A gothic church for the poor next to a canal

SPIRAL RAMPS LEAD up to the Ha’penny Bridge, which allows pedestrians to cross the Paddington Arm of the Grand Union Canal, where it runs between Delamere Terrace on one bank and Blomfield Road on the opposite one. A few yards west of the bridge and south of the waterway, there is a Victorian gothic church with a tall tower decorated with layers of red brickwork separated by layers of white masonry and topped with a white spire. It is St Mary Magdalene’s church.

The church was designed by George Edmund Street (1824-1881) and completed in 1878. It was built in what was then an area with poor quality housing, where several hard-up families lived crowded together under one roof. The parish in which it is located began life as an offshoot of All Saints in Margaret Street (near Oxford Circus). Like All Saints, St Mary Magdalene’s was established as an Anglo-Catholic church. Its website, grandjunction.org.uk, revealed that Anglo-Catholicism:

“… emphasises the Catholic heritage and identity of the Church of England. In the mid-nineteenth century Anglo-Catholicism was very controversial and provoked riots. Anglo-Catholic churches were often built in very poor areas, and their clergy believed that their services, full of light, colour, music and ritual, were likely to appeal to the poor.”

Like All Saints Margaret Street, the interior of St Mary Magdalene’s is a masterpiece of Victorian gothic extravaganza, a riot of colour. The nave has a magnificent painted ceiling which includes faces of various saints. This was painted by Daniel Bell, a Victorian artist. Sculptures of saints carved by Thomas Earp (1823-1893) look down on the nave. The floor of the vast nave is decoratively tiled. Street did not believe in fixed pews such as are found in many other Victorian churches and were rented out to parishioners to raise money. He believed in ‘free seating’, especially in a church like St Mary Magdelene’s that was built to serve the poor. The apse is unusual in that it is polygonal, reminiscent of apses that the widely travelled Street had seen in French and Flemish churches.

An unusual feature of this out of the ordinary church is that although the nave is flanked by a south and a north aisle, the latter is barely wide enough to accommodate one person, whereas the south one is almost as wide as the nave. The reason for the narrow north aisle was related to building regulations in force when the church was being constructed.

If it is open, and it was when I visited the church, it is worth entering the undercroft. This area beneath the church is flanked on its south side by a chapel that was undergoing restoration in February 2022. This is the chapel of the Holy Sepulchre created to commemorate the church’s founder and first vicar Fr Richard Temple West (1827-1893). Containing much decorative artwork and resembling a mediaeval chantry chapel, it was created by the architect Ninian Comper (1864-1960).

Outside the church, there is a WW1 memorial, added by Martin Travers in 1929. It is a gold-coloured crucifixion with a stone base on which are inscribed the Latin words “Infinitum est”, which is neither classical nor biblical; it means ‘It is not finished’, which are ominous words on a war memorial and are most portentous on a memorial to the first of (so far) two world wars.

Added on to the west end of the church, there is a modern extension, which houses a pleasant refreshment outlet called the Grand Junction Café. This is a good place to rest for a while after the excitement of seeing inside the spectacular church.

Relief below ground

IT IS NOT OFTEN that I feel the need to write about answering the call of nature but after a recent visit to Hampstead’s South End Green, I must satisfy the urge.

There is a yard at South End Green, where buses serving the route number 24 wait before setting off to Victoria station. Long ago, this yard used to have tram tracks as it was the terminus of a tram line. A lovely small café, Matchbox by name, stands beside the yard. Its owner, Mirko, a friendly Slovenian, serves excellent hot beverages and a range of mouth-watering snacks, both sweet and savoury. The nearest public toilets are across the yard, almost opposite to Matchbox.

The toilets are below ground level and accessed by staircases with cast-iron structures above them. It was only on our most recent visit to South End Green, in December 2021, that I had reason to descend into the ‘gents’, and I am pleased that I did, not only for reasons related to my physiology but also to satisfy my curiosity.

The ‘gents’ is magnificent, with its white glazed brick walls decorated with bands of light green bricks, its long narrow, black and white chequered floor, its polished dark wood cubicles, and its row of white urinals all topped with grey (marbled with white streaks) granite separators. Although there is electric lighting, a skylight admits some natural light.

