London Slant: Prepare for takeoff on a gastro-journey into the unknown

What sort of crazy person would stump up £50 weeks in advance for an unspecified dinner at an unknown London location anywhere between Highbury and Croydon?

It turns out there are lots of us about. I was lucky to get a slot: tickets disappeared with a swoosh.

And so, one evening at 6pm I was anxiously awaiting a text to tell me where I’d be eating that night. Please, please, don’t let it be Croydon, I thought—a one-hour-plus schlep back home. I couldn’t believe it when my phone pinged with instructions to hot-foot it to a location ten minutes from my front door. My secret themed dinner, part of a season of wacky gourmet evenings by event organisers Gingerline, was off to a flying start.

Planet Gingerline

Arrival at the entrance: let the evening begin.

The given address might have been my stomping ground, but it wasn’t easy to find. After circling around a dilapidated community centre I eventually arrived at the appointed place. I shuffled down a concrete ramp, into the basement of a disused council building that had been kitted out like Thunderbirds.

Planet Gingerline

Our flight attendant hosts, who provided drinks, dinner and dance.

An orange-haired flight attendant checked me in. It was cocktails all round before I and my fellow 80 or so ‘travellers’ took our seats at tables ready for our journey into outer space. Safety instructions for the gastronomical voyage were issued and with much whooshing and juddering we were off.

Planet Gingerline

One of the innovative courses: a mix of unexpected tastes.

My heart sank when the first course arrived in polystyrene containers. But when I started eating I realised it was all part of the spacey show—not a foretaste of packaged food to come. Amazingly, the concoction of goat’s cheese lollipops and a salad with dressing served in a syringe was rather good.

Next up was a dish called UFO: a seafood ravioli with a roast pepper coulis and a dash of cumin—mmmmm. Now I started to concentrate on the food. An illuminated glass dome arrived, showcasing a duck confection in billowing dry ice. Then came chocolate with explosive ‘space dust’.

In between dishes we were led behind the scenes on sundry research missions: the evening rocketed past at the speed of light. All too soon we were ordered to prepare for landing, urged to keep the event a secret so as not to spoil the surprise for others—and disgorged back into the east London night.

Gingerline is taking bookings for its next series, somewhere along the Jubilee line, from today. Previous dinner scenarios have included a magical wood, a gothic Christmas and a casino. What will they come up with next?

London Slant: An exotic encounter outside Brighton

Imagine the quintessential English country scene: emerald valleys, swathes of buttercups, cows gently munching the grass. It couldn’t have been more idyllic when I climbed up the South Downs on a day out from London.

South Downs, Ditchilng and Brighton

On top of the South Downs, between Ditchling and Brighton.

A path from Ditchling village led up to a ridge; I walked along enjoying fabulous views of fields flowing down on either side. Then, as I began to descend towards Brighton, a strange white dome emerged behind a slope. As I approached it took on a distinctly Moghul form; I felt as though I was being transported to the banks of the Ganges. I wasn’t expecting any sort of building in this rural setting, let alone one that appeared to be transported from a hot, sandy plain in India. Whatever could it be?

Chattri Brighton

The Chattri Memorial, on the spot where Indian soldiers who died after fighting in WWI were cremated.

I drew closer and discovered a plaque describing it as the Chattri Memorial, built to honour Indian soldiers who fought alongside Britons in the Great War. Constructed in pure, white marble, I found it very moving, alone among a scattering of windswept trees.

Chattri Memorial

The word “chattri” means umbrella in several Indian languages. It was designed by Indian architect EC Henriques and is now a listed building.

We’re all familiar with Brighton’s Royal Pavilion, where the future King George IV played out his oriental fantasies as the 18th century drew to a close. Less well known is that this extravagant palace was a hospital for thousands of Indian military casualties who served on the Western Front. Fifty three Sikhs and Hindus who did not survive their injuries were cremated here on the South Downs and the Chattri Memorial built in 1921 on the actual spot of their funeral pyres.

Chattri Memorial in 1921

The dedication ceremony for the Chattri Memorial in 1921.

The Prince of Wales presided at the memorial’s opening ceremony. Now, every June, crowds continue to gather here to remember the dead.

Royal Pavilion, Brighton

Royal Pavilion at Brighton, an unlikely hospital for Indian soldiers injured in WWI.

