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Guest Post by BK
Public Sculpture, both good and bad, has been all the rage lately, and I am pleased to report that Catford now has its own installation, although it does not seem to be wearing well.
I first came across The Turning Tree in May when I was walking my dog through Ladywell Fields and noticed a large log that seemed to be blocking the River Ravensbourne, I assumed that it had been put there by some enterprising children. About a week later we were walking through the park again when we came across a group of people standing around a gazebo and drinking warm white wine; this turned out to be the launch party for The Turning Tree, a new sculpture by Henry Krotatsis.
I must confess that The Secret Garden Festival which ran in Lewisham in 2014 was so secret that it passed me by, but it involved various artistic activities around the borough’s main rivers, the Quaggy, Pool and Ravensbourne. The Turning Tree was commissioned as a permanent reminder of the Festival. The sculpture is an exact replica of a large piece of a black cedar tree that Mr Krotatsis found in the park, cast in shiny aluminium, it is mounted horizontally on another cast stump in the middle of the Ravensbourne. According to the project organisers:
This poetic sculpture creates a reticent monument to nature, in contrast to the vainglorious human statues that usally adorn public spaces. Using a section of fallen Black Poplar tree taken from the park, Krokatsis will cast a section of the trunk in polished aluminium. Lying horizontally and raised above the water surface, the sculpture will appear to levitate within the River Ravensbourne. A hidden bearing will allow the whole trunk to gently turn, manipulated by the wind or a change in current.
Children are also invited to bring along there wellies and play on the log as it turns.
Unfortunately, the log does not seem to have generated a great deal of interest. There is no signage anywhere to indicate its presence, (probably still part of The Secret Garden). In May and June a pathway was trampled through the vegetation and down the riverbank at the point next to the statue; but this seems to be so little used that the path has reverted back to brambles and can no longer be accessed. The only was to view the log is from the piece of lowered pathway which is about 10 metres away at the nearest point, the view getting more restricted over the seasons as the vegetation develops. It is possible to access the statue from here if you want to try to swing on it, but you need to scramble down the river bank and along the river. The sign saying ‘Caution. Soft Mud!’ is not inviting.
The statue’s biggest problem stems from the nature of the Ravensbourne river system, the thing it is supposed to celebrate. Although the walks along the riverbank in Ladywell Fields and in the Pool Linear Park are very pleasant and almost rural, where you can spot kingfishers, herons and egrets, the main function of the rivers is to act as a storm drain for the heavily urbanised area from Catford to Bromley. All the rain that falls on hard ground in Beckenham, Bellingham and Downham will have to pass by our statue on its way to The Thames. This means that in times of heavy rain such as we had last weekend the volume of water in the river, and so its speed and height, will suddenly increase alarmingly. As the water sweeps down it also carries along vegetation, broken branches, old plastic bottles and carrier bags (Sainsbury’s at Sydenham is a particularly good source of these). All this stuff is then dumped at the nearest handy obstacle.
The rocks at the back of Lewisham Hospital used to form a convenient dumping ground, but now that somebody has placed a barrier in the middle of the river flow in Ladywell Fields then a lot of the detritus gets dropped of there. When I walked past on Monday after the weekend’s bad weather it was just about possible to make out the end of the statue, but the rest of it had been buried under a large pile of old branches.
So, we have a public sculpture that is designed to be viewed in ever-changing reflected light that it is very difficult to actually even see; that is meant for children to swing on but can only be accessed through mud; and that is supposed to gently turn in the current, but has placed in a stream that can turn into a torrent and is currently buried in river rubbish.
Barrett are proposing an 18-storey tower block between the Catford stations. As a sweetener they have included a Public Piazza which will replace the present concrete culverts with an attractive water feature. If this goes ahead then maybe the river will be cleaned up. Until then it would be interesting to know who will be maintaining our new public sculpture.
In a corner of South East London is Plumstead Common once the site of “disgraceful riots” that generated the headline in the Kentish Independent:
“Can this be England?”
Well, it very much was England as commoners had ancient rights to cut furze, graze cattle and cut turf for fuel on common land. It looked different in those days a more rugged terrain with gravel and sand pits. In 1871 the military, based in Woolwich, had rights to exercise on the common. The nearer Woolwich Common was thought to be too soft and swampy. Over time the furze and brambles disappeared. To top this the developers moved in.
