North of the River

In a couple of weeks I will be packing up and moving back to my mum’s house in preparation for my teacher training year. Unfortunately teacher training doesn’t pay you enough to live independently (thanks government!), so I am having to kiss London goodbye for a little while. As such, I am anxious to make the most of the time I have left living here, so last weekend my flatmate and I had a wonderful time revisiting our favourite haunts. On Saturday, we walked up Highgate Hill, cutting through lovely Waterlow Park on our way to Highgate village. We then walked all the way through Highgate, past the amazing Gothic model village that I would cut off my arm to get to live in and past the cemetery until we came out at Parliament Hill, which is part of Hampstead Heath. Parliament Hill has an amazing viewing point over London and is a very popular spot for locals to congregate on a sunny day. As we wandered our way up to the summit, we marvelled at the impressive kites soaring overhead and kept looking back over our shoulders to see the skyline of London slowly appear above the trees. On reaching the top we both gasped in wonder at the glitter and flash of the buildings below, spotting the dome of St Pauls dwarfed beneath the spire of the new Shard and Canary Wharf winking in the sunlight. It is a truly magnificent view; the best in London if you ask me, and definitely worth the trek!

From Parliament Hill we made our way through the beautiful mellow red brick streets of Hampstead, passing George Orwell’s old flat and popping into Daunt Books on our way to Hampstead High Street. We looked around the shops, most of which are a little bit too expensive for the likes of us, and enjoyed some people watching before jumping on the bus back to Archway, which is distinctly less beautiful, but has a community spirit that I love. Everyone knows everyone else, largely due to the fact that most people have grown up here, and while it might be a little run down and shabby around the edges, there is a lively market on the weekends and plenty of independent and interesting cafes, restaurants and shops to enjoy. I will miss it enormously.

On Sunday we went over to The Bull and Last, an absolutely delicious gastropub overlooking Parliament Hill, for Sunday Lunch. I first went here a couple of years ago as part of a V&A staff Christmas outing, where we had a tour of Highgate Cemetery and then came to the pub for our Christmas dinner, which was so divine that I can still taste the happiness it brought. I have been boring my flatmate with stories of how good the food is here for months, so it was with much anticipation that we sat down for our roast beef. We weren’t disappointed; the plate was piled high, everything was cooked to perfection, and we had lovely views of the park to enjoy out of the window. The best was yet to come, however; for dessert we ordered homemade ferrero rocher ice cream, which was the best thing I have ever tasted. Little balls of chocolately-nutty goodness rolled in caramel wafer…divine. If you’re ever in the area, you must visit. They also do a magnificent fish and chips that shouldn’t be missed.

Full to the brim, we hurried up the hill to Highgate Cemetery just in time to catch the 3pm tour. I haven’t been for a long time, and have never been in the summer months, so I was excited to have a fresh look in a new season. Our tour guide was wonderful and impressed me immediately by offering a new insight on the first grave we came to on the tour. This is of a coachman whose name I can’t remember, but he made his fortune in the 1830s and 1840s and has the name of his coach on his monument. He is pointed out on all tours, but I had never been told his story properly before. I had assumed, as he was a coachman, that he’d owned some sort of omnibus, but the guide explained that actually he was the owner of the ‘Old Time’ coaches, which gave heritage tours on old style coaches between London and Brighton. By this time, the railways had overtaken horse-drawn coaches, and early Victorians were fascinated by the forms of transport used by the generations before them. I loved the idea of this nostalgic tourism – just as we enjoy steam trains now, the Victorians too were enthralled by the past and saw it as the ‘good old days’!

Highgate Cemetery’s beauty never fails to delight in any season. However, I especially loved seeing it full of greenery and flowers, as I have only ever experienced it bare branched and mulchy in the depths of winter, which made it hard to imagine the original vision of the cemetery as a pleasure garden. Though there is little left of the landscaping that was once tended by a small army of gardeners, the twisting leaves that frame the monuments and occasional snatches of fragrance from flowering bushes give an impression of how lovely this place must once have been. Excitingly, there is now access to the Dissenter’s Cemetery, which is totally overgrown and features the graves of a number of interesting people who were not Church of England. I have only ever seen this section from the road, and I wish I could have spent more time exploring. There is a house in this section, too, which is a 21st century glass affair that has spectacular views across the cemetery; I’m not sure if I’d want to live there though!

Once the tour was over, we walked back home through Waterlow Park, enjoying another lovely view across the skyline of London. I will certainly miss this vantage point; nothing is so beautiful as seeing London laid out sparkling at your feet.