I was pleased to have come across the Chattri by chance during the World War One centenary year. As I continued my walk down into Brighton my thoughts turned to the Pavilion: it seemed fitting that the Prince Regent’s extravagance could have also served a worthwhile purpose, and that many more men were nursed back to health under its outrageous chandeliers than turned to dust in the green hills beyond its domes.

I travelled from London to Hassocks station, walked to Ditchling village with its Museum of Art+Craft, then continued up over the South Downs to Patcham and into Brighton, for the return train journey. 

 

London Slant: Sensational spectra lights up the night

On Monday night London switched out lights all along the Thames—with one amazing exception. Streaming up into the sky from Victoria Tower Gardens, 49 huge spotlights sent glowing white columns soaring into infinity. Spectra, an installation by Japanese artist Ryoji Ikeda, is visible from all over London. But the main experience is close up—so I headed towards the adjacent House of Lords.

spectra with tower P1020930

Spectra marks the centenary of the First World War; its beams stream up over the Union Flag fluttering on the House of Lords.

Spectra is supported by Artangel, known for its strong track record of exciting events. The work launched to mark the centenary of the First World War.

Approaching along the Thames, I first spotted it rocketing out Tate Modern’s chimney.

spectra, artangel, London

Spectra above Tate Modern and the Millennium Bridge.

Then as I went upstream it appeared behind the National Theatre. The Southbank complex was glimmering blood red and scrolling on its illuminated sign Sir Edward Grey’s poignant words “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime”. Further on, spectra rose above the London Eye, three orange lights burning at its top, like a candle flame.

spectra, artangel, london

Spectra shoots through the night sky like a wartime searchlight. Three orange lights atop the London Eye evoked a candle flame.

 

Between 10 and 11pm the whole city switched off lights to remember the start of the First World War. The Houses of Parliament were barely discernible in the dark, apart from the clock face in Big Ben’s Elizabeth Tower, floating like a moon. Now I was close enough to see dazzling specks of light flitting through spectra’s beams: birds and insects which, like me, were being drawn in. A helicopter flew straight through, its rotating blades turned into a whirling silver plate.

Entering Victoria Tower Gardens I roamed among the giant lights. Strange sounds—pings and hisses—emerged from speakers to add to the other-worldliness. Moths and butterflies hit the lights, sizzled and died. Just like all those young men who eagerly signed up to go and fight in the trenches a hundred years ago.

spectra, Artangel, London

I lay on my back and looked up through the trees.

Spectra continues every night until sunrise on Monday 11 August.

London Slant: A day out in Ditchling, home of art and craft

A couple of weeks ago The Art Fund announced its Museum of the Year 2014 award. The six-strong shortlist featured winner Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Tate Britain, Portsmouth’s Mary Rose Museum…and Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft. How come I hadn’t been to the last one? Given its illustrious company, clearly I had to go and check it out.

Ditchling Museum

Entrance to Ditchling Museum in a former coach house close by the church.

A pretty South Downs village near Brighton, Ditchling makes a great day trip from London. I hopped on a train at Victoria and in less than an hour had disembarked at Hassocks station and was striding past a white windmill above meadows full of poppies along what’s known as the artists’ walk. I soon arrived at the cluster of old cottages that have attracted a community of creative luminaries from sculptor Eric Gill in the early 1900s right up to today. The village has a strong association with the written word: in addition to the man behind Gill Sans lettering, other craftspeople with studios here have included Edward Johnston, designer of the London Underground typeface, and printer Hilary Pepler.

Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft

Display of work by Edward Johnston, creator of the London Underground font.

There has been a museum in Ditchling since 1985, when it was set up by two sisters who knew many of the artists whose work is now on show. But it was transformed by a major refurbishment and reopened in September 2013 with engaging, fresh displays and those other must-haves of the modern museum, a cafe and shop.

Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft

Edward Johnston’s desk and painter David Jones’ serene Madonna.

The displays bring together hand-printed books, paintings, wood carvings and rural implements. I enjoyed the woven textiles by Hilary Bourne who, when reluctantly approached to make costumes for Ben-Hur, tried to dissuade MGM by asking four times the going rate—to which they promptly agreed.

It was also fun to encounter a display by silversmiths Pruden & Smith, which also has a workshop and boutique in the centre of the village. Its co-owner, Anton Pruden, is the grandson of the silversmith who was part of Eric Gill’s original craft guild. Visitors to the shop may be invited to tour the warren of work rooms underneath. Be warned, though, that once you’ve seen what goes into these stylish pieces you are unlikely to emerge empty-handed.