In the C17th Queen’s College, Oxford inherited the rights to the land. Over a period of time there had been encroachment of the common land and areas had been enclosed sometimes for the benefit of the poor or for individual gain. A local builder Mr Tongue was responsible for many of the encroachments as was Edwin Hughes who later became the first Member of Parliament for Woolwich. The building of Central and Slade schools on the common were done with the permission of the College.
The real threat to the common came in 1876 when Queen’s College wanted to develop a new housing estate. The people of Plumstead took direct action to protect their common and began to rip down and burn the fences of the enclosed land. The properties of Hughes and Tongue were a particular focus. They were led by John de Morgan who called himself a Champion for the Common Rights. He also boasted that he was “an irishman, a rebel and had been in prison several times”. He was obviously a persuasive speaker as 700 men from The Royal Arsenal lost pay and took the afternoon off work to hear him speak.
Local opinion, of the time, including the liberal Woolwich Gazette, was in favour of the preservation of the common. The rioters included family groups, women and children and the “respectable working classes”. The more critical Kentish Independent described the rioters as “roughs and hobble-de-hoys.” The riots started on Sunday 1st July and went on well into Monday evening. The demonstrations did have an impact and in 1878 The Plumstead Common Act ensured that about one hundred acres of land remained as public open space.
Today the Common is effectively divided into two as roads were built before the Act. Along Plumstead Common Road still stands The Ship public house, now painted a Germoline pink. Some two hundred metres along the road is the historic Prince of Wales where, in October 1886, the Arsenal Football Team was formed. It’s now flats.
Mill Pond Road dissects the common and the original mill can still be seen. At the time of the riots it was a public house and remains one.
The original common was much larger and extended along Plum Lane to Shrewsbury Park and Shooters Hill. There is still an amazing amount of green space at the top of the hill and well worth the climb as the views are remarkable, overlooking London to the West, Dartford to the East and Essex to the North.
A Bronze Age Tumulus still survives and hidden in Shrewsbury House is a Cold War bunker: though not open to the public. The original manor house is now a community centre.
The houses around the common and the streets leading to Shrewsbury park tell you that this was not a place for the hoi polloi, there are some seriously posh houses. Large “tea caddy” houses, enormous three storey Victorian mansions overlooking the common. It may have lost some of its sparkle but with the advent of Crossrail this could well be a place on the up.
Note: I first published this post two years ago but decided to re-post at the time of the anniversary of the riots. It remains one of the most popular posts I have done.
There was considerable publicity heralding the re-opening of Dreamland on 19th June ten years after it had closed. The long campaign to save the amusement park, which claims to be Britain’s oldest dating back to the 1920s, was magnificent. It managed to see off property developers, Tesco’s plans for a superstore on the adjacent site and arson attacks that damaged the Grade 11 listed scenic railway.
The fine Georgian architecture around Margate’s Hawley Square, built for the gentry in 1762, reveal its wealthy past. In the post war period it became a popular holiday resort and day trip destination for the workers from London. Margate’s heyday was the 1950s when only the extremely wealthy could afford a foreign holiday. The restoration of Dreamland is an evocation of that period. My 1950 copy of Ward Lock’s guide to North East Kent only has a short description:
“Dreamland Park, where Margate is at its merriest. From skating rink, to skittle alley and from “joy wheel” to miniature and scenic railways, all the fun of the fair is found here.”
I visited on the 26th June and from across the bay I could see that the “joy wheel” was not turning. Undeterred I carried on with my quest to visit Dreamland. The banners flying from the lamp posts in the new corporate colours lead you along the wide sandy bay to the fun palace.
Impressive retro branding for the latest attraction. The outside of the distinctive entrance still needs quite a lot of work. Posters of images from the 50s and 60s illustrate good old vintage fun.
A small notice on the door confirmed that Dreamland was closed but would be open again at the weekend. Close by me were a group of disappointed teenagers who had come on a day trip from London and were not happy. Armed with my camera I walked around the perimeter trying to get a glimpse of the rides.
My day wasn’t a complete waste as there was a very good Grayson Perry exhibition at the Turner Contemporary. Margate still has that down at heel feel once you get out of the old town but I hope that Dreamland will be another attraction that contributes to its transformation.
