diamond geezer

 Thursday, April 30, 2009

Last year London held a Walk To Work Day. This year the UK is holding a Walk To Work Week. The idea's the same. Make a one-off trip to work on foot - either the whole journey or more of it than usual - then pledge to fit more walking into your working day in the future. It'll be good for your health, it'll be good for your waistline, and it'll be better than being crammed on a train or stuck in a bus or jammed in a car. Ignore how cold and wet you might get. Ignore all the extra time it'll take. Just concentrate on the benefits. And get walking.

So yesterday I walked to work. All the way to work. It meant waking up an hour earlier than usual to arrive at the normal time, but that was a small price to pay for keeping off the tube. It was a gorgeous day, and I'd have the sun behind me all the way, so I risked going coatless in the early morning chill. Good choice, as it turned out. Porridge gulped and shoes laced, I set off along Bow Road on my way towards the City. Five miles to go. Best foot forward.

early morning WhitechapelEast End pavements are quiet at half past six in the morning. The Tower Hamlets hose-down squad take this opportunity to water-blast the litterbins along the Mile End Road. A few early commuters aim for the tube. London's invisible army of overnight cleaners heads home to bed. Whitechapel Market slowly emerges from the back of a fleet of unbranded vans. A handful of bench-bound blokes quaff silently from 2-litre green bottles - because it's never too early in the day for the first glug of White Lightning. It'll get rowdier later.

All along my walk I was teased and tempted by every tube station I passed. I could have been down there a few feet below the roadway, taking the easy route to work, but I resisted. My time-consuming journey reminded me how the advent of public transport transformed London. Two centuries ago I'd not have wanted to live five miles from work, I'd have lived much closer. London small. Anything to avoid a three hour daily pedestrian commute. And now the city's workers can all live much further out, so we do. London big. Which makes walking to work a occasional lunatic activity.

Cross into the City proper and the narrow streets thicken. It's an early start for many, stepping blearily from the suburbs and filing dutifully towards their desks. On the way they pause to pick up a coffee - there was no time for breakfast at home - and mmmm that smells nice, go on, a lightly-greased croissant too. The sun fails to penetrate the shadowy canyons between the high blocks and skyscrapers, and everywhere a swarm of dark suits and black jackets scuttles on.

I reached my desk about an hour and a half after setting out. I wasn't knackered, I wasn't panting, and I wasn't visibly sweaty. Pity really, because it would have been nice if at least one of my fellow colleagues had noticed and asked me why I was flushed and grinning. Instead my ambulatory saintliness went unheeded. But I'm glad I gave the healthy option a try, because it'd been a fascinating journey across a very varied cross section of London. And maybe that's why, stepping out of the office into the afternoon sunlight eight hours later, I decided to walk all the way home too.

 Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Only in London (again)

Sorry, it's that campaign again. Only In London - Visit London's 2009 campaign to boost tourism in the capital by publicising its unique attractions. You probably remember last month when they published a list of "the top 100 things to do" in London, then thought better of it and swiftly downgraded the list to merely "100 things to do". Well, that list has now been extended to 166. I knew you'd be excited. Teeth at the ready.

The list is still being marketed as "recommendations for things you can only do in London". I take issue with this claim. Some things you could do elsewhere. Some things have been defined in an extremely restrictive way. And some things are a bit rubbish. Below are some selected lowlights from the latest additions to the list, so that you can see what I mean. And you may well have thoughts of your own on some of the rest.

Attractions that are patently impossible
118. See British law-making in action at the Houses of Parliament during the summer opening (erm, no visible law-making occurs during the summer recess, by definition)

Attractions that you could do better somewhere other than London
115. Visit the Estorick Collection, Britain's only gallery devoted to modern Italian art (or go to Italy, obviously)
139. Visit the burial site of the first plague victim in St Paul's Church in Covent Garden (just a hunch, but I doubt that the world's first ever plague victim died in London)
154. See Upminster Windmill, built in 1803 and one of the finest examples of a "smock" windmill remaining in England (it's a lovely windmill, but Britain boasts better)

Attractions described in such a contrived way that only one location could possibly satisfy
157. Visit The Geffrye Museum, the world's only museum dedicated to British middle-class homes and gardens from 1600 to present day (unique, by definition)
158. Visit the British Music Experience, the world's only fully interactive permanent exhibition devoted to popular music in Britain (unique, by definition)
160. See the world's most comprehensive collection of British 19th- and 20th-century decorative arts for the home at the Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture at Middlesex University in Enfield (unique, by definition)

Attractions that are "Only in London" because they've been defined as London-only
104. Stay in The May Fair Hotel – The official hotel of London Fashion Week (London only)
133. Browse at London's oldest food market, Borough Market (London only)
149. Enjoy the comfort of Electric Cinema in Notting Hill, the city's oldest functioning cinema (London only)

Attractions that appear on the "Only in London" list more than three times
8. Explore ZSL London Zoo, Regent's Park, the World's oldest scientific Zoo (Waltham Forest's only on the list once)
117. Take a dive and visit the world's first aquarium at ZSL London Zoo (Kensington Palace's only on the list twice)
131. Visit ZSL London Zoo, where Christopher Robin (AA Milne's son) first fell in love with a real bear named Winnie, which started the classic tale (Hampton Court's only on the list three times)
141. Explore ZSL London Zoo which bred the first female giraffe in captivity and was home to the first hippopotamus in Europe since Roman times (the O2 and the Tower of London also appear on the list four times each) (I wonder how much they paid for the privilege?)

Attractions that are plain rubbish, as attractions go
127. Go shopping under the tallest building in the UK, One Canada Square, Canary Wharf Tower (but you can't see the tower from the shops, so why make a fuss?)
144. Paint a picture in East London, which has the highest concentration of artists per square metre than anywhere else in Europe (per square metre???) (oh please, put down the book of statistics and walk away)
166. Explore the same streets as Sir Walter Raleigh, who lived on Upper Street, Islington (he'd not recognise the place now though, would he, there's no Tudor heritage left) (so this is drivel) (they really should have stopped the list at 165)

Fantastic attractions that are indeed "Only in London"
111. Visit The Monument, the tallest isolated stone column in the world (historic, unique, freshly-spruced AND a great view from the top)
132. See the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, where Big Ben was cast (a proper gem, even the Queen visited last month)
125. Visit the London Sewing Machine Museum in Balham, the UK's only museum dedicated to sewing machines, with more than 600 sewing machines on display (beat that, rest of world!) (you can't, can you?)

 Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Random borough (21): Waltham Forest (part 3)

Somewhere random: Leytonstone station
Leytonstone stationWhen you think of the great film director Alfred Hitchcock you probably think of Hollywood, but you should instead be thinking Waltham Forest. Not quite so glamorous, admittedly, but the great film director had his humble origins in Leytonstone. If he'd followed in his father's footsteps he'd have been a greengrocer on the High Road, but dad's footsteps died out when Alf was only 14 and he ended up at an East End university instead. His career moved rapidly from draftsman to silent movie title designer to film director, and in 1929 he lurched into the limelight with "Blackmail", the first British talkie.

There's no sign of number 517 High Road today, just a rather ordinary petrol station, so Hitchcock stalkers should instead make tracks to Leytonstone tube station. A rather magnificent mosaic tribute was installed here in 2001, and the two sloping subways leading up from the ticket hall now resemble a subterranean art gallery. There are 17 mosaics altogether, lovingly constructed from over 80000 vitreous glass tesserae, and each depicts either a famous Hitchcock movie or a scene from Alfred's life. Some even manage to combine both, which is rather appropriate given that the old man loved to make a cameo appearance in his own films.

PsychoThe BirdsSuspicion

Blimey they're good, even if subdued lighting means most aren't displayed in optimal conditions. That's partly to your advantage, however, because you can try to guess which film each mosaic represents before squinting to read the small plaque positioned immediately above or beneath. For example, the celluloid inspiration for the first two illustrations above is obvious. That lady in the shower must be from Psycho, and the woman with peckable spaghetti hair can only be enduring The Birds. But what's that butler doing on the stairs, any idea? You can confirm your suspicion by hovering over the third picture for an answer.

If you can't make it down to Leytonstone, the wonders of the internet allow the entire gallery to be viewed online. You could go direct to the manufacturers, the City Arts & Greenwich Mural Workshop, but if you yearn for finer detail I recommend the excellent Joy of Shards. But nothing quite beats seeing the tiles in the flesh, even if to view them you have to keep stepping out of the way of every would-be passenger rushing down the subway. No murderous thoughts, please, there'll be a better view once the lady vanishes.
by tube: Leytonstone

Somewhere pretty: Chingford
One thing Waltham Forest does well, which I've not seen replicated in any other London borough, is to produce a high quality series of detailed leaflets documenting its architectural treasures. And not just the grander listed buildings, but also residential streets in heritage clusters. If you live in one of the borough's conservation areas (Leucha Road, Ropers Field, Walthamstow Village, etc) there's probably a leaflet documenting its geographic extent, ornamental features and all necessary planning regulations. There are also four Millennium Heritage Trails, each printed on luxury folded cardboard, for borough residents to get their hands on. I picked up a full set at the Vestry House Museum (grab now, before council cutbacks bite), and followed Trail 1 to the heights of Chingford. It's not all Norman Tebbitt, you know.

Corbis Cottage on Chingford GreenThere are at least 23 buildings of architectural note in Chingford, apparently, including a 400-year-old dovecote and a late Victorian terracotta-clad pub. The oldest is Queen Elizabeth's Hunting Lodge on the forest edge, which I've visited before (and which is also Londonist's "Museum of the Month"). Nextdoor is the Butler's Retreat, a listed barn used to serve refreshments to Forest-bound visitors, although alas currently closed for refurbishment. Of the remaining buildings of note, most are clustered around Chingford Green - a thin triangle of grass surrounded by one of the borough's larger conservation areas. A wide range of architectural styles are on show, from faux Tudor to faux Gothic, although my favourite was the genuine weatherboarded tweeness of Carbis Cottage. Before the railways came Chingford was but a small hamlet of similarly rural homesteads. It's very different now.

Forest ViewThe leafleted trail doesn't shy away from more suburban highlights. There are some particularly grand homes along The Drive, for example, and a few equally over-turreted mansions facing the golf course along Forest View. The north end of Chingford is where Waltham Forest's better off residents come to live, not quite gated luxury but still a million miles away from conditions in the tightly packed streets of Leyton far to the south. For a topping treat, however, trudge up to the highest point of the estate where you'll find a short footpath leading to the summit of Pole Hill. Not only is there a great view through the trees towards the City, but there's also an obelisk or two marking an unlikely geographical coincidence. The Greenwich Meridian passes directly through the top of the hill, so as you stand beside the trig point you are precisely due north of the Royal Observatory. Further details are included in my special Meridian postings from five years ago (including Waltham Forest's series of carefully aligned pavement tributes). Pole Hill's a lovely spot - even Lawrence of Arabia thought so - and all the better if (like me) you get the entire mound completely to yourself.
by train: Chingford

 Monday, April 27, 2009

Random borough (21): Waltham Forest (part 2)

Somewhere famous: The Beckham Trail
There's no more famous Waltham Forest resident than Posh Spice's husband. Or rather there's no more famous ex-resident, because David Beckham moved out of his parents' Chingford semi several years ago to establish a property portfolio across Cheshire and all points global. But never fear. Since 2003, football fans wishing to follow in David's golden footsteps have been able to follow the official Beckham Trail, courtesy of Waltham Forest's (ill-templated) website. This is a motley collection of ten locations supposedly allowing visitors to track young David's childhood progress, although to be honest it's more a list of municipally-owned properties around South Chingford than anything more exciting. And you never actually find out where he lived. And it's not really a walking route, more a list of car-bound sat-nav destinations. But I gave Becks a try.

Whipps Cross Hospital1) Whipps Cross Hospital: In common with hundreds of thousands of other locals, little David was born in north-east London's largest infirmary complex. Nobody seems to know in which ward, there's no plaque or anything, so visitors are undoubtedly better off crossing the road and wandering round the nearby lake instead. Ice creams and rowing boat hire available.

