A walk along the Regent’s Canal from Little Venice to Camden

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Several weeks ago when I arranged yesterday’s visit to London, I had expected that the last Saturday in September would be more autumnal. However, a forecast of 17 degrees and dawn to dusk sunshine resulted in a change of plans for the day. Museums and exhibitions can wait for colder days; this was going to be a perfect occasion for a stroll along one of the capital city’s waterways.

Having walked the stretch of the Canal from Regent’s Park to Camden last year, I decided that this time I’d begin at its starting point, Little Venice, where it meets the Grand Union Canal at Paddington Basin.

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The nearest tube station is Warwick Avenue. From there, it’s just a five minute walk to the Basin.

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I had expected there to be more boats around, but then it was only 09:40. Queues had already started to form for the water buses and private hire boats. I considered a cruise aboard Jason, but as embarkation was not for another 45 minutes I decided to walk instead.

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Heading north along the towpath, I soon found to my annoyance that I had to walk back up onto the road which runs parallel to the water. It seems that the permanent boating community whose vessels are moored there are entitled to lock an access gate which essentially turns that stretch of the towpath into their private gardens.

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Whilst I don’t begrudge them the privacy which this offers,  I wish it had been made clear on the various websites I had consulted when planning my walk. At that point I briefly regretted not having waited with the other Argonauts to set sail with Jason

My diversion took me past a nice looking cafe bar situated above the Canal tunnel.  I’d had a quick breakfast at 05:30 so I decided to break off for coffee and toast with a view of Little Venice.

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From there, the diversion took me further away from the water and through a housing estate. I consulted my map which seemed to suggest that I was still on track, but I had no idea where I would get back onto the towpath. A jogger helpfully pointed me in the right direction, informing me that I would pass a “nice pub” further ahead and that close by there would be a gate leading back down to the canal. Both were easy to find, but to my dismay this gate too was padlocked shut. A sign indicated an alternative route should the gate be locked, suggesting that there was actually no way for a pedestrian to ever know in advance whether the towpath would be accessible, as this depended on the choice of the boat residents at any given time.

With the water back in view, I ambled along past St John’s power station where on the other side of the Canal yet another cluster of boat people had made a pretty little floating community.

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They had also closed off the towpath where they had assembled some lovely gardens and homely structures. At that point, as I focused my camera through a gap in the railings, Jason sailed past. On balance, even though I had been diverted away from my chosen path through an insalubrious residential area , I was still glad I hadn’t wasted 45 minutes of my day waiting for that particular voyage to commence.

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A little further on, I was able to cross over to join the towpath. By this time, more people were canal-side: walking, running and cycling, with some even on the water. The capital’s waterways are havens for busy city-dwellers.

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My walk revealed a spectrum of city living, from the palatial properties on the far bank, through the array of quirky boat homes to the sleeping bags and tents under bridges and amongst the trees. One tent dweller bathed in the water as people passed by. I was quite moved by the sight of his little grooming kit of soap, shampoo, comb etc., guarded by his faithful canine companion. I hope he doesn’t have to do that for much longer as the days become colder and the water icy.

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This part of the canal skirts the western boundary of Regent’s Park and cuts through London Zoo with bridges connecting the two sides. Animal sounds can be heard from within the grounds. The photographs below show an aviary on my left and the giraffe house across the bank.

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The familiar view of the floating Chinese restaurant told me that I was to take the left turn under the next bridge.

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Camden lock was just a little way further ahead, as announced by the Bohemian air and herbal aroma.

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Camden Lock is a noisy and very vibrant hub of activity. It was almost midday and the area was teeming with visitors, exploring, shopping or just watching the world go by. The finger post told me I had walked two-and-a-half miles from Little Venice and that I could walk 302 miles to Liverpool if I fancied it. I decided to pass on that.

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I love Camden and have been countless times over the years, but I have found that as I get older I am less comfortable and less patient in the thick of the very slow moving swarms of spatially unaware sightseers, but it’s still good to see the amusement and wonder on the faces of visitors as they pose for selfies in this bizarre and very unconventional part of London where anything goes.

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The late Amy Winehouse  was a Camden girl, a fact which is celebrated through art works around the Stables market where she once worked on a stall. Would she still be around now if she hadn’t found fame?

