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The Thames at Greenhithe

The Thames at Greenhithe

Dickens visited Greenhithe when compiling his 1880 Dictionary of the Thames and had this to say:

“Except as a yachting station Greenhithe itself offers but little to notice.”

Just east of the Dartford Crossing it’s better known today for its proximity to Bluewater shopping centre and Ebbsfleet International station. In my view, there is now something distinctive about the place; for it’s one of the few low rise developments along the banks of the Thames.

High Street

High Street

Built around the remnants of the High Street, which has period properties dating back to 1768, the new development blends in well.

Ingress Abbey Estate

Ingress Abbey Estate

It’s good quality housing that’s been designed to complement the landscape and heritage of the area. You get a distinct sense of community. There are riverside playgrounds which reinforces that this is a sustainable community, where people live, use schools and other local services and pay taxes.   Prices are considerably lower than riverside properties further upstream.  It’s been awarded a gold standard by Cabe.

Ingress Abbey

Ingress Abbey

 

The estate takes its name from Ingress Abbey a large mansion built facing the river for a local alderman.  It was built in part by stones from the Old London Bridge.

Ingress Abbey

Ingress Abbey

A road sweeps down to the restored Ingress Abbey in the centre of the estate, surrounded by its grass amphitheatre.  A car-free avenue leads to the Thames.

Ingress Abbey Estate

There are two pubs on the High Street, the John Franklin and The Pier.  At low tide the rotting carcass of a boat can be seen close to the John Franklin, it looks as though its been there for many years. The landlord explained that a Dutch couple had some engine difficulties and left it there 30 years ago never to return. The London Port Authority assessed it as not a danger to shipping and so it has remained.

Abandoned boat Greenhithe

Abandoned boat Greenhithe

The riverside pathway takes you past the Pier Hotel which had a jetty erected around about 1880 which can still be seen and is now a resting place for basking sea gulls. There is also the marker for the berthing place of HMS Worcester which from1862 was the Thames Marine Officer Training School. In 1938 the college acquired the Cutty Sark and it remained here until 1954 when it moved to Greenwich.

Local estate agents boast of a 45 minute train journey to London Bridge.  Progress seems to have faltered, back in 1880 Dickens writes about the express train into Charing Cross taking 45 minutes.

 

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Vichy Spa Town

It seemed like this was going to be a “Where were you when Kennedy got assassinated” moment by the coverage on French TV. It took some concentration and searching my lost French vocabulary to understand all that this was a major political crisis. Hollande had dissolved the government to stop a mutiny among ministers who had been openly critical of his economic policy. I was staying in a hotel in Vichy and my fellow residents were watching avidly as they ate their breakfast. It became apparent that their real concern was that this could precipitate a boost for the far right in the 2017 elections.

Vichy

The town has two main claims to fame; its water and its collaboration with the Nazis in the 2nd World War. The quiet spa town of Vichy was chosen to be the provisional capital of Marshal Petain’s Etat Francais (French State) ,in the unoccupied part of France, because of its central location and its abundance of hotels to for ministers use.

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The Vichy Government replaced the principles of the Republic; Freedom, Equality and Fraternity with a return to nationalistic values. There are few, if any, memorials to this dark period of the town’s history. However, some grand and decorative buildings are a testament to its heyday as a spa town in the mid C19th.

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Visits of Napoleon lll prompted major redevelopments and construction new gardens, boulevards and pavilions. The pavilions emanate from the central spa, where the five varieties of water can be tasted, and coil round the gardens. Its difficult to stroll through them now and not have an image of the past promenaders. It is a town of faded elegance with some fine buildings but far too many run down or even abandoned.

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Like many French towns the church steeple still dominates the skyline but this is quite a contrast to the rest of the town’s architecture. The church is built in reinforced concrete which does little to instill any sense of awe or spirituality. It was built in 1931 and is described in the church’s own literature as a “unique example of art deco”. It’s certainly unique but definitely not fine. Inside it is dark and gloomy and made me reflect on a recent quote from Pope Francis,

“For too many Christians every day is Lent”.

Yes,this is an ideal church for this group.

