Prefab Museum

IMG_5918

After the Second World War thousands of prefabricated houses sprung up around UK in an effort to deal with the extreme housing shortage. Over the years most of these have been demolished – they were only ever intended to be temporary structures. However, one community of prefabs in Catford, South East London, has clung on. With the estate now in its last days, a temporary exhibition currently offers the rare opportunity to see inside a prefab house.

IMG_5957The Excalibur Estate was built between 1945 and 1946 by German and Italian prisoners of war and is the largest surviving prefab community in the country.  The buildings were only intended to last for around ten years.

PM1The estate – whose streets are named after Arthurian characters – is destined for the bulldozer, to be replaced with 371 new homes by Lewisham Council. Part of it has already been demolished and fenced off. Only six buildings, which have been listed by English Heritage, are to be retained.

IMG_5952

The temporary exhibition features photographs (including some particularly stunning ones by Rob Pickard), memorabilia and films about life in the Excalibur Estate and other prefab communities in the UK – and your last chance to visit one of London’s more unusual communities.

PM5The Prefab Museum can be found at 17 Meliot Road, Catford, SE6 1RY. The exhibition has now been extended to run until the end of May, and is open on Tuesdays, Thursdays (10am – 4:30pm) and Saturdays (10am – 6pm). Entry is free. The closest station is Bellingham (National Rail).

Caroline’s Miscellany has also written a very thought-provoking piece on the Excalibur Estate.

IMG_5950

Advertisements

Crystal Palace Park

IMG_3380

One of my favourite pieces of the puzzle that is London history is the Crystal Palace, so it’s high time Crystal Palace Park – its last resting place – made an appearance in this blog. Designed by Joseph Paxton (immortalised in the stone bust pictured below), and made from plate glass and cast iron, this huge greenhouse-like structure was the former home of the the 1851 Great Exhibition, held in Hyde Park, and later moved south to Sydenham.

img005

This move followed a heated debate about the future of the Palace at the end of the temporary exhibition. At this point it was re-designed and rebuilt on a much larger (and I personally think more attractive) scale – the move and rebuilding costing a massive £1,300,000. This new version opened in 1854 and was to host numerous concerts, fireworks displays, exhibitions, and feature a Natural History Collection and a number of ‘Fine Art Courts’, where visitors could walk amongst replicas of architecture, sculpture and decorative arts from various eras and cultures.

IMG_3294

The 1911 Festival of Empire was held in the park, and saw the construction of three-quarter size replicas of all of the Commonwealth countries’ parliament buildings, as well as an Australian vineyard, an Indian tea plantation and a south African diamond mine. A miniature railway was built to transport visitors between the various sites.

CPP

Tragically, despite the efforts of 89 fire engines and 381 firefighters, the Palace was lost in a massive fire on the night of 30th November, 1936. The two giant water towers – designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel to cater for the massive amount of water required for the Palace’s extensive water features – were the only Palace buildings left standing. These were later demolished during the Second World War as it was thought that German aircraft might use them as landmarks. The base of one can still be seen just outside the Crystal Palace Museum.

IMG_3358And there are plenty of other remains still scattered around the park: many of the terraces, a number of the sphinxes, several of the statues, including the particularly striking headless one above, to name but a few. These now languish in a rather splendid state of decay and are my favourite feature of the park.

IMG_3329

A hugely popular feature of the park today is the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs – life-sized models designed by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, arrayed around a lake in the south-east corner of the park. These constitute the first ever sculptures of dinosaurs, unveiled in 1854 as part of the renovation of the park. In fact, they are not actually all dinosaurs – some are extinct animals. In true Victorian style, Hawkins threw a dinner for 21 guests inside one of the models on New Year’s Eve in 1853. At one point the models were so neglected they were covered with foliage, but were restored in 1952 and again in 2002.

IMG_3209

The park is also home to London’s largest maze, first built in 1879 and then re-created in 1987 and refurbished in 2009. There are of course other newer features of interest within the park, not least of which is the ultra-modern Concert Platform, designed in 1997 by Ian Ritchie Architects:

IMG_5706

The Crystal Palace National Sports Centre, in the middle of the park, is probably not generally considered to be the its most appealing attraction, but I feel it has a certain brutal, modern appeal:

IMG_3276

IMG_3245_2

If you’d like to learn more about the Crystal Palace, drop by the Crystal Palace Museum in the south-west corner of the park. Housed in the former Crystal Palace Company’s School of Practical Engineering, this museum may contain only one room but the information within it is comprehensive: if you visit here knowing nothing about the Crystal Palace you will leave knowing just about everything you should! It’s open Saturdays and Sundays, 11-4 summertime and 11-3:30 in winter.

