Category Archives: AROUND BRITAIN

LONDON SLANT: NEW LIFE FOR A PLACE OF SLEEP

Bunhill Fields, a leafy graveyard in London’s financial district, is a welcome patch of green among looming concrete and glass. The final resting place of colourful characters including William Blake and Daniel Defoe, its peaceful atmosphere counteracts the urban urgency all around.

London slant Bunhill fields

An apple for the poet-painter. Visitors to William Blake’s grave in London’s Bunhill Fields leave tokens of appreciation, including coins, flowers and fruit.

Every morning stern-faced office workers stream along its central path, two unbroken ribbons heading east and west. I imagine the effigy of John Bunyan, recumbent on his tomb, turning to observe them as they scurry past. I fancy that the author of Pilgrim’s Progress, known for his skilful rendering of human foibles and desires, would be delighted to have found the perfect spot to continue his studies of London life.

John Bunyan Bunhill Fields London slant

No respect for a writer whose work has never been out of print for over 300 years. A London pigeon perches on the stomach of John Bunyan, author of Pilgrim’s Progress.

Active from the late 17th century until 1854, burials have long ceased on this site. So I was quite surprised when I recently encountered a team of workmen digging around the graves. I asked one what was happening and he told me that Bone Hill, its original name, is a former marsh. Many of the tombs are subsiding—he pointed to one that had collapsed—but are now being shored up and cleaned. Errant vegetation is being removed and water jets are targeting years of city grime. Beautiful carvings and inscriptions are appearing in glowing white stone.

Bunhill Fields, London

Men at work. A skull and cross bones newly cleaned on a Bunhill Fields tomb.

It’s great that such care is being lavished on a place that could have been left behind in the scramble to build office towers. And it’s fascinating to watch as every week more of the monuments return to glowing health.

Now, some newly-buffed tombs are even starting to look rather stark. But I’m sure it won’t be long before nature begins to reassert itself. Because while I’m delighted to see this memorial ground of notable non-conformists being properly nurtured, atmosphere is important, too. And for that you need a scattering of wayward ivy and ferns peeking out among the stones.

LONDON SLANT: GO WEST, YOUNG EASTER BUNNY

Happy Easter, everyone! The sky’s bright blue and I long to put on my hiking boots and head for the hills. But it’s far too chilly for the Chilterns, so join me on a West London Easter walk.

Easter bunnies

Easter bunnies on parade, with the lady who organised the display.

Let’s start off with a bit of seasonal fun. While rambling along Collingham Rd near Gloucester Rd tube I spotted this family of luminous bunnies. As I took a snap the owner emerged from her house. She told me that she started putting on similarly festive displays for her children every Christmas. They loved them so much that she’s since extended their range. “We’re planning Halloween now,” she told me, then leapt into her sports car and zoomed off with a most unbunny-like roar.

But the walk I’m about to suggest starts two stops along the District and Circle lines, at Sloane Square. Download the route from http://www.london-footprints.co.uk/wkchelsearoute.htm

Colbert brings a touch of Paris cafe society to Sloane Square.

Colbert brings a touch of Paris cafe society to Sloane Square.

When I did this walk a few weeks ago I began with a fortifying breakfast at Colbert, adjacent to the station. The manager recommended various treats such as their Eggs Benedict and superfruit salad with pomegranate jewels. As he said, you should only order things in restaurants that you wouldn’t make for yourself back home. The food was delicious, the atmosphere relaxed and fun. Most memorable were the gorgeous loos. With their nautical decor, including sea green tiles, they had the feel of a glamorous 1930s French liner. I was in no hurry to dry my hands.

Cafe Colbert

Coffee in Colbert, to kick start the walk.

Setting off outside, my first fascinating port of call was the Arts and Crafts Holy Trinity church (four stars in Simon Jenkins’ Thousand Best Churches book). The morning light was streaming through the Burne-Jones stained glass east window. I loved the writhing patterns of the floral wrought iron chancel gates.

London slant Chelsea arts club

Entrance of the Chelsea Arts Club.

From here, the route zig-zagged back and forth between the King’s Road and Cheyne Walk, past all sorts of curious buildings tucked away down tiny streets. In addition to the places I’ve photographed I passed Godfrey Street—a row of tiny houses painted different colours—and the Manolo Blahnik shop window in Old Church Street, arrayed with shoes sprouting multi-coloured protuberances that looked like exotic plants.

London slant

Cow’s head above former dairy building in Old Church Street.

I enjoyed seeing Oscar Wilde’s former home in Tite Street (with a pair of suitably louche lamps with shades of guinea fowl feathers in the window) and seeing Whistler’s house overlooking the Thames and matching the views to his Nocturnes.

