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I was despondent when I heard that charabanc was being removed from the Oxford English Dictionary. Charabanc or its more common form “chara” is so evocative. I came across this photograph, of an outing from the Lord Wolseley in Brockley, south east London. The pub is no longer there but was opposite The Wickham Arms pub. Although this was taken some time in the 1920s day trips organised by works, pubs or clubs continued up until the 1970s. “A charabanc trip that people went on from Liverpool to see Blackpool Lights” is how George Harrison described Magical Mystery Tour. It’s this tradition that shaped the coastal towns along the Thames. A fitting destination and well deserved treat for hard working Londoners.
During a recent visit to Margate I was pleased to hear that there has been a resurgence of the day trip. One of the shop keepers in the Old Town explained that the opening of the Turner Contemporary has increased the number of day and weekend visitors. Now I did expect that the Turner Contemporary would contain paintings by the artist. On my visit there wasn’t one, only some of his drawings about perspective. Apparently, there was an exhibition of his painting last autumn. Notwithstanding this the gallery is impressive but mainly because of its position on the beach.
Margate has fine Georgian architecture Hawley Square is particularly impressive. Sir Henry Hawley built elegant town houses for gentry in 1762. John Wesley preached his first sermon in the chapel that edges the square. Just off the square is the pub Quart in a Pint Pot which has a most unusual folly on the lower roof.
With the increased popularity of day trips leisure palaces were built. I parked close to the Lido which was originally Clifton Baths. There is a lot of hard surface mainly concrete and paving stones along this part of the front. Not a blade of grass to soften this cold and desolate area. On the other side of the bay is Dreamland, which has been the focus of a recent campaign. The pleasure park looked destined to become yet another block of flats but after a long campaign, supported by the council, it is awaiting a new purpose in the regeneration of the town.
Margate was one of the twelve towns to receive funding from Mary Portas’ High Street Review. Figures released through a Freedom of Information request in December 2012 revealed that only £111.47 of the £100,000 had been spent. It spent less than all the other schemes purchasing stationery and fees to the Land Registry. I’m afraid the lack of investment showed on the forsaken High Street. In contrast the shops and galleries in the Old Town were vibrant, unique and busy. There is a good range of antique, craft and vintage clothes shops. Qing works with designers from Beijing and has some interesting furniture and soft furnishings. The Pie Factory is the centre for local artists. Margate is in transition with some very interesting developments. Would I visit again? Most definitely yes.
Some accounts of The Peasants Revolt 1381 state that Wat Tyler came from Essex others Kent. There is a road in Blackheath named after him as it was there that the rebels set up camp before entering London, In 2009 Basildon named a park after him. It is on the site of an old explosive factory, built 1891 which was partly owned by Alfred Nobel. Explosive factories were in isolated areas so it was located next to Timberman’s Creek a tributary of the Thames. The area has been used more recently as a land fill site. The RSPB has a Visitor Centre and Discovery Zone in the park which is the gateway to their South Essex Marshes reserves.
The land was bought from the Ministry of Defence in 1969 and was opened to the public in the 1980s. The site is still in the process of being reclaimed. Excavated soil from the Olympics was used to recontour the site. Areas that were used for landfill are being reclaimed and are due to open in 2016. It is interesting to see how the industrial landscape is reverting to original marshland. The Marina is still used for mooring and there are a couple of rusty boats there as well. From here you get good views over to Thames Gateway and the giant cranes.
Before visiting I looked on the park’s website and was interested that some traditional Essex cottages had been relocated into the park. I was expecting something like Beamish, the living museum of the North East. I was wrong. Yes some buildings have been relocated around a “village green” but their conservation is very poor. Galvanized hinges, posidrive screws and plastic guttering were some of the materials used on buildings dating back to the 17th century: a travesty.
The park lacks a clear focus. There is very little on Wat Tyler just a couple of information boards in the visitor centre. The exhibits were generally poor and uninspiring. There are the remnants of the explosive factory and its buildings but they have not been developed into a coherent exhibition. The narrow gauge railway track used to unload and load cargo from the wharves has been transformed into a children’s Thomas the Tank engine ride. Strange structures appear haphazardly, for example, a large metal pink object that on closer examination is meant to be an insect. The park is neither an open air museum nor an amusement park. Currently, it’s trying to do both and doing them both badly.