Exhibitionist

London’s museums are doing themselves proud with their multitude of fascinating exhibitions at the moment. I really am spoilt for choice when it comes to opportunities to broaden my mind! However, the one that has most been calling to me is the Natural History Museum’s Scott exhibition, and last Sunday I finally made my way over to see it. I don’t know an awful lot about the history of polar exploration, and have deliberately not read much about the Scott expedition, as I can’t bear the thought of their tragic end. However, the exhibition promised to not dwell on the tragedy, but rather to celebrate the achievements of the expedition, and this was an angle that intrigued me. Accordingly I found myself wandering through the cavernous entrance hall of the museum, which is a real feat of Victorian engineering and prime example of how they managed to build beauty into all aspects of architectural construction. I hadn’t been inside for years (despite working next door for two!) and it really did blow me away. I also loved marvelling at the huge T-Rex skeleton on display, and hearing the delighted exclamations of the hundreds of children crowded around it, who seemed to think it might come back to life any minute and gobble them up!

Once I’d managed to get through the assault course of small children, prams and several kiosks selling dinosaur themed merchandise that lay in my path from entrance to exhibition, I arrived in the quiet and peaceful exhibition hall and was immediately entranced by a photograph of the Terra Nova, the ship that transported them from Britain to the Antarctic, surrounded by ice and a sky so white I could almost feel the cold emanating from it. In the background they were playing sounds of the Antarctic and it all felt incredibly atmospheric. I wandered through the first section, which explains the context of the expedition, and what the aims of it were. They have display cases containing the food rations, clothing and equipment they took with them,  and alongside the usual dried and canned goods they had crates of chocolate, biscuits, tea, baked beans (I had no idea they went back so far!) and eccentric Edwardian condiments that were sponsored by the manufacturing companies who were eager to be associated with such an exciting adventure. The most interesting product they took with them was a canned food called ‘Pemmican’, which was invented by Native Americans and is a blend of meat, fat and dried fruit that is high in energy. It was adopted by those working in the fur trade and was also given to soldiers in the Boer War. I don’t fancy the idea of it myself but the Scott expedition members seem to have found it pretty tasty!

In fact, I found the domestic arrangements of the expedition members the most interesting aspect of the whole exhibition. This is probably rather shallow of me, as the exhibition made much of the scientific discoveries the zoologists, geologists and astronomers of the group achieved and had some wonderful specimens on display that were picked up on the trip, such as penguin embryos and volcanic rock formations. For me though, all of this paled in comparison to the diaries, photographs, menu cards, books and other intimate, everyday items that revealed the reality of life in a small hut shared with ten or so men for over a year. The exhibition space recreates the dimensions of the hut, so that you can experience just how claustrophobic it must have been. In this space they had to eat, sleep, work and play, and the photographs of how they laid it out, making bunk beds and partitions out of used storage crates and decorating their individual areas with photographs from home was so touching. I loved how they celebrated birthdays and Christmases with elaborate meals, decorations and presents; they were a real family and pulled together to support one another during what must have been a very challenging and emotionally difficult time. The resident chef was the true star of the show for me, though, managing to create interesting and varied meals out of very limited ingredients every day. He kept the team well fed and their spirits up; as we all know, there’s no comfort for a weary soul like a good meal.

The team stayed in the base camp for almost a year, preparing for the final push to the South Pole. During this time they had conducted many trips out to lay stores along the route, as well as other expeditions to collect scientific specimens, take photographs and measure weather conditions. The expedition was certainly not just about being first to the Pole; it was also about enabling the world to greater understand the Antarctic regions and its flora and fauna. However, making it to the Pole was Scott’s overriding priority, and 16 of the men set out to reach it in September 1911. Along the route, 11 were to eventually turn back, leaving the final 5, including Scott, to finish the expedition. We all know how the story ends, and I found it horribly moving to read the diary entries of those left behind at base camp, their worry increasing every day as the date of the Polar party’s return came and went with no sign of their friends. Eventually they had to conclude that they had not made it, but had to wait eight months before conditions were good enough for them to attempt to find out what had happened. It took them less than two weeks to find the tent where their bodies lay; the tragedy of how close they were to making it back alive struck them all and many were wracked with guilt for the rest of their lives at the thought that they could have tried harder to save them.

It is a very sad story, but the exhibition did an excellent job of celebrating what was achieved and the significance of what was discovered over the course of the two years the party spent in the Antarctic. They may not have been the first to reach the Pole, but they made some incredible discoveries and left a legacy of heroism and bravery that means they will never be forgotten. I was enthralled by it all, and now can’t wait to read Scott’s diaries, as well as the party zoologist, Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s account of his time in the Antarctic, The Worst Journey in the World. There is also a wonderful book of photographs of the expedition that will certainly be going on my birthday list.

