Update: Written in Soap

Given that it’s now over three months (yes, a quarter of a year, where did it go?) – and we’ve had some pretty inclement weather in that time – I thought it was high time I made good on my promise to keep you updated on the progress of the soap statue in Cavendish Square. To briefly recap, artist Meekyoung Shin created a statue made from soap of the rather unpopular Duke of Cumberland – to fill the plinth that has stood empty in the square since the original was removed in 1868.



Shin’s piece was unveiled back in July and will be on display until 30 June 2013, weathering whatever nature throws at in in the meantime. You can probably imagine my surprise when on approaching the statue there at first appeared to be no change at all. A closer inspection, however, revealed some extra cracking along the hind and one of the hind legs – some cracking was already present when I visited in August. Part of the soap is breaking up around the top of the tail – probably the most obvious new sign of decay – and there are a couple of darker marks elsewhere that might be parts of the underlying metal base showing through.

But all in all horse and rider are in excellent condition considering. The mottling of the colour was already present on my first visit and is probably due to the nature of the soap itself. The major difference to report is that a sign has since been placed next to the statue, explaining the project. This actually constitues a significant improvement, as due to its realistic appearance many visitors to the square seemed unaware of the unusual nature of the statue in their midst.

You can view my original post about Written in Soap here.

Read more about the project at: http://www.writteninsoap.com/

Vale of Health

Despite its name and current rarefied status, Hampstead’s mini-neighbourhood the Vale of Health actually started life as a bog variously known as Gangmoor or Hatchett’s Bottom – and was later home to factories, fairgrounds and laundering operations. It’s come a long way since – it is now said to be one of the most expensive residential areas in the world. It’s certainly one of the most exclusive, being composed of just a small hamlet’s worth of houses (and absolutely no amenities) entirely surrounded by Hampstead Heath. And while its name might suggest a former health spa or some such, the reality is that it probably originated as a euphemism or an invention aimed at changing the area’s tarnished image.

Please note the dog in the window.

Certainly the now purely residential nature of the Vale of Health was not always so – along with the odd factory, the area was once particularly popular with day-trippers (especially after the railway came to town) and was home to tea-houses, boat rides, grottoes, arbours and a fairground. Though the merry-go-rounds and slot machines were packed away some time ago, the legacy of these more giddy days continues with the existence of what would otherwise have been one of the least likely caravan parks in London, which abuts the Vale along one edge. Today it is still inhabited by fairground employees, and has been owned by the same family for over a century.

I first stumbled across the Vale of Health by complete accident while exploring Hampstead Heath. I’d remembered it as a quaint semi-village full of white houses. This recollection was only partially correct  – there are indeed a number of white residences but not exclusively so and these share space with two more modern apartment buildings. These flats were built on land once occupied by the two hotels in Vale of Health and have a lovely setting over the pond on one side of the settlement (see the before and after images below). Building in the Vale was severely curtailed in 1872 when the Metropolitan Board of Works bought the heath, limiting construction to the existing area.

By 1890 there were 53 houses in the area – and it’s much the same today, with the residences strung out along the one main road (called Vale of Health), an unnamed side road (where the apartments are) and a series of interconnecting alleyways behind these. It is a fascinating little area to explore or stumble across, with an unusual history and a number of listed buildings. Two blue plaques can be found for previous residents DH Lawrence and Rabindranath Tagore. It’s well worth a detour when you’re next rambling across the heath.

The Vale of Health can be reached via East Heath Road. The closest tube station is Hampstead Heath on the northern line.

Book Review: The Regent’s Canal

Image: David Fathers, ‘The Regent’s Canal’, Frances Lincoln

One of the best aspects of David Fathers’ new guide to the Regent’s Canal is the way that it clearly brings together what can otherwise seem like a quite disparate system of canals that run through London. This process commences from the very start of the book, with the inclusion of a map showing the full extent of these waterways, from Maida Vale’s Little Venice to Olympic Park. As the way the Regent’s Canal links up with the Hertford Union Canal, the Limehouse Cut and the River Lee Navigation is not always immediately obvious, this guide helps facilitate exploration of what is a fascinating and diverse – and often over-looked – route through our fair city.

Image: David Fathers, ‘The Regent’s Canal’, Frances Lincoln.