Ditchling tea rooms

Pretty cottages and tea rooms: a slice of Ditchling village life.

On a ramble around the village I stopped at the churchyard to admire lettering in stone carved by Gill. A visit to one of the tea shops was another must. I then walked out into the fields and up onto the South Downs, en route to Brighton on the other side. From there, it was easy to catch the London-bound train—but not before I’d come across an extraordinary sight, which I’ll tell you about next time…

Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft, open daily from 11.00-17.00 (Sun from 12.00).

 

 

 

London Slant: Be among the first to step inside a Huguenot’s house

If I was asked to pick my most fascinating road in London, Fournier Street in Spitalfields would be near the top of my list. Ever since its houses were built in the early 18th century it has been home to artist-craft workers starting with Huguenot silk weavers and leading up to current residents Tracey Emin and Gilbert & George. I love to look up and see the garrets where looms once rattled and it’s rare that I visit and don’t encounter the Besuited Duo striding along. (On one particularly surreal day they came gliding along the pavement towards me: without breaking gait they parted to let me go between them, eyes fixed on the middle distance, then came back together and continued their unruffled trajectory once they’d passed by.)

31 Fournier Street

First floor of 31 Fournier Street, transformed into an atmospheric art gallery.

I grab any chance to go inside these houses. I’ve visited gardens on open days and attended a handbell concert in one as part of the Spitalfields Festival. So when I heard that No 31 was opening by appointment for an art exhibition, I didn’t hesitate to book.

31 Fournier Street

The garden at 31 Fournier Street.

This inaugural show by Trevor Newton was the perfect choice to kickstart what will be a series of exhibitions, book launches and performances over coming months. Many of his works capture idiosyncratic architecture and interiors—perfectly at home crammed onto the wood-panelled walls of a house that its owner, Rodney Archer, describes part salon, part cabinet of curiosities. Other works, from Newton’s travels in the Australian outback, went rather well with the tree ferns and other exuberant greenery in the garden outside.

31 Fournier Street

Part salon, part cabinet of curiosities.

Many of the house’s original features have been preserved, while incomers, like the fireplace that once belonged to Oscar Wilde, lend a theatrical touch and yet only add to the Miss Havisham atmosphere. It was a delight to amble around with a glass of wine, and imagine who had lived here before Archer arrived 35 years ago.

On 1 July a new exhibition of prints and drawings launches: portraits-cum-caricature by Edward Firth. Then, on 12,15 and 17 July the house will be buzzing once again as part of the Huguenot Thread Festival, when it will host a collection of original 1850s silk velour patterns. All the shows mentioned are selling exhibitions, at advantageous prices since there is no gallerist involved. The opening of the house is a win, win, win situation—for buyer, seller and owner, who gets to share his fascinating home with an eager public for the first time. See 31 Fournier Street  for full details.

31 Fournier Street

Front door…

 

31 Fournier Street

…back door

 

London Slant: Flashing lights and City buoys at Trinity House

“Excuse me, what is a lighthouse?” I overheard a foreign visitor enquire.

Trinity House, London

A fanfare welcome to Trinity House.

It was easy to point to an answer since there were two right there: either side of the door. While some of London’s grand old buildings illuminate their entrances with coach lamps, and others blazing torchères, Trinity House offers the beams of twin model lighthouses. You’d expect no less of the flagship headquarters of an organisation in charge of the safety of shipping since it was granted a charter by King Henry VIII.

Trinity House

One of the twin lighthouses that illuminate the entrance at Trinity House

Yesterday was a quite an occasion: a rare Open Day to celebrate 500 years since Trinity House’s foundation in 1514. Since then the corporation has set up beacons all around Britain. It now operates some 600 lighthouses and lightships—the former mainly on the rocky west coast and the latter largely off the lower-lying and sandy eastern shores—as well as supporting seafarers and their families. It also has a strong engineering and technology remit, and spearheads development in satellite navigation and piloting of ships.

Trinity House

Trinity House, celebrating 500 years. The building, by Samuel Wyatt, dates from 1796.

