Hello again and welcome to the second day of a walk I undertook in early January 2020 which began in the previous entry and, if you have not read it yet, I respectfully suggest that you click back one page (use the button at the bottom of the page) as it will give you an idea of what I was at plus which I could use the traffic for the site!
What I was at on the morning of the 5th of January was still unclear as I was on the horns of a dilemma as they say. Better than being on the horns of a raging bull as I say. The previous day I had set out for a walk along the Regent’s Canal which I love but had not walked for a while and which runs near my home which therefore makes it easy for me to access. I had started at Limehouse Basin and walked “against the flow” up as far as St. Pancras. Along the way I had discovered that I was actually killing two birds with one stone as the towpath also forms part of the Jubilee Greenway, a circular path of 60 km. length put together and way-marked to celebrate the Queen’s 60th year on the throne although it had also been hijacked to mark the 2012 Olympic Games.
As I started out that chilly but mercifully dry Sunday morning I had not decided whether I was going to have a go at walking the Greenway or re-visit the Grand Union Canal path which I had previously walked from London as far as Milton Keynes in the last Millennium and how old does that make me feel? I had a bit of time to decide as the paths do not diverge until Little Venice and so off I went on the Tube to Kings Cross / St. Pancras which I was surprised to find was running as they seem to close it most weekends for engineering works.
Coming out of the station I simply had to take an image of the glorious St. Pancras Rennaissance Hotel (originally the Midland), which has to be one of my favourite buildings in London. It is one of the grand old railway hotels and I have a great love for railways in general and railway history in particular. This wonderful structure is to the design of George Gilbert Scott, whose work I am a huge fan of. I find the Gothic style very pleasing although it must be horrendously impractical and expensive to maintain. We shall encounter Scott’s grandson in about half a mile, or a few paragraphs if you prefer.
A brisk walk took me to St. Pancras Old Church and the wonderful park / churchyard adjacent. It was here that I took the images I mentioned in the last entry and which I didn’t use as they were pretty poor due to bad light. Hopefully these are a bit better.
Both Church and park are absolutely steeped in history with undocumented claims that this has been a place of Christian worship since 314 AD which would make it one of the earliest such sites in the British Isles. The current church is 19th century but Roman tiles were found during a restoration in the early part of that century which has led to speculation of a building here at least as early as the 7th century. As well as still being a consecrated place of worship, the church is now used for concerts and I was lucky enough to see the hugely talented Emma Ballantine there a while back. Not only is she a great musician she is also an extremely lovely lady, check her out.
The church is certainly interesting but it is the churchyard / park I really love. Amongst many other notables it contains the remains of the illegitimate son of Benjamin Franklin (I didn’t know he had one), Joseph Wall, an Army officer and colonial administrator who was executed in 1802 for cruelty after having had one of his soldiers flogged to death and the 18th of the composer J.S. Bach’s 20 children. Yes, 20, although only 10 survived to adulthood. I do wonder when he found time to write any music!
On the theme of music there is a claim, again undocumented, that the churchyard is where William Blake composed the famous poem / hymn lyric “Jerusalem” which is often regarded as an unofficial English national anthem as opposed to the British “God save the Queen”. This claim is based on the rather fanciful notion that Jesus Christ once came to Britain with his uncle Joseph of Arimathea, who was a tin merchant, and that he visited this area. Perhaps the opening lines should be amended to “And did those feet in ancient time, walk on St. Pancras’ pastures green”.
I give fair warning that another of my digressions and a gratuitous “showing off” image follow so you may want to skip the next little bit! In the previous entry I told you about the Islington Tunnel and how the towpath disappears so you have to walk at street level. I gave the official route but I had deliberately taken a very slight detour to go along Tolpuddle Street for reasons I won’t bore you with. This Street is named for the Tolpuddle Martyr’s, a group of Dorset agricultural workers transported to Australia in 1834 effectively for forming a Trade Union, although it was officially on another charge. In a very recent entry I wrote about the tiny hamlet of Greensted in Essex which I had visited shortly before this walk and which had become home to some of the Martyrs when they were pardoned. You can read all about it here if you have not already done so.