Guest Post by BK
26th May 1732: it is a fine Spring evening in London. William Hogarth and some friends are enjoying a convivial evening in The Bedford Arms, a tavern on the South side of the Covent Garden Piazza. Six weeks earlier Hogarth had achieved his first public triumph with the publication of The Harlot’s Progress and the conversation flowed as the punch bowl rapidly emptied. One topic appears to have been the rubbishing of The Grand Tour whereby young English noblemen could spend months or even years touring Europe to acquaint themselves with Continental, Roman and Greek civilisation and manners. Hogarth, a patriotic Londoner, thoroughly disapproved of such things. As midnight approached the friends decided that it would be great fun for them to hold their own Grand Tour. They rushed to their homes, picked up a spare shirt each and set off on The Five Day’s Peregrinations Around The Isle Of Sheppey Of William Hogarth and His Fellow Pilgrims, Scott, Tothall, Thornhill, and Forrest.
The troupe walked along, singing merrily, to Billingsgate where they hired a boat to take them to Gravesend. When they reached Cuckolds’ Point they set up a chorus of ‘St John-at-Deptford Pishoken’, a reference that has baffled musicologists ever since, and then settled down to eat ‘hung beef and biscuit, and drank right Hollands ( Dutch gin)’.
At Gravesend, they had breakfast of coffee, toast and butter and set out to explore the town where they visited The New Church and The Market. St George’s, the parish church of Gravesend, was consecrated in 1510. Unfortunately a great fire destroyed most of Gravesend including the church and 110 houses in 1727. Funding for a new church was obtained from The Commission For Building Fifty New Churches, a self-explanatory body set up in 1710 to use money from the duties on coal imported into The Port of London. Although The Commission never achieved its aim it did fund a number of churches including St Paul’s Deptford and St Alfege’s Greenwich. St George’s Gravesend was completed in 1731, hence the reference to The New Church. Although the party spent a good deal of time on their journey looking at graves and epitaphs, they make no mention of Pocahontas, presumably that local industry hadn’t started yet.
The lads then set off to walk to Rochester. They admired The Cathedral and The Castle, from where they saw ‘some of the noblest ships in the world’. On the High Street they visited The Six Poor Travellers House, an almshouse set up by a bequest from a local businessman, Richard Webb, to provide a night’s accommodation, entertainment and four pence for up to six poor travellers. The four pence was important because under the Poor Law of 1576 anybody who did not possess that amount could be declared a vagrant, whipped and returned to their home parish. Further along the High Street they passed the Guildhall and Hogarth amused himself by playing hopscotch In the colonnade.
They had lunch at The Crown Inn at the end of the High Street. ‘A dish of soles and flounders with crab sauce, a calf’s heart stuffed and roasted, the liver fried and the other appurtenances minced, a leg of mutton roasted and some green peas, all very good and well dressed, with good beer and excellent port.’ In the afternoon, they walked that off by walking around Chatham, visiting the dockyard and inspecting several naval vessels. They found some space to buy and eat shrimps before returning to The Crown for further refreshment and then bed.
Next day they set out to walk up the Hoo peninsula in order to catch a boat at Grain. They visited the church at Frendsbury and then at Upnor they visited the castle, then still fully manned, and dined on cockles that they bought from a blind couple in a little cock-boat. Pressing on to Hoo they amused themselves by bombarding each other with water, sticks, pebbles and hog’s dung. Throughout the trip the gang indulge in sorts of all bawdy and scatalogical behaviour that would now probably seem hooliganish. Apparently, the more refined figure of Horace Walpole was shocked to learn of their behaviour but Thackeray later defended them saying ‘These are the manners and pleasures of Hogarth, of his time very likely, of men not very refined, but honest and merry. it is a brave London citizen, with John Bull habits, prejudices and pleasures’.
They visited the church at Hoo and then walked on to Stoke where they also saw the church before stopping at the Nags Head where they had had dinner, drank punch and retired to bed, but had a bad night’s sleep, being badly bitten by gnats from the nearby marshland.
In the morning they had milk and toast for breakfast and walked on stopping at The Chequers for salt pork, bread, butter and buns and good malt liquor. At Grain they found a boatman who they hired to carry them over the river to Sheppey.
After a rough crossing they were landed at Sheerness and walked along the beach to Queenborough which is described as ‘but one street, clean and well-paved’ but very little sign of life. They visited the ‘low and ill-built’ church and the Town Hall or Clock House and then went to stay at The Red Lion, aka The Swan. They could find no meat to eat and so had to make do with lobsters, bacon and eggs.
Walking around town in the evening they wre surprised to meet several pretty women who they fell into conversation with, they then went back to The Red Lion where they enjoyed ‘several cans of good flip’ and got into a singing contest with a group of lobster fishermen from Harwich. Apparently the lobstermen’s singing was much better than our boys who could only offer St John at Deptford and Pishoken again.
