Chez l'abeille

Culture. Travel. Writing. My world in words and pictures


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The Streets of London: Pullens Yards

It started with a tweet by a publisher I follow. A mention of Pullens Yards, an open studios and a postcode intrigued me; I like to think I know many of the studios around my area but this was new to me. I had a few hours to spare before an afternoon of volunteering at a local theatre and as I had to pass through SE17 on the way I thought, “why not?”

I already knew that behind the Walworth Road in SE London there are many Victorian streets, full of original housing stock, but discovering some beautiful Victorian artisan workshops was a complete surprise.

Pullens Centre Sign

Pullens Centre Sign

The yards sit within the Pullens Estate. This was built between 1870 and 1901 by local builders, James Pullen and Son. Included in the estate design were four yards, of which three remain, Iliffe Yard, Clements Yard and Peacock Yard. The Yards were purpose-built workspaces, designed originally as a work/live spaces, something that is still seen today in several locations around Southwark.

It was a great day to visit – the sun was out and London was basking in a kind of post-election lethargy. As it was quite quiet when I arrived many of the artists were happy to chat. I spent some time in the studio of David Cowley, who seeks to capture his responses to music and literature in his paintings. His work was fascinating and I could have spent all morning chatting with him about art and synaesthesia, but there were three yards to get round so I had to move on.

The yards are a celebration of everything you know about Victorian building. From the wrought iron gates and the cobbled roadway, to the worn out staircases and arched doorways they are the epitome of the attention to detail that the builder brought to a project. Today they continue to house a wide range of artists, from Royal Academicians to lute makers, photographers, jewellers, potters…the list is endless.

I was keen to visit Tiny Owl Publishers who are based in Peacock Yard. This publishing house focuses on books which aim to bridge cultural experiences, creating the most beautiful books about love, friendship or freedoms. I had a lovely conversation with co-founder Karim, who took time to show me their latest publications and the themes they focus on. If you are a fan of picture books that really say something then have a look at their titles. You won’t be disappointed.

Back in the 1970s the workshops and surrounding flats were heading for demolition. Thanks to the far-sighted campaigners who saved them in the face of bailiffs and police, the area was saved and is now a sought after place to live. As we see the shape of the Walworth Road and the Elephant and Castle changing on an almost daily basis, I hope these small-scale spaces remain as a creative hub, continuing to bring a little beauty to our lives.

Peacock Yard

Peacock Yard

The Yards host an Open Studios event twice a year in the Summer and at Christmas. Details can be found via their website http://www.pullensyards.co.uk/

©Chez l’abeille  2017


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The Streets of London: Thames Path, Tower Bridge to Greenwich.

Leaving Tower Bridge

It’s almost exactly a year since I’d walked along the north bank of the Thames from Tower Hill to The Isle of Dogs so a stroll along the south side seemed the perfect thing to be doing on a late spring Sunday. Having lived in Southwark for over 20 years now I thought I knew my bit of London quite well but there were still surprises in store.

Heading along from Tower Bridge the first signs of history started to appear around St Saviours Dock. The tide was out and the Thames mud glistened in the sun, rippled with algae like some noxious ice cream recipe.

Dickens apparently described this area as “the filthiest, strangest and most extraordinary of the many localities that are hidden in London.” I don’t know if he would recognise it today as the many warehouses and storerooms along the old Bermondsey Wall have gradually been converted into expensive apartments.

Just along Bermondsey Wall East is a collection of brass statues, dedicated to Dr Alfred Salter and his wife Ada. Both Alfred and Ada Salter worked hard to change the lives of the poor in Rotherhithe. His pioneering work lead to the establishment of a comprehensive health service in Rotherhithe, long before the NHS. He also went on to become the Labour MP with Ada becoming the first female mayor of Bermondsey Borough Council. His daughter’s cat sits on the wall watching carefully!Dr Salter's dream

From here the path turns towards old Rotherhithe, that bit of Southwark that thrusts into the Thames and loops it northwards. It also takes you back in history again to The Mayflower Pub and St Mary’s church across the way. In the pretty little church garden I found a monument to Christopher Jones, the Captain of the Mayflower who started out for the New World, with the Pilgrim fathers, from a mooring nearby. Through the churchyard, in the garden of the St Mary’s Rotherhithe Free School and Watch Tower I also discovered a delightful hidden cafe. As it was now time for a cup of tea it was a most welcome find and I was also able to do a bit of research into the school next door. It was founded in 1613 by Peter Hills and Robert Bell, two Elizabethan seafarers, to teach the sons of local sailors. You can see two children wearing their bluecoat uniform above the doorway. Free schools are seen as a rather modern phenomenon, but in a time when universal access to education was not an expectation, the money gifted for children’s schooling would have been a precious gift indeed.

