Category Archives: Uncategorized

London Slant: Art lovers! Dare you visit the dairy with bottle?

I must confess that I had never read Aldous Huxley’s Island. But after an encounter with some giant purple mushrooms at the Dairy Art Centre, I now feel as though I have.

London Slant: The Dairy Art Centre

Surreal sculptures at the Dairy Art Centre.

To explain. Huxley’s 1962 novel concerns a utopia where exotic religions and psychedelia rule. It’s the inspiration behind a similarly named exhibition at the recently opened Dairy Art Centre in Bloomsbury, a gallery of contemporary art.

Tucked away in a tiny backstreet a few steps from the Brunswick Centre bustle, the building is a squat brick structure that once was a milk depository. A suitably white interior shelters behind a chic glass facade fronted by a small sculpture garden.

But if the walls are plain, the exhibition adds pops of colour and excitement, with 70 works by 40 artists including Jake and Dinos Chapman, Peter Doig and Cindy Sherman. This non-selling show spans an eclectic range from sound to mixed media, courtesy of collectors Frank Cohen and Nicolai Frahm.

Immediately inside is Ai Weiwei’s Map of China, hewn from a Qing Dynasty block of wood. I loved its combination of brutish force and the way its folds and rings suggest a rich past and diversity. Another favourite was Takashi Murakami’s Army of Mushrooms (yes, it was those fun fungi again).

Some works, such as Fang Lijun’s 2007-2008, obviously channel the kaleidoscopic, tropical Island theme. Likewise, Tomas Saraceno’s delightful Flying Garden, made of transparent pillows, was suggestive of a hippy drippy world. Then there was Douglas White’s Crow’s Stove, rearing up like a malevolent palm tree about to transform into a fearful bird.

The relevance of others, such as Adriana Lara’s ink print of a Dunhill cigarette packet, Smoking Kills, was harder to fathom. But that, and works like John Armleder’s handless clocks, were no less intriguing and worthy of their place.

I’ll let my photographs tell the rest of this very visual story, but just add that the gallery offers free guided tours at 3pm on weekends. I can think of no better antidote to the winter chill than casting your mind adrift and becoming marooned on this island of brilliance and wit.

London slant, The Dairy

Works including Cyprien Gaillard’s Untitled (Rim Structure), Sterling Ruby’s RED.R.I.P. and, popping up behind, more of those magic ‘shrooms.

London slant The Dairy Art Centre

Gorgeous creatures float and fly across Fang Lijun’s vast canvas.

London Slant, The Dairy Art Centre

Douglas White’s Crow’s Stone: suggestive of the horrors that might lurk on an island paradise.

London Slant, Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei’s Coca-Cola vase: a Neolithic pot painted by the artist.

London slant, Tomas Saraceno

Flying Garden/Air-Port-City/12SW by Thomas Saraceno: two shiny confections of 12 pillows suspended in space.

The Dairy Art Centre, 7a Wakefield Street, Bloomsbury, WC1N 1PG 020 7713 8900, free, until 1 December.

London Slant: Where to read the runes in Regent’s Park

It’s amazing what you can stumble upon in London during a Sunday stroll. As I walked along the east flank of Regent’s Park, a church with two rocket-shaped towers in a rose garden caught my eye.

My gaze wandered from the church to three ivy-covered gothic arches to its right. Lit by shimmering shafts of sunlight, they hinted at some ghostly mystery.  What did they lead to? I was intrigued—and set off to explore.

London Slant Jelling Stone

My first glimpse of the Jelling Stone

I was totally unprepared for what I found: a giant rock covered in Nordic runes. Whatever was it? Fortunately a plaque was on hand to reveal all. But before I started reading I stepped round to its other side and was even more surprised.  There stood a figure of a Christ, arms outstretched and swathed in swirling golden bands. To his left was a lion in a scrolling serpent’s grip.

Jellilng Stone

The other side of the Jelling Stone

I discovered that the church, St Katharine’s, serves London’s Danish community and the stone is a cast of a giant runic monument at the town of Jelling in Denmark. The original Jelling Stone was erected by King Harald Bluetooth, grandfather of Canute, in around 965. Such is its significance that the Christ figure appears on Danish passports.