Next morning they walked up the hill to visit Minster, where again they walked around the church and graveyard to admire the local monuments and inscriptions. Then, after dining at The George (now known as The Prince Of Waterloo, The Prince Of Waterloo is a hereditary title given to all Dukes Of Wellington by the Dutch government) they walked back to Sheerness and hired a boat to take them to Gravesend. It was a rough voyage and they kept their spirits up with yet more singing of St John Pishoken, along the Thames their boat was accompanied by a school of porpoise. At Gravesend they ‘supped and drank good wine’, slept and then set off next morning with ‘a bottle of good wine, pipes, tobacco and a match’.
They disembarked at a landing by Somerset House on The Strand and walked up to the Bedford Arms ‘in the same good humour we left it’.
Guest Post by BK
Clifton’s Roundabout marks the junction of the A20 with The South Circular, the point where any traveller to North-East Kent must make the big decision; M2 or M20. It is often referred to by the name of whichever business is occupying its south-east corner, it’s been the Big Yellow Roundabout, Maplins Roundabout and in the 1990s and early 2000s it was known as the Land Of Leather Roundabout.
The roundabout hosts a key scene in Wide Open, Nicola Barker’s prize-winning 1998 novel of life on The Isle Of Sheppey.
The novel opens on the old bridge linking Sheppey to the mainland. Ronny, a chemical sprayer with a contract on the island becomes intrigued by a man who stands at the middle of the bridge waving to the traffic, one day Ronny stops to talk. The other man is also called Ronny and is carrying a box which he claims contains his soul.
A few days later, Ronny is driving home when he sees Ronny standing in the middle of Clifton’s Roundabout waving a gold watch. Ronny pulls into the car park at Land Of Leather. (Barker has this as World Of Leather; at the time there was Land of Leather, Kingdom Of Leather, World Of Leather and possibly other realms of leather that filled the millenium sitting rooms of Britain with Italian, cream leather sofas). The Two Ronnies talk, the watch belonged to Ronny’s father, who was also called Ronny. Ronny persuades Ronny to drive with him back to Sheppey. Ronny then tells Ronny that he is giving him a new name, Jim.
The rest of the novel takes place on Sheppey. Ronney has an out-of-season rental for a chalet on Shellness beach. His neighbour is Luke, a photographer who makes money from join-the-dots pornography (sorry!) and who has rented a chalet to get away from it all. The farm nearby is run by Sara who rears wild boar and her teenage daughter Lily who worships a deformed boar foetus that she calls The Head. They are joined on Sheppey by Ronny’s estranged brother Nathan who works in London Transport Lost Property at Baker Street and by Connie, an optician from Gravesend who is trying to find out why her father left his estate to Ronny rather than to her.
Barker interweaves the bleakness of the land and seascape; the damaged bodies of the protagonists (one Ronny has alopecia, the other only has four toes, Lily looks perpetually dirty, Luke smells of fish) and their damaged lives.
The title, Wide Open, is ironic. The book is all about secrets and concealment. Ronny’s soul and Lily’s idol are in just two of the boxes that the characters keep. Nathan has an erection when he licks sealing tape ‘How beautiful this closed tight thing was. This sealed thing’. Sara masturbates inside a bird-watching hide. Even the join-the-dots pornography is a means of concealing the forbidden image.
Shellness lies at the far South East tip of Sheppey; drive through Leysdown until the road runs out and turns into a very bumpy track. At the end there is a car park, mainly used by bird-watchers, dog walkers and frequenters of the naturist beach.
‘The sea was brown. It wasn’t even the sea, really. It was the channel. This place is truly the back of beyond, Luke thought smugly. It was grey and bleak and very flat. It was like the moon, in fact…The sky was massive. Flat land, flat sea, and a great big, dirty, mud-puddle of a sky’.
Luke and Ronny’s chalets are among a number lining the beach on the other side of the sea wall from the track. They are in various states of occupation and repair.
At the far end of the track is Shellness Hamlet. The Hamlet is a gated community of more substantial brick-build cottages. It is in single private ownership and surrounded by Keep Out signs.
‘Lily pointed at a cluster of houses; small purpose-built chalets. “That’s where you people go….The Hamlet. It’s fenced off, see? That’s where all the temporary people go. Nobody permanent has anything to do with them. We think they’re weird.” ‘“It’s a private community. They think the locals are all freaks. Anti-social. In-bred. So they put the fence up to distinguish themselves. And we tend to think they’re weird because they come here principally on summer weekends to use the nudist beach.”’