2) Peter May Sports Centre: Just off the North Circular, this green ampitheatre is home to the Under-10s of Ridgeway Rovers, who've had less successful seasons since young DB moved on. On Saturday the sport of choice was cricket, and not much of it, so the goalnets flapped desolately in the wind.

Walthamstow Stadium3) Walthamstow Stadium: David used to work here as a glass-collector (which may give you some idea how desperate some of the locations in this trail are). Alas nobody works here now, bar a few security guards, because this much-mourned dogtrack closed down last year to be reborn as yet another humdrum housing development. Until that happens, however, the stadium's untweaked white frontage still stirs the hearts of passing travellers (and you can even glimpse the mighty mothballed scoreboard from location number 2).

Larkswood Park4&6) Ainslie Wood & Larkswood Park: These are two wood-fringed grass squares with plenty of footie space, one beside David's nan's flat, the other closer to home. Saturday saw many of the district's soccer-addicted youngsters out for a sunny kickaround, some under the organised auspices of grunting coaches, others merely running around for fun. Desperately ordinary, and surprisingly evocative. Non car-drivers also get to enjoy a twin-peaked bluebell-spotting walk between the two locations.

5&9) Chase Lane School & Chingford School: Come see where David probably wasn't the sharpest tool in the box, except on the football pitch. Or in one case don't see, because David's primary has been completely rebuilt under a private finance initiative. Lovely for the kids, no doubt, but no highlight on this tour.

Mansfield Park7&8) Ridgeway Park & Mansfield Park: Of the umpteen parks along this trail, Ridgeway was my least favourite. That's probably because it was the only park that was busy, with hoop-shooting, police-leafleting and dog-bothering all popular activities. Visitors should note that the miniature railway only opens on summer Sundays, and that Walt Disney hasn't been back for a ride since 1954. As for Mansfield Park, that was unexpectedly fabulous. After a stroll through floral gardens, the land suddenly tumbled down to the Lea Valley below, with excellent views across a glistening expanse of reservoirs towards Ponders End and Enfield. I just can't imagine how young Becks could have found a surface anywhere flat enough to play football.

10) Gilwell Park: For a change this isn't a park, it's the southeast's most important Scout campsite. And here the Beckham Trail ends, with the rather feeble affirmation that a woggled David once went to cub camp here. It's also a mile outside the borough boundaries, so I gave the place a miss, for now. You might consider giving 80% of the trail a miss, to be honest. Like the route's inspiration, it's past its prime.
by train: Highams Park   by bus: 97, 215

Somewhere sporty: Leyton Orient
Walthamstow MarketDavid Beckham may have been a temporary local legend, but Leyton Orient have been kicking around Waltham Forest a while longer. The O's are London second longest-serving professional team, after Fulham, formed in 1881 when members of a Hackney cricket club fancied some exercise to see them through the winter. In 1937 the club crossed the Lea from Clapton to Leyton, and they've been playing on the marsh's edge ever since. Orient's brushes with the top flight have been notably brief (a single season over 1961/2, plus an FA Cup semi final appearance in 1978), so the team is often overshadowed by its more prestigious upper echelon neighbours.

Orient's chairman would rather you called his ground the Matchroom Stadium, but for most "Brisbane Road" does just fine. It casts a grey and unexciting presence from the western side, looking more like a lacklustre trading estate office block, although the club's logo of two big red wyverns brightens the facade a little. You'll find the stadium off Leyton High Street round the back of Coronation Gardens (where's there's an unlikely hedge maze, which I'll tell you more about if I ever get round to writing a series entitled Labyrinths of London). When I walked past on Saturday morning the street was pretty much empty, bar a semi-luxury Anderson's coach waiting patiently to whisk team members off to an away game. I'd like to think that the handful of sporting chaps I saw climbing aboard were members of the first team, keen to grab the back seats before setting off to play a London derby across the Thames. They probably were, but Orient's players aren't exactly household names (away from the back pages of the Waltham Forest Guardian) so I couldn't be sure. If the club ever takes up the option to play at the 2012 Olympic Stadium they'll probably become rather more famous, but a mixture of low attendances and economic uncertainty makes that possibility fairly unlikely. As for the result of Saturday's match, a two-one away defeat to play-off-chasing Millwall. For the O's this season, another big fat zero awaits.
by tube: Leyton   by bus: 58, 69, 97, 158

 Sunday, April 26, 2009

Random borough (21): Waltham Forest (part 1)

Waltham Forest forms a vertical slice of northeast London between the River Lea and Epping Forest. In the south are the Victorian terraces of Leyton, in the centre the varied estates of Walthamstow, and in the north the leafy suburbs of Chingford. All residential aspirations duly provided for. I spent yesterday tracking round some of the borough's more interesting locations, which proved easier than I expected because there's actually quite a bit to see. Where better to start than in the middle, in medieval Wilcumestowe ("The Place of Welcome")?

Somewhere historic: William Morris Gallery
William Morris GallerySome men are great artists, some great thinkers, some great writers. William Morris managed to be all three, and several other character types besides. He's best known for his design work, especially his elegant nature-based wallpapers, and his wide-ranging creativity was key to kicking off the Arts and Crafts movement in the late 19th century. He lived and worked in many outer London boroughs, but spent his childhood in the rural surroundings of pre-suburban Walthamstow. The family home was at Water House, a substantial Georgian building in the grounds of Lloyd Park, and now open to the public as a museum devoted to Morris's many talents.

The wood-panelled ground floor galleries run through the story of William's life as well as displaying some of his finest works. A spell working as an architect's apprentice diverted his career into interior design, and various floral and faunal wallpapers are amongst his earliest triumphs. A bit oppressive for modern tastes, perhaps, but a Morris-covered wall was usually more worthy of detailed study than any work of art hung on it. Tapestries and rugs also displayed his creative diversity, rich in colour and detail, and the Woodpecker tapestry illuminated on the far wall is a particularly fine example. Also on show are Arts-y Crafts-y works by many of Morris's protégés, including wicker furniture, a selection of ornate glazed tiles and some magnificent stained glass. Walking round the museum is like being in a Victorian version of Habitat, showcasing must-have designs for the budding domestic aesthete.