During the trial of the Dorset men, a large rally was organised and marched on Parliament from Copenhagen Fields near here in protest at the prosecutions. This march is annually commemorated by a TUC (Trade Union) rally as the men are seen as heroes by that organisation. On the 175th anniversary of the march in 2009 I was fortunate enough to play at the event with a band I was in called the Northern Celts. We shared a stage with no less than Martin Carthy, Leon Rosselson and Billy Bragg, all legends in the folk / pop world and I do not use that word lightly. When I wrote the Greensted piece I refrained from showing off by posting these images but I really cannot contain myself again in light of all these coincidences that are throwing themselves at me and are not over yet. Yes, my beard and hair were a lot tidier then!
Whilst I was researching Greensted I started listening to Billy Bragg again, something I hadn’t done for a while. I rediscovered an album of his called William Bloke which is a play on his given name and the fact that he considers himself to be very much an ordinary East End working class “bloke”. It is also a play on William Blake who Bragg admires and references in a song on the album. He has even recorded a version of “Jerusalem”. I swear I do not set out to contrive these apparently random occurrences colliding but is anyone else starting to buy into the concept of “the interconnectedness of all things”? Perhaps I am just a crank, as has been suggested on more than one occasion. Back to the churchyard before this gets too esoteric.
(Legal note. Some of these images are © the official TUC photographer, name unknown).
There is a fine memorial here which I had seen many times but never examined too closely or did anything about researching.
It is known as the Burdett-Coutts Memorial and named for Angela Burdett-Coutts, the philanthropist. She could undoubtedly afford a bit of philanthropy as she was from the Coutts family of bankers whose bank today handles the financial affairs of Her Majesty the Queen!
In 1865 the old burial ground here was laid out as the park it is today following the construction of the Midland Railway which still runs by and this necessitated the removal of many of the headstones. The Countess had them all memorialised on this structure which doubles as a sundial although there was little chance of using it that day. With my slightly OCD compulsion to research everything I write about it would have been easy, and probably rewarding, to investigate every name commemorated but I disciplined myself not to or else we would be here for ever. A couple, however, are worthy of mention.
On his death in 1813 and subsequent interment here, Don Joseph Alonzo Ortiz was the Consul General of Spain in London. The reason this interested me was that he was appointed to his position in 1808 and so, during his time in London, he would obviously have acted as a liaison between Spain and the UK. At this time Spain and the UK were making common cause in his home country and neighbouring Portugal to repel Napoleon in the Peninsular Wars of 1810 – 1814 and so sadly he did not live to see the successful outcome of that campaign.
My favourite history though is that of the Chevalier d’Éon who I had never heard of until I started looking into this monument. If you don’t know about the Chevalier I’ll give you a brief biography but you really should investigate further yourself as it is a fascinating tale. Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d’Éon de Beaumont was born in 1728 and for his sake I hope he didn’t have to sign too many autographs! After an expensive schooling where he excelled and a period as a writer and civil administrator, the Chevalier entered the murky world of espionage as a member of the Secret du Roi (King’s Secret) of King Louis XV. This was an organisation which operated outside of Governmental control and it is here that the story becomes interesting.
d’Eon is described contemporaneously as having androgynous features and this must have been true because, in an escapade that would grace a film script, he managed to infiltrate the Russian court of the Empress Elisabeth by passing off as Lia de Beaumont, a French noblewoman. Whilst doubts have been cast on the veracity of this story, d’Eon continued to arouse debate as to his / her true gender. Returning from Russia he went to London in diplomatic service where rumours abounded that he was in fact a she to the extent that there was a betting pool set up in the London Stock Exchange. To add to the confusion, (s)he then returned to France as a woman. He subsequently came back to London (as a man) where, following a fall and subsequent paralysis, (s)he died penniless in 1810.
I shall leave the last word on the Chevalier to the surgeon who performed the post-mortem examination and reported that the Chevalier had “male organs in every respect perfectly formed,” while at the same time displaying feminine characteristics. I suppose we shall never know for sure and it doesn’t really matter as either male, female or transexual, it is still one Hell of a story as I think you’ll agree.
