Highland Tower

IMG_5763Having previously written about residential church towers in the City, I decided to branch out a little in this post and feature this rather unique one in Gipsy Hill, South East London. Originally built by John Giles in 1862, Christ Church is now surely one of London’s more unusual homes.


When arsonists burnt down Christ Church in the 1980s only the 125-foot tower remained. The church built a new premises behind it and, after it remained derelict for some time, eventually sold the tower off to one John Rubinow, who redeveloped it in the late 1990s as a hugely distinctive home. He built an extra section on one side (composed of two smaller, cream-coloured towers, that cling to the old tower like a carbuncle) to create more room. He added a lift and even restored the old clock.


If you were wondering what it looks like on the inside you are in luck as it was on the rental market for some time (at £970 a week) and the pictures are still (at the time time of writing) available online, if a little greyed-out. There are also some interior photographs in this article from The Telegraph. There are quite a mix of styles on the inside, along with the most spectacular roof terrace and views down the hill across London. There is even a ‘Crypt Utility Room’. A spiral staircase leads up to the Clock Room/Library and, finally, the Belfry/Music Room, and its 36 foot windows.

Having not had much luck selling the property, Rubinow even tried marketing it in America at one point. It seems to not be on the market currently having been recently let, but do let me know if you know otherwise!

You can find Highland tower on Highland Road (on the corner of Gipsy Hill), SE19 1QG. Gipsy Hill station is just down the road, but the tower is also walking distance from Crystal Palace Station.


Prefab Museum


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.


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.


C.A. Mathew returns

ca mathew poster

This March and April Londoners will get another chance to view the compelling street photography of C.A. Mathew. This series of black and white images, which capture the people and streets of 1912 Spitalfields, are unique and unmissable. Revealing the daily life of an area rarely depicted in photographs of the time, this new exhibition features the first chance to see all 21 photographs – including some original prints – on display.

White Lion Street from Norton Foldgate  copy

The story behind the photographs is a fascinating one in itself: C.A. Mathew was actually based in Essex and is thought to have taken these photos while travelling to nearby Liverpool Street Station one fateful Saturday morning in April 1912 (April 20th, to be precise). These are the only surviving body of work by Mathew, who started out in photography just a year before these images were taken, and it is not known for what purpose he chose this subject. Thankfully for us he did – as they have now become the primary visual record of early 20th century Spitalfields.

The sheer number of people out and about on the streets – and the relative youth of many – is fascinating, as is the comparison of the streets and buildings themselves then and now. And with the works on display at Eleven Spitalfields Gallery in Princelet Street, you won’t need to go far to draw such comparisons…

Widegate St looking towards Artillery Passage and the City copy

The images will be on display at Eleven Spitalfields Gallery from 7th March to 25th April 2014; on weekends 10am-6pm and by appointment during the week.

The collection of C.A. Mathew’s work is now housed at Bishopsgate Institute, which is also running a series of events – entitled East End in Focus – in conjunction with the exhibition.

On the same day this blog post was published, Spitalfields Life published this lovely piece by Vicky Stewart, which unravels some of C.A. Mathew’s life story.

All images are ©Bishopsgate Institute.

Norton Folgate - Bishopsgate - City of London lookings- Towards the Crown Shoreditch Hight St copy

Crystal Palace Park


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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:


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:



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.


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…



Richmond Palace


Between Richmond Green and the river Thames a royal palace once stood proudly alongside the water, its turrets thrusting into the sky. A 100-foot long great hall, a 200-foot long open gallery, a chapel and a library were all contained within its walls. Once a favourite haunt of Elizabeth I – who hunted in the nearby Old Deer Park – you will be called upon to use your imagination when visiting this site today as only traces remain.

richmond palace2

But there is certainly enough here to warrant a visit: the gatehouse in particular is well preserved. Although now privately owned (on land rented from the Crown Estate), you can still walk amongst the buildings, pass directly underneath the old gate, and see what remains…


Built in around 1501 for Henry VIII (formerly the Earl of Richmond), royalty lived in Richmond Palace until 1649. The nearby town felt it sensible to obey Henry’s edict and change its name from Shene to Richmond. Tragically, the bulk of the Palace was demolished in the mid-17th and early eighteenth centuries.


