An oddly named house overlooking the River Thames

WALKING BY THE THAMES along Chiswick Mall is always enjoyable whatever the weather. The landward side of the street is lined by houses, many of them well over 100 years old. One of them is called Said House. At first, I imagined that the ‘Said’ referred to someone or something in the Arab world, but it seems that this is not the case.

Said House on Chiswick Mall

The façade of Said House is dominated by an overly large bay window with a vast single pane of curved glass. The building’s earliest structures date back to the 18th century, but much has been done since to distort its appearance. Pevsner said that the building was Victorian, but “georgianised” in about 1935 by Darcy Braddell (or by Albert Randall Wells [1877–1942]). One of its early inhabitants was an artist, Katherine Parsons. The actor and theatre manager Sir Nigel Playfair (1874-1935) was also one of its inhabitants. It was for him that the modifications, including the western wing with its bay window, were made.

The origin of the house’s name is uncertain, but one source suggests that it is so-called because its title deeds refer to “the said house”. This is the only explanation of the name that I can find having searched the Internet thoroughly.

There is a terracotta urn in an alcove high above the bow window. A passer-by with a strong Irish accent despite having lived in Chiswick for 65 years told me that this was something to do with Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795). This might possibly be the case, but I cannot be certain about it. Wedgwood’s associate Thomas Bentley (1731-1780) did live in Chiswick. According to Lloyd Sanders in his “Old Kew, Chiswick and Kensington” (published 1910):

Bentley was in failing health when, in 1777, he took up his residence at Chiswick, possibly to be near his friend, and three years afterwards he died. He was buried in Chiswick church, where Wedgwood raised a monument to his memory with a medallion portrait by Scheemakers.”

I have not yet discovered precise location of Bentley’s house. But that should not stop you from taking a stroll along Chiswick’s lovely Mall and enjoying the glorious display of flowers in bloom especially during spring and early summer.

Dusty no more: a town on the Thames

HENLEY-ON-THAMES is located at the Oxford end of a bridge across the River Thames, which separates the county of Oxfordshire from its neighbour Berkshire. Located on the old main road between London and Oxford, it retains much ‘olde-worlde’ charm. Its streets are lined with many buildings that were constructed in the 18th century and before. Some of these used to be coaching inns but are no longer. However, some of the hostelries that served wayfarers in times long ago are still serving thirsty and hungry customers today, for example: The Red Lion, where William III might have visited, now an upmarket restaurant; and The Catherine Wheel, now a branch of the Wetherspoons company. On a recent visit in April 2022, we enjoyed superb coffee at Pavilion on The Market Place, close to the Town Hall.

Beer lovers will not need reminding that Henley is the home of Brakspear & Sons, the brewery company. Founded in Henley in 1722, beer was brewed in the town since then, although some of the comapany’s products are now brewed elsewhere. Many of the brewery’s older buildings, now converted for new purposes, can be seen alongside New Street. The company’s offices are now located on Bull Courtyard off Bell Street.

The stone bridge across the river was built in 1788. It is the finishing place of the annual Henley Royal Regatta held in summer, ever since its inception in 1839. Near the bridge, stands Henley’s parish church of St Mary the Virgin, which has a 16th century tower. The exterior walls of the southeast corner of the church is an eye-catching chequerboard of alternating masonry and flint squares. The church’s interior has been much modified by the Victorians. The churchyard north of the church is surrounded mainly by almshouses. Immediately next to the north side of the church stands a two-storied, half-timbered building, the Chantry House, some of whose beams come from trees felled in 1461 (according to scientific dating methods). Between 1552 and 1778, this edifice housed a school. Since 1923, it has housed the Parish Rooms.

The churchyard is filled with many gravestones. One of them immediately attracts the visitor as it is surrounded by generous amounts of fresh flowers. It is a memorial to the singer Dusty Springfield (1939-1999), who died in Henley. In the 1990s, Dusty lived by the Thames at Hurley near Henley. While in the area, she suffered from several bouts of breast cancer, the cause of her demise. Her funeral at St Mary’s in Henley was attended by many of her fans and leading lights in the British popular music scene including Elvis Costello, Lulu and the Pet Shop Boys. According to her wishes, Dusty was cremated, and some of her ashes were scattered in Henley and the rest in Ireland.

