway. A cast-iron inn sign showing a greyhound with its broad neck collar remains suspended over the pavement above the archway. An oval panel above the archway but at the level of the roof has a faded painting of a greyhound.

The Greyhound was built in the 18th century, probably by the local builder Nathaniel Ireson (1685-1769), whose impressive funerary monument, which includes a handsome statue and carvings of builder’s tools, can be seen in the graveyard that surrounds the town’s large church of St Peter and St Paul.  The building was first mentioned in parish records in 1743 and advertised as being “new” in 1760 (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1238740). The greyhound is the armorial symbol of the Churchey Family of Tout Hill.

In 1825, when the future Queen Victoria was a child aged about six years, she visited Wincanton and stayed for one night at The Greyhound. This visit is recorded on a plaque attached to the building. Where she was going, I have not yet been able to ascertain, but she was not the only royal visitor to be associated with Wincanton. In 1688, William of Orange (reigned 1698-1702) not only visited the town but also his Dutch troops fought and won a battle against troops loyal to the deposed King James II in the town. After his victory, he spent a night in Wincanton A plaque attached to a picturesque old building not far from the former Greyhound inn commemorates the Battle of Wincanton (20th of November 1688).

The Greyhound is one of many pubs (former and still working) that line the main road through Wincanton. In the olden days before motor transport superseded horse-drawn transport, these inns served as staging posts for travellers, places for being fed and for resting overnight. The Greyhound no longer serves the traveller but houses a gallery and has also become part of a housing unit. We spent the night in a modern hotel not far from the modern highway (the A303), which takes traffic past Wincanton rather than through its winding hilly streets. From our bedroom window, we can see a concrete factory and a tall sign advertising a KFC food outlet. Had Victoria been staying here, I am certain that she might have said or thought “We are not amused”.

Thank you, Queen Victoria

From worlds far apart,

Two folk come together:

Cupid’s bow does its job

 

When our daughter was a little girl in junior school, the members of her class were asked to name the greatest Briton in history. She nominated Queen Victoria. Her choice was based on the following facts: her mother’s parents were born in India and my parents were born in South Africa. When Queen Victoria reigned, she argued, both countries were part of the British Empire. This, she felt, made it more likely that both her parents would study in England and meet. Without Victoria, she concluded, my wife Lopa and I might never have met, and she would not have existed. Well, maybe she was right. I believe that the reason we met was due to two men who gave us career’s advice: Professor Lewis Wolpert in London and Major General SL Bhatia in Bangalore.

As I approached the time when I had to choose a university undergraduate course, I had no idea which subject to select. I was interested in biology, physics, and chemistry, but had no interest in studying medicine, or even dentistry, which I studied many years later. Careers advice at my secondary school was not helpful.

My South African-born parents knew many South Africans living in London. One of these was my father’s close friend, the late Cyril Sofer, a sociologist. It was through the Sofer family that we met Lewis Wolpert, who was born in South Africa. First, he trained to become a civil engineer. By the time I first met him, he had become an eminent biologist, specialising in cell and developmental biology.

Wolpert, on learning that I was having difficulties choosing a course of study, kindly invited me to his office in Middlesex Hospital in central London. He spent about an hour with me, listening to what I had found interesting in the science subjects I had studied at school. Having heard me out, he suggested that I study physiology at university. This subject would, he thought, encompass all that interested me so far. He told me that the best places to study physiology were Cambridge and University College London (‘UCL’). Of these, he considered the physiology department at UCL to be the best. I was pleased to hear this.

About five years before meeting Wolpert, my father and I had visited UCL because a friend of the family, the art-historian Leopold Ettlinger, worked there. All that I can remember of this visit was walking across the lawns in UCL’s elegant Front Quadrangle and thinking how beautiful it seemed. So, when Lewis Wolpert suggested that I apply for admission to UCL, I was happy about that.

At about the time I was discussing my academic future with Wolpert in London, a young lady, my future wife Lopa, was discussing the same thing with another eminent scientist 5000 miles away in Bangalore. The scientist, Major General SL Bhatia (1891-1982), had known Lopa’s mother’s father from when he studied medicine in Bombay. The two medics became close friends. When Lopa’s mother Chandra was born, Bhatia became the equivalent of Chandra’s god-father.

Chandra’s father died young having succumbed to blood poisoning while treating one of his patients. His friend Bhatia had a glittering career in science, medicine and the Indian Army. It was during his retirement that Lopa met him at his beautiful old-fashioned bungalow in Bangalore. Bhatia had studied medicine not only in India but also at St Thomas’s Hospital in London during the second decade of the 20th century. While in London, he had conducted research with leading physiologists. Like Wolpert had done for me in London, Bhatia recommended that Lopa, who was not keen on studying medicine at that time, pursue a course of physiology at UCL, because he knew it to have a fine reputation in that subject.

One morning in October 1970, I arrived at the Physiology Department at UCL, having travelled from my home in north-west London. I was one of nine students who had been accepted for the course. Lopa was one of the others. She had travelled over 5000 miles to join the department. We were greeted by the department in the Starling Room, named after a famous physiologist who had worked at UCL. This common room is where I met the young lady who was eventually to marry me.

SL BHATIA 3

In the bar at the Bangalore Club

Our wedding reception in Bangalore was held in 1994 at the Bangalore Club, a prestigious ex-colonial institution in the heart of Bangalore. Although he could not attend, Major SL Bhatia was the first Indian President of that elite club. Before that, all the Presidents had been British. Bhatia’s widow was at the wedding. She claimed, not without some reason, that it was she and her late husband, who were responsible for getting Lopa and me together.

The late queen_800

Just as our daughter is eternally grateful to Queen Victoria for bringing Lopa and me together, I am equally thankful to Professor Wolpert and Major General Bhatia for getting our paths to cross. I cannot acknowledge them for what was to follow; Cupid and his arrows are to be thanked for that.

Picture sources: semanticscholar.org (Bhatia) & retractionwatch.com (Wolpert)