William MorrisIn later life, troubled by social inequality, William shifted his focus towards political activism and printing. His illustrated books are works of art in themselves, like modern monkish manuscripts, and several can be seen in the Gallery. But its his legacy of beautifully crafted homewares that continue to delight. If you're tempted to further your collection, a small shop in the hallway sells a small range of highbrow tat, including some rather lovely wrapping paper which your aunt would no doubt appreciate.

The local borough were once very proud of their famous son. Indeed Waltham Forest's motto - Fellowship Is Life - is a line lifted from Comrade Morris's politically motivated novel A Dream of John Ball. More modern times, however, have brought persistent threats to cut visiting hours or even sell off many of the house's contents to raise funds. I'd been delaying my trip to the Gallery until Waltham Forest emerged from my random jamjar, so it's been a nervous five-year wait in case the council shut the place down in the meantime. Thankfully not, and for the time being the museum remains open seven hours a day five days a week, admission free. A much better day out than a trip to IKEA, and far more likely to inspire.
by tube: Blackhorse Road   by bus: 123

Somewhere retail: Walthamstow Market
Walthamstow MarketIt's the longest daily street market in Europe. It's over a mile in length. It stretches almost the entire length of Walthamstow High Street. It's so long that there's a station at either end of it. It's an avenue of stalls lined by fairly downmarket shops from top to bottom. It's still the dominant retail presence in Walthamstow, despite the rather bricky modern mall shoehorned in beside it. It takes a lot longer than you'd expect to walk down, or back up, especially if you attempt to push your way through on a Saturday lunchtime. It's Walthamstow Market. And it really is very long indeed.

OK, the market's a little bit shorter than usual at the moment. There are some roadworks in front of the Cock Tavern so only a runty dribble of stalls ply their trade beyond the ploughed-up hiatus at the western end. But elsewhere there are vibrant stalls aplenty, and a stream of human traffic wandering by to peruse what's on offer. You want fruit in a bowl, there's a fruit-in-a-bowl seller every hundred yards or so. Goodness knows how the market supports quite so many identikit plastic greengrocery types, but I fear they may be the future at the expense of your more traditional "pahndabananaz" types. Some of Walthamstow's rag traders still yell out a never-ending volley of "best dresses in the market, only a fivahhh!", but these days most of the racket comes from youngsters hanging out nearby holding court with their mates.

The market's shoppers are a diverse bunch but most are women, bag (or trolley) in hand, picking through the stalls for a cut price bargain. Cheap shoes, a roll of cloth, some non-feather pillows - why pay more? Pensioners pick over the basics to help them through the week, while young parents snap up plastic toys for a quid - anything that might keep their toddler quiet without breaking the bank. Few, if any, of Walthamstow's patrons will be troubled by a 50% tax band. There are plenty of choices for lunch too, with the longest queues for sizzling spiced meats and Tubby Isaac's cockles. Also very popular is the chicken barbecue behind the (much-photographed) bus station, where unnaturally orange fowl roast on two rows of rotating spits. For three quid they'll slice half a bird into manageable strips and pile the dripping flesh into an over-sized polystyrene box. I'm afraid I chickened out and plumped for a hot dog with onions instead.
by tube: Walthamstow Central   by train: St James Street

Somewhere else retail: Walthamstow Village
Eat 17, E17Don't get the wrong idea about Walthamstow - some of it is gorgeous. The conservation area on the hill round the church stands in sharp contrast to the surrounding area, so more Waitrose-y types flock to live in the old village nucleus with its almshouses, hexagonal Victorian postboxes and half-timbered buildings. The shopping's very different too. A short stretch of Orford Road supports as many as three delicatessens in close proximity (three more than Walthamstow Market), along with middle class restaurants (tapas tonight darling?), an independent wine merchant and a designer boutique entitled Beautiful Interiors. It's only half a mile away, but I suspect that few market shoppers ever make it this far up the hill. I joined the queue in the wittily-named Eat 17 deli, waiting behind folk buying free-range sausage rolls and a week's supply of guacamole, to round off my Walthamstow lunch with a scrummy chocolate croissant. All tastes catered for.

 Saturday, April 25, 2009

Random borough (21): Time once more for me to take another random trip to one of London's 33 boroughs. As I write I have no idea which one of the 13 remaining borough names will be revealed when I unfold the slip of paper I'm about to pick from my legendary "special jamjar". I could pick any one of the other London boroughs - inner or outer, urban or suburban, small or large, fascinating or dull. I just know it won't be Merton, Islington, Enfield, Sutton, Lewisham, Southwark, Kensington & Chelsea, Hackney, Hillingdon, the City, Bromley, Lambeth, Tower Hamlets, Haringey, Hounslow, Brent, Redbridge, Ealing, Harrow or Croydon because they're the twenty (dark grey) boroughs I've picked out already.

It's now five years since I started out on my random exploration of the capital. At this rate I've still got three years to go, and if I've not reached your borough yet I'll get there eventually. Rather unexpectedly, my map reveals that there are only two clusters still to visit - a thin dangly strip of western boroughs and another big chunk in the east. Which of these leftovers will be my destination for today? Will I have to filter through the bountiful cultural highlights of somewhere central and important, like Westminster or Camden? Or will I be dispatched somewhere rather more peripheral and attraction-lite, like Barnet or Bexley? More importantly, will I be heading west or staying east?

Once I've researched my randomly-chosen borough online I'll then head off and visit some of its most interesting places (assuming it has any). As usual I hope to visit somewhere famous, somewhere historic, somewhere pretty, somewhere retail, somewhere sporty and somewhere random. I might even take lots of photographs while I'm at it, if the borough's photogenic enough. Then after I've made my grand tour I'll come back tomorrow and tell you all about it. Let's see where I'm going this time...