As usual, I am saving the best to last and that is the mausoleum of the architect John Soane and his wife. He is probably best known for designing the Bank of England although he did much else as well. His home in Lincoln’s Inn Fields is now a Museum displaying his vast and hugely eclectic collections and is one of the most interesting museums in London, I love it.
Now, take a close look at the structure. Does it remind you of anything? I promised you earlier that we would encounter the grandson of G.G. Scott and here he is. Also called George, he was the man who designed the iconic K2 red British telephone box and it is said that he got the inspiration for it here. That seems entirely possible to me but. as always, I’ll let you decide.
I am afraid this looks like being another one of my sagas as I have now written a couple of dozen paragraphs and we are not even back on the towpath yet. I suggest you may either want to get yourself a brew and get comfortable at this point or, better still, start playing an online game which will be much more fun. Only joking, please don’t go away, I like the company.
I crossed over Camley Street and this brought back a load more memories. I promise we’ll be back on the canal in a moment. Camley Street is home to a wonderful Natural Park which is great fun for kids of all ages. It had originally been a lorry park servicing King’s Cross Station which was then given to a charitable group when it fell into disuse. The charity let it grow fairly wild to create a wonderful habitat for the flora and fauna which thrive there today. When I was playing with the Northern Celts (see above) we used to regularly perform at charity gigs in the Park and they were always great fun. On one occasion we were introduced by no less than “Red” Ken Livingstone who was then Mayor of London. It turns out he is a bit of a herpetophile and regaled the audience with a tale of how he once released newts in the park. It is amazing what politicians get up to when they are not trying to run our lives for us!
I promised you we’d get back to the towpath and we have don’t have too far to go along it until I came to another place that brought back more musical memories, the excellent Constitution pub on St. Pancras Way. After I had very regretfully left the Northern Celts due to too many other commitments, Emma and Les from the band started up a great Folk Club called, unsurprisingly, Folk in the Cellar. I played a few floor spots there over the years although I hadn’t been for a while.
What I am going to relate now angers me, saddens me and will get me right on my soapbox again. Whilst checking round for a link for the Club I discovered the unhappy news that in the period of less than two months between taking these images and composing this entry, the pub had been sold by the operating company to Young’s Brewery who walked in one morning, told the staff to close up immediately and go home as they were no longer employed. No notice, no anything. One of the staff had been working there for 34 years. They were even told to cancel a wake which had been booked, imagine having to make that ‘phone call!
You may remember Young’s Brewery from a few posts ago when I was “wandering the Wandle” in Southwest London. They were the brewery who sold out to Charles Wells Brewery who in turn sold out to Marston’s Brewery. It seems that selling out comes easily to brewers especially when it comes to morals. The way they handled this is appalling and I had the sad task just now of breaking off from writing this to inform Glen at the “Lost Pubs” website which is something I seem to be doing increasingly frequently.
On a slightly brighter note, I have found out that the Folk Club seems to be soldiering on in a temporary home. I really will try to get back again soon.
I wrote above that this was going to be a long one which was before I found out about all this and it seems it is a bit longer now.
Back on the towpath I went round the S-bend that passes under Royal College Street and Camden Road and, for some strange reason, a piece of rather gruesome recent history came to mind. It was just here that the dismembered body parts of Paula Fields, a crack addict, were found in 2001. Police eventually tracked the murderer down after years on the run and he is now in jail for the rest of his life for that murder and that of another woman in Holland. Police suspect he may have been responsible for at least three other murders although the bodies were never found. It is odd that, with all my memories of Camden and the canal that this was what I was thinking about but there you have it.
Passing under Camden Street and Kentish Town Road I came to Kentish Town Lock which looked rather lovely that day. I took the images above which I am quite pleased with because of the trees and the flat calm water. I can’t help but wonder what the tough, brawling and often drunken navvies who built this would have thought if they had been able to see me taking pictures of the lock as a thing of beauty. They’d probably have rolled me for my wallet or am I just being cynical?
Passing under Camden High Street I was in Camden Market which I really do not like. I say I was in it and I really was and the trendy shops and eateries here have such a good position because the path deviates into the market so you cannot avoid them. Camden Market for me is just a tourist trap full of over-priced tat, tourists and pickpockets. Honestly, it is rife with “dippers”. Visit by all means but please keep your belongings close to you or you’ll lose them.