Further around from The Hamlet is The Blockhouse, a concrete fortification that is all that remains of a WWII defensive line to prevent U-Boats sneaking up The Stour to attack Chatham Navel Base from the side.
Thousands flock to Woolwich for the opening ceremony 23rd March 1889.
The original ferries were called Gordon and Duncan.
The South Pier of Woolwich Ferry
Woolwich Ferry crew early C20th.
Industry along the south bank of the Thames at Woolwich.
London’s industrial heartland serviced by the Woolwich Free Ferry.
Passengers using the ferry for pleasure in 1960s.
From Wandsworth to Woolwich the south bank of the Thames is being transformed with ubiquitous luxury apartments now rising from former industrial sites. Trapped between the tower blocks and the cranes you can still find places and buildings that remind you that even thirty years ago South London was unfashionable. Go back even further to Victorian London and this was a place for the very poor. Much of the work available on the docks was casual and low paid. Housing conditions were very poor with considerable overcrowding. Victorian philanthropists and social commentators were drawn to the area to develop schools and missions.
A short walk from London Bridge you can still find the remnants of one of London’s poorest districts. Redcross Way is just off Southwark Street accessed through one of the railway arches. On the left there is an iron gateway covered in brightly coloured ribbon, feathers and flowers and behind this is a once forgotten grave yard for the out casts of society or Cross Bones. The bodies of 15,000 paupers and prostitutes have been buried in this unconsecrated ground since medieval times. Vigil candles are placed around the gates and help to reflect on lives ruined by poverty. It was widely believed, in Victorian times, that a cure for syphillis was to have sex with a virgin and some of the prostitutes buried here are young girls victim of this practice. Vigils for the outcasts of society are held every month more details here.
Across the street is The Mint and Gospel Lighthouse Mission; a mouthful for most people so no wonder it became known as The Ragged School. The Ragged School Union was formed by the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury 1844. They developed small free schools in deprived areas providing basic education and skills to destitute children. Often the schools tried to meet other community needs such as reading clubs, adult literacy classes, clothing clubs and Penny Banks.
St Saviour’s House is also in Union Street and is a striking building. It is still home to a charity that dates back to the C15th and have been providing support to the people of Southwark.
Redcross Garden is a little further on which was developed by the Octavia Hill 1887. It was to provide small scale social housing and a communal garden. The garden was restored in 2005 and includes a small pond and a new eco-building. In the central pavillion there is an inscription:
“Do noble deeds do not dream them”.
The row of six Redcross cottages were built for the working poor. The White Cross cottages were a later addition 1890 and can be accessed through a small alley. Now overshadowed by The Shard, an ever present symbol, that this is a place for the super rich.
Places are like people when they’re on their uppers it doesn’t half show. Nudged by the first snow flurry this I thought it would be a good time to visit the Winter Garden at Avery Hill. After all this is what they were built for, a reminder of sunshine in the long winter months.
Last time I visited there was a vibrancy with lots of information about the refurbishment plans. An enthusiastic gardener spoke to me about the stage 2 Heritage Lottery Fund application was being developed which involved comprehensive repairs and a new heating system to reinstate the main conservatory into a temperate house. The announcement by Greenwich University, just before Christmas, that they are putting the site up for sale has filled the place with gloom. The application to English Heritage was never submitted and in a stroke the figure of Mercury, that tops the was replaced by the sword of Damlocles.
On this visit I was the lone visitor in the magnificent Victorian structure with one worker locked inside a booth. No lively conversation this time. Outside was no better, the light covering of snow could not disguise the drabness of the walled garden. It was flat with not even a hint of architectural planting to give winter interest. Back in the early C20th the gardens were used to supply other parks and grow specialist planting. All that remains is the one walled garden and a car park now covers the former fruit garden.
The Mansion House site is surrounded by open parkland. Below the ancient Conduit and Pippenhall Meadows two springs feed the River Shuttle which is in a culvert. In Victorian and Edwardian times rivers were diverted, often underground, which created a network of lost urban rivers. In recent years more rivers have been restored or ‘daylighted” as this helps to reduce flood risk and increases bio-diversity. The river emerges at the far end of the green space on the Alderwood Estate. Restoring Avery Hill Park to wetlands would certainly give the parkland more interest.
What does the future hold? Well, firstly the covenant put in place by the London County Council, ensuring that the Winter Garden remains open to the public, cannot be revoked. A challenge for any potential developer and the refurbishment costs are huge at an estimated £7.5million. The land is not designated for residential use, so it will be quite some time before luxury apartments appear.