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The Stables Market was formerly a horse hospital, dating back to 1854. Camden was an industrial hub where horses were instrumental in hauling goods between the canal and railway networks. References to the site’s former use are displayed throughout the market place’s alleys and courtyards.

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Stables

I amazed myself by keeping my purse zipped shut as I mooched around the winding passageways, a cornucopia of ethnic, vintage, and curio shops.

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Very ready for a sit down and a spot of lunch, I walked the short distance to Chalk Farm tube station to head back by train to the heart of the city.

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Seven Dials, London: mystery and magic in the city

 

 

In 1929, British mystery writer Agatha Christie penned a novel, The Seven Dials Mystery, an intriguing tale of murder and espionage with all the usual twists and red-herrings before it is revealed that Seven Dials is not just a place but a secret society of international spies.

 

 

There is a new unsolved mystery if you know where to look: read on…..

Tucked in between the theatres of London’s West End and bustling arty Covent Garden is one of my favourite parts of the city: Seven Dials. It’s a small area, consisting of just seven streets which converge at the landmark from which the locality takes its name.

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When I visited 2 weeks ago the plinth had become a popular sunbathing spot so this is a photo I took last September

A 20ft Doric column adorned with six sun dials sits upon an 8ft plinth; the obelisk itself represents the seventh ‘dial’. The original monument was installed in 1694, orientated so there was a direct south and direct north vertical dial, and four vertically declining dials. It was removed in 1773 as it had become a congregation point for the drunk and disorderly of the area, and the modern replica was erected in 1989.

By that time, the area’s fortunes had completely reversed, and it had become what it is today: buzzing, lively and full of high-end shops and cool places to eat and drink.

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The French Hospital and Dispensarie, opened in 1867  for ‘the benefit of distressed foreigners of all nations requiring medical relief’ now serves as a trendy and popular cafe bar

It has also attracted practitioners of alternative and healthy lifestyles.

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Originally open farmland, the area was first planned and developed in the 1690s by politician and entrepreneur Thomas Neale (1641 – 1699), a flamboyant character who, alongside his long career as an MP, always seemed to have various enterprises on the go, including civil engineering projects of which Seven Dials was just one. Neale’s CV is an impressive read and includes ventures in colonial America where he was instrumental in setting up a central postal service.

His vision for Seven Dials was one of gentrification; a desirable residential area for the rich, whose rent money would line his pockets. Instead, it became synonymous with poverty and degenerate living and joined the list of failed speculations which ultimately led to ‘Golden Neale’ dying insolvent, due in no small part to his gambling habits.

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In Sketches by “Boz,” Illustrative of Every-day Life and Every-day People, Charles Dickens described Seven Dials in 1835

‘streets and courts dart in all directions, until they are lost in the unwholesome vapour which hangs over the house-tops and renders the dirty perspective uncertain and confined.’ 

He also alludes to the variety of life to be found on the seven streets

‘The stranger who finds himself in the Dials for the first time…at the entrance of Seven obscure passages, uncertain which to take, will see enough around him to keep his curiosity awake for no inconsiderable time…’.

William Hogarth’s propaganda print Gin Lane about the evils of drinking is believed to depict the area around Seven Dials.

That curiosity of which Dickens wrote in the 1800s inspires many of today’s visitors, though instead of ‘unwholesome vapours’ and ‘dirty perspectives’ they are more likely to find a very wholesome, inspiring and soulful environment and an unusual piece of art.

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On the white-washed wall of a passageway on Monmouth Street a spray painted mural appeared on 31st August 2017, the 20th anniversary of the death of Princess Diana.‘Be As Naughty As You Want’ shows Diana in the guise of Mary Poppins with her magical flying umbrella, watched by Prince George and Princess Charlotte. His mother’s advice about naughtiness was reported by Prince William in an interview earlier in the year.

This thought-provoking image is the work of famous street artist, Bambi, whose true identity remains a mystery despite her fame and the controversy surrounding the social and political messages expressed through much of her work. Tourists queue to have their photo taken next to the royal graffiti but I was able to get a quick shot between poses.

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The short passage leads to gloriously colourful Neal’s Yard, a radiant and vital hub of energy where a tour of the courtyard offers exciting food and drink, courses in natural apothecary and the chance for some self-indulgence at surely the brightest hair & beauty salon in the capital.

 

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The Yard and nearby Neal Street are named after the architect of Seven Dials, though why the ‘e’ was dropped from his name is another mystery.