Dusty was not the only music celebrity to have lived in Henley. A man we met outside his house in the town reminded us that the Beatle George Harrison (1943-2001) had also lived in the town. He also mentioned that Henley’s former MP, the present Prime Minister Boris Johnson, had attended meetings in his home, and that he could tell us a thing or two … but he did not!

Eight bells and a bridge

BELIEVE IT OR NOT, busy Fulham in west London was a small country village in the early 19th century. Today, what was once the heart of the village, is the site of two bridges spanning the Thames. One carries the District Line railway tracks and pedestrians, and the other, an elegant stone bridge with five arches carries a road across the river. Known as Putney Bridge, the latter was completed in 1886 and designed by the prolific civil engineer Joseph Bazalgette.

Inside The Eight Bells in Fulham

Prior to the construction of the stone bridge, there was an earlier wooden bridge, known as ‘Fulham Bridge’. With roofed gatehouses at both ends and 26 arches (or openings), it was designed by Sir Jacob Acworth and completed in 1729. Its approach road was Fulham High Street. The bridge has long-since been demolished but a blind-ended, short inlet of the river, now named Swan Drawdock Nature Reserve runs right next to where the old bridge would have once begun.

The Eight Bells pub, which still serves customers, stands on Fulham High Street. Now housed in a Victorian building, it might have been first established as early as the 17th century. When the old bridge stood, it would have attracted much business from folk using the wooden crossing. Things changed when the new, current, bridge was constructed.

The approach to the new crossing, Putney Bridge, was not via Fulham High Street but by way of a new road, the present Putney Bridge Approach (the A 219), which does not pass the front of the Eight Bells. This led to a considerable loss of business for the pub, whose owners received £1000 in compensation: a great deal of money in the late 1880s.

The Eight Bells and its neighbour, a wonderful second-hand book shop, along with a few other shops near Putney Bridge station, although definitely not rural in appearance, retain a ‘villagey’ feel.

The fantastic herons

ON SUNNY EASTER Sunday (2022), we took a morning walk along the Thames Path from the Black Lion pub (and the excellent Elderpress Café facing it) to Dukes Meadows, upstream from the pub. Dodging the endless stream of mostly courteous joggers and less polite cyclists, we enjoyed splendid views of the River Thames and the many old buildings lining Chiswick Mall. Several of the buildings were covered with flowering wisteria.

The Fantastic Herons

The river was well-populated with waterfowl including swans; geese of various kinds; ducks; a pair of cormorants resting on a buoy; and several herons. The latter were either standing on the sand and mud at the waterside or in the water close to the bank. Eventually, we reached Dukes Meadows, which consists of fields formerly part of the estate of nearby Chiswick House.

Near the Hammersmith end of the Meadows, we saw a metal sculpture, ‘The Fantastic Herons’, on top of a tall pole. Created by the artist Kevin Herlihy (born 1962) along with pupils from Cavendish Primary School and unveiled in 2004, it depicts three herons standing on a nest. Like most of Herlihy’s creations which often depict animal life, it is made from recycled waste materials. Funded by Singapore Airlines, who held a series of art workshops in the school, it is an appropriate sculpture for the area as herons can often be standing by, or in, the Thames flowing past the Meadows.

A bridge in London waiting for repairs

In the middle years of the 1720s, Daniel Defoe described Hammersmith as a village that was growing into a small town:

“… and some talk also of building a fine stone bridge over the Thames …”

It was almost 100 years after Defoe speculated that a bridge across the Thames would be built at Hammersmith. A suspension bridge was constructed between 1824 and 1827. It was the first of this type of bridge to be constructed anywhere near London and the first to span the Thames. James Thorne, writing in 1876, that in outline and simplicity of style, it:

“… remains the best-looking-bridge of its kind on the Thames …”

The bridge was designed by William Tierney Clark (1783-1852), who had been guided in his development of bridge construction techniques by Thomas Telford and John Rennie, who designed the old London Bridge that now stands in Lake Havasu City in Arizona. Clark also designed the suspension bridge (1832) across the Thames at Marlow and the impressive Széchenyi (Chain) Bridge which crosses the River Danube to link Buda and Pest. The latter resembles Clark’s Hammersmith Bridge as depicted in old engravings.