The underground toilet facilities, both the men’s and the ladies’, were constructed in 1897 for the benefit of passengers using the tramway. Stephen Emms, writing in the “Kentish Towner” in October 2013, noted that the gent’s underground facility at South End Green was a pick-up place used by homosexuals. He noted:

“But most memorably South End Green is the only public toilet still in use known to have been visited by iconic 1960s playwright Joe Orton. Apparently it was his “favourite pick-up point” too””

You might be relieved to learn that my recent brief visit was completely uneventful.

A notable local art centre in north London

BETWEEN 1960 AND 1965, I was a pupil at The Hall School in London’s Swiss Cottage. I used to travel between it and home by buses that ran along Finchley Road between Golders Green and Swiss Cottage Underground station. For most of the time I was at the school, Finchley Road between Childs Hill and my destination was plagued by road works connected with widening the road. The bus used to move slowly, and I began to learn by heart what lined both sides of the road. Oddly, one building on the corner of Arkwright Road and the main road escaped my attention. Unbeknownst to me, this Victorian gothic building, erected in 1897, was the Hampstead Central Library, which functioned until 1964 when a newly constructed library, which I remember well from its earliest days, was opened close to Swiss Cottage station. It was at this time that the old Edwardian Swimming Pool that used to stand on the west side of Finchley Road between Swiss Cottage Station and John Barnes (now a large branch of Waitrose food stores) was closed and replaced by a brand new one next to the new library.

Exhibition of works by Phoebe Collings at the Camden Arts Centre

In 1965, the abandoned library on the west end of Arkwright Road became a nucleus for local artists and artistic activity, The Hampstead Arts Centre, which was given its present name, The Camden Arts Centre in 1967 (https://camdenartcentre.org/about/history/). Soon after its creation, the centre became an important hub for artistic education and activities as well as exhibitions. In 2004, the centre underwent a major refurbishment, which was supervised by Tony Fretton Architects.

Today, the Camden Arts Centre is a very pleasant place to visit. Its exhibition spaces are large and airy. It has a fine bookshop and a lovely café with food and beverages that offers seating both indoors and outside next to a well landscaped hillside garden.

During our latest visit, on the 10th of October 2021, we saw three very different exhibitions at the Camden Arts Centre. One was a multi-media installation (photographs, video, sculpture, and music) related to the memories and concerns of its creator, Adam Farah. It is called “What I’ve learnt from You and Myself (Peak Momentations/Inside my velvet Rope Mix)” and was somewhat puzzling at first, but, Jay, one of the invigilators, helped make some sense of it. More easily accessible to my mind was “Softest place (on earth)” a collection of handmade images by Zaineb Saleh. The exhibition I liked most of the three on offer was “James – A Scratch! A Scratch”, a collection of mainly ceramic sculptures by Phoebe Collings. These three shows continue until the 23rd of December 2021 and are worth seeing if you happen to be in the neighbourhood. If these do not appeal to you, then head straight for the centre’s wonderful café!

After enjoying artworks at the Camden Arts Centre, a short, pleasant stroll up Arkwright Road will bring you into the heart of old Hampstead, a district that has been home to artists of all kinds for several centuries, although these days only a very few artists are likely to afford the area’s high property prices.

An oval church in London

THE NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM in London’s South Kensington district was constructed between 1873 and 1881. It was designed by the prolific Victorian architect Alfred Waterhouse (1830-1905). Almost hidden away but close to Oxford Street, there stands another distinctive building designed by Waterhouse. Dome decorative brickwork on the east side of the structure proclaims that it was built as:

“Kings Weigh House Chapel”, and:“These buildings were erected in the year 1891 for the worship and service of God”.

The complex of buildings on Duke Street faces the northeast corner of Brown Hart Gardens. They were designed to include a chapel and a Sunday school as well as other offices. The chapel derives its name from a former dissenters’ chapel that used to stand above the Kings Weigh House in Eastcheap. It was formed in about 1685 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/King%27s_Weigh_House). In 1834, the site of the church was moved to larger premises at Fish Street, near London Bridge. Where it used to stand there is now an entrance to Monument Underground station. In 1882, the Fish Street site was compulsorily purchased bt the Metropolitan Railway. The Duke of Westminster offered the congregation a site on Robert Street (now Weigh House Street) and funds to construct yet another chapel (https://victorianweb.org/art/architecture/waterhouse/3.html). The church accepted his offer and their chapel designed by Waterhouse is what you can see today.