I was getting a bit peckish by now but there was no way I was going to pay £10 for a takeaway burger and so I was very glad to see a Wetherspoons pub across the canal and into the Ice Wharf I went. In typically Wetherspoons style it is a large building converted from it’s former use, in this case, no, I’ll let you guess. Did you get it? I couldn’t remember this establishment from former visits but it is quite a while since I was in this part of Camden.
I ordered Miners Benedict, which is becoming quite a favourite of mine and which I am sure was invented by the Wetherspoons chain. It is a take on Eggs Benedict which substitutes black pudding (a blood pudding / sausage) for the more traditional ham. It is a brilliant way for the chain to increase their menu options without increasing storage requirements as the black pudding was already offered as a breakfast extra. I had been a bit sceptical about it at first but I really do like it now, odd as the combination might sound. Black pudding with Hollandaise sauce? Honestly, give it a try, it is exceedingly toothsome as Bertie Wooster might say.
Suitably fortified, I returned to the fray or, more accurately the towpath. Leaving the dubious delights of Camden Market behind, I was soon also leaving Camden in my wake and I seemed to be keeping pace with an empty London Waterbus craft which was obviously being moved for some logistical reason as there were no passengers aboard. It was being crewed by a man and a woman enoying a well-earned cuppa and we exchanged a friendly wave in the way that those “on the Cut” seem to do. Canals manage to exert some sort of influence over people that makes them more congenial than usual and this even extends to central London where people seem to do their level best to avoid any sort of contact with strangers.
I have never been on one of the Waterbuses but I believe they are very popular with visitors, especially in summer, and the route runs from Camden which I had just left to Little Venice where I was heading with a stop at London Zoo which I was fast approaching. If you are interested in a trip then check out the link I provided in the last paragraph.
I am not going to go into the details of the Zoo which I have only visited once many years ago and found disappointing and run down. It may have improved in the intervening period but I dislike the concept of zoos in general. I think it is unnatural to keep wild animals restricted like this despite everyone’s undoubted best efforts to keep the animals as happy as possible. I know the ZSL who run the zoo do excellent conservation and breeding work but it is just not my thing. At this point I had the majority of the zoo across the canal on my left and a small portion of it, including the aviary you can see above, on my left. The main zoo is situated in Regent’s Park and, as I mentioned before, the canal was initially intended to run through the the park although this never came to fruition and so it now follows a somewhat lengthier route than it otherwise may have done.
Next I came to the rather attractive bridge you see in one of the images above which was the scene of a canal disaster which could have been a whole lot worse. It is officially called Macclesfield Bridge but since the night of 2nd October 1874 it has been known to one and all as “Blow Up Bridge”. A canal boat named Tilbury, laden mostly with coffee and nuts, was on it’s way North to Birmingham and if it had been carrying only coffee and nuts things would have been different and unremarked. In an act that beggars belief for it’s sheer stupidity, someone had also loaded not only benzoline (petroleum) but also gunpowder on board. Can you just imagine the potential for catastrophe and that is exactly what there was at about 0300. The official report later concluded that one of the three men on board had probably lit a match to light the stove or a pipe and the result was all too easy to guess.
There was a massive explosion which completely obliterated the bridge, the Tilbury and, sadly, the three crewmen. That nobody else was even injured is a miracle and due in part to the fact that the bridge absorbed much of the blast and also that the vessel was passing the park. Had it blown up a couple of miles East when passing through the heavily populated areas there, the blast would surely have resulted in massive loss of life. People from miles around rushed from their beds fearing an earthquake and the animals in the nearby zoo added to the general pandemonium by kicking up an almighty racket in their understandably panicked state. Windows were blown out as far away as St. John’s Wood.
There was a huge outcry after the dust had literally and metaphorically settled with one canalside resident stating that it was a disgrace that barges “full of torpedoes” were allowed to pass on the Cut. I can find no details of any specific law or regulation coming out of this sorry incident but lessons were presumably learned as there were no further such incidents. Perhaps the bargees just got lucky in future as health and safety regulations weren’t exactly a noted feature of the Victorian age. This is another story that I would have been in blissful ignorance of if it had not been for the small plaque I was lucky enough to spot. It is a great reminder of what you can discover if you keep your eyes open when you walk.