In 1883-37, Clark’s Hammersmith Bridge was replaced by a newer one designed by Joseph Bazalgette (1819-1891). According to Cherry and Pevsner in The Buildings of England. London 2: South, Bazalgette:

“… re-used the piers and abutments. Iron-framed towers clad in cast iron partly gilt, with Frenchy pavilion tops, and elephantine ornament at the approaches … The deck stiffening girders were replaced in a major overhaul in 1973-6.”

This bridge, which was built for use by horses and carts, pedestrians, and the occasional cyclist, long before the advent of heavy motor vehicles such as busses and lorries. It has been closed for repairs several times, causing much nuisance for those who live on both sides of it. In April 2019, Hammersmith and Fulham Council closed the bridge to all motorised traffic. This was done following the discovery of serious cracks in the pedestals that support the bridge. It remained open for pedestrians and cyclists until August 2020, when a heatwave caused further deterioration. Then, the bridge was closed to all users.  

A variety of schemes have been proposed for repairing the bridge and there was some disagreement as to who would pay for the work. In June 2021, Hammersmith and Fulham Council came to a cost-sharing deal to complete the rehabilitation of the Victorian bridge. In July 2021, the bridge was reopened for use by cyclists and pedestrians until 2027. In February 2022, I stepped on the bridge for the first time since it closed. The view from it is marvellous, especially upstream where one gets a good view of the historic buildings lining the waterfront between Hammersmith and Chiswick.

A riverside café

SITUATED CLOSE TO the River Thames footpath between Hammersmith Bridge and Chiswick’s St Nicholas Church, in whose cemetery the artist William Hogarth is buries, is the popular Elder Press Café.

A ‘breakfast bun’ at the Elder Press Cafe

From the outside, it seems that this is a small establishment, but this is misleading. Behind the narrow shopfront facing the the Black Lion pub, the café extends a long way. It surrounds an inner courtyard with tables and chairs.

In addition to drinks and delicious patisserie items, the place offers a range of savoury dishes, which I saw being served to those on tables neighbouring ours. The food looked healthy as well as delicious. Service was attentive and friendly and prices were not exorbitant.

Fish on the roof

WEATHERVANES ATTRACT BOTH wind and my attention. The variety of forms that these wind direction indicators assume is why I enjoy looking at them. A few days ago, whilst crossing London Bridge I spotted a building with two weathervanes on its roof. They are shaped like fish. But they are not alone because the roof is decorated with more metal fish. Their presence is appropriate because between 1875 and 1982, this arcaded edifice next to the river was home to the Billingsgate fish market. Today, the place is used as a venue for gatherings of various sorts.

Writing in 1598, John Stow (c1524-1605) noted that the ward of Billingsgate was named after ‘Belinsgate’. It was then, he wrote:

“… a large water-gate, port, or harborough, for ships and boats, commonly arriving there with fish, both fresh and salt, shell-fishes, salt, oranges, onions, and other fruits and roots, wheat, rye, and grain of divers sorts, for service of the city and parts of this realm adjoining.”

He also mentions that in the reign of Edward III (reigned 1327-1377), Belinsgate was then a much-used place for mooring ships and that these all attracted harbour fees, which depended on their size.

John Timbs (1801-1875), writing in his “Curiosities of London”, published in 1867 provided more of the history of Billingsgate. He wrote that it had been a landing place, if not also a marketplace, since the reign of King Ethelred II (reigned 978-1013). In 1699, an Act of King William III declared that Billingsgate was a market for all kinds of fish, and that it should be close to London Bridge. Timbs recorded:

“The Market, for many years, consisted of a collection of wooden pent-houses, rude sheds, and benches: it commenced at three o’clock AM in summer and five in the winter: in the latter season it was a strange scene, its large flaring oil lamps showing a crowd struggling amidst a Babel din of vulgar tongues, such as rendered “Billingsgate” a byword for low abuse … In Baileys “Dictionary” we have; a Billingsgate, a scolding, impudent slut’”

In 1849, the market was enlarged, making it more spacious and less of a scrum that it had been previously.   In 1850, the first Billingsgate market building was ready for use but by 1873, when it was demolished, it was already too small for its purpose. The former market building, which we see today with its rooftop fish ornaments, was designed by the City Architect Horace Jones (1819-1887) and opened for use in 1876. Jones’s most famous building, Tower Bridge, was completed after his death.