And finally for Portsmouth, you shouldn't visit without ascending the Spinnaker Tower. This is the 170m-high observation tower on the harbourfront, opened in 2005 and looking suspiciously like a giant kingfisher's ribcage, or a very big toastrack, or something. Whoever picked this spot for a viewing platform is a genius, what with the whole of the harbour laid out beneath, and scores of boats streaming beneath, and the Isle of Wight not far away. I took lots of photos both of the tower and from up top, so just this once I'm going to let the pictures do the talking...

www.flickr.com: my Spinnaker Tower gallery
(16 photos altogether)

» You can't miss the Spinnaker, in the corner of Gunwharf Quays, it's visible for miles around.
» Seven quid gets you up the tower, in a speeding lift, to the first of three observation decks.
» Do you dare take your shoes off and walk across the glass floor, 100m up? (I did, and gave thanks that I didn't have sweaty socks)
» The second floor has a small shop selling cuddly Spinnys, and the top floor is smaller but with an open roof.
» I can stand and stare at a good view for ages. I stayed for ages.

 Friday, April 24, 2009

Henry VIIIHenry VIII 500 (1509 - 2009)
Southsea Castle

It's now definitely more than 500 years ago today since Henry VIII became King of England. To round off a celebratory week, I took a walk along Portsmouth seafront to the place where Henry was standing when his beloved Mary Rose sank. Off Southsea.

Southsea CastleIt's far from the prettiest castle in England. Tudor castles were never pretty, merely functional, and Southsea's a good example. No turrets, no crenellations, just concentric geometric walls and a squat blocky keep in the middle. The castle was built on Henry's orders on the southernmost tip of Portsea Island to repel approaching French warships. It's one of many coastal defences around the Solent, built in the 1540s to protect Portsmouth Harbour from potential attack, although its main claim to fame is as a one-off royal viewing platform.

To follow in Henry's bloated steps, enter the castle through the archway to the left of the lighthouse on Southsea Common, between the Aquarium and the Leisure Pool. You'll be glared at if you don't pop into the shop to buy a ticket, and then there's a choice of three main areas for exploration. You might expect the battlements to be the best option, and they're certainly extensive enough for a good wander, but the outer walls are thick and tall enough to restrict any decent views. A better bet is to follow the sign "to the tunnels", which'll take you on a long trek beneath the surrounding footpaths along a series of dark winding brick passages. Seven year old girls find the whole experience rather scary, from what I saw, but you're made of sterner stuff so you'll have no trouble at all.

Southsea CastleWhich leaves the central keep to explore. Up the stone steps into a suite of chambers on two levels where an exhibition about the history of the castle awaits. It's a mundane castly tale, with one brief tragic moment upon the national stage, after which the story is more about preparation than action. But there are a few historical pictures and objects to see, plus a video nobody sits and watches (because nobody ever sits and watches videos in museums, not all the way through). And finally up a narrow spiral staircase to the roof (so narrow that the council have installed a push-button traffic light system top and bottom). At last a decent panorama over the Solent, past an ever-chugging stream of boats and ferries, towards the murky Isle of Wight in the near distance. And two miles off shore, somewhere out there beneath the sea, the spot where Henry's beloved Mary Rose sank to the sea bed while he watched. But I do wonder how the fat bloke ever got up the stairs.

» Entrance to Southsea Castle costs £3.50 (or, if you've got a Portsmouth library card, this summer it's free). I bet you wish you had a Portsmouth Library card.
» Southsea Castle's a couple of miles along the coast from the Historic Dockyard and Spinnaker Tower. You'll likely be distracted along the way by the amusement park on Clarence Pier, and the Blue Reef Aquarium, and maybe the D-Day Museum on Southsea Common. Throw in some terribly pleasant middle class shops, and the Royal Marines Museum, and yet another pier, and there's probably enough in Southsea alone to keep you occupied for a day. I see now how my brother managed to spend three years living here.
» And that's still only some of what Portsmouth has to offer. Oh yes. Well worth a weekend if you ever have the time.

 Thursday, April 23, 2009

Henry VIIIHenry VIII 500 (1509 - 2009)
Portsmouth Harbour - the Mary Rose

It's exactly 500 years ago today since Henry VIII became King of England. I know, I also said that yesterday, and the day before. But when a royal website (All rights reserved © 2009 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II) gives 23rd April as the date of Henry's accession, it might just be true. To celebrate I've headed out of the capital to the site of Henry's greatest maritime disaster. To Portsmouth.

Henry VIII, outside the Mary Rose MuseumThere's another, less well known 500th anniversary this year, and that's the birthdate of King Henry's favourite warship, the Mary Rose. Construction began on this four-masted gunboat in 1509, in the world's first ever dry dock (in Portsmouth). Her keel was elm, her heart was oak, and a crew of dedicated sailors kept her afloat. A long and successful maritime career ensued, including a refit or two to install greater and heavier weaponry, and the ship engaged in several battles against the French over the ensuing decades. But the Mary Rose engaged once too often, and in 1545 preparations for a skirmish in the Channel proved unexpectedly catastrophic.

Nobody's quite sure why the Mary Rose sank. The weather was OK, and she was only a couple of miles out of Portsmouth Harbour when she started taking on water. Maybe the ship was too heavily laden and lower in the water than normal, and maybe the Solent started lapping in through the gunports. Perhaps a too-swift turn caused her to capsize, or maybe a rogue French vessel managed to get close enough to fire a cannonball into her hull. Whatever the cause, the ship wobbled and toppled and floundered and sank, taking 500 sailors down with her. King Henry VIII was watching from the shoreline, and was both appalled and embarrassed to see so great a catastrophe happen before his very eyes.

the Victory and the Mary Rose Ship HallOver the centuries the precise location of the carcass of the Mary Rose was forgotten (and occasionally discovered, then forgotten again). It was only in the 1960s that a team of divers pinpointed the wreck, and set in slow motion an amazing rescue operation that continues to this day. Excavation on the seabed began in 1971, and it became clear that much of the starboard half of the hull remained preserved beneath the mud. It wasn't until 1982 that the wooden remains were raised to the surface (in front of a global TV audience), and two more years followed before anyone dare tilt them upright. Even in 2009, a quarter of a century later, the Mary Rose is still heavily protected beneath a metal quayside dome. But not for much longer.