London slant

Building designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, whose studio was nearby.

I passed a slab of the Berlin Wall in the National Army Museum grounds, entered the magnificent chapel of the Royal Hospital (home to the Chelsea pensioners) and eventually wound up in the food market just outside the Saatchi Gallery (both of which were heaving with crowds.) I found plenty more cups of coffee to keep me going until the sun went down in a blaze over Battersea Park.

London slant

Delightful sign on a nursery school.

LONDON SLANT: NIGHT OUT WITH THE STARS

Some months back I wrote about how I’d been given a mini telescope. I had visions of packing my new toy into its snazzy little backpack and taking off for exotic climes where I’d view the stars on hot summer nights. I certainly never imagined I’d be able to see anything at all in central London. But then, after much fiddling, I discovered how to focus it. And, wow, it’s incredible what you can see above one of the most light-polluted cities on earth.

Hampstead observatory

The observatory at Hampstead, open to the public on cloudless Friday and Saturday winter nights.

I started off with the moon and learnt that you need to view it when it’s half full and illuminated at an angle, when the craters show. Then, with my iPad moon app glowing at my side, I started to identify features such as the Sea of Tranquillity. Now, on those rare, clear evenings I shoot up to my office/observatory to see the four moons of Jupiter circling the yellow planet—just like Galileo who discovered them 400 years ago!

Now that I’ve got the bit between my teeth, a few evenings ago, after dinner, I took off for the Hampstead Observatory. Arriving at Hampstead Ponds, I found a dark pathway leading up a hillock to a Victorian domed hut. It was really spooky climbing through the leafy gloom, but at the top an animated crowd was clustered around the large, 100-year-old telescope.

Roger, one of the astronomy society’s demonstrators, soon had us oohing and aahing over the Orion nebula and 12 of the Pleiades’ 30,000 stars. He told us that his father was one of the few people to have seen Halley’s Comet on both of its 20th century visits. Comets, he said, are the most whimsical of celestial phenomena: seemingly sure-fire stunners can turn out to be damp squibs and vice versa. So he, for one, is not getting over-excited about the projected visit of ISON later this year (unlike me!).

The one thing we visitors should try to witness, Roger said, was the rings of Saturn. Unfortunately the planet rises at awkward times for viewing in 2013. However the observatory may be having special late-night sessions in May and I really hope I can catch one. They’ll be listed on the observatory website where as it said when I last visited, without apparent irony, “Watch this space”.

* The observatory, run by the Hampstead Scientific Society, opens to the general public during the winter on cloudless Friday and Saturday nights. It’s one of the few, if not the only, such places in London where you can just turn up. There’s no charge, but visitors will surely want to slip a note into the donation box.

LONDON SLANT: NEW AT KEW

No matter how many times I visit London’s Kew Gardens (and it’s a lot) every time I go I see something new. I never cease to be amazed at how somewhere so seemingly “natural” can be so innovative. But since Kew’s all about plant life tamed and put on show, perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that it’s so cutting-edge.

Orchids at Kew

Part of a fabulous wall of orchids at Kew.

I always try to catch the annual Orchid Festival, and last week provided the perfect day for this eye-popping adventure. The sun streamed into the Princess of Wales Conservatory, lighting up walls and giant bowls dripping exotic blooms. I loved the columns of vibrant colour reflected in the central pool and archways draped in flowers.

Orchids at Kew

Orchids in and around the pool at the Princess of Wales Conservatory, Kew.

The petal paparazzi were out in force, snapping away as these showy stars strutted their stuff, flaunting their finery full force. Outside the conservatory though, nodding in the shade, much more modest flowers were also causing a stir. There may still be a nip in the air, but spring is coming and snowdrops, crocuses and even a few camellias are starting to appear.

Snowdrops and sculpture at Kew

The alien has landed: a scattering of snowdrops and looming David Nash Black Sphere sculpture at Kew.

This leads us gently into the other excitement of my visit: David Nash’s extraordinary sculptures, artfully positioned around the grounds. Nash has been doing amazing things with wood in general and whole tree trunks in particular for 40 years. He was recently invited to create new works from wood available from Kew’s tree management programme to display around the grounds alongside other pieces from his long career. One of the most exciting aspects of this show is how it makes you look at Kew’s living trees in a different, more detailed way, as if they, too, are works of art.

David Nash sculptures at Kew

Scuttlers: A David Nash sculpture on show near his outdoor studio at Kew where it was created.

In addition to works around the grounds, there are dramatic pieces in Kew’s elegant buildings. They look particularly striking among the lush foliage of the Temperate House where, as Nash says: “The exciting thing for me is to see my works in the jungle. To put them among plants, which is where they come from”.

David Nash sculpture at Kew

David Nash’s Throne in the Temperate House.