The replica was made in Denmark and brought to London for an exhibition on Danish art and culture at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1948. But at 11 tons it was too unwieldy to transport back. So it remained in London and was erected at St Katharine’s in 1955.

Jelling Stone St Katharines' church

St Katharine’s, the Danish Church, on the east side of Regent’s Park.

After viewing the stone I wandered around the gardens, looking at the 200-year-old Gothic revival houses in the precinct around the church.  Despite having visited Regent’s Park umpteen times, I had never come across this place before, or heard of this stone.

That evening I hunkered down to read a magazine, and what should I see but an advertisement for one of these houses up for sale. Not surprisingly, price is upon application for this former grace-and-favour residence of senior clerics and members of the royal household. Let’s hope that the new owner makes the most of living within a stone’s throw of the Jelling Stone. As the gloriously named antiquary Ole Worm wrote in his Monumenta Danica in 1643, people from other nations should take an interest in Denmark’s runic stones.

London Slant: What are these extraordinary treasures dug up near Euston Road?

Just opposite a Curry’s store near Euston Road I stepped into wasteland reminiscent of a bomb site—and down into a mysterious, haunting world.

Londn Slant Daniel Silver Dig

Curious “excavated” heads arrayed at the entrance to Dig.

Picking my way across rubble through rampant buddleia I entered the concrete remains of a building lit by a watery sun. Spread out on trestle tables in front of me were strange objects: limbless torsos, severed heads, splintered bones and broken arms. Some resembled Assyrian warriors in the nearby British Museum, with bushy beards and pointed helmets. Others were more like sphinxes or Francis Bacon dissolving men. As I moved through the pieces, they increased in size and stood erect; what began as pathetic fragments stealthily acquired a menacing air.

Daniel Silver Dig, London Slant

Gods, ghouls or something altogether different? What are these mysterious figures near Euston Road?

Metal steps led down to a dank undercroft, where heads on plinths loomed out of puddles of mud. Two god-like statues rose from still waters, one in flowing robes and with hands clasped as if in prayer. If this was the ancient temple in Mesopotamia it calls to mind it would be on every tourist beat. But why should it be any less evocative that most of these objects were made this year and set up in a derelict London basement area open to the rain?

This was one of many things that came to mind as I made my way through artist Daniel Silver’s Dig. Despite all appearances this is no Middle East excavation site, or even remains of Roman Londonium—but his latest site-specific installation.

Silver explains that his work was inspired by the collection of antiquities amassed by Sigmund Freud and now displayed at the museum in his Hampstead house. Many of the bearded faces seem to represent the Viennese psychoanalyst, and add another layer of meaning to Dig.

Daniel Silver Dig

Freud would surely have been intrigued by this priapic figure.

The installation was commissioned by Artangel, those well-named people who have brought us many celestial works over the years. Perhaps you saw Roger Hiorns’ Seizure, a mass of sparkling copper sulphate crystals that turned an abandoned south London council house into an Aladdin’s Cave. Dig is equally other-worldly, leading you from a dull, abandoned, urban void into a magic kingdom of the mind.

Daniel Silver Dig

Watch out for the mud or you may make a Freudian slip.

Dig by Daniel Silver, Grafton Way, on an old Odeon Cinema site opposite University College Hospital. Free. Until 3 November.

London Slant: The art of the dinner deal

Summer is traditionally open season for London restaurant deals. It’s the time of year (along with January) for swanky dinners without fear of fainting at the bill. So, come August, I was off, grabbing all those special offers while the sun shone.

We all know there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Nor will you get a value menu at a decent (let alone great) restaurant at 8pm on a Saturday night. But 6.30 pm on a Monday is fine by me. And I’ll happily have my post-prandial espresso in the lounge if the table needs turning for those with pockets deeper than mine.

London Slant -Savoy Grill

The famous hotel sign just above the entrance to the Savoy Grill.