The stretch “upstream” is notable for a series of the most amazing villas on the opposite bank to the towpath but, as with so much of London, not is all as it seems. One of these wonderful structures is Grove House aka Nuffield Lodge which was designed by John Nash, who also designed Buckingham Palace and boasts the largest private garden in London bar the Palace. At the time I took this picture it was the property of Sultan Qaboos al Said of Oman but that gentleman has died in the two months between then and writing this although presumably the property is still in his family. Nearly all the very top-end residences in London are now owned by foreigners notwithstanding the doubts that have been raised about the provenance of some of the funds used to purchase them.
The other three buildings, although they look hundreds of years old, were in fact only designed in 1987 by an architect called Terry Quinlan. I’ll not spoil the fun and let you play a game of “spot the real Regency mansion”. I should mention that one of the images, which may or may be the Nash, looks like it is badly off centre but that is deliberately done and not just my customary incompetence with a camera. It is taken thus so you can see the minaret of the London Central Mosque on the right of the image. I took it to show the contrast in London between the old (or is it?) style and the newer cultures which are now so obvious in the capital.
If I had had a cherry picker at that point I could have seen the quintessentially English Lord’s Cricket Ground about 300 yards in the other direction so how’s that for a bit of a melting pot? Honestly, to say that London is cosmopolitan is a bit like saying that George best could kick a football a bit, I suspect it may be the most global city in the world.
I didn’t bother visiting either the mosque or the hallowed Lord’s turf as I had been to both places before and I just kept on along the towpath. Incidentally, for the visitor to London I do recommend a visit to the mosque as it is a magnificent structure both outside and in. For the cricket afficionado a visit to Lord’s will obviously already be pencilled into the schedule.
I was still following the canal (obviously) and the Jubilee Greenway (almost inevitably backwards as I walk most paths that way) and I knew that I was going to have to make a decision fairly soon as to which one to go with when they split. I settled on the Greenway for no better reason than I had done the towpath before, albeit many years previously, and I am always on the lookout for something new.
I wandered on and a pleasant wander it was on a chilly but clear day as the image above shows. I must admit that I felt more than a bit envious of those lucky enough to live on the many boats moored up along this stretch. At one point I had to take to the road and this turned out to be a lucky break for two reasons.
The first reason was that my inbuilt radar for such things spotted a blue plaque on very tidy house overlooking the canal at 32 Aberdeen Place which stated that Guy Gibson V.C. lived there. I suspect many of my readers will have heard of that heroic gentleman but for those who have not, here is a quick synopsis of an all to brief but very well lived life.
Gibson was born into a Colonial family in India but returned to UK for private schooling at which he did not excel. From an early age he wanted to be a test pilot and was advised by the aircraft manufacturers Vickers to learn to fly first by taking a short service commission in the RAF which he did, gaining his wings in 1937.
At the outbreak of war, Gibson was posted to 83 Squadron at RAF Scampton, later to be attached to Coastal Command and by 9th July he had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his exploits. He was known for his willingness to fly in marginal weather conditions and, after a period instructing, he was transferred to night fighters for a time. It appears he could fly and fight just about anything as he soon had a number of “kills” to his name. By March 1940 he had been promoted to acting Wing Commander and returned to bombers in 106 Squadron. He was just 21.
By January 1943 Gibson had amassed a medal haul of the DSO and two bars for this DFC. He had done this by continued bravery over 172 missions. Gibson was a physically short man and was known for what might be termed “small man’s syndrome”. He was a product of his time and class and treated non-commissioned ranks and colonial officers with disdain, refusing even to talk to them. He acquired various nicknames including the “Boy Emperor” and the “Arch Bastard”. Liked or not, he was hugely effective, led by example and expected very high standards from all his crews.
