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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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Prefab Museum

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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.

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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.

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Crystal Palace Park

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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:

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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.

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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…

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God’s Own Junkyard

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Kilmorey Mausoleum

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Written in Soap: Final

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So as the Written in Soap project nears its ends, just how well did the statue made from soap stand up to one of our most bitter winters on records? But just to recap slightly, artist Meekyoung Shin created a statue made of soap (with a metal armature) of the controversial Duke of Cumberland in Cavendish Square. The idea was to see how it would fare over the four seasons.

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Erected in July 2012, I first visited in August and by my second update in November not much had changed really, bar a bit of cracking. Almost twelve months on – and a lot of snow and rain later – it is a bit of a different story. The Duke has now lost his left leg below the knee, exposing a metal rod. Nearby, the horse on which he sits is losing some of the ‘skin’ on its left foreleg, exposing yet more metal.

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The Duke’s right hand is also separating from his jacket sleeve and looks to be dangling somewhat precariously. Needless to say, all the cracks are now much more emphasised – the Duke has also developed an unusual collar, whose rusting colour looks appropriately like blood (the Duke became known as ‘Butcher Cumberland’ after putting down the Jacobite Rising during the 1746 Battle of Culloden). So maybe history is showing through somewhat here…

Overall though, I’d say the statue has weathered the storms remarkably well. If you’d like to see it for yourself it will be in position in Cavendish Square until the 30th of June.

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Garden Barge Square

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Last weekend I visited some floating gardens on the Thames, as part of the annual Open Garden Squares Weekend. Garden Barge Square – also known as the Floating Barge Gardens – is built across the top of a number of boats on the Downings Roads Moorings, which boasts a pretty spectacular backdrop in the form of Tower Bridge.

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There have been moorings in this area – close to the old Jacob’s Island site – for around 200 years or so, though the gardens themselves are a relatively new innovation having first appeared in the late 1990s. I was surprised to learn that the moorings’ continued existence is only due to a vigorous fight against moves by Southwark Council to shut it down in 2003 and 2004. But clearly that’s another story…

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I regularly catch boats past these gardens but had no idea just how extensive they were until I ventured onboard. There are trees up here! Much of the gardens are built across the top of the barges in metal trenches on either side of central pathways. The various boats are then connected via a series of walkways and bridges. It’s very easy to forget that you are walking right across the top of someone’s boat – which is often their home as well, with over 70 people residing or having a studio on the 30+ boats moored here.

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The waters along the Thames here are very rocky – much more so than on canals or marinas. You will definitely find yourself swaying with the motion for some time after you get back to dry land. The good news is that once you get over the initial narrow walkway that leads to the barges you feel much more secure in the garden areas themselves.

And it’s worth it to visit this unique environment, though you’ll have to wait for the next Open Garden Squares event, scheduled for June 14th and 15th 2014. In the meantime, a good view of the barges can be gained from the Thames Path around Bermondsey Wall West.

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Death in the south west

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Surely the award for most unusual mausoleum in London goes to that of Sir Richard Burton (and wife) in Mortlake. Burton – the 19th century explorer and linguist, not the 20th century actor – has as his final resting place a 12 foot by 18 foot stone replica of a Bedouin tent, in the otherwise sedate graveyard of St Mary Magdalen Church. Burton spent much of his career in the Arab world, and features among his many claims to fame the penetration of the cities of Medina and Mecca, allowing him to secretly draw up plans of the latter’s Great Mosque.

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Hence the tent-like tomb, complete with its frieze of golden crescents and stars. But if that’s still not enough of a draw, step around the back for the big reveal. A metal ladder leads to a window in the mausoleum that allows visitors to see right into the ‘tent’ and take a look at the coffins of Burton and wife Isabelle Arundell in situ among some suitably Arabian artefacts. A mirror on the opposite wall reflects the Christian shrine along the wall directly below you.

St Mary Magdalen’s churchyard is open Monday-Friday 9-3.30, Saturday and Sunday 9-5, closing at dusk during winter. It is located just a few minutes walk from the Mortlake National Rail station.

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Within walking distance of Burton’s tomb is Old Barnes Cemetery, situated within Barnes Common – once a favourite haunt of infamous highwayman Dick Turpin. I can recommend a nice stroll between the two along the Thames Path. Not to be confused with the nearby Wandsworth Cemetery, Old Barnes Cemetery is located near the Rocks Lane Multi Sports Centre. Once described as more desecrated than the battlefield burial grounds at Flanders, it has certainly suffered from years of neglect and vandalism – surely a record number of beheaded angels linger here.

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The cemetery ceased to be used in 1966 when Richmond Borough Council purchased the site from the Church of England, demolished the chapel and lodge, removed the gates and railings, and left the place to fend for itself. I believe it has more recently had a bit of a clean up and is today a very atmospheric and eerie spot that is well worth a look; in some ways its overgrown state actually adds to its character. Due to the lack of fences around both the cemetery and the common, both are effectively open 24/7.