So, first up was the Savoy Grill. Well, wouldn’t it have been churlish to ignore Gordon Ramsay’s £26 three-course dinner with champagne?  I knew it was going to be fun the minute I stepped inside and into what seemed like a glamorous 1920s film set. The bubbly sparkled, and dull-sounding dishes (root vegetable salad followed by ravioli) sprung to life in my mouth with unusual herbs and spices, delicious dressings and flavoursome sauces. A millefeuille with crunchy-crisp wafers layered with luscious fruits and cream brought the evening to a decadent end.

I loved the retro decor of the Savoy Grill, but was less enthused by the recent makeover of the rest of the hotel. Where they got some of the artwork from (a Far East factory?) I dread to think. Much more to my my visual taste was my next port of call: Tramshed in Shoreditch. I do like to see a pickled cockerel and cow above my table (thank you, Damien Hirst) when I’m dining out on chicken salad and steak frites. And especially when a cocktail and Ronnie’s amazing apple pie are thrown in for £16.

London Slant Tramshed

Damien Hirst’s pickled cockerel and cow dominate the carnivorous carnival at Tramshed, Shoreditch.

Scanning the menu I spotted all sorts of nifty prix fixe treats year-round. So I plan to return for more simultaneous eating and art appreciation. I’m fired up to try Indian Rock chicken curry, for instance, and more of Ronnie’s puds. Then there’s the Chapman Brothers’ wallpaper and the Cock n’ Bull Gallery in the basement downstairs . Even the staff’s T-shirts are a collection of works of art.

But now here comes the good news. We’re well into September, but the deals haven’t stopped. If anything, they’re popping into my inbox even faster than before. I’ve had a free bottle of Prosecco to celebrate my birthday at Pizza Express  (I recommend the crispy-thin Da Morire Romano pizza – truly to-die-for – in their Coptic Street branch, a former dairy with patterned tiles).

Maybe some geek inside my laptop has marked me out as a sucker who can’t resist a tempting offer. Whatever, next week I’m off to the Cinnamon Club (a 3-course Indian menu, with cocktail, for £24). It’s adjacent to the Palace of Westminster and is known as a haunt of Lords and MPs. Could the parliamentary recess possibly have any bearing on my deal?

I found my deals via Time Out, Top Table and direct from Pizza Express.

London Slant: On track for Holland and the Teylers Museum

You might be surprised to hear that on a recent visit to Amsterdam I stayed at a hotel built on struts over the Central Station tracks. Now, I know I should really be telling you about some little gem of a place I unearthed on a hidden canal. But for a time-pressed train fan from London, it was spot on. Just a 17-minute shuttle from the airport and I was checking in.

Teylers Museum, Harlem

The Oval Room at the Teylers Museum, Haarlem, Holland.

I awoke (yes, I slept soundly) to fantastic views of the harbour. Boats cruised back and forth, before a backdrop of the new Eye Film Museum. Best of all, I watched trains zooming off all over Europe below my feet.

Amsterdam Eye Film Museum

The new Eye Film Museum, Amsterdam, viewed from my hotel window.

One morning I leapt on one and sped back in time to the town of Haarlem. I wandered through narrow, cobbled lanes with gabled houses covered in flowers. Almost all had seats outside, where I could picture neighbours gathering of an evening to chat. The bells of St Bavo’s church chimed out the hour and I half expected to glimpse guildsmen from the paintings in the Frans Hals Museum strutting along in their ruffs and buckled shoes.

Teylers Museum, Harlem

Entrance to the Teylers Museum, Haarlem

My goal was the Holland’s oldest museum, the Teylers, where you feel the spirit of the Enlightenment the second you push open its giant door. Many of its displays remain untouched since it opened in 1784, in original wooden cases lit by daylight only and with captions in spidery handwriting. As I stepped from its fossil gallery, with its huge mammoth skulls, through to rooms with globes and armillary spheres, I was swept up in the 18th-century quest for knowledge and discovery.

Now, I know nothing about paleobiology, electromagnetism or mineralogy. But I quickly got into the spirit and felt like an early explorer poking around and coming up with ‘finds’. The curious jumble led from bones that showed the evolution of horses’ jaws to a piece of rock from the peak of Mont Blanc. Faded cases with obscure objects yielded fascinating stories when I found out what they were.