In March 1943 a decision had been taken to bomb the Ruhr dams in Germany in an attempt to hinder war production in that very industrialized area. To accomplish this a new elite squadron was to be formed of volunteer hugely experienced crews who had completed their allocated tours, as Gibson had. He was to command it. They were to be armed with the new and top secret “bouncing bomb” that had been developed by a scientist called Barnes Wallis. Successful deployment of the bombs required dropping them at an exact altitude, speed and distance from the target so it was going to be the ultimate in precision bombing. The new squadron was given the designation 617 which has now passed into aviation legend.
Due to the highly secret nature of the plan, not even Gibson was privy to the target during the intensive training period that included practice runs over several dams all around England. The Lancaster bombers the Squadron flew had to be specially adapted to make the bombs spin at the required rate in order to make them effective. By the end of April, the Squadron had flown over 1,000 hours of training flights and were able to navigate precisely at night and fly at the ludicrously low altitude of 60 feet (18 metres). I did say that it was precision flying.
The raid eventually took place on the night of 16th / 17th of May and the first dam attacked was the Möhne which was fairly lightly defended and breached after several dummy runs with Gibson “running interference” for other crews to draw flak after he had dropped his own bomb which was released short and did no damage. The dam was eventually breached and the Squadron moved on to the Eder Dam which was difficult to approach although thankfully only defended by two sentries with rifles. Despite the relatively lightly defended targets, the raid was extremely costly with the loss of eight aircraft and 56 crew. Barnes Wallis, thinking himself somehow responsible, was overcome with grief at the “butcher’s bill” but, in the RAF tradition of the time, a party was arranged on the evening of the 17th. I have often wondered what such events must have been like, I do find it difficult to comprehend the conflicting emotions the men must have been feeling.
By June, Gibson had been awarded the Victoria Cross (VC), the highest decoration for bravery in the face of the enemy awarded in the UK, and also a bar for his DSO. When the Queen pinned the medals on him he became the most decorated serviceman in the British and Commonwealth armed forces at the time.
Bizarrely, Britain’s most decorated serviceman ever was William Harold Coltman who amassed the unbelievable collection of a VC, DCM and bar, MM and bar and a host of lesser decorations without ever firing a shot! He was a conscientious objector on religious grounds during the First World War and served as a stretcher bearer on the Western Front with a “speciality” of rescuing wounded comrades from no man’s land under heavy fire. Amazingly, he survived the war and found employment as a Council gardener, finally ending his days in 1974 at the ripe old age of 82. The word hero is often bandied about in terms like “sporting hero” or “national hero” but it surely applies correctly to both these gallant men.
Gibson was released from flying duties and took ship for Canada for a high level conference and subsequent publicity tour including the USA where he was awarded the Legion of Merit. On his return to UK he was declared unfit to fly due to recently diagnosed angina and was set the relatively mundane task of writing book on accident prevention or at least that was the story put about.
He was actually writing a biography which was completed in the summer of 1944 and exists today as Enemy Coast ahead. There is a manuscript copy in the RAF Museum at Hendon in North London. As well as his writing exploits he was selected as a prospective MP for the constituency of Macclesfield but withdrew due to his service commitments.
Gibson was sent on a staff officers course and then posted to an admin role where he had access to limited intelligence about the forthcoming D-Day landings. Ever the man of action he became increasingly fearful that he was going to be deskbound and “miss all the fun”. He managed to wangle permission to fly limited ops with certain conditions applied and he did this several times.
On 19th September, Gibson was the pilot of a two man Mosquito crew who were to be the controlling aircraft for a raid on Rheydt and Möenchen-Gladbach which was chosen after the original target was ruled out due to bad weather. The raid was successful but his aircraft crashed at Steenbergen in the Netherlands at around 22:30. He was subsequently buried locally although his exact identity was known at the time and he was identified only by a laundry tag in his sock. What a life and what a man.
Sorry the “brief biography! went on a bit longer than expected but I got a bit carried away.
The second “lucky” thing that happened me on this stretch was that I chanced upon a group of wonderful vintage scooters with their riders who were going for a bit of a run that day. I was admiring the machines and got talking to them. One of they guys kindly offered to take a photo of me posing beside them which was great. I don’t often get images of myself while walking as I absolutely refuse to adopt the appalling practice of selfies except in extremis. I do have a better image of me looking at the camera but this one better illustrates the narrative.