I have only seen the chapel’s decorative exterior with some Romanesque features, which were achieved using brickwork and contrasting whitish masonry, but have not yet entered it. However, I have seen pictures of its interior, which show that it is quite interesting. Apart from the impressive tower on the southwest corner of the church, I was struck by the oval structure that forms the bulk of the building. This houses the main place where the congregation worships. With the long axis of the oval running east to west, the oval ‘nave’ is surrounded above by an oval gallery with several rows of tiered benches (www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol40/pt2/plate-23). I have not seen many oval churches like this but did see one in Edinburgh (Scotland), the neo-classical style St Andrew’s and St George’s West Church. In this case the long axis of the oval also runs east to west.

The chapel was bombed during a communion service in 1940 in October 1940, when two people were killed and the chancel was damaged. During most of WW2, the chapel was requisitioned as a fire watching centre, presumably because of its high tower, and also as a ‘rest centre’. After the war, the damage was repaired, and the church was rededicated in 1953. By1965, the congregation ceased using Waterhouse’s chapel. It was decided in 1966 to disband the church at the Duke Street site and sell it.

In 1967, the chapel was bought by the Ukrainian Catholics. They have used it as their cathedral in London. Its full name is now ‘The Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family’ (Українська Католицька Єпархія Пресвятої Родини в Лондоні). The church is open for services, usually either early in the morning and/or in the early evening (www.ucc-gb.com/cathedral). Sadly, we looked at the place mid-morning, but we will visit it again one day when there is a service in progress so that we can view its interior.

A pair of converging railway viaducts

THERE IS A FASCINATING pair of railway viaducts at Chapel Milton, near Chapel-en-Frith in the Peak District. Constructed in about 1860 and then 1890, the viaducts support a place where two railway lines diverge. The viaducts, which join each other at a bifurcation were built at different times as the dates suggest. One of the arcades consists of 13 arches and the other of 13.

Allow Wikipedia to explain:”The Midland Railway opened a new line via Chapel-en-le-Frith Central and Great Rocks Dale, linking the Manchester, Buxton, Matlock and Midland Junction Railway with the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway, in 1867, giving it an express through route for the first time between Manchester and London … The eastern section, essentially a second, mirror-image viaduct in an identical style, was added in 1890 to allow trains to travel between Sheffield and the south via Buxton and the Midland’s own line.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chapel_Milton_Viaduct)

Drama in the Peak District

WE DROVE TO BUXTON from Macclesfield, crossing part of the Peak District, which was shrouded in dense morning mist despite it being mid-September. The town, once an important spa, is delightful. Its centre is rich in Victorian buildings, as well as some 18th century edifices, such as The Crescent, now a hotel. In appearance, the Crescent, which was built for the 5th Duke of Devonshire between 1780 and 1789, rivals the fine crescents found in Bath. Another notable structure in Buxton is The Dome, now a part of the University of Derby. This huge dome was built to cover a stable block for the horses of the 5th Duke, which was constructed between 1780 and 1789 to the design of John Carr (1723-1807). The dome itself, which is 145 feet in diameter and larger than those covering Rome’s Pantheon and St Peters, was added between 1880 and 1881, by which time the building it covered was being used as a hospital. It is the second largest unsupported dome in the world.

In common with great cities such as Vienna, Milan, Paris, Manaus, London, New York, and Sydney, tiny Buxton also can boast of having an opera house. Located next to a complex of Victorian glass and iron structures including a plant conservatory and the Pavilion with its attached octagonal hall, the Opera House was designed by the prolific theatre architect Frank Matcham (1854-1920) and first opened its doors to an audience in 1903. Live theatrical performances, not confined to opera, were held there regularly until 1927, when it became a cinema. Between 1936 and 1942, the Opera House, although then primarily a cinema, hosted annual summer theatre festivals, two of which were in collaboration with Lillian Baylis (1874-1937) and London’s Old Vic Theatre company (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buxton_Opera_House). In 1979, the theatre was restored, and an orchestra pit added. Since then, the Opera House puts on a programme of live performances, which include a little bit of opera.  Unfortunately, during our visit to Buxton, the auditorium was closed, but we did manage to enter the lovely foyer with its mosaic-bordered floor and its ceiling painted with a scene evoking the style of 17th and 18th century painters.