After all that tragedy, I needed a pick me up, so I popped across the road to see the new British Design exhibition at the V&A. It celebrates the best in British art and design from 1948 to the present day, and it really is fantastic. I was mainly interested in the immediate postwar displays, which explored how artists and designers responded to the austerity of the war years, expressing themselves in stark, clean, simple lines that reflected the ideas of progress and modernity. However, under the surface there was a great wave of nostalgia and patriotism, exacerbated by the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, and this tension between traditional, rural values of a Green and Pleasant land and a striving towards a new, urban future of modern, technologically advanced cities is everywhere in the designs of the time. I was especially fascinated by the rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral, which was a beautiful survivor of the Medieval period and almost totally destroyed in a terrible night of bombing which devastated the city. It had to be largely rebuilt after the war, and the striking modernity and creativity of the Cathedral design reflected the idea of the city rising from the ashes to a new future. New model towns grew up all over Britain, such as Harlow and Milton Keynes (otherwise known as Roundabout City!), built to house those who were bombed out of their homes during the war, and these contained high rise tower blocks and homes filled with clean lines, huge windows, open plan layouts and plenty of green space; ‘new utopias’ for a new age.

V&A exhibitions are always brilliant – though I am biased – and I left this one feeling very proud of how Britain regenerated itself after the war and also fascinated by how much about a society can be deduced from the way it expresses itself through its art, architecture and manufacture. I encourage those of you who can to come and visit, and don’t forget to go to the shop – it is absolutely full of wonderful British Design related things, and I was especially tempted by this book of Eric Ravilious paintings – I love his art and his depictions of rural British life demonstrate perfectly that tension between tradition and modernity that is so evident in post-war British design.

So, a lovely day of exploring and learning was had, and all that was left to do afterwards was have tea and cake with a friend back in Highgate, where I once again spotted a beautiful piece of British design; check out the teacup chandelier!!

London in Bloom

Today the temperature in Britain soared to over 20°C. The entire population of London dug out their summer clothes and flipflops and burst forth into the streets to enjoy the sunshine. Unfortunately, I was not one of them, because I had to work today. The one day in the year when I had to work on a Saturday would just be the hottest day of the year so far, wouldn’t it?! Instead of lying on a patch of grass somewhere, eating strawberries and watching the clouds go by, I was stuck in a dingy church hall counting copper coins and drinking lukewarm tea with – shudder – UHT milk (tea lovers – you know what I’m talking about!). However, all was not lost! I busted out for a brief lunchtime stroll around Bloomsbury, and what a glorious array of sights did I see!

As I wandered down Euston Road towards Bloomsbury, I walked past the parish church of St Pancras. Built in Egyptian Revival style, this colossal pillared beauty has some absolutely stunning, huge sculptures of Greco-Roman figures running down each side. I stood in awe beneath them and couldn’t believe I hadn’t spotted this amazing piece of architecture before. Next to the church was a beautiful, quaint little alley of Victorian shops called Woburn Way; another place I hadn’t noticed before. One of the shops was called Wot the Dickens?! but sadly it was a takeaway rather than an undiscovered bookshop – probably for the best, otherwise I might never have made it back to work!

I knew Dickens had lived in this area, but I hadn’t spotted the plaque to him on the wall of the huge colonial revival style British Medical Association building that runs along one side of Tavistock Square, former home of Virginia Woolf, before. Tavistock Square is quite interesting in that it only has one side of the typical Bloomsbury Georgian dark brick and white stucco terraces left. However, the replacement buildings on the other sides are all lovely in their own way, and the centre gardens, dedicated to Gandhi, are especially beautiful. Today they were a riot of colour, a carpet of daffodils and crocuses having erupted just in time to soak up the glorious sunshine.

I wandered into the streets behind Tavistock Square, enjoying the strange stillness and silence of this part of central London. As most of the buildings in Bloomsbury are now owned by the University of London colleges, the majestic squares of tall, dark terraces with their central gated gardens tend to be extremely quiet on the weekends, and this unexpected peace is wonderful. I spotted some fantastic art deco architecture and enjoyed peeping in through locked gates into gardens I wished I could have cavorted around in – maybe one day!

With a heavy heart I left the stillness of Bloomsbury behind for the frenetic rush of Euston Road as I meandered my way through the dingy streets behind Euston station back to the church hall. Though there are plenty of seedy shops and questionable fast food joints in these streets, there are also plenty of beautifully, thoughtfully constructed early 20th century social housing estates and some stunning Victorian architecture, that has become sadly rather mired in grime. I hope that as the gentrification of this area gathers steam, more will be done to bring a little of Bloomsbury’s elegance to the streets of Euston and St Pancras. All the raw material is there, after all.

