A glimpse of Mersea

SOMETIMES SUBMERGED DURING high tide, a causeway connects mainland Essex with the island of Mersea in the Colne and Blackwater estuaries. Markers with measurements are posted along the causeway so that people wishing to cross it when water covers it can tell how deep the water is. Road signs on both sides of the causeway advise drivers to test their brakes, especially if the road to and from the island is wet.

I first heard of Mersea Island in the mid-1970s when a friend of mine, with whom I have lost contact, married someone who farmed sheep on Mersea Island. However, it was only in 2021 that I first set foot on the island. The largest settlement on Mersea is the small town of West Mersea. We visited on the 12th of April, which was the first day (since the latest ‘lockdown began in December last year) that people were allowed to have drinks at pubs and eat meals at restaurants, but only in the open air. Fortunately, the sun was out and the waterfront mostly south facing.

In 895 AD, the island was known as ‘Meresig’; by 995 as ‘Myresig’; and in the Domesday Book as ‘Meresai’. The Old English word ‘mere’ usually refers to a lake (e.g., Windermere) but in the case of Mersea (and Margate) it refers to the sea. Thus, Mersea comes from words meaning ‘the island in the sea’. During the Celtic era (before the Roman conquest), the island was populated mainly with folk who fished and farmed. After the Romans established their capital at nearby Colchester, they built a causeway to Mersea Island and improved an already existing Celtic track (see: “The Shell Book of the Islands of Britain”, by D Booth and D Perrott). The Romans called the island ‘Maris Insula’ and archaeological remains of their presence there have been discovered and are now in Colchester Museum. There is a museum in West Mersea (www.merseamuseum.org.uk/) but this was closed on account of covid19 regulations. It plans to re-open in June.

The Normans also visited the island. The Domesday book recorded that in about 1086 there about 100 persons living on the island along with 300 sheep. The construction of the Church of St Peter and St Paul, which occupies the highest spot in West Mersea, began in 1046. Some of the original structure forms part of the fabric of the present church, which, sadly, was closed when we visited.

West Mersea is a holiday resort. Many fine homes, mostly modern, line the road that runs parallel to the waterfront, but which is separated from it by mudflats and salt marshes. Twenty or so large houseboats are moored at the water’s edge. Each of them has its own, often rickety-looking, boardwalk leading to it from the road. There are several pubs and eateries from which views of the boats moored by the town may be viewed. The town is famous for its oysters. We watched workmen hosing down crates filled with oysters, which look like large knobbly stones. Apparently, the Mersea oysters are highly prized internationally. Interspersed between boatyards for pleasure craft, there are yards where fishing vessels are maintained. At low tide, which is when we visited, the muddy shore is dotted with small boats of all types, some of them gently rotting away.

As it was late afternoon and we had to drive back to London and we had recently been well-fed, we spent no more than an hour in West Mersea. We hope to return when the weather warms up and then we will sample some of the local refreshment outlets. Although Mersea Island is only about 60 miles (and a lot of heavy traffic) from London’s Hyde Park Corner, it feels as if it is much further away: far away from anywhere.

History at the end of a narrow alley

A WIDE FOOTPATH runs south from Piccadilly along the eastern edge of Green Park. We have walked along this many times, but it was not until a few days ago that we noticed a small alleyway leading east from the footpath about 190 yards south of Piccadilly. This unmarked footway, which is barely wide enough for two people to pass each other, passes under a building and emerges opposite the Stafford Hotel on St James Place, a short cul-de-sac with a dogleg, which leads off St James Street. St James Place, whose construction began in 1694, is an attractive short street lined with many fine buildings, some of which I propose to describe. What made this lovely quiet road interesting for me was that several fascinating people have been associated with it. I will begin with a relatively recent inhabitant.

Number 9 was home to Sir Francis Chichester (1901-1972), who circumnavigated the world single-handedly in 1966/67. He lived here from 1944 to 1972. He sailed in his boat named Gypsy Moth IV. In 1929, Sir Francis attempted another exploit, to fly from New Zealand to Australia in his ‘plane, a de Havilland Gypsy Moth. He made the first ever flight from New Zealand to Australia. He was also the first person to land a ‘plane on both Norfolk and Lord Howe islands. If you want to see his historic boat, then you need to get down to Greenwich, where it is on display close to the much larger Cutty Sark.

There is another building in St James Place, which associated with water transport. The elegant number 20, an 18th century building, has been the London Club House of the Royal Ocean Racing Club since 1942. The Club was founded in 1925. Between 1822 and 1857, the building housed the servants who worked in number 21, which was demolished during WW2 (www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vols29-30/pt1/pp511-541#h3-0019).

Not far from Chichester’s house is number 4. This is the house from which the short-lived Polish born pianist and composer, Frederick Chopin (1810-1849), departed to give his last public performance at the Guildhall on the 16th of November 1848 (www.chopin-society.org.uk/articles/chopin-britain.htm). It was held:

“… in aid of a Polish charity, came at the end of a difficult six-month British sojourn, which had included concerts in Manchester (one of the largest audiences he ever faced), Glasgow and Edinburgh… Finally back in London, the composer-pianist spent three weeks preparing for what turned out to be his final recital by sitting wrapped in his coat in front of the fire at St James’s Place, attended by London’s leading homeopath and the Royal Physician, a specialist in tuberculosis. A week after the concert, he was on his way home to Parisian exile and death the following year.” (www.londonremembers.com/memorials/frederic-chopin-st-james-s-place).