All this was in a wonderful architectural ensemble, purpose-designed to showcase the treasures at their best. It was made possible by the bequest of one Pieter Teyler van der Hulst, a merchant and financier whose portrait, complete with curly wig and quill pen, hangs on one of the walls. In addition to science and nature, Teyler was fond of art. He also financed a collection of paintings and an exceptional portfolio of drawings that includes works by Rembrandt and Italian masters. These are displayed in more modern, 19th-century style.

Teylers Museum, Harlem

The world’s first battery, the Voltaic Pile (1800).

Teylers' Museum

Giant ammonite, one of the Teylers’ fantastic fossils.

Teylers museum

Room of scientific instruments.

Bridge outside Teylers Musuem

View from the cafe outside the Teylers Museum.

I had planned to spend an hour or so at the Teylers but ended up staying half a day. Afterwards, I ordered a strong coffee at a cafe just outside the museum and watched boats cruising beneath a pretty bridge. It took me a second cup to come back to the 21st century again.

I stayed at the Ibis Amsterdam Centre Hotel. Trains run every 10 minutes or so between Amsterdam and Haarlem, with a journey time of around 15 minutes. The Teylers has a programme of regular exhibitions. Next up from 28 September to 19 January are Rembrandt drawings and etchings. An excellent audio guide in English relates the stories behind the objects in a really engaging way.

London Slant: Reviving an artists’ village

Things are stirring in a sleepy artists’ village a short drive out of London. Compton, just outside Guildford, was a thriving hub of creativity when Victorian painter and sculptor G.F. Watts lived there. But since his work fell from fashion many of the places associated with him suffered too. Now, they’re being brought back to life and visitors can once again revel in their very English mix of tradition and eccentricity.

London Slant Watts Chapel

Angelic figures cover the shadowy interior of the Watts Chapel.

London Slant Watts Memorial chapel

The Watts Chapel, decorated in patterned tiles.

If you know one thing about Compton it’s likely to be the Arts and Crafts Watts Chapel that the artist’s wife, Mary, designed in memory of her husband. This Byzantine-style masterpiece is dazzlingly decorated inside and out. Celtic patterns and mystic faces jostle on its terracotta exterior. Inside, angels and cherubs with golden halos gaze down in the dark.

Nearby is the Watts Gallery, where works by the painter and his contemporaries are displayed on scarlet walls and sculptures threaten to burst out of tiny rooms. But the main reason for my recent trip to Compton was for a tour of Limnerslease, Watts’ studio and home.

Years ago this house, also in the Arts and Crafts style, was sold and subdivided into flats. But it recently came onto the market for sale. The Watts Gallery Trust is raising funds to purchase it, restore it and turn it into a centre for the arts and education. Once the £4.7 million has come in, It will play a major role in reviving Compton itself as a hub of contemporary creative work.

Visitors can book tours to view rooms with original features such as fireplaces and ceilings that Mary decorated with religious symbols and Hindu gods. Much has been lost but there are many original photographs taken in situ of Watts in his smoking cap and his ceramicist wife in her smock, surrounded by their work. Our guide, Jane Turner, conjured up wonderful images of Watts and his world. I really warmed to him when she told us that, at a time when women went around in corsets, he was a member of the Anti Tight Lacing Society.

Compton’s second lure was the Watts Gallery’s temporary exhibition of works by Frank Holl. Around 30 paintings shed light on the Victorians. Social realist works of women suffering in poverty hang alongside acclaimed portraits of eminent men such as Prime MInister William Gladstone. It’s a snapshot of a polarised world and a reminder of what has (and how much hasn’t) changed between then and now.

London slant Watts Gallery

Inside the Watts Gallery at Compton: the artist’s model for Physical Energy, his sculpture in Hyde Park.

London Slant Watts Gallery

A fraction of the Tea Shop’s quirky teapot collection.

The gallery dates from 1904 and has recently emerged from a major restoration. It sits in a garden with an old-fashioned Tea Shop stacked with humorous teapots.  My cuppa came in a cheeky pig. The other great village watering hole is the 16th century Withies Inn, where you can shelter from the sun beneath a pergola and tuck into a trout or rack of lamb.