The Opera House, the Crescent and the Pump Room opposite it, and The Dome, all add to the charm of Buxton. They are all close to a lovely park, through which the River Wye (not to be confused with the river with the same name in Wales) runs through. Buxton’s Wye flows into the North Sea via the River Humber. High above the park, runs the High Street, where we stumbled across a fabulous bookshop, Scrivener’s, which boasts five floors packed with books, many of them second-hand or antiquarian. So, if it is literature (fiction and non-fiction) rather than drama that appeals to you, this shop is a place that must be visited. 

It was well worth winding our way across the hills to Buxton through the low clouds, which made visibility very poor. The town is filled with interesting things to see, some of which I have described above. However, it was the Opera House that intrigued me most. Had it been given a name other than Opera House it might not have fascinated me quite as much. That a town or city can boast an opera house, gives the place a certain ‘caché’ that places, which do not possess one, lack.

Riding high above London

DOLLIS BROOK IS one of the two main tributaries of the River Brent, which in turn is a tributary of the River Thames, which it enters at Brentford. Dollis Brook rises near the A1 dual-carriageway at Mote End Farm and then flows southwards towards Brent Park, where it is joined by another stream, Mutton Brook. Both brooks are lined with pleasant green spaces containing footpaths that follow the streams. Thus, they are lovely green corridors providing much-needed rustic relief from the relentless built-up suburbia through which the streams flow.

Nether Street is road running west and downhill from Finchley Central Underground Station. After reaching a small roundabout, it continues as Dollis Road. The latter descends ever more steeply until it runs under a tall brick arch, part of the Dollis Brook Viaduct (also known as ‘The Mill Hill Viaduct’). The road runs beside a stretch of Dollis Brook, which at that location is only a few feet in width – rather a miserable little stream. However, the viaduct with its 13 arches, each with spans of 32 feet, traverses a veritable steep sided gorge, maybe created over time by the waters flowing in the humble Dollis Brook, or, more likely, by glacial drift (“Nature”, 9th of November 1871: http://www.nature.com/articles/005027c0.pdf). This amazing viaduct, a masterpiece of brickwork, carries Underground trains on a spur of the Northern Line running between Finchley Central and Mill Hill East stations.

Designed by John Fowler (1817-1898) and Walter Marr Brydone, who was Engineer-in-Chief for the Great Northern Railway (‘GNR’) from 1855-1861, the viaduct was constructed between 1863 and 1867, when the first train ran across it. The line that now carries Northern Line trains over the viaduct was originally built by the GNR, as was the viaduct. As trains traverse the viaduct, they are at one point 60 feet above the ground. This point must be close to where both Dollis Road and Dollis Brook pass beneath the arches,

We have often driven beneath the viaduct, but it was only in August 2021 that we decided to park near it and examine it as closely as we could. We had recently visited the impressive granite railway viaduct near Luxulyan in deepest Cornwall and been amazed by its grandeur. We had not expected to find a bridge in north London that is almost as awe-inspiring.  As I gazed upwards at its tall arches, I admired the Victorian bricklayers, who must have had to work at ever-increasingly dizzying heights as they constructed it. The viaduct is certainly a sight worth seeing, and whilst you are in the area, much pleasure can be gained by taking a stroll along the paths that run close to Dollis Brook.

Two colourful churches

THE SUNDAY MORNING SERVICE at the parish church, St Mary the Virgin, in Haverhill in Suffolk had just ended when we entered the building. My wife chatted with a priest, who said he knew little about this church’s history. She asked him if there were any other churches in the district worth a visit. He mentioned two across the county border in Cambridgeshire, at the villages of Bartlow and at Hildersham. The two churches have something of interest in common: unusual colourful paintings.

Bartlow’s St Mary’s church has a distinctive round bell tower. But this is not the only thing that is remarkable about it. It was built in the 11th or 12th century and modified gradually during the following centuries. A real treat greets the visitor on entering the building: some colourful 15th century wall paintings, two on the south wall and one on the north. They depict St George’s dragon (north wall), and opposite this on the south wall: St Michael weighing the souls on The Day of Judgement, and east of it another shows a portrait of St Christopher carrying the Christ Child. The paintings existed long before the Civil War. On the 20th of March 1644, they were covered up with paint by Oliver Cromwell’s men under the command of William Dowsing (1596-1668), a fanatic iconoclast, also known as ‘Smasher Dowsing’. The frescos began to become uncovered in the 19th century, but it was only in 2014 that serious conservation work was undertaken on them.