I have to say, even though I sort of knew what to expect, my first glimpse of the preserved ship wasn't quite what I was anticipating. I'd collected my audio guide from the front desk, then passed through a couple of connecting doors to reach the chamber where the Tudor flagship is housed. The gallery was very dark, and it took a while to become accustomed to the view through the misty-ish glass. But there, across a damp artificial chasm, lay the timbers of the world's only surviving 16th century warship. A few decks-worth of wood were semi-visible, from almost bow to almost stern, with each level labelled with its name (orlop, main, sterncastle, etc) in big chunky letters. And gushing down across the wreck was a cascade of white frothing water - a polyethylene glycol solution, so my guide told me - to prevent the timbers from drying out and crumbling away. Got to keep her wet. The pipes that dispense this magic liquid were more easily seen from the far end of the gallery, as was the long lower pool of swirling water resembling an over-Radoxed bath. One view, ten minutes, and straight back out again.

Portsmouth Historic DockyardObjects rescued from the shipwreck can be found in a separate museum at the other end of the Historic Dockyard. It has a bit of an early 80s feel, I thought, mostly static displays in themed cases. There was a section on the history of the dive, and the opportunity to watch a film, plus a platform of reconstructed decking. At the far end a bored-looking bloke in Tudor costume sat waiting at a table in case anyone wanted to touch his artefacts. He had few takers. But it was impossible not to be impressed, and moved, by the varied collection of everyday items preserved and displayed throughout the museum. Be it a pair of leather shoes or a urethral syringe, only the tragic death of their owners permits us to view them today.

Back at the Mary Rose itself there are big changes afoot, starting this autumn. 25 years of waxy impregnation have paid off, and the ship's timbers are finally ready to be baked dry. The museum will therefore be closed from mid-September while a replacement building is constructed, funded by £21m of Heritage Lottery money, and the preservation task will enter a new era. Come back in 2012 and you'll be able to see this half of the Mary Rose in a better light, opposite an artificial reflection in which artefacts gathered from the wreck will be properly displayed. It'll be a far more impressive visitor attraction, and you might prefer to save your visit until then. But I'm glad I saw it as a ghost ship in its darkened hangar, before the water gave up its stranglehold for good.

» The Mary Rose is part of the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard complex, for which a full ticket will set you back £18. If you prefer to visit only a single attraction you still have to pay £10.50, but be warned that the Mary Rose and its museum count as separate attractions so you'll have to pay top whack anyway. It's probably worth it, though. The full ticket also includes a tour of the harbour (where you can get up close to whichever Royal Navy ships are in berth today, and there's probably loads). You get to explore the capacious interior of HMS Warrior, the first armour-plated iron-hulled Victorian steamship. And then there's a boat far more famous even than the Mary Rose herself...
here Nelson fell» ... the Victory, Nelson's flagship. You can stand on the very spot where he received his fatal wound at the battle of Trafalgar - it's marked by a brass plaque. Below deck see the luxurious captain's cabin from which he directed life aboard, plus the alcove on the orlop deck where he breathed his last. Victory's still a commissioned naval vessel with its own captain, and a skeleton crew sleeps aboard the motionless ship every night. Discover more in a separate Victory museum, and there's even a huge sail preserved from the sea battle with 90 holes blasted through a vast expanse of canvas.
» The dockyard's very easy to travel to - it's immediately beside Portsmouth Harbour station at the end of the railway line from London. My return train ticket cost less than my museum ticket (which felt the wrong way round but who's complaining?)
» And that's just a fraction of what Portsmouth has to offer. More tomorrow...

 Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Henry VIIIHenry VIII 500 (1509 - 2009)
Nonsuch Palace

It's exactly 500 years ago today since Henry VIII became King of England. I know I also said that yesterday, but a significant number of websites give 22nd April as the date of Henry's accession, so there might be a grain of truth in it. To celebrate I'm continuing my week-long wander through Henry's world with a visit to his finest royal palace. In a park a few hundred yards outside London. Near Cheam.

site of Nonsuch PalaceYou could easily miss it. I'm sure most of the people who walk along The Avenue in Nonsuch Park don't realise the significance of the footpath they're walking down. It's a very ordinary strip of tarmac, very straight, overshadowed by a row of tall trees. There's a muddy verge, and a gnarled bench to sit on, and a dog mess bin in case any canine companions get overexcited. Nothing special, on the face of it. But the key to understanding the view is a line of three stone obelisks, each about fifty metres apart, set to one side of the pathway. Picture the obelisks imaginatively and a very different picture emerges.

This used to be the site of Cuddington Church, until Henry VIII acquired the entire surrounding village and promptly demolished it. In its place was to emerge a new royal palace, nothing huge, but destined to be more magnificent than any he had built before. This was Nonsuch Palace, a multi-turreted wonder in the Italian Renaissance style, and the perfect base from which to hunt, feast or entertain. Work started on 22nd April 1538, the first day of the 30th year of Henry's reign, and the place was probably dedicated to Prince Edward, the king's long-awaited first-born son.

Nonsuch PalaceThe northernmost modern obelisk is a placeholder for Nonsuch's outer gatehouse. Here visitors would have entered through a fortified archway into the first of two courtyards. Another gatehouse, marked by the central obelisk, then led up a flight of eight steps into a second, more outlandish courtyard. The walls above the ground floor were covered by large stucco panels on which were moulded figures of gods, goddesses and even Henry himself. The gilt-edged figures continued up two five-storey octagonal towers, and the roof was topped off by golden slates and spinning weather vanes. The effect must have been dazzling, and a very deliberate culture shock for those with medieval sensibilities. There was none such like it.

By the time Nonsuch was structurally complete Henry's hunting days were over, so his Royal court only visited a couple of times for a bit of sit-down shooting. The palace was only completed a few years after Henry's death. It then passed into the ownership of less-interested monarchs, until King Charles II decided to donate Nonsuch to his favourite mistress. Bad choice. She racked up huge gambling debts which could only be paid off through the palace's demolition, and from 1683 Nonsuch's constituent parts were sold off as building materials. So diligent was the clearance that nothing at all remains above ground, just three stone pointers to mark the palace's longitudinal extent.