The street names themselves are evidence of the site’s former life –  today you can still traverse along Old Palace Yard, Old Palace Lane and The Wardrobe. Keep an eye out for the Royal bollards. As well as the five-bedroomed Gate House, you can see the Wardrobe (which was joined up to the Gate House in 1688-9), and the Trumpeters House (built in 1702-3, replacing the Middle Gate). Maids of Honour Row, just to the left of the Gate House along The Green, was built in 1724 for the women attending the Princess of Wales, though it was only used for this purpose for a few years. The Victorian explorer Richard Burton – whose tomb I visited last year – lived at number two as a child.



The closest station to the Richmond Palace zone is Richmond, which has all bases covered with tube, overground and National Rail services. Head to the southern side of Richmond Green to find the site. There are some very informative signs in the park just across the road from the Gate House; I recommend a quick read of these first to glean some basic history and to orientate yourself within this unusual site.



Pullens Yards and Buildings


Pullens Yards are a series of artists’ studios nestled within cobblestoned streets behind Pullens Buildings, a fascinating but surprisingly little-known area that I visited for the first time last weekend.  The development by builder James Pullen of the Pullens Buildings – also known as Pullens Estate – began in 1886. The remaining 360 flats (of an original 684) represent one of the few surviving Victorian tenement buildings in London today.


The Pullens Buildings are four-storey, yellow stock brick residences with flat roofs. Decorative terracotta arches are featured above each window and central entrance door, behind which you will find a common stairwell for each section of flats. Cast iron window guards are found on the front window sills on the upper floors, and are sometimes used to nice effect to create a window sill garden.



After falling into disrepair by the 1970s, the estate was bought by Southwark Council and the southern blocks demolished. Luckily, further demolition was blocked by local residents and the zone is now protected by its Conservation Area status. The buildings have since featured in a number of films seeking historically realistic settings, including The King’s Speech.


Pullens Yards were purpose-built for craftspeople, and three of the original four remain: Clements Yard, Peacock Yard and the large Iliffe Yard. These were originally designed as live/work spaces, with access through to one of the flats behind, though it’s believed these doors were generally bricked over and the studios separated from the housing early on in the buildings’ history.


Today a wide range of artists and craftspeople work here, including ceramicists, painters, jewellers and photographers. Open studios events are held twice a year, generally once before Christmas and once in summer, when the normally private studio areas are open to the public.  I highly recommend visiting during this time as access is otherwise limited, although the Electric Elephant Café is open all year round.


The next opportunity to visit this unique little slice of London life is the Pullens Yards Summer 2014 Open Studios, which will take place on 13-15th June.
Pullens Yards are located in SE17, between Kennington and Elephant and Castle tube stations.



The Charterhouse


Almost hidden away in the centre of London lies what must be one of the city’s most intriguing historic private sites. The site on which the Charterhouse stands, on the northern side of Charterhouse Square, is usually inaccessible to the public, except for irregular private tours and – right now – for the duration of the Philanthropy: The City Story exhibition. This sizeable site can trace its history back to the 14th century and contains remnants of both medieval and Tudor times.


Charterhouse’s history has a number of phases, which start with the building of a Carthusian monastery on the site in 1371, next to a massive plague pit in Charterhouse Square. After a number of the monks were dragged through the streets and executed or starved to death during the bloody dissolution of the monasteries, the site was partially rebuilt as a Tudor mansion. Sir Edward North lived here, followed by Thomas Howard, the 4th Duke of Norfolk, also later executed. The next owner, Thomas Sutton, set up a charitable foundation and left money and this land to set up a school and almshouse. Today, the school has moved to Surrey but 45 ‘brothers’ still live in this amazing complex; in fact, there have been brothers in residence here since 1611.