Whilst visiting Essex recently I did a bit of a detour and visited Mersea Island. The purpose of my visit was really to try out The Company Shed. It has had so many rave reviews and reportedly its one of Jamie Oliver’s favourite places. Food this good justified the additional miles. I knew that it was rustic and you needed to take drink and bread: so I did go prepared. Well, I thought I had.
The shed is on the beach at West Mersea and there are notices outside warning you about the queues. They must be legendary has nearly all the reviews mention them. I visited mid-week and as predicted there was a queue. As we were just a group of two they put us on the end of a large table. A party of students shared the table and were very well prepared with salad, bread, sauces and drinks. I looked around and most other diners had brought large picnic baskets or cooler boxes. Our small portion of bread and bottle of mineral water looked meagre in comparison.
Most reviews had raved about the sea food platter. When Jay Rayner had reviewed it the cost was £8.50 it is now £11.50 still not badly priced for half a crab, smoked salmon, peeled and shell on prawns, one green lip mussel and a crevette. All the reviews waxed on about the freshness of the sea food. There was a filtration tank in the dining area holding crabs so they really must be fresh.
The picnic and sharing approach to dining certainly gives a great atmosphere. The people on the table next to us helpfully told us that we really must come early, they had been there since breakfast. The students on our table must have felt slightly sorry for us and our meagre accompaniments as they offered us some of their salad and potatoes. It is a unique place with absolutely no frills.
So how was the food? Well, I’m slightly embarrassed to say this but it was not that good. It certainly wasn’t that fresh. The wetness of the prawns made them tasteless as only frozen ones can be. The crab was fresh but most of the other ingredients were readily available from any supermarket and not local. Is it that my taste buds are so out of tune with renowned restaurant reviewers and chefs? Have standards slipped? Or is it just a case of emperor’s new clothes?
This exceptionally long and cold winter has made me appreciate the Victorian concept of a winter garden. Avery Hill Park has the second largest winter garden in the UK after the temperate house at Kew. The park itself is quite uninspiring but the winter garden with its playful statue of Hermes on top is well worth visiting. As I entered I was greeted by the mellow tones of Ella Fitzgerald. A lone gardener was enjoying the music whilst she worked.
As I was the only visitor she did take some time to tell me about the plants and the history. The building did suffer some wartime damage and I was shown the oldest plant in the collection. A tall palm that had grown through the broken roof back in 1947. The three-domed Winter Garden was created by Colonel North who had made his fortune from the nitrate trade in Peru and Chile. As well as recreating a little bit of tropical South America in south east London he wanted his family to enjoy exercise in inclement weather. The Mansion House not open to the public is part of the University of Greenwich.
The university has received some funding from the Heritage Lottery Funding for the restoration of the Winter Garden. Some restoration has already started and there are information boards with details of the full scheme. Further funding is needed to for the full project which will restore the winter garden to its full architectural grandeur. The original iron framework dates back to the 1890s. The reclining figure of Galatea, one of the goddess nymphs of the sea, is in an imposing position. Galatea can also mean “milky white” and the statue is certainly that. Galatea Reclining on a Dolphin was designed by the Italian sculptor Leopoldo Ansiglioni in 1882
The Royal Navy has long been considered this island’s first line of defence. The first royal dockyard was at Portsmouth 1496 built by Henry Vll. When Henry Vlll broke with the Catholic Church because of his divorce from Catherine of Aragon he feared a threat from the Catholic states of England and France. In 1513 Henry decided to build two new dockyards on the River Thames. Deptford and Woolwich were chosen because they were close to his palace at Greenwich. It is recorded that Henry visited the dockyards to see shipbuilding in progress. Woolwich was opened in 1512 when work started on Henry Grace a Dieu. A full list of all the ships made at Woolwich is available on the Kent History Forum website.
Having recently visited the Royal Deptford Dockyard I decided to visit Woolwich. There is still surprisingly much to see of the original dockyards although disappointing that there are no information boards for such an historically important site. I started my visit at Trinity Stairs which is accessible from Warspite Road. If you visit you need to check times of the tides.