Nonsuch ParkWe know a fair amount about the palace layout because of a groundbreaking archaeological dig in the summer of 1959. More then 500 volunteers uncovered the site over a twelve week period, documenting their findings and unearthing (for example) 1500 stucco fragments. Public interest was unexpectedly high, pre-empting the likes of Time Team by several decades, and a temporary museum was set up close by. Then immediately afterwards everything was covered over again, so all that's visible today is a patch of grass and a bench and a dog mess bin. And those three obelisks, of course, one of which now displays a plan of the palace for those who pause to look.

Whitehall, CheamTo find out more about Nonsuch Palace it's best to walk a mile to the east, through the park, across the border from Surrey into London. There's a permanent explanatory exhibition inside a preserved Tudor farmhouse named Whitehall, just to the north of Cheam Village. The building's owned by Sutton Council and houses a more general local museum, with the Nonsuch exhibits on the mezzanine floor overlooking an original half-timbered wall. There's probably more to read than to see, and you need quite a good imagination to view these demolished chunks as anything more than ornate rubble. Shame, because had Nonsuch Palace survived it would undoubtedly have become an important heritage site and a major tourist attraction. Instead you'll have to make do with a charming small museum (and tea room), and a wistful walk through a rather beautiful park.

» Whitehall is open on Wednesday to Sunday afternoons, with earlier opening on Saturdays. It only costs £1.60 to get in, which has to be a bargain, even for somewhere so small. Whitehall is a building with real character, no doubt much frequented by local schoolchildren on Tudor days out, although don't expect anything wildly exciting within. One downstairs gallery is currently hosting an exhibition on King Henry VIII's life, including a few more details about the Nonsuch dig. For further information, the volunteer Friends of Whitehall should be your first port of call.
» There's also a group called the Friends of Nonsuch, whose attention is focussed more on the long-term preservation of the park. They have genuine concern that private development may be allowed to encroach on the park, and a blog set up as part of the campaign has only two posts but 818 comments.
» The FoN run a small museum in the service wing of Nonsuch Mansion, a later estate building, featuring a Dairy and "restored Kitchens, Larders, Sculleries & Laundries". It's open to the public on a couple of Sundays a month during the summer months (next opening bank holiday Monday).
» The uplifted foundations of Nonsuch Palace's separate Banqueting Hall can still be seen overlooking the Ewell by-pass.
» If you're walking the London Loop, then section 7 passes both the Banqueting Hall and the old palace.
» Or visit Hampton Court Palace instead, if you must. Personally I rather enjoyed uncovering Nonsuch's invisible secrets at a fraction of the cost.

 Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Henry VIIIHenry VIII 500 (1509 - 2009)
Tower of London - Dressed to Kill

It's exactly 500 years ago today since Henry VIII became King of England. Half a millennium, precisely. To celebrate I'm continuing my week-long wander around sites with a historical connection the the nation's most famous monarch. Today, to the big new exhibition at the Tower. But is it any good?

There aren't many perks to being a resident of Tower Hamlets, but one truly great fringe benefit is being able to visit the Tower of London for a quid. The world famous castle lies just inside the borough boundary (there's a clue in the name "Tower Hamlets", if you'd not spotted it), so residents are given preferential treatment for admittance. All you need is a library card or a leisure card, and you'll save £16 at the gate. I'd not tried this before, but one flash of my lime green Idea Store card and the lady behind the till printed me a one pound ticket no questions asked. Excellent.

I arrived at nine o'clock, just as the Tower was opening for the morning, so I took the opportunity to nip across the Inner Ward and visit the Crown Jewels before everybody else arrived. No queues, just a long sinuous wander through a tortuous sequence of anterooms, then the opportunity to see some of the mightiest jewellery on the planet. The Sovereign's sceptre, for example, is topped by the Culinnan I diamond, while the Queen Mum's crown contains the world-famous Koh-i-noor. Both of these stones, in their time, were the world's largest cut diamond. However Henry VIII would have recognised none of the collection, bar three swords and an anointing spoon, because Oliver Cromwell had 99% of the medieval Crown Jewels melted down in 1649.

Dressed To KillAnd then to the main event, up the wooden staircase into the White Tower for the Dressed To Kill exhibition. Two and a bit floors are given over to Henry VIII's armour, plus various other protective metal bits and weapons. The first case contained a full suit of Henry's armour, raised up on horseback, lights a-flashing. He was a fit twenty-something at the time, waist measurement mid-thirties (as an accompanying graphic delights in telling you). By the third floor he'll be a 51" waist lardarse, because made-to-measure royal armour never lies. That was the ultimate fate of Good King Hal, from buff to bluff.

Back on the first floor there's a complete suit of armour engineered for 29-year-old Henry to wear at the Field of the Cloth of Gold. This early outbreak of the Entente Cordiale gave Henry a chance to show off his sporting prowess, and a big electronic screen nextdoor gives the History Channel a chance to show off some of its finest Anglo-French battle graphics. Very big, very flash, very loud - not that most of the foreign tourists wandering by paused to watch for long. They were much more interested in the genuine weaponry - a jousting pole here, a big sword there, and especially Henry's astonishing curly-horned helmet (usually displayed in Leeds). The Royal Armouries hold many Tudor treasures, and a wide selection are on show here.

Up on the third floor there's one final suit of armour. You can't help but gasp at the size of King Henry's codpiece. It juts out alarmingly from the groin area, and it's either incredibly well-padded inside or its owner was genuinely prodigious. Given the bloke's marriage history, it's probably the latter.

And that's the sudden end of the exhibition, bar a big final video screen which displays a sequence of images of Henry from art, film and TV. Watch carefully and you might spot the Carry On team, Keith Michell and three Blue Peter presenters. I was pleasantly surprised that the soundtrack was an old XTC tune (not this one, but this one), pumping out across the top of the White Tower at five minute intervals. I moved on with a smile, to view the usual un-Henry exhibits in the remainder of the building.