Frank Holl: Emerging from the Shadows. At the Watts Gallery until 3 November. Want to do more? The Pilgrim’s Way passes just outside the Tea Shop window, and a short walk brings you to Loseley House, with its noted gardens.

London Slant: Inside the house of Britain’s richest man

Imagine the house of a man who in the 1940s was the wealthiest self-made man in the UK.  An industrialist who during his lifetime gave around £1 billion to charity in today’s terms.

Walls covered in Rembrandts and Monets? Vistas of formal gardens and lakes? At the very least a gold tap or two?

Nuffield Place, National Trust

Nuffield Place, designed by a pupil of Lutyens, built in 1914 and acquired by William Morris, later Lord Nuffield, in 1933.

Probably the last thing you’d conjure up would be “school-of-Hyde-Park-railings” art and carpets covered with stains from his wife’s wayward Scottie dogs. But prepare to be surprised when you enter Nuffield Place, home of the late Lord Nuffield, near Henley in Oxfordshire.

When I walked into the garden of this recently opened National Trust house it was  like arriving at a vicarage fete. Bunting was strung across the 1930s-style Coronation Cafe and families clustered on the lawn tucking into sponge cake with cups of tea.

Nuffield Place National Trust

Visitors to Nuffield Place had parked their vintage cars outside the house.

Some fabulous vintage cars were parked outside, their owners milling around in flat caps and tweed. The scene was set for stepping inside the world of William Morris (1877-1963), a man who left school at 15, began a bicycle repair business with £4 capital, then moved into cars in a massive way.

By the mid 1920s Morris Motors Cars was earning its founder a fortune. But instead of spending it on a fancy home he gave away the money to medicine and education. His Nuffield Foundation, College and hospitals are still active today.

As I explored the house I was struck by visitors’ exclamations: “That’s just like my grandmother’s dressing table” and “I had one of those when I was a child.” It’s a perfect time-capsule of mid-20th-century life and of someone whose driving force was business and benevolence, not showing off to guests.  It’s a place to delight in the quirky innovations and gadgets that Lord Nuffield loved, such as his automatic match striker in the drawing room.

Visitors are free to ramble through the pine-panelled billiard room and the sitting room with its wireless and 1950s-style cabinet TV.  Upstairs is a dressing room with the one display that shows this is no ordinary middle-class home: its owners’ velvet and ermine coronation robes. There’s a sunroom full of equipment that Lord Nuffield liked to tinker with, including fire extinguishers and an ultraviolet lamp.

But for me the house’s highlight was Lord Nuffield’s bedroom and more specifically the huge tool cupboard by the end of his bed.  Every man has to have his shed and how luxurious to have it at your feet: shelves packed with clocks, wires, screwdrivers and even equipment for mending his own shoes, with stick-on soles.  In among them nestle curios such as his appendix in a jar.

Nuffield place National Turst

The multimillionaire’s bedroom, with furry hot water bottle, curiously wired reading lamp and bedside sword.

Nuffield Place National Trust

Inside the bedroom tool cupboard, just as he left it: Lord Nuffield’s pickled appendix and equipment to mend his own shoes.

So who was this dynamic entrepreneur who preferred to hunker down in padded sofas rather than to schmooze and entertain? Let’s leave the last word to a plaque presented to William Morris by his golfing buddies, dedicated to “A sportsman and good egg”.

* Even if you don’t have a vintage Morris car you can motor to Nuffield Place from London for a great afternoon out.

National Trust photographs, from top, courtesy of James Dobson, (vintage car by London Slant), John Hammond and Cristian Barnett.

London Slant: Rush to Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum

While Britain dithers over whether to build Boris Island or expand Heathrow I hear that Holland’s Schipol is positioning itself as London’s major airport. If so, maybe the reopening of the Rijksmuseum can be considered London’s hottest new cultural event.

Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

Henry Moore exhibition in the gardens of Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum.

So hop on a plane and head to Amsterdam fast. Because the museum has reopened after a 12-year closure with a stunning temporary Henry Moore show. It’s the icing on the rich and delicious cake that’s the makeover of the museum itself.