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Sitting in Neal’s Yard is always joyful no matter what time of year, but especially on a sultry afternoon such as on my recent visit when the temperature hit 30 degrees and the baking hot sun and spice-coloured buildings almost made me forget I was in England.

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Sublime Symmetry exhibition: celebrating the ceramics of William De Morgan

Last Saturday, I went to London to see the Sublime Symmetry exhibition at the Guildhall Art Gallery.

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A collaboration between the London Mathematical Society and the De Morgan Foundation, the exhibition celebrates the influence of symmetry in the designs of the Victorian designer, potter and later novelist, William De Morgan.

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William De Morgan

Born in London in 1839, William was the son of distinguished mathematician and founder of the London Mathematical society, Augustus De Morgan and his wife, Sophia, who were liberal and encouraging parents, supporting William in his desire to become an artist. Although he entered the Royal Academy, William left soon after to better find his own creative style. Out of a life-long friendship with textiles designer William Morris, the two went into business together between 1863 and 1872 with De Morgan designing stained-glass and furniture for Morris & Co.

Overall, De Morgan was best known for his fiction, but his most celebrated ceramics work emerged between 1872 and 1881 when he set up his own pottery works in Chelsea, experimenting with and perfecting innovative firing and glazing techniques which led to several noteworthy commissions from the rich and famous such as the painter Alfred, Lord Leighton and department store owner, Ernest Ridley Debenham.

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I fell in love with William De Morgan’s tiles ten years ago. A friend, knowing of my passion for Islamic architecture and art, recommended that on my next London trip I should visit Leighton House Museum in Holland Park, the former residence of Lord Leighton.

Like many of his contemporaries, Lord Leighton was part of the Orientalism movement, where western artists, writers, academics and philosophical sorts imitated aspects of middle-eastern and north-African art, design and literature and developed an interest in Islamic spirituality.  This is illustrated in the design of the magnificent Arab Hall at Leighton House. The wood and metal work were imported, mainly from Egypt, but the lustrous ceramic tiles in their peacock hues of cobalt and verdigris were created by William de Morgan. It was love at first sight and I have returned five or six times since my first visit. As photography is not permitted, the images below are from the internet.

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Debenham House (also known as Peacock House) is just a few streets away and was built in 1905 for the department store owner Ernest Ridley Debenham with De Morgan being commissioned to design some of the interior tiles. Unfortunately, it is no longer possible to enter the property which has occasionally been used as a film set and, in the past, has held open days. I discovered that the property is currently being renovated and tried to persuade a work man to let me inside for 5 minutes, but to no avail. These images from the internet show more examples of De Morgan’s tiles inside Peacock House.

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The unique blue and green glazed bricks on the exterior mimic the feathers of the gorgeous peacocks I was lucky enough to see whilst eating my lunch in nearby Holland Park.

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After the Debenham House commission, the fashion for Moresque design started to decline and De Morgan left ceramics behind, turning his multi-talented hand to writing.

Apart from Arab and Persian influences, de Morgan also depicted mediaeval themes, mythical creatures and animals as can be seen in some of the Sublime Symmetry exhibits.

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As well as his artistic talents, De Morgan had great mathematical aptitude, perhaps unsurprisingly considering his father’s eminence in that field. Geometry and symmetry were central to the Islamic designs which inspired much of De Morgan’s work. Here are some examples.

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The exhibition is both visually stunning and informative and runs until 28th October.

Highgate Cemetery: Tales from beyond the grave

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Highgate Cemetery, north London, first opened its gates in 1839, one of the earliest municipal cemeteries to be founded in the UK. The two separate burial grounds, East Cemetery and West Cemetery, contain the final resting places of more than 170,000 citizens of London, among them many celebrities and the rich and famous of the past two centuries.

The grounds are vast, especially the older and more characterful West Cemetery, which can now only be visited as part of a guided tour. Highgate West is a sprawling metropolis of the dead. It is easy to lose one’s way amongst the meandering paths and rows of great tombstones, weather-beaten and crumbling, the inscriptions lost to the handiworks of time and the elements. Some have partially sunk into the soft moss-covered earth, whilst others have toppled over, giving up the ghost and calling it a day: not for decades has anybody stopped to stand and think of the inhabitant; nobody now to read the name which lies hidden, face down on the path.