The next surprise along the way was The Brunel Museum. Obviously with my Cornish heritage I have a fairly good knowledge of things Brunel – or so I thought. This is actually connected to Marc Brunel, father of the possibly more famous Isambard. He built the first tunnel under the Thames, an endeavour that took from 1805 to 1841. The tunnel is in use today but not as a foot tunnel as he envisaged. Nearby is the partner ventilation shaft to the one I saw at Shadwell, keeping the Rotherhithe road tunnel aired.

It was getting rather hot by now so the next stop along the way was the rather splendid Cafe at Surrey Docks City Farm. As a former Southwark teacher I’ve probably brought hundreds of children here for educational trips over the years but as a consequence, I don’t think I’ve ever had the time to sit and enjoy their cafe! The farm was full of squealing children and baby animals and it’s great to see that it is thriving despite the times of austerity we live in.

The farm is on the East side of the peninsular and from here you cross over from Southwark into Lewisham. This part of the docks was severely bombed during  WW2, but also played a major part in building the “Mulberry Harbours” used in the D-Day Landings, named after Mulberry Quay. Many of the docks were named for their role in seafaring life. The Greenland Dock, Ordnance Wharf, Canada Wharf and Columbia Wharf all give you a clue as to where their ships were destined.

Deptford Strand Pepys Estate

Passing through The Pepys Estate, the path turns into Deptford Strand, where a gated set of steps stand rather forlornly, heading down into the mud and debris of the foreshore. However, they once marked the site of the Tudor docks of Deptford, and are where Sir Francis Drake, newly returned from his circumnavigation of the world on the Golden Hinde, was knighted by Queen Elizabeth 1st.

Much of the Deptford section of the Thames Path is inland, so I was mostly weaving through the back streets until I passed into Royal Greenwich onto the Thames riverbank again and the Cutty Sark hoved into sight. First though I had to walk past the rather bizarre statue of Peter the Great.

Between 1697 and 1698 Czar Peter 1st of Russia came to Deptford for four months to study shipbuilding. The statue shows Peter the Great with his court dwarf and his favourite travelling chair. A large group of Russian tourists were busy placing flowers at his feet, so clearly Peter is still an important figure for many.

Arriving at Greenwich

Greenwich was busy with a Bank Holiday/school half term air so I didn’t linger long. The sky had also turned from glorious sunshine to a rather ominous grey; It was time for home after a day of local history and some great cups of tea along the way.

Tower Bridge to Greenwich: Approx 6.5 miles/10.5 kilometres

©Chez l’abeille  2017


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In which I go to Crete. Part 3: Rethymnon

Rethymnon (2)

It’s a few weeks since I got back from Crete but since then I have been trying to recreate some of the flavours I experienced there. It’s not so easy to track down Cretan wine in London, but having discovered a rather delicious wine from Peza in the local Oddbins and coupled it with a home made filo pastry, spinach and feta pie, today I’ve come reasonably close!

There was much eating and wine drinking in Rethymnon too. It’s a busy old town but small enough to get around comfortably on foot. It’s also brimming with restaurants. My favourite spot was Raki Ba Raki where I finally found horta, the steamed or boiled cretan greens (or weeds as I’ve seen them described) which are delicious when drowned in olive oil and lemon. The closest similar plant I have found back home is dandelions, so I might have to wait until I go back to try them again. I have read that the greek word for vegetarian is “hortofagos,” which apparently means “weed eater!”

Sitting above the narrrow streets of the old town is the fortress or fortezzo. This Venetian bastion has been around since 1580 and was designed as a place of safety against Ottoman attack. This plan failed in 1646 when the Ottomans besieged the city and the Venetians surrendered. Inside the grounds there is a mosque and an orthodox church, giving testament to the varied history of the island. The views are magnificent from the parapets and it’s easy to see how this spot would be chosen to defend the city behind it.