After it ceased being used as a fish market, instead of being demolished, the old Billingsgate market was:

“Given an industrial twist by architect Lord Richard Rogers, the building has undergone an amazing transformation, from the 19th century’s largest fish market to London’s premier event space.”

(www.oldbillingsgate.co.uk/)

Thanks to that repurposing, we can still enjoy sight of fish on a roof in the heart of the City of London.

Art deco discovered

BOMBAY IS RICH in fine examples of buildings in the art deco style, which flourished roughly between the end of WW1 and the end of the 1930s. There is a good collection of buildings in this style along Marine Drive in Bombay, the Oval Maidan, and elsewhere in the city. London has some fine examples of structures that exhibit features of this kind of decorative style, but, apart from along a stretch of the A4 road, there are few concentrations of art deco buildings in London, such as can be found in Bombay. In London, the art deco buildings are mostly scattered around the city.

At the end of December 2021, we were walking with friends along the bank of the Thames between the London Apprentice pub at Isleworth and Richmond Bridge when I spotted a row of houses built in the art deco style. I had never seen them before. They line the south side of Park House Gardens in Twickenham. The detached house nearest the river, number 66, is larger and more attractive than the others in the street. The rest of the art deco residences on the street are rather mundane pairs of semi-detached homes, constructed to a pattern that I have seen elsewhere in London’s suburbs. Most of them have curved art deco period Crittall windows, which have panes of glass framed in metal rather than wood.

Park House Gardens was laid out in the early 1930s when:

“…gravel pits were filled in with, according to the local people, rubble and other material from the foundations of the Old Hotel Cecil in the Strand. The first houses were then built in Park House Gardens at prices of up to £1600 for semi-detached with garages, about the price of a garage today.” (www.twickenhampark.co.uk/a-brief-history.html)

The Cecil Hotel was in the Strand. Of its many guests, one was Mahatma Gandhi.

Another source (https://haveyoursay.citizenspace.com/richmondce/easttwickenham-spd/supporting_documents/East%20Twickenham%20SPD_Oct%2015.pdf) dates the houses differently:
“The buildings are semi-detached with Art Deco details though they do not appear to have been built until c. 1950s.”

Apart from the above information, I have found nothing else about these art deco style houses and would love to learn more.

Wall of sorrow

PARLIAMENT’S HOME IS OPPOSITE a wall that runs along the northern edge of the grounds of London’s St Thomas’s Hospital. The wall is separated from the River Thames by a walkway, the embankment between Westminster and Lambeth bridges. Almost every square inch of the river facing side of the wall, which is about 440 yards in length, is covered by hand-painted hearts of various sizes and in various shades of red and pink. Many of the hearts have names, dates, and short, sad messages written on them.

Each of the many thousands of hearts painted on the wall (by volunteers) represents one of the huge number of people who died because of being infected with the covid19 virus. The wall is now known as The National Covid Memorial Wall and work on the painting commenced in March 2021. The mural that records the numerous tragic deaths was organised by a group known as Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice. The names and other information added to the hearts is being done by people who knew the bereaved person being remembered. When we walked past the wall today, the 27th of October 2021, we saw a young lady carefully writing on one of the hearts. Seeing this and the wall with all its reminders of the pandemic-related deaths was extremely depressing. On our return journey, I insisted that we crossed the river and walked along the opposite embankment on which the Houses of Parliament stands. Even from across the river, the reddish cloud of hearts on the wall is visible. Certainly, this would be the case from the riverside terraces accessible to those who work and govern within the home of Parliament.

It is ironic (and maybe deliberately so) that the wall with its many tragic reminders of deaths due to covid 19 is facing the Houses of Parliament (The Palace of Westminster), where had different decisions been taken, sooner rather than later, many of the names on the wall might not have needed to be written there.