The cast iron Solomnic columns - St Barnabas Church

The cast iron Solomnic columns – St Barnabas Church

I have a fascination for St Barnabas Church because it has been moved and rebuilt then bombed and rebuilt. It’s such a powerful symbol of resilience. With the decline of the Woolwich Royal Dockyard its Chapel fell into disuse from 1923. The Royal Arsenal workers who lived on the new Garden City Estate (later re-named the Progress Estate) had erected a wooden hut (1917) in Arbroath Road to use for church services. In 1932 it was decided to take the Dockyard Church building down and to re-erect it in a reduced form as the local church for the Progress Estate. It was reconsecrated as the Church of St Barnabas. During a bombing raid, March 1944, it was seriously damaged and only the walls were left standing. The church was repaired and re-dedicated in June 1957.

Restored St Barnabas Church Eltham

Now whilst I’m a fan I’ve been frustrated that the church has been closed when I visited. Well all that changed recently;there was a sandwich board outside the church inviting passers by in. I was greeted by Rev Steve Cook who on finding out about my interest in the church told me more.

Exposed Skidmore capitals

Exposed Skidmore capitals

The Church was designed by George Gilbert Scot who commissioned Skidmore of Coventry to do the ironwork. The cast iron columns were highly decorative with foliage patterns and topped with gilt edged capitals. Columns with this spiral shaft were known as Solomonic as legend has it that columns like these ornamented the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. The St Barnabas columns were damaged in the bombing raid and have since been concealed all that is exposed is the capitals. The angels were a much later addition.

Hans Fiebusch mural

Hans Fiebusch mural

The apse of the church was painted by Hans Fiebusch who fled Jewish Persecution in Nazi Germany 1933 and settled in England. He became a member of the London Group in 1934 and regularly exhibited his paintings at the Royal Academy. In 1944 he was commissioned to do a mural for the New Methodist Hall in Colliers Wood and this led to a long association with the Church of England. After the war he was commissioned by the Diocese of Southwark to undertake work in churches that had been damaged. The painting in St Barnabas has a central figure of God which is illuminated in an eerie light which reinforces the apocalyptic aspect of the scene. My visit reinforced my view that St Barnabas is a real Victorian Gothic gem in this part of London.

Royal Sea Bathing Hospital

Royal Sea Bathing Hospital

Margate is still waiting for the Bilbao effect to transform it to its former glory, but here and there are signs that the town is on the up – The Turner Contemporary, the old town and now The Royal Seabathing Hospital. (Previous post on Margate’s regeneration)

Views from the hospital

Views from the hospital

The old buildings which for so long were abandoned have had a face lift and repurposed into luxury seaside apartments.

Margate in the 1950s

Margate in the 1950s

Margate’s climate has much to do with its early success as a seaside town. This is how it was described in Ward Lock’s Illustrated Guide Books(1951):

“First among its natural assets is Margate’s unrivalled air, clear, invigorating and laden with ozone. All the winds except those from the south west blow as sea breezes, while the chalky soil absorbs moisture, so that the air has the same exhilarating effect as that of the Alps, intensified by the flavour of the sea.”

It was this reputation and an unquestionable belief in the curative properties of sea air that led to the foundation of The Royal Sea Bathing Hospital 1791. For two hundred years the hospital treated patients with tuberculosis and other diseases. The hospital closed in 1996 and photographs taken in 2005 can be found on Abandoned Britain.

MT. 233. Sea Bathing Hosp. 1913

The hospital was founded by John Coakley Lettsom a Quaker physician for London’s poor who would benefit from sun, sea and ozone. He was, however, lampooned:

“When my patients call on me,
I physic, bleed, and sweats ‘em;
Then if they choose to die,
Why, what care I, I Lettsom”.

The hospital was quite visionary and from the outset was designed with open arcased and verandas although it would be another century before open-air treatment for pulmonary TB was standard. Initially the hospital was only open during the summer months but in 1858 an indoor bath enabled the wards to be open all year round. Wards were only used for sleeping in during bad weather with beds more usually found on the verandah. Perhaps this is why London’s poor, not used to sleeping in the open air, questioned Dr Lettsom’s motivation.

The RAC Department Store

In 1999 the RACs department store featured in a television movie The Greatest Store in the World. Up until the 1980s it certainly would have been the greatest store in South East London but in 1999 it was closed with no future prospects.

