I have been gongoozling at London’s Little Venice today

I HAVE LEARNED a new word today. It can be used as both a noun and as a verb. The noun is ‘gongoozler’ and the verb is ‘to gongoozle’. I came across it used as a verb on an information panel by the south side of the water basin at Paddington’s Little Venice, where the Paddington Arm of the Grand Union Canal enlarges to become a pond, from which the Regents Canal commences.

The word gongoozle might possibly derive from two words of Lincolnshire dialect: ‘gawn’ and ‘gooze’. Both these words mean to stare or gape. A ‘gawn’ can also mean a small freight-carrying boat such as a canal narrowboat.

Gongoozling usually refers to watching boats. And this is what we did today as we ambled lazily along the Paddington Arm and the shore of Little Venice. With the sun shining and a pleasant air temperature (about 21 degrees Celsius), this was an enjoyable way of passing time on a Sunday morning.

Living beside the flowing stream

THE RIVER BRENT is a major tributary of London’s River Thames. It has two main sources: one, which feeds into Dollis Brook, is west of Barnet; the other, which feeds into Mutton Brook, is near East Finchley. As a child, Mutton Brook figured amongst the places where I used to play with my friends. It flows through Hampstead Garden Suburb (‘HGS’) where I lived during the first three decades of my life. In those far-off days, I had no idea that the then rather malodorous, winding Mutton Brook flowed into the Thames. Mutton and Dollis Brooks merge to become the Brent near Golders Green. The Brent flows through northwest and then west London to reach its junction with the Thames at Brenford, an interesting place, rich in history, described in my book “Beyond Marylebone and Mayfair: Exploring West London”.

The cafe in Pitshanger Park

On its way to the Thames, the Brent skirts another garden suburb, Brentham Garden Suburb (‘BGS’), which, like HGS, was an attempt to create a leafy residential Utopia. They were built at roughly the same time. The northern edge of BGS borders Pitshanger Park, through which the Brent winds its way towards the Thames. The name of the park derives from the Putelshanger or Pitshanger family, who occupied the area in the 13th century. The manor occupied the area between Hanger Hill and the Brent. Until 1908, when it was demolished, the manor house (and its antecedents), known as ‘Pitshanger farmhouse’, occupied a plot on the present Meadvale Road, which runs along the northern edge of BGS. This building was completely different to Pizhanger Manor near Ealing Broadway, which was built by John Soane (and is described in my book).

Pitshanger Park is laid out on what used to be part of the grounds of Pitshanger farmhouse. BGS was built on another part of that same estate. The park is adjacent to Ealing Golf Course. Both were already in existence by 1912. The Brent also runs through the golf course. While we were visiting the park, we watched two men leaning over the bank of the river, rather ineffectually attempting to recover a ball from the weeds growing beside the water.

The park consists mainly of spacious grassy meadows that are bordered to the north by dense bushes and trees lining the bank of the Brent. Amenities offered in the park include, tennis courts, outdoor exercising equipment, and an attractive children’s play area. Housed in a small building with fake half-timbering, there is a small café with a terrace on which there are tables and chairs. The ‘caf’ offers hot and cold drinks and a few snacks. Its staff are pleasant, and the washrooms were clean.

While Pitshanger Park cannot be classed as one of London’s more exceptional open spaces, it is a wonderful amenity for residents in the area, just as was (and still is), the public gardens in HGS through which Mutton Brook flows.

Small but beautiful: deserves a visit

WHEN PEOPLE CONSIDER picturesque places in the eastern English county of Suffolk, the following places usually spring to mind: Bury St Edmunds, Clare, Southwold, Lavenham, Long Melford, and Sudbury. All these places deserve their reputation as sites worth visiting. Kersey is another place, which is exceptionally attractive. I had never heard about it until someone in a museum (in Essex) told me about it recently. It is far less visited than those mentioned above.

Kersey, Suffolk, England

Kersey is about 9 miles west of Ipswich. The village lies on the steep slopes of the valley of a small stream, a tributary of the River Brett (which feeds the River Stour). The main road running through Kersey crosses the stream not over a bridge but by a ford (known as ‘The Splash’). The village’s name, Kersey, means a ‘wet area with cress’. It is likely that this refers to the part of the place around The Splash. The heyday of the village was long ago: it was during the 14th century when Kersey was important in the then flourishing woollen cloth production industry. The church overlooking the village, St Mary’s, dates from that prosperous era. Likewise, with many of the lovely half-timbered houses. Although their construction began in the 14th and 15th centuries, they have undergone modifications over the centuries. However, they have a picturesqueness that easily rivals that which has made the better-known places (listed above) so famous.

Apart from the church and the half-timbered Bell Inn (about 14th century), one building stands out in Kersey. This is a large building with an impressive 16th century two storeyed red brick entrance structure projecting from the rest of the edifice, which was constructed in the 15th century. Above the main entrance, there is an inscribed stone plaque set into the brickwork. It bears the following: “Ye Olde River House 1490”.