IMG_3282

The Crystal Palace is back in the news again of late due to plans by a Chinese company to rebuild it (in its massive, original size) in the park. I don’t feel well equipped enough to comment too much on this highly controversial project (please feel free to leave your own thoughts below) but it would be a huge loss if the remaining statuary was not preserved and if too much of the park was lost to public access. On the upside, the plan would reinstate Paxton’s Grand Central Walk, a promenade that once ran along the centre of the park and was later obstructed by the sport centre. A petition raising concerns about the development can be found here. In the meantime, these photographs capture the park as it is now – and may not be forever…

IMG_3317

IMG_3348

God’s Own Junkyard

IMG_3718

The imminent closure of God’s Own Junkyard‘s Walthamstow home – with the developers champing at the bit to move in – has been garnering a lot of press attention lately. The Londonphile dropped by on its second-last weekend at its current location to document this unique site.

IMG_3705

The railway-side site that the business has inhabited since 1978 is overwhelming, to say the least. Bright neons designed by owner Chris Bracey jostle for space with old movie props, reclaimed vintage signs and lettering. The yard area has items literally piled on top of each other – not to mention trains regularly thundering by.

IMG_3671

IMG_3756

The Bracey family has owned the business for more than six decades and Chris has been designing neons for almost forty years. His designs have featured in numerous shops, fashion shoots, sets and films – many of these have been salvaged by their creator and are today on display (and sometimes for sale) at the Walthamstow site. The ‘Hotel’ sign below, for example, was used in Tim Burton’s version of Batman.

IMG_3762

IMG_3791

The good news is that it looks like Chris’ neon gems will find a new home in Walthamstow’s Wood Street Indoor Market. Nonetheless, it’s hard to imagine that a market stall can have the overwhelming impact and atmosphere of the current site.

IMG_3819

IMG_3824

You have one last week to visit God’s Own Junkyard in its current location – it will be open Friday 19th and Saturday 20th from 10:30am – 5pm and have its final day on Sunday 22nd, from 11am – 4pm.
It can be found at 97 Vallentin Road, E17 3JJ. Wood Street National Rail station is just around the corner.

IMG_3812

IMG_3835

IMG_3785

19 Princelet Street

IMG_8875

19 Princelet Street seems a fitting place for an immigration museum given its layers of history that follow patterns of immigration in the local area. Last week the house held two rare open days – due to its fragile nature it is not yet able to be open to the public on a more regular basis. Funding is desperately required for repairs to the Grade II listed property so that its Museum of Immigration and Diversity can be fully realised. The Londonphile attended the second opening, and the queue stretching all the way back to Wilkes Street would suggest that number 19 has a bright future.

IMG_8889

Originally built in 1719, this five-storey building was home to the Ogier family, French Huguenot silk weavers. A metal bobbin hangs outside the building today as a lasting reminder of the weavers’ presence in the house. After a number of years housing various workshops and lodgings, 19 Princelet Street underwent its most significant change with the building of a synagogue in 1870 by a group of mainly Polish Jews, working together under the banner of ‘Loyal United Friends Friendly Society’ to create a community centre. While the synagogue now comprises the major part of the building, this part of the structure was in fact where the Ogiers’ garden once stood.

IMG_8859

Metal vents in the synagogue floor allow glimpses down to the meeting room built below the synagogue – this downstairs area was also open, along with a kitchen underneath the original house. Upstairs we had access to some of the the women’s gallery in the synagogue, with its lovely views across the space. The floor above that was closed to visitors but now functions as a staff area, while the attic room of mysterious scholar/recluse David Rodinsky – made famous by artist Rachel Lichtenstein’s 1999 book Rodinsky’s Room – is well out of bounds due to structural issues. One of the volunteers told me she had been involved with the charity for ten years and still hadn’t seen it.

IMG_8880

Due to the property’s no-photography rule you will have to imagine the crumbling beauty of its interior for yourself. But it is beautiful, and hopefully the Spitalfields Centre charity will be able to generate the funds needed to preserve and restore this lovely building and turn it into the museum of their vision.

And the best news is that more open days are already planned for March 2013: on Sundays 17th & 24th March, 2-4pm, and what is sure to be a lovely evening opening on Thursday 21st March, 5-8pm. For more details visit 19 Princelet Street’s website.

IMG_8893

IMG_8835

At risk: Severndroog Castle

Wanderers new to Shooters Hill Woodlands may be surprised to find signs pointing them ‘to the castle’. But Severndroog Castle is in fact not a castle at all but a folly. Nor is it a sham castle but rather another popular form of folly – a triangular tower, a fashionable style for ambitious follies of its day. The 60-foot gothic brick tower designed by Richard Jupp – featuring a hexagonal turret at each corner – is found in Castle Wood, atop South London’s highest point. Built in 1784 by his widow to commemorate Commodore Sir William James and his capture in 1755 of the Indian island fortress of Suvarnadurg (rendered in English as Severndroog) – a castle seems a most appropriate form for his memorial to take.

