Just around the corner … in South Kensington

PEOPLE USUALLY ASSOCIATE South Kensington with its magnificent set of museums. However, there is far more than that in the district, and within a few yards of the museums. Here are a few places of interest near to the Victoria and Albert Museum (the ‘V&A’).

The V&A stands on the northeast corner of Exhibition Road and Cromwell Gardens (a short stretch of the A4) and faces the Ismaili Centre on the southeast corner. This attractive building built for the religious community that is led by the Aga Khan was designed by the Casson Conder Partnership and completed in 1985. According to the website of the Ismailis, https://the.ismaili, the building’s pleasing exterior:

“… has used materials and colours which are compatible with those of the surrounding buildings while at the same time in keeping with the traditional Islamic idiom and its colours of whites, light greys and blues.”

Monument in he Yalta Memorial Garden

An open space, The Yalta Memorial Garden, on the east side of the centre contains a monument to remember “… the countless men, women, and children, from the Soviet Union and other East European states, who were imprisoned and died at the hands of Communist governments after being repatriated at the conclusion of the Second World War…” The memorial consists of a column on the top of which there is a sculpture by Angela Conner (born 1935) depicting 12 faces of men, women, and children. Nearby, a house on the northeast corner of Thurloe Square and facing the V&A, bears a plaque informing that the museum’s first Director Henry Cole (1808-1882) lived there.

The Brompton Oratory, or to give its full name, the Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, is a huge Roman Catholic church with a neoclassical façade and a dome. It stands east of the V&A. It was designed by the architect Herbert Gribble (1846-1894), a convert to Roman Catholicism, and constructed between 1880 and 1884. The architectural style is mainly Roman Baroque. This enormous edifice was the largest Roman Catholic church in London until Westminster Cathedral was constructed in the first decade of the 20th century.

Cottage Place runs along the east side of the Oratory towards the Holy Trinity Brompton church north of it. A building that looks like many of the older Underground station entrances on the Place has a façade decorated with blood-red glazed terracotta tiles. Between 1906 and 1934, when it was closed, it was the entrance to Brompton Road station on the Piccadilly Line. It was a stop between the still functioning Knightsbridge and South Kensington stations. It was closed because it was hardly ever used by passengers.  An article in the Guardian newspaper, published in February 2014, related that during WW2, the disused station was used as a command centre for anti-aircraft batteries. It also suggested that the Nazi Rudolf Hess (1894-1987) was interrogated here. Between the station’s closure and about 2014, the building was owned and used by the Ministry of Defence.

The Holy Trinity Brompton Church, a gothic revival structure, was designed by Thomas Leverton Donaldson (1795-1885), and completed in 1829. It was established to accommodate the growing population of this part of Kensington, which until then had to worship in the church of St Mary Abbots in Kensington, almost one mile away. In 1852, a part of the church’s land was sold for building the Oratory upon it. The large grassy space north of Holy Trinity, now a park, was formerly the church’s graveyard.

Although none of the places I have described rival the splendour of the V&A and especially its fantastic collection of artefacts, they are worth exploring if you happen to be in the neighbourhood. A problem in London is that there are so many places of the greatest interests to visitors, which often means they have so little time to explore the lesser-known curiosities that form part of the rich tapestry of London’s past and present.

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.