I arrived at the Rijksmuseum entrance as a rush hour stream of cyclists pedalled past. Their campaign to stop the proposed blocking of this route through the heart of the building was partly why the museum remained closed so long. I’d been warned there were huge queues to enter, but when I arrived at 9.05 I walked straight in.

Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

The Gallery of Honour, with Rembrandt’s Night Watch at the far end.

I hot-footed it to the Gallery of Honour where Dutch old masters are arrayed. It’s a magnificent sight, with alcoves of Golden Age works leading up to Rembrandt’s Night Watch, dramatically displayed at the far end.

When the museum was built in 1885  the names of featured artists were inscribed high on this gallery’s walls. The rehang of this revered space reveals a fascinating change of tastes. Frans Hals and Jan Steen are still here, Hobbema has gone and Vermeer (who, unbelievably, was unrated) has now been brought in. It’s wonderful to see his milkmaid calmly pouring from her jug centre stage—especially since I’d pipped the heaving scrum and had her all to myself.

The entire museum gets my resounding thumbs up for its brilliant integration of fine and decorative arts. The story of the Netherlands, against the backdrop of the sea, is vividly conveyed through skilful juxtapositions of paintings and objets d’art. Showcases of vases, clocks and pieces of furniture are set among pictures of similar age and style. I thrilled to items that would never normally grip me, such as silverware and porcelain.

The building itself is a treat. I followed an architecture trail that led from the decorative neo-Gothic Great Hall, with its stained glass windows, to the new Asian Pavilion, where works are displayed in zen-like calm.

Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

Holland’s ties to the sea are visible throughout the Rijksmuseum. Objects mirror paintings throughout.

Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

Paintings are matched with fabulous drinking cups covered in swirling sea creatures emerging from the waves.

Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

Shiva Nataraja (King of the Dance), part of the excellent Asian collection, now has a stylish, light-flooded home.

Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

A row of dazzling kimonos, ancient and modern.

Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

The greenhouse supplies salads for the museum cafe.

When the Rijksmuseum closed for the evening I headed into its gardens, where the Moores were bathed in sun. I peeped into the greenhouse where vegetables for the lunches served in the museum cafe are grown. Then it was on to Sama Sebo, the Indonesian restaurant next door, for a first rate rijstafel. Fortunately I’d booked a table: it was shoulder-to-shoulder—just as the space in front of the Night Watch had become.

*Check out City Airport for an Amsterdam flight: save time and outrageous train fares to larger airports. Henry Moore is on until 29 September.

London Slant: Walk with Vincent van Gogh through Brixton

“I walk here as much as I can…it’s absolutely beautiful here (even though it’s in the city).”  This is how Vincent van Gogh described his neighbourhood when he lived in London as a 20-year-old man. The Dutchman arrived here in 1873 and spent several months working as an art dealer, well before he headed to Paris and Provence. Some of his first stirrings as an artist date back to his London years, when he discovered illustrations in newspapers that would later inspire some of his masterpieces in paint.

Van Gogh Walk

Lavender, irises and olive trees on the street that’s become the Van Gogh Walk.

Now his compliment to the area in Brixton where he lodged has been repaid. A short street opposite his home has been turned into Van Gogh Walk, a garden oasis with planting inspired by his paintings. There are irises and lavender, and trees arranged to mirror his famous cypresses. Art installations and sculptured seats reinforce the theme. I don’t doubt that some sunflowers are sprouting as I write.

Van Gogh in London

Trees inspired by Van Gogh’s paintings of cypresses.

All are interspersed with excellent panels describing Van Gogh’s months in London and apt quotations from his letters home beautifully carved in stone. As he wrote: “There are lilacs and laburnums blossoming in all the gardens, and the chestnut trees are magnificent.” Although Van Gogh had not yet embarked on his quest to become an artist, he clearly appreciated nature in what was then the largest city on earth.

Van Gogh in London

The house where Van Gogh lodged in London, with its blue plaque.

The nearby house where Van Gogh lived, 87 Hackford Road, has a shiny blue plaque, but could do with a good lick of paint and more substantial restoration work. It was recently sold to a Chinese buyer who indicated his intention to turn it into a centre for art. I trust it will be spruced up soon.