Kenwood House

 

On the edge of Hampstead Heath sits a beautiful white stuccoed Adam-designed villa, perched atop a hill that provides breathtaking views of the London skyline. Kenwood House dates from the 1600s and would once have been a country home; now it is part of the London suburb of Hampstead, that, though still retaining its village charm, is less than half an hour on the tube from central London. It was bequeathed to the nation in 1927 by Edward Guiness, 1st Earl of Iveagh (who was once Diana Mitford’s grandfather-in-law), and it is an absolutely wonderful treasure trove of sumptuous rooms, gorgeous furniture and impressive paintings, including a Rembrandt self portrait. It is not an overwhelmingly large house; in fact, it’s quite small, considering the amount of land it is surrounded by. It was designed to make the most of the gorgeous views across the Heath, and the sunny, light filled rooms all frame the lovely vistas that unfold from every angle. Every room is a delight, and I especially loved the Orangery, which was absolutely filled with sunshine as one wall is made up of floor to ceiling sash windows. I could have spent all day in there gazing across the Heath, which today was crowned by a bright blue (yet freezing) sky and was an ever changing, swaying mass of lacy branched trees, smudgy brown and green bushes and acres of undulating grass that could have been in the wilds of the Yorkshire Moors rather than a mere stone’s throw from the hustle and bustle of Oxford Circus.

Kenwood House has been featured in several films; I recognised it from Notting Hill, in the scene when Julia Roberts is filming a Henry James adaptation and Hugh Grant comes to try and win her back. It really is a magnificent setting, and you would never know you were in the vicinity of London at all until you mount the top of the hill outside the back of the house and are suddenly greeted with the incredible sight of London spread like a blanket before you, its skyscrapers shimmering hazily on the horizon.

As of April, the house will be closed for 18 months to carry out essential restoration, particularly on the servants’ wings. I hope they are going to put back the original features of the servant’s wing and make it into an authentic recreation of the lives of the teeming mass of servants who would have cleaned the miles of corridors and served up sumptuous banquets in the chandeliered dining room. As much as I love wandering through the rooms of stately homes, you never really get a real insight into how real life was lived there. No one can lie with their feet up watching tv on a 17th century silk and gilt sofa surrounded by Rembrandts, can they?! Servants’ quarters show the reality of most people’s lives on these huge old estates and I am looking forward to going back in 18 months’ time to see what the restoration work has revealed.

Weekend Wanderings

Last weekend I finally got around to visiting Two Temple Place, William Astor’s mansion on the Victoria Embankment. It’s a gorgeous Victorian take on Jacobean architecture right next to Temple tube station, and I had absolutely no idea it existed until I got an email about a new William Morris exhibition being held there. The Bulldog Trust, which owns the building, has decided to use some of the space to display collections from regional museums that would normally be inaccessible to Londoners, and I’m really excited about what could be coming up next! The William Morris exhibition’s theme is ‘Story, Memory, Myth’ and explores how Morris told stories through his art. They have some exquisite embroidered panels, wallpaper and fabric samples, stained glass and books that all come together to demonstrate Morris’ profound interest in the Medieval world and his remarkable talent at creating designs that transport the viewer into this alternate reality of an idealised past.

The inside of the mansion was the real draw, though, and slightly overpowered what they had on display. The entrance hall, with its stained glass ceiling, galleried landings and ornately carved staircase, was breathtaking. I could have stared at it all day! Once you have entered the first exhibition room, you find yourself wandering through cavernous, faux Jacobean banqueting rooms complete with exquisite panelling, beautiful, incredibly detailed stained glass and painted ceilings that will have you craning your neck for a closer look. It’s an incredible building that Astor obviously spared no expense on creating exactly to his specifications. A lavish idealisation of a historic British stately home slap bang in the middle of London and with commanding views across the Thames, it’s a unique place and I can highly recommend a visit.

Once we’d finished looking around, my friend and I wandered along the river, had lunch on the Southbank and then went to see The Artist. I was sceptical about watching a silent film, but I needn’t have been – it’s absolutely marvellous. I found it really interesting how easy it is to tell a story without any dialogue; so much can be told through expressions, and the actors are mesmerising in their ability to bring their characters to life without uttering a word. The story itself is both a fascinating look at the world of early Hollywood and a heartbreaking portrayal of a man’s fall from grace, and I think I cried and laughed in equal measure. It’s an exquisite work of art and I urge you all to go and see it!!

In other news, I am still reading and highly enjoying Mansfield Park, and I have been intrigued and entertained by all the different opinions flying around in the comments. Who knew a Jane Austen novel could cause such heated controversy! If you’d like to join in, please feel free to – I will be writing more about it over the course of the following week, so there will be plenty of opportunities to air your thoughts!