My kindly photographer was standing in the road to take this image and, in what would have been the ultimate irony, was about to be run over by one of those food deliverymen who was riding his moped in a lunatic fashion as they invariably do. Fortunately, the real moped rider was able to jump clear and catastrophe was avoided. I wished the guys a good day’s ride and carried on.
(Legal note. Image © some friendly bloke whose name I don’t know).
I quickly came to Bridge 1 which indicated I was nearing the end of the Regent’s Canal and the beginning of the Grand Union. I have never known exactly where the demarcation between them is but it is in Little Venice somewhere. The bridge is officially known as Paddington Bridge although it actually carries the B413 Warwick Avenue over it. You may know the street name from the 2008 hit song by Duffy although it refers to the Tube station a couple of hundred yards up the road. We’ll come to that in the next entry.
I kept on walking and that was my first mistake. I had only briefly glanced at the complete route map for the Jubilee Greenway but had I studied it closely I would have known that I should have crossed at the bridge and doubled back on myself but of course I didn’t. I had to take to the road again as the towpath had disappeared but I could see the canal so I knew I was going in the right direction. Well, I was if I had decided to follow the canal path but it was no problem either way, I was having a great day out.
Just by the bridge was the lovely building you can see in the image above which was obviously built for some canal function and is now, appropriately enough, the HQ of the Canal and River Trust which I have mentioned before. Directly opposite was a fine example of the myriad uses the canal and it’s former working craft are now put to. As you can see this is the Puppet Theatre Barge at it’s winter moorings. It is a fully equipped 50-seater theatre specialising in marionettes and it’s patron is the wonderful Michael Palin who knows a thing or two about travelling himself.
By the time I reached the Great Western Road two things had happened. I had worked out that I had overshot the Greenway by some distance although I wasn’t going to turn back at that point and I had also become very thirsty. It had been a long while since my breakfast coffee.
The Union Tavern was a welcome sight although walking in it was instantly clear that no self-respecting bargee would have been seen dead in it or even been allowed over the door. It has been gentrified and gone gastro like so many others in London and beyond. Having said that it is very pleasant and the barman was friendly even when I explained my odd drink. In their favour I did notice that there is regular live music there so fair play to them for that.
With my weary bones rested and my thirst quenched I walked back onto the bridge to regain the towpath and was rewarded with the sight you see above which would have been commonplace 80 years ago and unseen 20 years past. It is a pair of working boats underway in tandem and is something that is happily making something of a comeback.
I mentioned before that I have friends who run working boats and people are once again becoming aware of the commercial properties and ecological advantages of using the waterways for the purpose they were intended for. As an example, Camden Market which I mentioned earlier in scathing terms, does have the redeeming feature of having all it’s waste removed by canal boat with much of it being recycled. A proportion of the materials for construction of the 2012 Olympic site which lies adjacent to both the Regent’s and the Lee Navigation were shipped in by barge. It makes sense to me.
As you can see, the living quarters on working boats are extremely cramped as every foot of crew space is a foot less for cargo. There is an excellent restored working boat in the wonderful Canal Museum which shows the tiny cabins in which entire families lived. They were indeed hardy people. For all the privations, I’ll bet the two guys and the dog were happy as Larry, whoever Larry may have been.
I walked on as far as Ladbroke Grove where I decided to leave the towpath as I worked in the area years before and had not re-visited for a long time. I just fancied a wander round for old times sake and I won’t bore you with my trip down memory lane except for a couple of things that caught my eye.
In Powis Square I happened to be looking down as opposed to looking up which is my default position where I spied the roundel you can see on the left. This indicated that it had been made by Hayward Brothers of 187 – 189 Union Street, Borough which is a an area just South of the Thames. Who they were and what this strange object was I had no idea but after a bit of online sleuthing I know now.
This metal disc was cover for a coalhole used to deliver that commodity to large houses, presumably from horse-drawn carts. As for the Hayward Brothers, they were William and Edward who started off as noted glaziers in the early 19th century and then moved into ironmongery when they bought a second premises close by their first. From there they went on to make a fortune and the company only closed in 1953. I could tell you loads more about them but I don’t want this to turn into another Guy Gibson tome so if you have the slightest interest in the good brothers Hayward there is an excellent article here.