At the foot of the Fortezza is the Contemporary Art Museum, which has a variety of shows throughout the year.  I wasn’t too engaged with the work by the artist Nikos Viskadourakis that was on display when I was there. Through intensely worked pieces, using a limited acrylic palette of reds, blues, blacks and ochres he explored the myth of Odysseus in Hades – I guess you might need more than a passing aquaintance with book XI of Homer’s Odyssey to really see what was going on. However the building is worth a visit and in the heat of summer the aircon would be delicious.

Walking around it’s easy to see where the Venetians left their mark in other ways. The Rimondi Fountain lies at its heart, providing drinking water for animals and the people alike in times of drought. Equally the old harbour provides a lovely sheltered spot for some people watching, especially after church turns out on a Sunday morning. Despite the touristy air, there’s also a relaxing, homely atmosphere in Rethymnon, which made it a great place to finish my Cretan soujourn.

©Chez l’abeille  2017


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In which I go to Crete. Part 2: Heraklion

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I was a little apprehensive about my time in Heraklion; having finally read my guide book (on the bus), I was expecting a city full of fumes and dirt. Instead  I found a delightful “Old Town” that is easy to walk around and full of  comfortable cafes and bars where I could sit with a glass of cretan wine. It also has one of the best museums I’ve been to in a long while.

Day 3: Heraklion

Arrival in Heraklion from Chania is at the imaginatively named Bus Station A. I’d deliberately picked Hotel Lato for two reasons: proximity to the bus station and the roof top bar. It was an excellent choice on both counts and I was soon checked in and heading back out again to visit the Archaeological Museum before it closed at three.

For someone who loves beautiful pottery, this museum was like being stuck in a veritable sweet shop. From the moment I entered the first room I was hooked: each and every case is crammed with stunning Minoan treasures. It was hard to focus on each one because there was always another, more attractive looking item, glimpsed from the corner of my eye! The main ground floor rooms focus on the Minoan civilization, which flourished in Crete from about 2600 to 1100 BC. Just looking at these finely considered art works gives you some idea of what was important to the people who lived on the island in this Bronze Age world. A few hours just wasn’t enough and closing time came around far too quickly.

Day 4: Knossos.

There was a surprising number of athletic types hanging out at breakfast and some probably not so subtle stalking around the cheese pastry buffet, revealed that Agrotikos Asteras F.C. were in residence, for a Greek football league match against local team OFI. So I lingered over my tea and toast for a bit until only the coaching and physio team were left and set off for the days main appointment.

Bus Station A is also the starting point for bus route 2 , which handily heads directly to the ancient palace of Knossos. This is not so much palace in the traditional Buckingham sense, more a labyrinthine township tumbling down into the valley below. I knew Knossos is bound up in the Greek myths of King Minos, Theseus, the minotaur and the labyrinth but I didn’t know that it was also linked to Daedalus of the wax wings and Icarus fame. He was apparently the architect of the labyrinth before he turned his hand to flying. As in all legends there is probably a grain of truth in the mythology and walking around the site it is not too difficult to imagine how complex this site would have been, layered up on the floors below to create a maze of buildings, rooms and terraces. Highlights were the underground clay water pipes which are very similar to the ones regularly exposed by Thames Water around my street and the “Royal Apartments”  with their hidden doors, designed to give both warmth and ventilation as the user required.

Around the site some replica murals and painted pillars help give some idea of what this site may have looked like, yet so much about the Minoans is pure conjecture. What isn’t in doubt is the sheer size of the place and the sense of culture that existed here nearly 5000 years ago.

20170406_182151Back in Heraklion it was time for some excellent stuffed squid at Ippokambos, some more home grown wine and then a stroll through the old town market area and the El Greco Park gardens back to the waterfront and my hotel where the roof top bar was the top spot for a nightcap.

Day 5: Heraklion and the bus again

The Agrotikas boys were all back at breakfast but they couldn’t hold a candle to my destination du jour – I had time before my bus to go back to the museum and catch up with the rooms I hadn’t seen already! After my day in Knossos I really wanted to see the original murals.Original fresco work from Knossos  Once again the Minoans didn’t disappoint. The ochres, reds, whites and blues which they made from the plants, minerals and shells they found around them, are still as vibrant as when they were painted onto wet plaster somewhere in the palace. Only tiny fragments remain but the restorers have managed to fill in the gaps so you get an idea of just how beautiful these walls would have been.