David Nash sculpture at Kew

A flame-like cone of cork bark in a Kew conservatory

A pyramid of cork bark looks terrific in an otherwise empty conservatory and there’s a fascinating display of smaller pieces in the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art. The gallery also details the evolution of Nash’s career and includes photographs of other site-specific works, including a circle of living trees which the artist has bent inward to interweave and form Ash Dome.

David Nash sculptures at Kew

Clams? Magritte-like bells? These strange shapes seem to float in the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art.

The last thing I expected to do on a sunny day at Kew was to sit and watch a film, but I was totally riveted by Wooden Boulder, the story of a huge “rock” that Nash carved from a tree on a remote hilltop in Wales in 1978. Beginning with still photographs and developing into an exquisitely shot art film, it relates how Nash cut the huge slab of wood, tried but failed to move it downhill, how storms eventually did the job for him and how by 2003 it had reached a river and was washed out to sea. The tale began with grainy snaps of a young man in flared trousers desperately trying to dislodge this giant piece of wood and ended with beautiful – yet rather humorous – footage of his boulder bobbing on the waves of a vast seascape. It’s a wonderful comment on the artist and his life.

Orchids at Kew, until 3 March. David Nash at Kew, until 14 April.

There’s an excellent catalogue, David Nash at Kew Gardens, to accompany the show, as well as an iPad app.

LONDON BRIDGE: NEW BUILDINGS, NEW BOOK

For over a year I’ve been watching the Walkie Talkie building rear up from Fenchurch Street in the City of London. Suddenly, this week it seemed to reach a critical mass. Awkward, bulbous and truly ugly, it’s not a pretty sight. Designed to concentrate its rentable space on the more expensive upper floors, it’s all too solid proof of how money wins out over design. In this, perhaps it is the perfect choice for both its location and its era. As it looms over the elegant facade of Custom House and dominates The Tower you realise why most tall buildings are either straight-sided or taper to the top.

The Walkie Talkie: money speaks more loudly than aesthetics.

The Walkie Talkie: money speaks more loudly than aesthetics.

Speaking of which, it directly faces The Shard across the Thames. The cudgel versus the spear, you might say. My jury’s still out on The Shard, but I like it enough to have booked my ticket to go up to its viewing gallery as soon as it opens in February. I just wish that they would hurry up and finish it off. Its peak should culminate in pure blades of glass. Not in a crane atop piles of steel.

The Shard: isn't it time to get rid of the crane on top, and let the light stream through?

The Shard: isn’t it time to get rid of the crane on top, and let the light stream through?

All this building activity is happening around London Bridge, which features strongly in a great new book I’m reading. London: A History in Maps, by Peter Barber, is a brilliant publication by the British Library’s Head of Maps, telling the city’s story through striking visuals from Roman times up to today. Why it wasn’t published at the same time as his excellent exhibition and television series, I don’t know. But better late than never—as anyone still fishing around for a Christmas present for a lover of London may agree.

London Bridge and the City of London around 1600, in Peter Barber's book.

London Bridge and the City of London around 1600, in Peter Barber’s book.

A DATE WITH THE DISC JOCKS

This week I took my seat in the stadium at the Olympic Park and entered the world of the discus thrower. This was not the elegant balance of the Greek statue forever poised to send his disc spinning. Instead, I cheered as a parade of squat, stocky, tattooed muscle-men stomped onto the arena and gave their weapon a dose of welly.

If it was fun to watch them twirl and hurl, it was even more entertaining to see a groundsman pick up a discus and then place it into a remote-controlled miniature Mini car, which promptly scooted across the grass and returned it for the next contestant.

Welshman Aled Davies won the day and the crowd went wild as he did his lap of honour, wrapped in the Union flag. He is obviously bound for sponsorship deals, but I wondered what is next on the agenda for the other contestants. What will the runner-up, from Iran, go back to? And the Syrian, Bassam Sawsam. Will he return to Damascus, dodging other flying objects?

HEAVENS ABOVE!

It’s a long time since I’ve been given a children’s-style present for my birthday—the sort that comes in a big cardboard box covered with shiny photos and excited words. But this year I travelled back in time as I pulled the paper off a large package. Inside lay my new Celestron, a telescope in a backpack—a totally unexpected thrill.

I’m hoping it’s going to reveal untold heavenly wonders,  even though London is probably the worst place in the world to see stars of the night sky kind. Just being outside and trying to set it up was fun, with cats on the prowl and street sounds heightened by the dark. And as I sat I became aware of just how many bright stars there are, even though I know so many more were obscured by the street light glow.

I’m really looking forward to taking my new gadget with me on trips outside the city. And hopefully by then I’ll have learned how to focus the lens!