Van Gogh was sacked from his London job, and went on to work as a lay preacher in Isleworth and as a teacher in Ramsgate, before returning to Holland where he began to study art. But his stay in London came at an impressionable age, and it was at Hackford Road that he fell for his landlady’s daughter, although the sentiment was not returned.

Since I visited the new Van Gogh Walk I’ve been delighted to see that it has been highly commended in the Living Streets awards. And it’s not just the street that merits an accolade. I was also taken by the clever bicycle hangers, for safe storage in an area where it’s often difficult to bring bikes inside.

Van Gogh in London

“Bicycle hangars”: what a great idea.

Hopefully Van Gogh Walk won’t just be a pretty spot to linger but may also inspire local people on art adventures of their own. After sitting beneath twisted olives branches you can follow the route Van Gogh walked every day to his Covent Garden workplace, but stop off at the National and Courtauld galleries instead and see how he interpreted these trees in paint.

LONDON SLANT: CANTERBURY TRAILS

It’s a centuries old tradition that come the warmer weather travellers set off from London for Canterbury. It was a rambling ride in Chaucer’s day. But thanks to the Mo Farah and Sarah Storey Javelin trains that zoom out of St Pancras, the journey now takes under an hour.

So, one bright Sunday morning I found myself sharing a southbound carriage with two young women on the Walk of Shame. Both were curled up asleep. Two pairs of sparkly, spiky heels formed a decorative arrangement on the table.

The conductor appeared and they confessed: “We have an issue”. Cue cleavage-waggling and an elaborate yarn about how they’d lost their tickets when some clothing went missing the previous night. Duly ejected at the next stop, they tottered off along the platform in their remaining party gear.

Our train plunged into the most beautiful bucolic scene: lush water meadows with cattle grazing among reeds and flowers. Eventually the towers of Canterbury Cathedral reared up behind, but the goal of my journey lay elsewhere. I’d come to see the newly refurbished Beaney House of Art & Knowledge—a rather academic name for a museum-cum-giant cabinet of curiosities that was huge fun to explore.

Beaney Canterbury

The Beaney House of Art and Knowledge in Canterbury.

Beaney Canterbury

Inside the newly refurbished galleries.

A fanciful 1899 building on the High Street, The Beaney’s doors open to some wonderful paintings, ranging from old masters to contemporary works. But I was equally taken by more unexpected displays. I admired a mummified Egyptian cat, a stuffed armadillo, a Venus flower basket (the skeleton of a sponge) and ancient garnet brooches dug up when the building was restored.

Venus flower basket

One of many curios: the Venus flower basket, a sponge skeleton.

But what I most enjoyed was making the acquaintance of two eccentric Victorian gentleman travellers and the quirky treasures they brought back.

One, Stephen Lushington, was both MP for Canterbury and Governor of Madras. Jane Austen wrote of him: “He is quite an MP. I am rather in love with him. I dare say he is ambitious and insincere.” He returned home with a huge collection featuring a sword guard with a demon devouring an elephant and a mace decorated with intricate flowers.

And then there was the Reverend Henry Landsell, whose adventures took him across Asia during the 1870s. There are photographs of him posing in outrageous local costumes in Siberia and the Stans. From Kashgar he brought back a leather face slapper, captioned “for slapping naughty women’s faces in prisons”. From Burma came decorative objects ransacked from the Royal Palace of Mandalay. More practical were the embroidered trousers he bought in a Tashkent bazaar, which he found “warm and useful” when travelling by horse.

I could have spent hours sitting on the Beaney’s little portable stools, peering at every detail of these intriguing objects. But a late lunch called, so it was off to The Goods Shed, for melt-in-the-mouth roast beef and a vegetable platter. We sat at wooden tables on a dais above the farmer’s market in full swing to one side. I’m sure that every carrot, splash of oil and slice of bread came straight from the organic stalls busy with shoppers down below. Great atmosphere, great food.

The Goods Shed Restaurant

The Goods Shed Restaurant, close by Canterbury station.

As I sipped my locally brewed beer I suddenly remembered those two girls on the train. Were they still staggering back home on their stilettos? Or had they managed to bamboozle another ticket inspector with a more convincing Canterbury tale?