St Christopher painting at Bartlow

The artists who created the wall paintings at Bartlow have been long forgotten, but this is not the case for the creators of the colourful chancel at Holy Trinity Church in nearby Hildersham. In 1806, the Reverend Charles Goodwin was appointed Rector of Hildersham. Ten years later, his son Robert was born. He studied at Clare College in Cambridge and whilst a student he joined The Cambridge Camden Society, whose aims were to promote the study of Gothic architecture and ‘ecclesiastical antiques’. This society grew to be a great influence on the design of Victorian churches.

In 1847, following the death of his father, Robert became Rector of Hildersham’s church. Soon, he began to consider how to ‘restore’ his church in accordance with gothic revival ideals. Amongst these ‘improvements’ was the painting of frescos on the walls of the chancel. These were executed using a novel technique known as ‘spirit fresco’, which made use of a complex mixture of beeswax, oil of spike lavender, spirits of turpentine, elemi resin, and copal varnish. This technique, invented by Thomas Gambier Parry (1816-1888), produced durable images that were easier to produce than the traditional fresco technique used, for example, in renaissance Italy. The chancel at Hildersham was painted using the new technique by Alfred Bell, John Clayton, and Stacy Marks. They and many assistants produced a magnificent display of saints and religious scenes, all from The New Testament. They were painted in 1890 and are in wonderful condition. The two churches are just under 4 miles apart and both are well worth visiting. And, when you do go to these buildings, you will find light switches near their entrance doors. We might never have seen them had it not been for my wife engaging in friendly conversation with the priest at Haverhill.

Slavery on the Brink

WISBECH IS A TOWN in northern Cambridgeshire, close to its border with Norfolk. It calls itself ‘The Capital of the Fens’. The River Nene runs through the town. One bank of the river, lined with many fine Georgian buildings is called the North Brink. The opposite bank is known as South Brink. At the eastern end of the Brinks, they are joined by the Town Bridge which crosses the Nene. Near the South Brink end of the bridge, there is a Victorian Gothic memorial.

The base of the memorial is square and contains three portraits in bas-relief. One is of William Wilberforce (1759-1833), who is best-known for his work in the abolition of the slave trade, another shows a kneeling African man in chains, and the third depicts Granville Sharp (1735-1813), who was an abolitionist and the founder of the first settlement of freed African slaves in Sierra Leone. A statue standing above the base under a gothic revival canopy is a portrait of Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846), who was born in Wisbech.

Clarkson, who deserves to be as well known as Wilberforce, studied at St John’s College Cambridge, where he wrote an essay in Latin, which asked the question whether it was lawful to make slaves of others against their will. This set him on the road to campaigning against slavery. He was active in this endeavour and helped Wilberforce to get the Slave Trade Act of 1807 passed by Parliament. This legislation did not abolish the slave trade outside the British Empire, but it did encourage British action to discourage other nations from practising it. It was Clarkson who encouraged Wilberforce, a Member of Parliament, to introduce the first Bill against the trade. Clarkson collected much evidence about the horrific nature of the slave trade and used it as evidence in his many publications and public speaking events. Clarkson live for 13 years after The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. He focussed his later anti-slavery campaigns on, amongst other things, trying to put an end to slavery in the deep south of the USA.

The memorial to Clarkson in Wisbech was put up 1880-81. It was created to a design adapted from one originally proposed by Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878). Though not nearly as grand nor as ornate, the memorial has a slight similarity to a slimmed down version of The Albert Memorial in London. I was pleased to see this statue of Clarkson because last year when visiting Wadesmill in Hertfordshire, we saw a monument to him that records the spot where, while walking from Cambridge to London, he had his revelation that his life should be dedicated to combatting slavery.

A pillar box

In Britain, posting boxes for letters and small packages are sometimes referred to as ‘pillar boxes’

While visiting the town of Warwick, famous for its castle, we spotted a letter box that is truly a pillar box.

This post-box (pillar box) is shaped like a classical pillar. It was made in cast-ron in 1856 and is one of two of this design in the town of Warwick. They are still in use.