A few yards on and still having no idea what these circular objects were I saw the item in the right hand image. This dedicates a streetwise area to all and is signed by The Napoleon of Notting Hill with the name Michael Holroyd and the date 2004. I was really intrigued now. I knew Absolute Beginners as an 80’s film about life in London in the 50’s starring, amongst others, David Bowie whose theme song was a hit. The film itself was an absolute turkey and led indirectly to the demise of the studio who made it. I didn’t know it was based on a book by Colin McInnes which was written about this area and so the colhole cover may refer to either the film or the novel.
What then of the mysterious Napoleon? That was another mystery. Napoleon of Notting Hill is the title of a novel by G.K. Chesterton, written in 1904 but set in 1984 in London, which is said to have prompted the date for Orwell’s famous novel. Who the modern day Napoleon is I am at a total loss to discover. Michael Holroyd, properly Sir Michael since 2007, was easier to find. He is a British writer, principally known as a biographer, although what business he had replacing cola hole covers is another mystery I was initially unable to solve.
After literally hours of rummaging about on the internet I have eventually solved the matter. I just wasn’t going to let it go and I am going to get a quick excuse in here as to why my blog is always so far behind. It has taken me three full days from putting finger to keyboard to posting this entry. The coalhole cover was part of a 2004 poetry inititative where a local lady, a noted herbalist called Maria Vlotides invited various literary notables to submit a haiku poem about the area for inclusion in a street art poetry project and this is Mr. Holroyd’s contribution. Whether or not it is a haiku or even poetry is a moot point. Others who featured in the project were the authors Sebastian Faulkes and P.D. James. I’m glad I got to the bottom of the riddle (not the coalhole) eventually.
I’ll be looking out for coalholes now and it appears I am not the only one. I have discovered a quirky and interesting website dedicated to the very subject. Is there nothing people won’t blog about? At least Daniele’s offering doesn’t ricochet about like Tommy’s pinball as this blog does.
At this point I wasn’t lost as I knew exactly where I was but I did know that both my preferred options of route were nowhere nearby. From my brief scan of the route map of the Jubilee Greenway I knew that it passed through Kensington Gardens and I knew I could pick it up there again so I headed that in direction. There was always the problem that I would have to come back and do the missing section at some point but that was a logisitical worry for another time. I navigated myself towards Bayswater and there are various things of interest on the way but I’ll restrict myself to just a couple as I’m sure you will be glad to hear.
The first is yet another of my “lost pubs”, this one at the junction of Ossington Street and Moscow Road which was formerly the Leinster. I knew I had been in it once or twice and I recall it as being pleasant enough but unremarkable although it is still sad to see it go. If you’re wondering what Heartcore is, it is a yoga / pilates centre. It is a bit of a change from meditating over a pint of best bitter to meditating in the Downward Facing Dog position but such, sadly, is the fate of the British pub.
About 100 yards on from the late, lamented Leinster is the rather splendid Church you can see with the equally splendid name of the “Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Divine Wisdom”, which I know is referred to by adherents of that religion by the more simple moniker of Hagia Sophia. As well as it’s impressive structure (which is Grade I listed) and name, it has an equally impressive function as it is the Diocesan Cathedral for the Diocese of Thyateira and Great Britain which in lay terms is the British Isles. I believe they have recently opened a museum in the basement which I must go and visit some time.
By now I was getting a little footsore which was no problem and to be expected but, slightly more alarmingly, my knees were beginning to protest a bit. It is normally my back that gives me gip if I walk any distance but my knees had hitherto been fairly sound. Ah well, just another one to add to my burgeoning glossary of aches and pains. The joys of getting old I suppose and I did at least manage to drag my weary bones as far as Bayswater Tube and home without the aid of a public-spirited youngster or a policeman, not that you ever see one on the beat these days.
In the next entry I do find the Jubilee Greenway in Little Venice (eventually), discover a Cold War bunker, witness the Commissioner’s Cavalry, visit the site of the origin of penicillin and take a picture of possibly the only duck-keeper’s house in the world so stay tuned and spread the word.