Tower GreenThe Tower of London's historical links to Henry VIII aren't strong, it was more somewhere for the mass storage of his weaponry and prisoners than a favoured royal palace. But there is one place that bears his mark more than others, and that's Tower Green. Only seven traitors were ever executed here, but the majority of these were under Henry's orders - two of them his doomed wives. Today a tender glass pillow marks the spot, a rather more artistic tribute than the squat plaque that stood here only a few years ago. There's always something new to see at the Tower. Just remember, arrive early, and bring your library card.

» The Dressed To Kill exhibition runs until January next year. It's not worth visiting the Tower specially to see it, not unless you're on the local resident's cheap rate. But if you've not visited the Tower for years and fancy another look round, Henry's armour might be sufficient to draw you back.
» There's tons of other stuff to see at the Tower of London, including the tiny Bloody Tower where two Royal Princes might have died, and Traitor's Gate, and the medieval palace of King Edward I, and a lot of ravens. The tours led by Yeoman Warders are highly recommended - they're all fine showmen as well as knowledgeable custodians of the site.
» What you really ought to do is apply to attend the daily Ceremony of the Keys. I must go one night, assuming I can still remember how to write a letter.
» But at the moment it's all about Henry. After all, as Tower Hamlets' website proclaims, he really was "one of the most ionic figures from British history".

 Monday, April 20, 2009

Henry VIIIHenry VIII 500 (1509 - 2009)
Greenwich Palace - "Placentia"

500 years ago this week, following the death of his father at Richmond Palace, 17-year old Henry Tudor was proclaimed King of England. A charismatic and forceful young man, he was to reign over the nation for nearly 40 years. Over that period he embraced the Renaissance, reconfigured religion, married six very memorable wives and became possibly the most famous monarch the country ever had. In remembrance of his accession, I've been out and about to visit five locations with a particularly H8-ful connection. Starting today with the spot where he was born.

Greenwich may be chock-full of heritage sites and tourist attractions, but you'll find no trace of Greenwich Palace today. It was the first building of any significance in the local area, founded by Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, in the early 15th century. He named it Bella Court, and it stood on the riverbanks opposite the Isle of Dogs at the foot of the Thames' biggest meander. When Humphrey fell from royal favour (and mysteriously died), the building duly passed to Margaret of Anjou, the feisty wife of King Henry VI. She enlarged Bella Court, added a riverside pier and named the palace 'Placentia', or 'pleasant place'. It was to be the favoured home of Tudor monarchs for the next 150 years.

Palace of PlacentiaPrince Henry was born at Placentia on 28th June 1491 (insert your own 'placenta' joke here). He spent a lot of time in this rambling red-brick palace, especially in the years after being proclaimed king. There was good hunting land all around, plus easy access to the river and to the royal dockyards at Deptford and Woolwich. It was in Greenwich that Henry married his first and fourth wives, and here also that the princesses Mary and Elizabeth were born. Henry enlarged the palace further, adding a huge banqueting hall inside and a larger tiltyard outside. He did love his jousting, did Henry, but the Greenwich tiltyard was the last place he ever practised the noble art. A nasty fall here in 1536 left him unconscious for two hours, and his subsequent retirement from the sport may have led to his ballooning obesity in later years.

Queen Elizabeth I spent many of her summers at Greenwich Palace, entertaining noble visitors and carrying out the great business of state. Her successor James I gave the palace to his wife Anne, for whom Inigo Jones built the classical Queen's House a short distance to the north. During the English Civil War the Palace of Placentia fell into disrepair, and before long the site was ripe for redevelopment. Which is why all you can see on the site today are the Wren-designed buildings of the Greenwich Hospital (1692-1869) - later the Royal Naval College (1873-1998), now the Old Royal Naval College. And well worth a visit.

Old Royal Naval College Painted HallToday Maritime Greenwich is one of London's four Unesco World Heritage Sites. Two of the top buildings to see at Greenwich are within the grounds of the Old Royal Naval College, on land formerly occupied by the Palace of Placentia. One of these is the Painted Hall, undoubtedly the most beautiful hospital canteen anywhere in the world. It's a long thin building with a lofty painted ceiling, the detail of which depicts "the triumph of Peace and Liberty over Tyrany". There's even finer decoration in a chamber at the far end, both above and around the high table, and the complete ensemble took almost two decades to paint. Here in January 1806 Nelson's body laid in state after being shipped back from Trafalgar, prior to a grand funeral in St Paul's Cathedral. Nowadays the College's owners love to hire out the Painted Hall for events and banquets, so check carefully before you arrive lest you (and your camera) are denied admittance.

Old Royal Naval College ChapelCross the colonnade to see the 250-year-old neoclassical Chapel. It too is a beautiful space, rather brighter than the Hall, with a completely different style of Baroque decoration. The interior looks much as it did in 1789 when the chapel reopened after a disastrous fire, including a suitably maritime-themed altarpiece and the original mahogany pipe organ. The plasterwork ceiling is covered by a magnificent expanse of twiddly carved swirls, while the floor is of black and white marble throughout. Many concerts take place in the chapel, especially now that one of the Naval College buildings is occupied by the Trinity College of Music. King Henry would probably have appreciated something bawdier, but five centuries have changed his royal palace beyond recognition.

» Greenwich is hosting a number of Henry VIII-related events this year, but not until June (which is the anniversary of his coronation). There'll be special guided tours recounting the history of Greenwich Palace, plus a special Tudor-themed weekend at the Old Royal Naval College on 13th and 14th June (including battling knights and a hunting parade). Further details here, and nearer the time.
» You can visit the Painted Hall and Chapel free of charge. Other touristy bits at the Old Royal Naval College are currently closed to create a new Visitors Centre, opening early 2010.
» The Queen's House contains a small exhibition depicting the history of the old palace.
» And don't forget nearby Eltham Palace. Henry VIII spent much of his boyhood at the court here, before it became an Art Deco icon, and a Tudor Joust is planned in the grounds over the weekend of 20th and 21st June.
» Two North American towns are still called Placentia - one in Orange County, California, the other in Newfoundland, Canada.

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