Author David Fathers trained as a graphic designer and now works as an illustrator, so it’s no surprise that his book is full of delightful illustrations and images and has an attractive yet practical layout. Every page follows a section of the waterways across London from west to east, with the closest tubes or rail links clearly marked. Fathers doesn’t just stick to the major points of interest either – fascinating historical snippets and glimpses into the lives of famous residents are also included. For example, the house where playwright Joe Orton was murdered is listed, as are details about the accidental explosion of the Macclesfield Bridge (near Regent’s Park) in 1874 – all of which makes for a pleasantly idiosyncratic guide.

The guide’s handy size also means that it is easily carried with you on the trek you should now be inspired to take along London’s waterways. The Regent’s Canal: An Urban Towpath Route from Little Venice to the Olympic Park is published by Frances Lincoln on 4th October 2012 – just in time for the 200th anniversary of the first cutting of the canal.


Image: David Fathers, ‘The Regent’s Canal’, Frances Lincoln.

City residential church towers

Fancy living in an old church tower? The towers that have been converted into homes must surely be amongst some of London’s most unusual residential options. The City’s churches have taken quite a battering over the years – once numbering over a hundred, 35 were lost in the Great Fire of 1666, while many of those which were painstakingly rebuilt afterwards were again damaged or destroyed during the Blitz. In between these two catastrophic events, yet more were demolished from the late eighteenth century onwards. The towers of a number of these lost churches were saved and put to new uses – while the conversions into commercial premises are more obvious, some have also been turned into rather intriguing private residences.

Christchurch Greyfriairs on Newgate Street (above) was damaged in the Great Fire and rebuilt by Wren between 1684 and 1704, only to be destroyed during the Blitz. Luckily the tower survived and was restored in 1960, along with the urns that now grace it which had been removed in the nineteenth century. The area that was once part of the body of the church is now a garden, which has been planted to follow the lines of its original layout, pews and pillars. The rebuilt Vestry House adjoining the tower is now a dental practice, while the tower is indeed somebody’s home (with the rather flashy front door at the top of this post) – you can see their dining area from the garden.

No doubt visitors to Wood Street over the years have pondered exactly why there is a lone church tower standing in splendid isolation in what is now the middle of a traffic island (directly across from the police station, you can’t miss it!). St Alban Wood Street (pictured above and below) was also rebuilt by Wren after the Great Fire – sadly it was destroyed on a single night during the Blitz, 29th of December 1940. Wren’s gothic-style tower survived – a glance through its doors reveals an entry foyer (when the wooden doors aren’t locked) and old stairs leading to the residence above.

I’ve heard that the tower of St Mary Somerset on Upper Thames Street is also somebody’s home, but I’m not so sure. It looks pretty desolate and boarded up to me. Another church that Wren rebuilt after the devastating fire of 1666, St Mary’s was not a victim of the Blitz. Instead it was scheduled to be demolished in the nineteenth century as it was deemed no longer necessary due to low attendance rates. Fortunately someone recognised the beauty of Wren’s wonderfully intricate Baroque pinnacles (seen below) and the tower was saved. The good news is that there appears to be some work being done on it – so maybe there could be some vacancies coming up…

If you’d like to discover more about the City’s lost churches try Gordon Huelin’s book Vanished Churches of the City of London (available at the Guildhall Library for only £5), which lists 69 vanished churches in total.

St Mary Somerset

Christchurch Greyfriars

Written in Soap

When Londonist wrote about the soap sculpture in Cavendish Square last week I knew this was something I had to see for myself. Much like the structure featured in last week’s post, Paleys upon Pilers, Meekyoung Shin’s soap sculpture is a temporary addition to London’s streetscape, which is part art installation, part historical reference.

This soap scultpure of the Duke of Cumberland, which launched on 24 July, replaces the one originally installed in 1770 then removed in 1868 when the subject became increasingly unpopular. While the fate of the original statue is unknown, the stone plinth has stood empty ever since in the middle of Cavendish Square, just behind Oxford Circus.

While Shin’s work is indeed made of (vegetable-based) soaps it does include a metal skeletal armature attached to the base on which it stands to hold the sculpture upright. The piece was intended to be as close as possible to the original, based on existing sketches – although the exact dimensions remain unknown it was created to fit the proportions of the plinth. Intriguingly there are no signs in the square about its latest addition, so I can only guess that the casual visitor would assume it was an ordinary statue.

Shin’s work has much to say about the changeable nature of art, monuments and history – she is particularly interested in the way that history is drawn (and re-drawn and erased) on the urban landscape. The sculpture will remain in Cavendish Square for one year – and it’s anyone’s guess how it will endure the four seasons. I plan to revisit it over this time and will update you on how it is progressing.