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Twigs snap underfoot; rotting bark peels away from ivy-clad trunks and becomes compost, feeding new life beneath the ground. The eternal cycle continues: death into life; life into death. The mortal coil never ends.

This is no place for joy. Even the marble cherubs weep, their tears frozen for all time on their dark faces. Cold copies of loyal animal companions rest for all eternity alongside long dead masters and mistresses.

The atmosphere is eerie; the near silence powerful, punctuated only by birdsong and the movement of the wind through the branches. Occasionally, the sound of distant voices serves as reassurance that not all in this place lie dead in the ground. The treetops converge in places to form dark covers which block out all light. Here, in these dark places are found the oldest tombs, concealed behind bracken and fern, inaccessible, gone from memory. The air is damp and musty, the smell of the past left to its own devices.

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A new scent appears on the breeze as the path twists to the left: wild garlic. Pungent and lively, it announces the presence of new growth amongst decay. The tour guide, an intriguing fellow in an eccentric outfit straight out of a Merchant –Ivory production, calls a halt at various intervals to share with us a story of one of the famous internees. We hang on his every word, lapping it up, entering into the spirit. Tales from beyond the grave, of jealousy, murder, stories of hearts broken by grief, of spies and nobility, masters of industry, artists and poets; tales to breathe new life into bone and dust. Death is the great leveller, but some stories grab the imagination better than others.

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Unexpectedly, a magnificent gateway comes into view marking the entrance to an extraordinary neighbourhood of the dead. A gated community like no other, Highgate’s Egyptian Avenue is a winding terrace of mausoleums on a grand scale. Each abode has its own front door, the name of the occupiers chiselled into the grey stone. Typically Victorian and overstated, only the wealthy and the grand reside in this eternal Land of the north London Pharaohs.

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Across the metaphorical Styx, the links to the East continues into the Circle of Lebanon, a ring of ornate and beautiful tombs built around an ancient Cedar tree which has stood in the spot long before the Cemetery. Double doors of solid oak are closed to the world outside, the dead and their secrets locked away within. What fear of death and what clinging to life must have inspired such a resting place with four solid walls and a front door.

 

Our lilac-clad guide invites us to enter the catacombs. Dark and menacing the open entrance dares us to step over the threshold. Inside, the light is scare and the air is dingy and thick. There is no life in here. Against both walls are stone shelves laden with wooden coffins in different states of preservation. Battered by the years, row upon row are thick with dust and cobwebs. Nails, orange from oxidation, barely hold in place the skewed lids. Beyond this point is out of bounds. Ahead of us in the gloomy distance we can see the sinister sight of white bones escaping through gaps in the rotted containers. I feel like I am intruding here into a private place where the dead are entitled to be left alone.

Across the road we enter the East Cemetery. The contrast between the two is marked. Here is a place of celebrating life as much as mourning its passing away. The Victorians have been left behind in the East and the perspective has changed. Here the light shines through the sparser trees. We have no guide here and are free to roam and seek out the well-known names and the quirky markers of their resting places. There is laughter as more stories are shared of well-loved books whose authors lie beneath the soil and artists whose own epitaphs are no less dazzling than the works they created in life. Cameras click, footsteps fall. Grave stories seem less grave here.

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Hampstead: an oasis in the metropolis

I love England’s capital city and whenever I visit I experience a transient sense of envy of its residents. I say transient as I know I wouldn’t want to live there, but as soon as I arrive at Euston Station and am instantly swept up into the throng, I feel excited and can’t wait to start exploring. There is a pace of life, of movement, of everything which is unique to capital cities . This is most evident on transport networks. Tourists and visitors sometimes claim that London people are rude, unfriendly and unhelpful. This impression is often based on experiences of travelling on the London Underground where many passengers traverse the network with single-minded determination. It can be a stressful environment for those not used to the heat, noise and escalators on a giant scale. That being said, it’s still the best way to get around the city.

Away from the tourist trail, I have ventured over the last few years into other parts of the capital in order to savour the flavour of London life.

‘When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.’ professed Samuel Johnson, famous 18th century writer and critic and compiler in 1755 of the ‘Dictionary of the English Language’.

I concur with Doctor Johnson. I am still exploring and learning.

I am visiting Hampstead, north London, famous for its heath, very expensive properties and grand residents. Some ordinary people live there too. Hampstead Heath is a popular location with Londoners who want to experience a green space which provides a sense of escape from the city. By happy chance rather than by design, today’s adventure incorporates a literary theme. Perfect!