A grand, double staircase curves up to the first floor past globes and coats of arms, to reach a row of high-ceilinged rooms that look out towards the Tower of London and Tower Bridge. Walls are decorated with portraits of royals associated with Trinity House, from the Tudor monarchs right up to the current Master, Princess Anne. Other notables depicted include past Master Winston Churchill, shown signing the Atlantic agreement with Franklin D. Roosevelt. Oil paintings of storm-lashed vessels at sea and model ships including Nelson’s Victory and Cutty Sark, plus the Court Room’s lavish ceiling, add a touch of drama.

Trinity House

King Henry VIII, who gave Trinity House its charter, presides over the Court Room.

In the library there’s a display of silverware, including grand table ornaments shaped like lighthouses and a magnificent wine cooler that’s a riot of sculpted corals and shells. I imagined an admiral hosting dinner here, musicians playing in the minstrels’ gallery above, as these objets d’art glinted beneath the chandeliers. In the adjacent Pepys Room there’s a portrait of the diarist; Samuel Pepys was Master of Trinity House shortly after the Civil War.

Trinity House

Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I by George Gower.

As I continued to nose around the cannon balls, the bell from Her Majesty’s Royal Yacht Britannia, globes and coats of arms, hordes of visitors came flowing in. Many were from overseas, had just arrived by chance and were really excited to find themselves inside such a venerable place. We may not have been private guests invited to the captain’s table, but it was a real party atmosphere. Here’s to the next 500 years, Trinity House. Carry on lighting the way.

Trinity House will be free to explore once again as part of Open House weekend (20 September) or you can visit their website to book guided tours. Find out more in their appropriately named magazine, Flash.

London Slant: What’s inside London’s three new cultural caskets?

It’s a year since a red inverted table called The Shed appeared at London’s Southbank. This temporary theatre’s first play, appropriately set around a table passed down through generations of a family, kicked off a string of full-house hits. Now this rough timber building with a fringe vibe has had its planning licence extended until 2017. Could it end up a permanent landmark alongside its neighbouring once-temporary structure, the London Eye? As a showcase for edgy works that are tapping a new, younger audience, there seems no reason why it shouldn’t run and run.

The Shed, National Theatre, London's South Bank

Extended run: The Shed at London’s Southbank Centre frames St Paul’s.

It’s just one of three timber boxes that have freshly sprouted in London’s cultural hubs. A short amble along the Thames leads to another fizzing theatre: the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe. It’s also been packing ‘em in since Bond girl Gemma Arterton took to the stage as the Duchess of Malfi a few months back.

Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London

The gorgeous candlelit interior of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at The Globe.

This intimate “jewel box” is a real feast for the senses. You don’t just wander in and sit down. You wait until invited to make your entrance: just stepping inside is a piece of theatre in itself. The scent of the hand-crafted oak auditorium wafts over you as you step among flickering beeswax candles, the only source of light. Then, as your eyes adjust to the dim glow they wander from the richly patterned backdrop up to the ceiling, a celestial scene of cherubs among clouds.

On the occasion of my audience with The Duchess, I took my seat as strolling minstrels in Elizabethan garb appeared onstage playing viols and lutes. Then came figures in fabulous ruffs and pantaloons bearing tapers. Chandeliers came spiralling down from the ceiling which they lit with great bravura to enthusiastic applause. Now it was time for the performance to begin.

Sam Wanamaker ceiling

The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse ceiling, lit by candles in revolving chandeliers.

If the Sam Wanamaker has been designed to reflect a true Jacobean-era night out, right down to its bum-numbing benches, the opposite is true at the high-tech Milton Court Concert Hall. The Guildhall School of Music & Drama’s new performance space boasts indulgently bum-hugging seats. From its light-flooded glass lobby with a Martin Creed artwork to its white ceiling and walls, this 600-capacity hall feels fresh yet surprisingly intimate. And yes, it too features masses of wood—in this case sapele, a native African cousin of mahogany often used to make musical instruments. The acoustics are superb.

Milton Court Concert Hall, London

The intimate Milton Court Concert Hall.

The Hall hosts concerts by the school’s musicians alongside performances by the Academy of Ancient Music and the Britten Sinfonia, bookable through the adjacent Barbican Centre. It’s part of a complex that also include two new theatres, which I’ve yet to sample but could well take my tally of beautiful new boxes to five.

 

Photography: Sam Wanamaker Playhouse by Pete Le May; Milton Court Concert Hall by Morley von Sternberg