Before discussing the most curious inhabitant of St James Place, I will discuss one of its famous residents, the writer and politician Joseph Addison (1672-1719), who founded “The Spectator” magazine in 1711. According to Peter Cunningham in his “Handbook of London” (published in 1850), Addison was living in St James Place by 1710. I am sure that we did not see any memorial celebrating this on any of the buildings in the street. Cunningham wrote, quoting from another source:

“Addison’s chief companions before he married Lady Warwick (in 1716) were Steele, Budgell, Philips, Carey, Davenant, and Colonel Brett. He used to breakfast with one or other of them at his lodgings in St James Place …”

His companions listed above were probably sympathetic to Addison’s Whig politics.  However, Cunningham gives no indication of Addison’s address. He frequented the St James Coffee House in nearby St James Street, as he recorded in issue number 104 of his “Spectator”:

“That I might begin as near the fountain head as possible I first of all called in at St. James’s, where I found the whole outwardroom in a Buzz of Politics. The Speculations were but very indifferent towards the Door, but grew finer as you advanced to the upper end of the room, and were so very much improved by a knot of Theorists who sate in the inner Room, within the steam of the Coffee Pot, that I there heard the whole Spanish Monarchy disposed of; and all the line of Bourbons provided for in less than a Quarter of an Hour.” (https://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vols29-30/pt1/pp459-471#h3-0014)

The coffee house was at number 87 St James Street. It was demolished to make way for a new building, erected 1904/05.

Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_James%27s_Place)  lists many other notable residents of St James Place, including Oscar Wilde and Lord Randolph Henry Spencer-Churchill, but omits one very interesting person, William Huskisson (1770-1830), whose residence at number 28 is commemorated by a plaque. This records him as having been a ‘statesman’. He was that as well as a financier and several times a Member of Parliament. He lived in Paris between 1783 and 1792 and witnessed the French Revolution. Although he had an active political life, what makes him remarkable was the manner of his death.

Against the better judgement of his physician, Huskisson attended the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway on the 15th of September 1830. Thomas Creevey (1768-1838) related the story in a letter written to a Miss Ord on the 19th of September 1830:

“Jack Calcraft has been at the opening of the Liverpool railroad, and was an eye-witness of Huskisson’s horrible death. About nine or ten of the passengers in the Duke’s car had got out to look about them whilst the car stopt. Calcraft was one, Huskisson another, Esterhazy, Billy Holmes, Birch and others. When the other locomotive was seen coming up to pass them, there was a general shout from those within the Duke’s car to those without it, to get in. Both Holmes and Birch were unable to get up in time, but they stuck fast to its sides, and the other engine did not touch them. Esterhazy, being light, was pulled in by force. Huskisson was feeble in his legs, and appears to have lost his head, as he did his life. Calcraft tells me that Huskisson’s long confinement in St. George’s Chapel at the King’s funeral brought on a complaint that Taylor is so afraid of, and that made some severe surgical operation necessary, the effect of which had been, according to what he told Calcraft, to paralyse, as it were, one leg and thigh. This, no doubt, must have increased, if it did not create, his danger and [caused him to] lose his life.”

(quoted from “The Creevey papers; a selection from the correspondence & diaries of the late Thomas Creevey, M.P., born 1768 – died 1838. Edited by Sir Herbert Maxwell”)

Thus, Huskisson achieved the dubious distinction of becoming one of the first widely reported casualties in a railway accident. The ‘Duke’ mentioned above was the Duke of Wellington and the engine that caused Huskisson’s death was the “Rocket”, a pioneering locomotive designed by Robert Stephenson in 1829. I wonder why his demise was not noted on the commemorative plaque.

Huskisson’s former home has a superb front door flanked by iron lampstands each with its own conical torch flame snuffer. St James Place has plenty of fine 18th century buildings as well as some newer ones. These include the Stafford and Dukes Hotels, which are late 19th and early 20th century in appearance. Number 26 St James Place, a mid-twentieth century building, bears a Civic Trust Award. It is a block of flats built 1959/60 to the designs of the architect Denys Lasdun (1914-2001), who also designed the National Theatre on the South Bank. It replaced an 18th century house that was destroyed by bombing in WW2. Although not unpleasing, it stands in stark contrast to the far more elegant older buildings near it.  