After the Black Death (1346-1353) and later the decline of the wool industry in that part of Suffolk (in about the 17th century), not much happened in Kersey between then and the present, so I was told by a local inhabitant. Nothing much replaced the textile trade, and this led to the village remaining much as it was during its best days. This is lucky for those, like me, who enjoy the charm of England’s older and eye-catching vernacular architecture. Neither I nor the inhabitant with whom I spoke could understand why Kersey, unlike places such as I mentioned at the start of this piece, is not as frequently visited by tourists. Although smaller than all the other places, it easily matches their beauty.

Diverting water in Madeira

A damming plate hanging on a wall beside a stream in Funchal

WHEN WE WERE IN the Western Cape of South Africa,  I  noticed streams running alongside roads in rural farming areas. Occasional small channels led off from them and into the fields of farms. At each junction of the main stream and a side channel, there were small plates that could be used  to temporarily dam the main stream to divert water into the channel leading to the fields.  

We are staying in Funchal, Madeira. Our guesthouse is high above the city centre and the seafront on a road that leads down an extremely steep hill.  On one side of the road there is a fast flowing stream. Every now and then, there are metal plates that can be inserted into slots on both sides of this stream to divert water into the property beside the water. This is just like what I saw in rural South Africa. Perhaps I should not be surprised by the similarity of the damming system, but I cannot recall having noticed it anywhere else I have visited.

Don’t even think about doing these things

AS A SPECIAL TREAT when I was a young child, I was allowed to feed the pigeons on Piazza Signoria in Florence (Italy), a city we visited annually during my childhood. My parents used to purchase paper cones filled with corn kernels for my sister and me. We used to put a few of these in the palms of our hands and allow the pigeons to perch on our fingertips whilst they fed on the corn. Looking back on this activity, which gave me great pleasure, I am surprised that my health and hygiene conscious mother allowed what the former Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, called ‘rats with wings’ to risk sullying our hands and harming our health.

Oddly, when we were kids, we fed the pigeons in Florence but never fed their cousins that flocked around Trafalgar Square in London. Today, the 25th of April 2022, my wife and I walked across Trafalgar Square and observed that nowadays there are signs that indicate that feeding pigeons is forbidden. However, this activity, which I enjoyed as a child on holiday in Florence, is not the only thing forbidden in Trafalgar Square. The lovely fountains in the square now contain signs in the water, on which the words “No Entry” are written. Yet another activity in the square is no longer allowed. There are signs to deter visitors from climbing on the sculptures of the lions that lie at the base of Nelson’s Column. So, when you next visit Trafalgar Square with plans of feeding the pigeons, or bathing in the fountains (even to celebrate New Year), or straddling a lion, do not realise any of them: they are all outlawed.

Going green in an urban jungle

REMNANTS OF LONDON’S ROMAN wall can be seen from various points in the Barbican Estate, whose construction began in 1965. The not entirely unattractive residential brutalist concrete jungle, known as The Barbican is sited next to the northern edge of what was formerly Roman Londinium. According to a history of the area (www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/services/barbican-estate/barbican-estate-history):

“The name of the Barbican comes from the Low Latin word ‘Barbecana’ which referred to a fortified outpost or gateway: an outer defence of a city or castle or any tower situated over a gate or bridge which was used for defence purposes. The “Barbecana” was probably situated somewhere between the northern side of the Church of St. Giles Cripplegate and the YMCA hostel on Fann Street.”

By the 1850s, the district of Cripplegate, where the Barbican is located, was very crowded with dwellings and business premises. Much of the area now occupied by the Barbican had been destroyed by bombing during WW2. The Estate was built to replace what the Luftwaffe had destroyed.

Apart from several water features, there is one oasis of greenery on the otherwise extremely urban site. This is the Barbican Conservatory. Opened in 1982, it is located above the Barbican’s main theatre and can be entered through an entrance close to that of the Barbican’s Art Gallery. Despite it having been in existence for so many years and having known about it for several decades, it was only yesterday (6th of April 2022) that I first ventured inside it. We had just viewed the current exhibition in the Gallery, “Postwar Modern: New Art in Britain 1945-1965”, an impressive display of rather unexciting artworks. Entering the Conservatory was literally “a breath of fresh air” after viewing the exhibits that had been arranged to illustrate the depressing emotional aftermath of WW2 as depicted by artists in Britain.

I was surprised to learn that the Barbican Conservatory is:

“… the second largest in London (after Kew Gardens) and home to over 1,500 species of plants, but is one of the city’s lesser-known green spaces.” (www.atlasobscura.com)

Apart from the plants, many of them exotic, which are arranged on various levels and can be viewed from both a lower floor and an elevated walkway, there are three ponds. One contains koi carp and the other, raised above ground level, is home to two terrapins, which were found in ponds on Hampstead Heath. The Conservatory is divided into two main sections. The larger is the tropical section, where visitors are permitted to wander about. The other, which was locked up yesterday, is the arid section, containing cacti and succulents.

Despite being in the midst of a manmade, visually intriguing, but harsh urban environment, the Conservatory with its tall trees, bushes, flowers, and other vegetation, feels like another world – a primaeval paradise from which the modern world can be glimpsed in the background.