Powis Street today

Powis Street today

Membership of the RAC had been steadily increasing since its formation in 1868 and at the outbreak of the Second World War 1939 it was 382,000. In 1937 they planned a second large emporium in Woolwich. It was opened in stages 1939 and 1940 but it was not brought into full use until after the war. The streamlined building with horizontal lines and faience tiles makes an interesting architectural contrast to its sibling across the street.

RACs Department Store

Throughout the 1960s membership of the RACs increased. This transformative period saw a major re-fit of the store to make it up-to-the minute and reflect changing cultural values. On the third floor was a large bar and restaurant area plus a roof terrace

Restaurant

Restaurant

Bar

Bar

A travel bureau was a new feature reflecting the increased accessibility of foreign travel.

The Travel Department

The Travel Department

Post Office Counter in the store

Post Office Counter in the store


Hairdressing Department

Hairdressing Department

Sweet Department

Sweet Department

By the 1970s the membership of RACs reached half million but from this highpoint they began to suffer from the competition from the supermarkets. It was forced to merge with the Co-operative Wholesale Society in 1985. They used the upper floors as regional offices up until 1999 when it finally closed. In 2006 it was again used as a film set, this time for the dystopian science fiction film Children of Men. The abandoned store helping to conjure up an urban landscape of despair. After a period of uncertainty and threat of demolition there are plans to convert this important historic building into new residential accommodation.

Birchington on Sea

Birchington on Sea

You could be mistaken that Birchington is a suburb of Margate, sited perilously at the crossroads of the Canterbury Road and the Thanet Way. It’s famous for being the birth place of the bungalow and the resting place of Dante Gabrielle Rossetti. All Saints Church is at the crossroads of these two ancient roads. When I visited organ music could be heard from the church but all doors were locked. Visits to the inside of the church are restricted to Saturdays 10-12.

All Saints Church

All Saints Church

Close to the main door is Rossetti’s grave, joint founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. His health began to deteriorate in the 1860s and in 1869 he took the extreme step of exhuming his wife’s coffin to retrieve his Poems, which he published the following year. He died at Birchington-on-Sea 9th April 1882. Having disturbed the final resting place of his wife he chose not to be buried with her in London. The large ornate cross was designed by his friend and fellow Pre-Raphaelite, Ford Maddox Brown.

Gabrielle Dante Rossetti's Grcave

From the church, a walk along the High Street will lead to the seafront. There’s a fine collection of architecture, Georgian and Victorian, if you look beyond the shop fronts. It’s keeping the plight of high streets at bay and most shops are occupied. With three fish and chip shops in town, you will never want for the traditional seaside supper.

Tunnels leading to bungalows in Birchington

At the seafront there is a coastal trail that leads to Margate in one direction and Reculver in the other. It’s still relatively unspoiled with vast views of the Estuary and the occasional thick skinned swimmer. On top of the cliffs are garden sheds alarmingly close to the edge. These belong to the bungalows strung out along the coast. Below are arched gateways now blocked but some still reveal the steps that led from the sea to the bungalow. John Pollard Seddon, a friend of Rossetti, built the first bungalow estate in England in 1870. When Rossetti had a stroke he moved to a bungalow in Shakespeare Road Birchington.

Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

You may be thinking “What’s Bilbao got to do with the Thames?” Well, the development of the Guggenheim has become the blue print for regeneration schemes. Just think of the Turner Contemporary at Margate. It doesn’t need to be an art gallery it just needs to be an iconic photogenic building; think of The Millennium Dome (now the 02). So, during my recent holiday in Spain I paid a visit.

View from Turner Contemporary

View from Turner Contemporary

I arrived in Bilbao on the last night of the Aste Nagusia (Big Week) festival which is a nine day event celebrating the Basque culture, held at the end of August. All along the banks of the Nervion River there were arcades, fun fairs and street theatre. Even the rain couldn’t deter the promenaders, the place was heaving. The scene was reminiscent of those films of Blackpool’s Golden Mile in its heyday. The transformation of Bilbao from an industrial port to a tourist destination was made possible by the building of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum.

Treacherous steps at the Guggenheim

Treacherous steps at the Guggenheim

The museum is sited on the banks of the Nevrion and close to La Salve Bridge. The bridge appears to be an integral part of the structure although it was built earlier in the 1970s. Lauded as one of the greatest architectural achievements of our time it would take a brave soul to blaspheme about it. There is much, such as the atrium, that holds the viewer in awe. However, with only one third of the space given over to galleries, it’s style over function. Traditional conventions such as the width of steps have been abandoned. They may look aesthetically pleasing but most people found their navigation treacherous. The function is neither public space nor art gallery but this doesn’t appear to matter as it has been a remarkable success.