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I hope to bring you another unusual south west London mausoleum later in the year…

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Criminal London

Criminal LondonSurely a sign of a good guide book is that it helps you discover new places and inspires you to visit them. And this being the case, Kris and Nina Hollington’s new tome on Criminal London must be a good one indeed as it’s already spurred the Londonphile to set off to explore a new site. And so this is the book review that turned into a blog post…

Criminal London: A Sightseer’s Guide to the Capital of Crime – to be published on March 14th – is an extensive (336 pages!), well-researched guide to the darker side of London, which is well illustrated with strong photographs (and the odd drawing of sites no longer in existence). It includes a nice mix of the historical (Bedlam, King’s Bench Prison), the gruesome (good old Jack and numerous other spillers of blood), and the downright odd (The Murder Bag – actually both gruesome and odd) – with a touch of espionage thrown in for good measure (Litvinenko). Neatly divided into south, east, north and west London, all up 124 sites are covered, along with three extensive walks following in the footsteps of the Krays, Arthur Conan Doyle and Jack the Ripper.

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As soon as I saw number 11 (south) I knew I would be heading off to visit what remains of Southwark’s Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison. Marshalsea is most famously known as the place of incarceration for Charles Dickens’ family when father John could no longer pay the bills, an event which meant a twelve-year-old Charles had to take work in a blacking factory. Dickens’ time visiting his family (who were all staying at the prison, as was the practice) and the lengthy walk he took across London each day to do so, had a lasting impact on the author, to say the very least. These experiences inspired his social conscience and the prison itself features in Little Dorrit. Dickens later secured accommodation closer to his family, in nearby Lant Street, where a plaque commemorates his stay.

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While all that remains of the complex – which closed in 1842 – is the south wall, it is still an evocative place, with its old bricks and lamps (I doubt the authenticity of these as they now light the alleyway leading – rather appropriately – to Southwark Coroner’s Court, but they look good). Two memorials inscribed on the ground in the alley commemorate the site and John Dickens. The wall is today situated within St George’s Churchyard Gardens on Tabard Street – a former burial ground that is now decorated with some of the old gravestones.

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Kris Hollington has been writing on London crime for a number of years – and his expertise really comes through in this guide. It’s already had me out on the streets exploring London’s darker history and will hopefully leave you similarly inspired. Criminal London is published by Aurum Press and will retail at £10.99.

WIN A COPY: And thanks to Aurum I have a copy to give away! Just post a comment below or send a tweet to @londonphile to enter. Competition closes 1pm Saturday 30th March 2013. A winner will be selected randomly and contacted directly.

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Stoke Newington Pumping Station

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When I visited Clissold House last year I was surprised to see a medieval-style castle looming over one end of the park. This architectural oddity is in fact the Stoke Newington Pumping Station – a Victorian era water pumping station built in the Scottish Baronial manner. Although it ceased to operate by 1942 – and is now home to a climbing centre – its turrets and battlements remain thrusting into the sky, a testament to the Victorian zeal for industry and development and a love of all things flamboyant.

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The 1852 Metropolis Water Act requiring drinking water to be filtered and covered prompted its construction by the New River Company between 1852 and 1856, at a cost of £81,500. Although the area was composed mostly of fields at this stage, it’s thought that residents were not keen on the idea of an industrial building in the neighbourhood – hence the magnificent castle design by engineer William Chadwell Mylne and architect Robert William Billings. Possibly based on Stirling Castle (Mylne was Scottish and Billings an expert on historic Scottish buildings) – it’s also been suggested that the design might have been inspired by that of nearby Holloway Prison.

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Its superb position is partly due to the fact that it was built on an artificial mound, to give the sense of a castle within a moat. Although its striking towers and turrets appear quite random, they were each designed with a specific practical function – one housing a chimney shaft, another a water tank – while the turret with the conical roof contains a spiral staircase leading to the roof. The three front buttresses are home to a section of the tower’s flywheels. In a nice touch, Mylne’s name and the date 1855 are spelt out on iron plaques on the side of the buildings (see image below).

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The building was saved from demolition in 1971 following an outcry by local residents, and was Grade II listed in 1974. Despite this, it found itself facing an uncertain future yet again by 1988 with the imminent privatisation of the water industries. In 1994, planning permission was approved for redevelopment by its current tenants – the Castle Climbing Centre – under the proviso that the general appearance and character of the building would be retained and any items removed stored safely for future use. I would highly recommend a peak inside – the day I visited (on a weekend) it looked deserted from the outside, but once through the doors you find yourself in another world of brightly coloured walls covered with enthusiastic climbers. The centre’s plans for further redevelopment of the interior are posted on one of the walls along the main staircase.

If you’d like to visit what must surely be one of London’s more unusual buildings, you can find it at 218 Green Lanes, N4 2HA. Manor House is the closest tube station.

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