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The Spaniards Inn, iconic 16th century watering hole standing at the edge of Hampstead Heath, boasts amongst its past patrons the poet John Ruskin and novelist Charles Dickens, who referred to it in his novel, The Pickwick Papers. It has also been immortalised (aptly) in the pages of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and was frequented by the poets Shelley and Byron. Such a rich narrative has grown up around Spaniards Inn that it’s impossible to separate local folklore from fact. Does that matter? Not a bit! Not to those who sit under its low beams and imbibe the legend along with the beer. Whether the pistols which once hung above the bar truly belonged to Dick Turpin (reputed to have been born there), or whether melancholy Ruskin truly penned ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ on a summer’s evening whilst sitting in the Inn’s garden, we’ll hang on every word of every tale. We love it!

This famous hostelry is a popular tourist destination in an attractive part of north London. It’s safest to book a table in this busy establishment which fills up quickly at lunch time. Spaniards Road must be one of the busiest in the country, partly due to its narrowing to single direction flow between the Inn and the toll booth. It’s easy to imagine how it would have looked in Turpin’s time and why the Inn made such an ideal spot to keep a look out for wealthy travellers passing through en route to their appointment with Turpin and his pistol.

Green canopies shade well-trodden paths through ancient communities of sycamore and oak. Underfoot, a carpet of leaves and mulch releases an earthy smell, damp and sweet. Paths cross over, some leading to spots for secret assignations, others leading to the open grassy space of Hampstead Heath. I could be in the countryside, not north London.

Hampstead high street is tree-lined and salubrious. Patisseries dress their windows with elaborate confections to catch the eye and tease the taste buds . The door opens and the aroma of sugar and cinnamon is released. Prices are not displayed; it’s not that sort of place. Estate agents’ windows showcase the best of Hampstead bricks and mortar. Prices are clearly displayed in seven figures. I can’t quite place the aroma this time, but I think this might be what money smells like………..

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Keats House, one-time abode of celebrated poet John Keats, has been turned into a museum which seems to be a hit with American visitors in particular. Tragically dying at the age of just 26, Keats was born in London in 1795 and became one of the nation’s best known Romantic poets. A brief look through the window of a downstairs reception room tells me that I probably won’t appreciate the full guided tour – and anyway, Keats probably penned his greatest works at the Spaniard’s Inn…….the plaque on the bench outside says so. Today, a pretty young artist sits cross-legged in a corner of the Keats garden beside the glossy laurel hedge, engrossed in her sketching and oblivious to the curious glances of tourists. Will this place one day feature in the anecdotes we read in reviews of her award-winning works? I’d like to think so.

I wonder if Keats ever consulted Dr Johnson’s famous dictionary and – if he did – would he have found the word ‘oasis’? Would he have appreciated the exotic sound of those three syllables? Well not every oasis belongs in a desert……….

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Hampstead Hilltop Garden is a modern oasis; a sanctuary from the noise and the madness of central London, just five miles away. The morning rain has evaporated and the sun at the zenith is reflected on the shimmering surface of the long rectangular pool, evocative of Moorish AlHambra . Ornamental reeds and floating lily pads add to the oriental illusion. In the shade of a beautiful willow tree, two men practise Tai Chi, gracefully and in slow motion, absorbed into the moment. A bold black crow struts purposefully across the grass on a mission known only to himself.

Beyond the garden can be seen the elevated pergola. Built in 1906 by Lord Lever Hulme who then owned the estate in which the gardens reside, the wooden pergola is now a shadow of its former grand self having fallen into a state of semi-disrepair. Despite the signs of neglect, this tranquil and elegant structure still enchants visitors who admire its timeless appearance: we could be in sultry Athens or Hampstead Hill Garden; it could be 2016 or 500BC. The clinging vines twist around the rotting trellis, new growth embraces the decay. Down the steps and back into the garden I pass a magnificent and very old sweet chestnut tree. The surface of its ancient bark is a landscape in itself with peaks and ravines hewn over time to form a unique topography. The stories this sentinel could tell…………….

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Tree hugging over, I make my way back through ‘Alhambra’, taking in the scents of the garden and enjoying the calm. As I leave I notice the crow appear from around a corner, back from his rendezvous, a companion crow by his side. They disappear beneath a green metal bench, shaded from the sun’s rays……….