The Charterhouse is, appropriately enough, holding an exhibition on philanthropy in the City, curated by the Museum of London, which runs until November 30th (you can read an excellent review of it on London Historians’ blog). On Thursday through Sunday at 3pm you can join a tour of the site led by one of the brothers. In addition to the chapel, which you can see via the exhibition, you will get to go well behind the scenes and visit the Tudor Great Hall, the Old Library (sans books, sadly), the rather spectacular Norfolk Cloister, the Great Chamber, the Master’s Cloister, Wash House Court (my favourite) and Preacher’s Court.

Wondering what you’ll see? Here are some of the highlights:

Tudor Great Hall (featuring what was described as one of the finest minstrel galleries in the UK; the brothers still dine here today):

IMG_4876Norfolk Cloister (has been both an enclosed and open cloister during its history; the monk’s cells were lined up along here, the door of one is still present today):


The Great Chamber (James I held court here in 1603; later, following bomb damage, it was enlarged, joining together what had once been two separate rooms. The ceiling is original).

IMG_4906The Master’s Cloister (though the Master now lives in the Master’s House, near the Gate House):



The beautiful Wash House Court (still includes a laundry today – no doubt London’s prettiest):



And finally, the exit towards the Gate House (you can see why the Charterhouse is popular with film crews):


The current set of tours run Thursday-Sunday at 3pm, until 30 November – the exhibition is free and the tour is £10 (cash only). I would suggest turning up a little early as they are proving very popular.
The brothers do run irregular tours of the Charterhouse, usually from April to September, and it seems likely these will be expanded in 2014. Email tours@thecharterhouse.org to book.
The good news is that a museum is planned for the site, to be opened in 2016. This will be a great step forward in making what is a very important heritage site more accessible to – and more widely known amongst – the public.


Garrick’s Temple to Shakespeare


Undoubtedly one of the prettiest sites that The Londonphile has visited, Garrick’s Temple to Shakespeare stands alongside the Thames at Hampton. This Palladian temple was built in 1756 by actor-manager David Garrick in the riverside gardens of his home, Garrick’s Villa, as a monument to the Bard.


While the original life-size statue of Shakespeare by Huguenot sculptor Roubiliac moved to the British Museum some time ago under the terms of Garrick’s will, a reproduction was installed as part of the major restoration of the temple that took place from 1997-1999. Also found inside the structure today is an exhibition about Garrick himself, featuring a number of reproductions of works by major 18th century artists, including Gainsborough, Reynolds, Hogarth and Zoffany.


Even in Garrick’s time, his villa (pictured below) was separated from the temple by the road – though it was presumably much less busier back then… A tunnel under this road was used by the Garricks to gain easy access to their garden – it still exists but is not accessible to the public. Today, the villa – which narrowly avoided demolition at the start of the twentieth century – has been converted into apartments and was badly damaged by fire in 2008.


The riverside land surrounding the temple was sold off by the villa’s owner in 1923, separating temple and villa. The temple’s new owner built a house directly adjoining it – happily, this was demolished in 1932 following a public outcry that caused the council to purchase the land. It is still owned today by Richmond Council.


The garden – originally designed with assistance from Capability Brown and now known as Garrick’s Lawn – has also been restored along 18th century lines and includes many plants that would have been seen in Garrick’s time. It also features a serpentine path that reflects Hogarth’s line of beauty (seen below). Bring a picnic and sit awhile and watch the rowers pass…


The temple is open to the public – free of charge – on Sunday afternoons (2-5pm) from April to October, and will also feature in the year’s Open House event on Sunday 22 September from 11am – 5pm. From Hampton Court Station take the R68 bus, from Hampton the 111 or 216, or from Hammersmith the 267 (from May to September only).




Billingsgate Roman Bathhouse


Tucked away in the basement of the most unprepossessing 1960s office block at 101 Lower Thames Street are the remains of a Roman house and baths dating from the 2nd-3rd century AD. The Billingsgate Roman Bathhouse site is only open to the public a couple of times a year – I took the opportunity to visit last weekend as part of the Museum of London’s Festival of Archaeology.