Iberdrola Tower Bilbao

Iberdrola Tower Bilbao


Walking through Bilbao you can see some vibrant public spaces and an elegant mix of buildings. The refurbished market hall is well worth visiting and on display is a range of produce that we normally only see in Harrod’s Food Hall. The Guggenheim largely ignores this context and is not a magnate for the local community. In fact, there were relatively few tourists inside the building. It is, however, not without influence and has spawned some new buildings that have a similar aversion to the right angle.

Eltham High Street

It stands to reason that being so close to Eltham Palace that Eltham should want to market itself as a tourist destination. Within walking distance from the Palace the High Street has listed buildings in spades. There are Georgian and mock Georgian; mock Tudor (fashionable in the inter-war years); Victorian and modern buildings which blend well together. With a bit of tweaking it could be something rather special and a fitting companion for its more popular neighbour the Palace. The High Street has a good range of shops, including two department stores and a surprising number of coffee shops. If you want pubs there are six that are still boozers but the oldest, The Greyhound, C17th is now an Indian restaurant.

Rising Sun Eltham

The names of the streets running off the High Street reveal the town’s history. Roper Street is named after Margaret Roper daughter of St Thomas More. Her house, a mere ten minute walk, was in Well Hall Pleasaunce and the original Tudor barn still stands. Archery Road is, as you could guess, the place where the Royal Archers would practise. Philpot Place and Passey Place are both named after Tudor benefactors who set up charitable trusts for the citizens of Eltham.

Eltham High Street

It also boasts the world’s oldest golf course; The Royal Blackheath Golf Club. The Club House was originally known as Eltham Lodge and was built in 1664. If you’re not a member of this exclusive course you will need to wait until one of the Open House days to visit this splendid example of 17th Century Restoration architecture.
Eltham High Street

Cliefden House

Cliefden House

It’s a fact that you can pass a place or building frequently and not really see it. No, it’s not magic it’s just that places become familiar and we rarely look above the first storey. Take Cliefden House on Eltham High Street. Locals may shout “where’s that?” Well, it’s Costa Coffee on one side and a pawnbrokers on the other. Move to the other side of the street, take another look and you can see the shape of a large, early 18th Century house. To add insult, to this house of architectural significance, are the unsightly down pipes and other fixtures that have been added.

Rear view of Cliefden House

Rear view of Cliefden House

Now take a look at the back of the house. To do this you take the pathway at the side of the HSBC bank, work your way through the detritus of the retail trade and you will find a 17th Century stable block. It’s in a really sad state of repair; unloved and surrounded by rubbish. From here there is a view of the rear of Clieffden House, hemmed in and its full elevation totally obliterated from view.

18th C stables at rear of Cliefden House

18th C stables at rear of Cliefden House

Stables at rear of Cliefden House

Continue on this path and encounter The Orangery, a Baroque garden building, 1717-25. Originally it belonged to Eltham House which was demolished in the 1920s. Whilst giving its name to the lane in which it’s situated, it’s now an inconsequential part of it. It was repaired in 2003 and now work is in progress to add an extension. From this perspective it looks out of balance and the new wing dominates. From the Orangery Lane perspective it doesn’t look as bad as the extension is on an incline and slopes backwards. The Orangery is hemmed in by car parks and hard surfaces. Previous planning decisions leaving a nightmare of a scheme for future generations. Architects’ drawings show a small green space in front as a nod to its past life, in reality, it’s of postage stamp proportions. The development will be studio offices.

The Orangery Eltham

The Orangery Eltham

Within a walking distance of 200 metres you have three 18th Century buildings that are buried in the town’s modern topography. They are all listed by English Heritage. Two buildings, The Orangery and Clieffden House, are in the elite 8% of all listed buildings of outstanding interest and have a Grade ll*. The joy of buried treasure is that it can be found. Let’s hope so.

Painted Hall ORNC

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.

Painted Hall ORNC

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.

Painted Hall ORNC

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.

Conservation Painted Hall ORNC

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.

Conservation Painted Hall ORNC

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.

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