Even greater contrast to its surroundings is the building on the northern corner of St James Place and St James Street. This avant-garde metal-clad structure, the Target Building, designed by Rodney Gordon (1933-2008) and completed in 1984, is opposite William Evans gun shop and houses the Stern Pisarro art gallery on its ground floor. One of the galleries owners, Lélia Pissarro, is a great-granddaughter of the Impressionist artist Camille Pissarro (1830-1903). The gallery specialises in Impressionist art amongst other things. While on the subject of art galleries, it would be easy to walk past number 6 St James Place without noticing a small plate on its front door that says ‘Agnews Est 1817’. Between 1877 and 2013, this gallery, which deals in the highest quality works of fine art (e,g. Caravaggio, Rubens, Rembrandt, and Velasquez) was on Old Bond Street. Then, it relocated to number 6.

St James Place is only 180 yards in length, but as can be seen from the small selection of buildings I have chosen to describe, it is choc-full of historical associations. I am pleased that we discovered the tiny alley that led from Green Park to this fascinating cul-de-sac. And, finally, if you find that you are getting tired of staying at the Ritz Hotel, you would do well to book into one of the two hotels discreetly located in St James Place.

[PS I have not dealt with Spencer House because I hope to write about it in the future]

From Europe to Asia

I NEVER IMAGINED THAT I WOULD SEE THE VENETIAN WINGED LION of St Mark in Bhuj (Kutch, western India), but I did. A carving of this well known symbol of a once powerful European empire stands at the entrance to the Aina Mahal (Palace of Mirrors) in Bhuj, which was built during the reign of Maharao Lakhpatji that lasted from 1752 to 1761.

In 1742, Ram Singh Malam, aged about 16 left his native town of Okhi in Saurashtra (Kathiawad), now a part of Gujarat, and set out to sea. His boat was shipwrecked and he was rescued by passing Dutch vessel, which took him to Holland. Ram Singh remained in the Netherlands until about 1760.

During his stay in Holland, Ram Singh Malam learnt various skills including: clockmaking, mirror making, glass making, ship building, cannon manufacturing, tile making, enamelling, tool making, and more. When he returned to Saurashtra, he offered his skills to various local rulers, but to no avail. Then, he travelled to the Kingdom of Kutch, where his knowledge was recognised and employed by its ruler, Lakhpatji. The latter was so pleased with the technical advances that Ram Singh had imported from Holland that he was sent back to that country two more times. During his trips to Europe, Ram Singh also visited Austria and the Republic of Venice. No doubt the Lion of Venice sculpted in Kutch and placed at the Aina Mahal was designed after Ram Singh had been to Venice.

The Aina Mahal contains tiles and mirrors that were made using the knowledge acquired by Ram Singh. Statues that decorate both the inside and the outside of the Aina Mahal and the adjoining Rani Mahal depict men wearing European clothes, such as Ram Singh would have seen people wearing in 18th century Europe.

In 2001, Bhuj was struck by a huge earthquake, which caused much damage to both the Aina Mahal and the Rani Mahal. Their neighbour, the 19th century Victorian Gothic Prag Mahal, suffered considerably less damage.

The former curator and archivist at the Prag Mahal, a keen researcher of the history of Kutch, is Mr Pramod Jethi. He told us that after the earthquake the Dutch government were apparently considering assisting in the restoration of the damaged Aina Mahal palace, provided that documentary evidence was provided to prove that Ram Singh Malam had really been staying in Holland. Apparently, despite many accounts by various writers that he did spend years in Holland, this did not constitute evidence that would satisfy the Dutch.

Anyone, who arrived in Holland on a Dutch ship in the 18th century must surely be recorded in a ship’s records or registered in the books kept by Dutch port authorities. However, it is likely that quite a few ships arrived in Holland at the time that Ram Singh disembarked there. Dutch ships sailing in the vicinity of Gujarat were most probably connected with the Dutch East India Company. If someone has the enthusiasm and energy to search through the Company’s records, maybe the evidence that the Dutch government requires will be found. Regardless of whether or not the Dutch government can be satisfied, it is clear that Ram Singh was a very remarkable man who greatly advanced technology in Kutch and brought the winged lion of St Mark to India.

Sailing small-scale

boats

 

At first glance, you might be confused. The water of the Round Pond in London’s Kensington Gardens is crowded with sailing boats that are little bigger than the swans sailing amongst them. No, it is not your eyesight failing, but you are watching miniature sailing boats that are guided from the shore by ageing men holding remote control radio transmitters. And, it is likely to be a Sunday that you are seeing this.

The boats belong to the London Model Yacht Club (‘LMYC’), which was established in 1876 and renamed in 1884. It is the oldest model yacht club in the UK. Its ‘ancestry’ and full history may be read HERE.  It seems that the Round Pond began to be used for its activities from by the late 1880s. 

Sunday meetings begin at 10.30 am, and there are frequent racing events, which the members take very seriously. For those who know about boats, currently the Club favours: “Radio Controlled 10-Raters, International OneMetres, DragonFlite95s, and Vintage Model Yachts“.  

Whether or not you are a fan of boating (model or full-size), it is well worth seeing this example of English originality in Kensington Gardens one Sunday morning. I often wonder what, if anything, the swans make of this peculiar activity.

Sailing by

green

On the water far below

Smoothly sails a barque

View’d from up on high 

 

The River Dart viewed from the garden of Greenway House, which used to be the holiday retreat of author Agatha Christie from 1936 until her death in 1976.