These remains were uncovered in 1848 during the construction of the Coal Exchange on the site. Our guide shared a lovely story of the Victorians who discovered it building a spiral staircase (now long gone) down to access the ruins, which strikes me as a particularly lovely piece of Victoriana…The site was to become the first designated protected heritage site in London, forming part of the first Ancient Monuments Act of 1882.


In fact, we are lucky to have it at all. As our guide also explained, the Saxons were more than a little fond of ‘recycling’ old Roman materials. Luckily, those making up the Billingsgate Bathhouse site were saved in part because the area was later covered by a wash of black dirt (some of which can still be seen today on the northern part of the site, pictured above), and also partly by the otherwise destructive force of the Great Fire of 1666, which saw the site further buried under debris pushed down from the hill above.


The baths themselves were thought to be attached to hotel or inn – or possibly a private residence, though no mosaics (usually a sign of an elite residence) have been found to date. These buildings would have faced directly on to the Thames itself. While the ruins today – which feature part of the bathhouse and part of the East Wing of the Roman house – are indeed quite crumbly, parts of the flues for underfloor heating of the house (seen above), and segments of the bathhouse, in particular the hot room (seen below), are clearly evident.


Interestingly, I learnt that a much larger public bathhouse – the Huggin Hill Bath House – still remains preserved, but unaccessible, in a shallow basement on nearby Upper Thames Street. It is possible that future redevelopment of that site might allow for public access. Similarly, it is also possible that the 1967 building directly above the Billingsgate Bathhouse site may be demolished, allowing for a better display of these remains, which are currently punctuated by 1960s concrete columns.

In the meantime, the Billingsgate Roman Bathhouse will be open to the public again for the Open House weekend, on Sunday 22nd September 2013.

You may also like to check out David Fletcher’s amazing 3D model of the site – which you can see online here, along with plenty more photos of the site.


Kilmorey Mausoleum


I think I may have found a mausoleum that tops even Richard Burton’s in its uniqueness: the Kilmorey Mausoleum in Twickenham’s St Margarets. This £30,000 tomb – a fortune when built in 1854 – was a memorial for the mistress of the 2nd Earl of Kilmorey, Priscilla Hoste, who just also happened to be his ward. Today, the tomb lies in a small garden, no longer connected to the house to which it was originally attached, and on rare occasions you can visit and inspect the contents – including the coffins – for yourself.


Originally erected in Brompton Cemetery, the Egyptian-style tomb – which thanks to Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign was very on-trend at the time – was actually re-located twice as the Earl moved around various properties in London. The Earl never allowed either of his two wives to be buried in the tomb, and finally joined his lover in 1880 at the grand age of 92.


Its final site here was attached to nearby Gordon House, where a tunnel was built under the road to connect the mausoleum to the house. The Earl was said to use this tunnel is his later years, when he would get his servants to wheel him through it – wrapped in a shroud, lying in his coffin – to his tomb, in what some believe was a bizarre practice ritual for his own funeral.


The mausoleum’s design is impressive – created by Henry Edward Kendall Jr in the Egyptian Revival style, it features cast bronze doors and pink Scottish granite. It is covered with Egyptian motifs, including the the winged sun disc of the god Ra. The skylight stars in the ceiling of the mausoleum allow the sun to project these stars across the coffins at certain times of the day. A large white marble relief carved by Lawrence MacDonald hangs  on one wall, showing Priscilla on her death bed with the Earl at her feet and their son Charles at her side.


The coffins of the Earl and Priscilla are still very much present on either side of the mausoleum – son Charles refused to take up his allocated shelf. It seems amazing that you can actually enter this small space and stand right next to them. Unlike the rest of the mausoleum, the coffins are very much in Victorian funerary style, with both covered in red velvet. This has very much faded over time, but I was surprised to learn that they had been preserved in a near-perfect state until 1987, when a storm resulted in water damage.



The Kilmorey Mausoleum is only able to be visited on special open days; it is next open as part of the Open House Weekend on Sunday 22nd September 2013. Openings, events and location details are listed on their website.