Fulham Palace

You know that a residence is very old when it has ‘est 704’ in its logo. In fact, although the earliest written evidence for Fulham Palace dates from 704 it was acquired by a bishop around 700 and the site has evidence of occupation dating back much longer than that, with Neolithic, Iron Age and Roman artefacts uncovered here. Originally the country home for the Bishop of London, the Palace later became their main abode – the last bishop to live here was Bishop Stopford, who moved out in 1973.

Today Fulham Palace is open to the public and you can wander around a number of rooms at your leisure, including the Great Hall (circa 1495), which was re-panelled in the 19th century from recycled materials including an old communion rail. Or you can have lunch in the cafe that was once Bishop Howley’s Georgian drawing room. There is also a small museum covering the history of Fulham Palace. The moat (now dry) that encircles the property was once the longest domestic moat in England. Both the Palace and the grounds have been altered over the years by the different bishops in residence, who have left their various marks upon it.

Fulham Palace is understandably excited about recent happenings in its walled garden, originally landscaped in its current form by Bishop Terrick (1764-1777), although the Tudor entranceway (pictured below) signifies an older version. It is currently being restored and was re-opened to the public on the 27th of May. The restoration is still in progress, giving visitors the opportunity to see a partial ‘before’ picture. Bishop Blomfield’s knot garden – planted in the colours of his own coat of arms and replicating his original 1831 design – is complete and a new greenhouse has been built on the exact footprint of the original. Bee boles – holes along the outside of the walls once used to attract bees, not only for their honey but to pollinate the walled garden’s fruit trees – have just been uncovered after being bricked up for over a century.

I don’t know about you, but when I hear about an archaeological dig I tend to think about bones and dead bodies. However, the purpose of the archaeological dig currently taking place in the walled garden is to uncover remnants of previous garden design, so as to inform plans for the restoration. They are seeking hints and patterns of previous planting, formal beds, paths, statuary and the like. As well as a girl guide’s badge (from the days when lunches for guides where hosted here), they have also uncovered Victorian plant labels, children’s toys and buttons from the clothing worn by former gardeners. The dig has been a community one, with volunteers joining in from the local area and schools.

The dig has recently been extended until the 10th of August, so you’ve still got time to join in if you’re interested. Fulham Palace also offers historical walks and garden tours, check their website for details: http://www.fulhampalace.org/  These are £5 per person, but admission to the Palace and its grounds is free. The closest tube is Putney Bridge on the District line.

Twickenham’s Grottoes Part 2

Marble Hill Park Grotto

Having explored Alexander Pope’s once magnificent grotto in Part One of this series, we now turn to another grotto in Twickenham with connections to Pope. The grotto located in the grounds of English Heritage’s Marble Hill property – and this one is open to the public – was not only inspired by Pope, but the poet himself helped with the design (and indeed with that of the entire grounds) – ‘assisting’ landscape shaper Charles Bridgeman.

Marble Hill was built between 1724-29 for Henrietta Howard, the mistress of King George II. The Countess of Suffolk, as she was later to become, had visited Pope’s grotto and determined to have one of her very own built in the grounds of her nearby Palladian villa. In fact, it is believed that there were originally two grottoes built in the grounds, and it seems likely that the one you can see today is the smaller of the two. It was first rediscovered after a fallen tree revealed a secret chamber in 1941. It was refilled at this time but in 1983 subsidence on the lawn lead to excavations which saw it uncovered yet again and finally restored.

Like Pope’s own grotto, the Countess’s would have originally been more colourful, containing shells, coral and blue glass. Sadly these decorations were too fragile to be conserved so it is now a much plainer proposition altogether. The small ‘cave’ itself is behind bars, and composed mostly of rather barren stone and brick. A stone table can still be seen, though not in the best condition. The exterior top part of the grotto is not original but has been reconstructed as it is thought to have originally appeared. Today the grotto is approached down a set of stairs – another feature thought to be faithful to its original appearance.

As I approached the grotto from the Thames, it looked like nothing more than a hedge. Shrubbery has been planted around the grotto and its stairs creating this effect (earlier photos show the grotto after its restoration with no shrubbery). Actually this oval ‘hedge’ is in keeping with a description of the larger grotto as containing ‘an Ally of flowering shrubs’. The location of this second, larger grotto remains a mystery.