Plaque commemorating Sir William James.

Although classified as a folly – which is generally held to be a structure without a purpose – Severndroog Castle has actually given itself over to a number of uses throughout the years. This is mainly owing to its great height – the roof of its tower is 50-feet higher than St Paul’s Cathedral cross. Its vantage point across seven counties has been put to good use in linking up England and France trigonometrically (in 1797), in the surveying of London by the Royal Engineers (1848) and during World War Two as an observation post. Some of this view has now been lost as the trees have grown up around the castle.

Now sadly boarded up, the castle once boasted a cafe on the ground floor and, according to Hilary Peters from the Folly Fellowship who visited the site in the 1970s, ‘a perfect eighteenth-century interior: original flower paintings on the original green walls, original plasterwork, original shutters’. She also reveals that one of the towers encloses a staircase, while the others are cabinets off the main room; the first and second floor rooms were kept locked – though Barbara Jones described ‘a hexagonal room with a fine plaster ceiling’ on the first – but visitors could ascend the stairs to the platform on the roof and take in the views.

Unfortunately the interior has been seriously vandalised, while Peters believes that the Georgian flowers were painted over by ‘official vandals’ some time ago. This Grade II* listed structure currently finds itself on English Heritage’s Buildings At Risk register. The Severndroog Castle Building Preservation Trust is now working to restore and re-open the castle, having almost secured an agreement to lease it from Greenwich Council. They have secured Heritage Lottery Funding of £595,000 but this covers only 70% of the full cost – more funds are needed for the Trust to meet its full target of £840,000. You can donate or ‘buy a brick’ for just £5 through Just Giving. Hopefully Severndroog Castle can lose its ‘at risk’ status – a sad fate for a building that folly hunter Gwyn Headley once described as the earliest and best folly tower in London.

What you can do: you can donate/buy a brick to support the castle here

For further information & advice on how to get to the site (the postcode is SE18 3RT): Severndroog Castle Building Preservation Trust

At risk: Cross Bones

This post marks the first in a new series for the Londonphile, featuring London sites that are at risk. These may be facing closure due to financial problems, demolition due to development or simply decaying before our eyes. These posts will advise how you can best register your support – perhaps by signing an online petition, or boosting attendance figures by paying a visit.

Cross Bones Graveyard has long been an at risk heritage site – it was rejected as unsuitable as a building site as far back as 1883 – and it has been featured in the media of late as it is again being marketed for development. Although much of the Cross Bones site is at first glance a concrete wasteland – owned by Transport for London and currently used for storage – it is in fact the last resting place of over 15,000 people. And while anyone who has read Catharine Arnold’s Necropolis will know that the dead can be found all across London, Cross Bones’ unique history makes the site a particularly significant one.

As the plaque on its gate advises, Cross Bones was home to the ‘outcast dead’, an unconsecrated ground used for the burial of prostitues or, as they were known locally, ‘Winchester Geese’ – so-called because they were licensed to ply their trade within the Liberty of the Clink in Southwark by the Bishop of Winchester. Despite this protection, these women were not deemed fit for Christian burial, and their graveyard was appointed ‘far from the parish church’. Although the exact age of the burial ground is not known, it was mentioned in John Stow’s 1598 A Survey of London. It later became a pauper’s cemetery – tellingly in 1665, the year of the Great Plague – in an area with no shortage of slums (and body-snatchers). It closed to burials in 1853 when it was declared over-full and a risk to public health and decency.

Today the Memorial Gates are festooned with ribbons, cards and flowers – a tradition which started at the 1998 Halloween ceremony – and small shrines have been placed on the site. The colourful, celebratory nature of these offerings adds greatly to Cross Bones’ atmosphere, and is also what makes it so very different – appropriately enough, given its outcast nature – to most English graveyards. A closer look inside the site reveals a statue of Mary in an almost grotto-like setting amongst trees, accompanied by a number of ornamental geese. These days, the Shard is also a constant presence, looming high above the site.

Local writer John Constable, who has long been a leading campaigner in the fight to protect Cross Bones, now hopes that at least part of the site can be retained as a Garden of Remembrance and a public park, and the Memorial Gates preserved.

What you can do: sign the online petition here
Vigils are also held at the site at 7pm on the 23rd of each month, as is an annual Halloween festival. At 7pm on Monday 23rd April there will be a special vigil to mark St George’s Day and the coming of spring.

Cross Bones is located on Redcross Way SE1, opposite the Boot and Flogger pub.

http://www.crossbones.org.uk/