Trinity stairs and causeway was built 1831-37 and originally was a coal wharf. There is still public access to the stairs. The granite stairs are very slippery but with care you can get to the river’s shore. The cobbled stone causeway is still in tact. On the western side you can see the Royal Iris Ferry in the 1840s an old warship the Warspite would have been moored in this spot. It was used to train and house poor boys 200 to 300 at a time. I did see some wood on the shore which looked as though it could have come from a ship from that period.
The dockyard would have been a self-contained community of highly skilled workers. Within the dockyard would be houses for senior offices, school and churches. Among the buildings that form Kingside Industrial Estate you can see ones that were part of the original dockyard. The building that is now the Co-operative Funeral Care was the dockyard school. Opposite is the original police station. The main entrance built 1780s is imposing and was being repaired and painted, however, apart from the rope motifs in the pillars there is nothing to indicate what they are. As you enter on the left hand side is the former Master Warder’s Lodgings and guard house. The Clock House 1783-4 is the most distinctive building and is now used as a community facility. After the Crimean War a Dockland Church (St Barnabas) was built in the dockyards 1856. The architect was Sir George Gilbert Scott. It was dismantled in 1932 and moved to the Progress Estate in Eltham.
On the riverside you can still see the two formidable cannons that are the Gun Battery. There is a landing place in front of this but this was inaccessible when I visited. Further along the Thamespath are the two dock areas which have been filled in with water. In the absence of any information boards they could be mistaken for some strange bathing areas. The Grade 11 listed docks are used by a local angling club. Further along are two slip ways. After the Napoleonic Wars slip covers were introduced which were iron fabricated covers that helped the wood to season. There were removed in the mid 19th Century and moved to Chatham Dockyard. Since then one has been adapted and used at the Dockside Outlet Centre in Chatham.
Planning permission has just been granted for some more riverside apartments in the area that was once the mast pond. All dockyards needed a mast pond where the timber would be soaked before used for shipbuilding.
The Old Royal Naval College’s involvement of the public in the conservation of the Painted Hall is to be applauded. A friend and I went along to the scaffold viewing recently. It is a free tour and you are taken in small groups of up to 8 people to the top of the Painted Hall some10 metres up.
The tour is on a first come basis so we registered about an hour before the 3.30pm tour and were lucky to get the last two places. As instructed we went to meet our guide in the Painted Hall at the allotted time. As we waited we looked around and couldn’t see any scaffolding or anything that looked like conservationists at work. We felt slightly disappointed. However, when our guides appeared they took us behind a painted facade of the West Wall and there was the scaffolding. To be honest we hadn’t even noticed that the West Wall painting was a reproduction screen. We put on our high vis jackets safety helmets and then began climbing the scaffolding.
Seeing the details close up we really could understand why it had taken James Thornhill 19 years to complete the decoration of the Painted Hall. Thornhill was awarded the commission in 1707. The wall and ceiling decoration celebrates King George l (1660-1727) and the House of Hanover, his son the future George ll stands by his side and there is a self portrait of the artist bottom right. From the viewing platform at the top of the scaffolding you can see the details on the ceiling. In each corner there are the symbols for England, Scotland, Wales and France, one of the guides explained that we still owned part of France then.
Being so close you can really see the skills that were involved in the execution of this massive painting. We were told that specialist painters were brought in to do specific things. For example,Antoine Monnoyer (1672 – 1747) did the exquisite flowers. A specialist court painter would have also done the portraits of George lst and the other royals. Only court painters could do portraits of royalty. George must have been pleased with the work of Thornhill because he did make him a court painter in 1718. The most fascinating thing we saw was a gravy stain, a very large one at that, found at the top of the West Wall. This probably dates back to the days when it was used as a mess hall for navy officers. How it had been hurled to such a height was astonishing. The Painted Hall was last cleaned 55 years ago.
The tour does give a unique perspective of the conservators’ work and it’s really interesting to go on a behind the scenes tour. The conservation is due to end in May so if you would like to do this tour get a move on.