You can view the Marble Hill grotto during Marble Hill Park’s opening hours, which are standard dawn to dusk times. If you’re considering combining your trip with a visit to the house make sure you check its separate opening hours as these are very limited and it’s usually closed throughout the colder months.

Rotherhithe Tunnel cupolas

At similar points across the Thames in Wapping and Rotherhithe – like sentinels along the river – stand two rather mysterious identical circular red-brick structures. Surely many a passerby over the years has wondered exactly what these buildings are. They are in fact twin ventilation shafts – more romantically known as cupolas and sometimes referred to as the Rotherhithe Rotunda or Rotherhithe Tunnel Shafts – for the Rotherhithe Tunnel, which allows vehicles to travel under the river at this point between the north and south banks.

The cupolas were not built to deal with the noxious fumes produced by cars – as one could be forgiven for assuming – but with those produced by the horses that at the time of the tunnel’s construction were still very much the main form of transport. Likewise, the pathways along the edge of the tunnel itself were not designed for pedestrians but for the men who used to walk the length of the tunnel shovelling horse manure off the road – surely a contender for inclusion in The Worst Jobs in History TV series.

The Rotherhithe cupola in the foreground – you can just see its Wapping twin on the far left on the north bank.

The Rotherhithe Tunnel was constructed between 1904 and 1908 and both the tunnel and the cupolas were designed by the engineer Sir Maurice Fitzmaurice. Made from red brick and Portland stone, each contains a staircase down to the tunnel and four ventilation fans. Their surprisingly ornate iron grilles on the windows spell out the letters ‘LCC’ – for the former London County Council. The cupola on the Rotherhithe side is a little isolated and is fully fenced off with thick red metal bars.

The Wapping cupola is located in the King Edward VII Memorial Park and is more easily viewed as it is not hidden away behind bars. It is signposted as ‘Rotherhithe Tunnel Shaft 3’ – I’m only aware of the two shafts so please get in touch if you know the whereabouts of the other one! You can walk all the way around this cuploa, and enjoy the pretty twin entry doors on the north side (see detail above). Also located on this side is a ceramic and stone memorial erected by the LCC in 1922 to commemorate the sixteenth-century navigators whose voyages into the unknown started from this part of the Docklands.

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

Prince Albert’s Model Cottages

Ever wondered why there is a house in Kennington Park bearing the inscription ‘Model Houses for Families Erected by HRH Prince Albert’? This 2-storey structure was actually one of what has become known as Prince Albert’s Model Cottages or the Prince Consort Model Lodge. Built by the Society for Improving the Conditions of the Labouring Classes (SICLC) – whose name pretty much speaks for itself and of whom Prince Albert was president – for display at the 1851 Great Exhibition in Hyde Park.

The cottage was placed outside of the exhibition’s Crystal Palace so that all could enter for free – and over 250,000 people did so. After the exhibition it was dismantled and re-assembled on the edge of Kennington Park in 1853. At this point, the park was yet to open to the public (after Kennington Common had been fenced off in 1852 following the massive gathering of Chartists seeking electoral reforms there in 1848), and the cottage was the only publicly accessible part. This all changed the following year, when Kennington Park became South London’s first public park in 1854. The gardens around the house were laid out in 1861.

The back of the house - with the added porch.

The back of the house – with the added porch.

The model cottages were designed by Henry Roberts to house four families, with two flats on each level. He envisioned that the cottages would provide suitable accommodation for people from “the class of mechanical and manufacturing operatives who usually reside in towns or in their immediate vicinity”. Each family was designated a living room, kitchen/scullery, three bedrooms and a toilet – but no bathroom, as was still generally the case in houses built in the U.K. at this time.

Source: ‘Plans and Suggestions for Dwellings Adapted to the Working Classes, Including the Model Houses for Families’ (London: the Society for Improving the Condition of the Labouring Classes).

The open staircase provided access to the flats on the upper level – this has since been enclosed, and the doors on the left-hand side side bricked in. A porch had also been added to the back of the cottage when it was moved to Kennington. Along the front of the house, mosaic tiles on the cornices spell out Victoria and Albert’s initials intertwined (and the date 1851), whilst the brickwork on either side of the cottage also features a similar pattern. The house has been the headquarters of Trees for Cities since 2003.

Prince Albert’s Model Cottage is located along the Kennington Park Road side of Kennington Park, between Oval and Kennington tube stations.