Time was racing by so rather reluctantly I was tracking back down the hill to Bus Station A and off to the final stop on this trip – Rethymnon.

©Chez l’abeille  2017


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In which I go to Crete. Part 1: Chania.

“I was quite all right on this Cretan coast” ― Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek

Along the northern coast of Crete there are three great places for a short trip; Chania (Hania), Rethymnon (Rethymno) and Heraklion (Iraklio). I last went to Crete in the late 90s, so with a few days leave on offer, I booked a flight and took off. First stop: Chania

I had arranged two nights in Chania, but with the afternoon arrival of my oh-so-early Easy Jet flight from Gatwick, most of the first day was spent in planes, trains and automobiles.

Finally opening a more up to date copy of the guide-book (much of my planning had been done using my original 1998 Rough Guide second edition), I decided that in the intervening decades, not that much had changed apart from the switch to euros. Crete is still a place steeped in its own culture and history. As I discovered, Chania has back streets a-plenty that just cry out for a wander and with the help of locals a bus trip took me out-of-town for a delicious treat.

Day 1:

Chania old town is bordered by the Venetian Harbour and the city walls, which date from the fourteenth century. After escaping from the maze of narrow streets around my hotel, a sunset walk out to the lighthouse was a welcome breath of fresh air. It was still quite early in the season but the restaurants were busy with locals, so the food was guaranteed to be good!

Cretan wine was a particularly pleasant surprise – the dry whites and floral muscat blends were a perfect match for the ultra-fresh seafood and local dishes. Sitting by the harbour front eating a simple dish of fava bean and octopus salad was the best way to end a very loooooong day!

Day 2:

Following a tip from the lovely people who ran my hotel, I was in the mood for a bit of adventure. My first stop of the day, however, was the Agora market hall. The building is organised in a cross shape with four equally sized wings and as with all markets everywhere, it’s a mix of everyday essentials and touristy nick nacks. I spent quite a while at the fish stall, mesmerised by the utter freshness of the produce but also the distinctive way that the fishmongers packaged each purchase in a cone of paper.

Market done – now it was time to find the bus and head out to the Venizelos Grave on the Akrotiri peninsular, with the promise of the best cake – EVER.

After many years of backpacking around India and South America, I have always put my faith in the people who run the buses. They generally know where you want to go/be/get off and get on from. As I discovered Crete has a slightly confusing system of stops, often with no little or no evidence that this is the place to wait! More of that later. Getting out to the graves however was relatively simple and after a short walk I found myself in a quiet garden with stunning views across the bay.

The garden surrounds the graves of Eleftherios Venizelos, seven times Prime Minister of Greece and his equally Prime Ministerial son. The trees buzzed with bees and blossom coloured the pathway with pops of pink as I wandered through to my main destination, Koukouvaya.  According to my hotel host this is THE PLACE FOR CAKE. It was just warm enough to be out on the terrace, so I sat here for a while savouring both the polenta walnut cake with ice cream and the view of Chania in the distance, until it was time to get the bus back.

Ha! Not so simple. With no sign of a bus stop in either direction I headed off down the road in the direction of Chania but after several minutes of walking and no apparent stop I began to think I would be walking all the way home! Some backtracking, general enquiries and close observation of a bunch of students eventually located the stop as a portion of unremarkable pavement just off the main roundabout. A number 11 bus soon appeared and whisked me back to the market and the now familiar streets of the old town for a late afternoon wander around the Kastelli area and into the Orthodox Cathedral of Agios Nikolaos.

 

My last night in Chania was spent at Tamam, a favourably reviewed restaurant right next door to my hotel. I have to say I was a little underwhelmed, although my left over courgette and dill fritters were easy to carry out as a snack for the next day. Time now to prepare for the bus journey to my next stop, Heraklion.

©Chez l’abeille  2017

 

 


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What a character!

“Actions, looks, words and steps form the alphabet by which you may spell character.” Johann Kasper Lavater

Much of my day job is spent tuning into young children and trying to understand their motivations and desires. Following a curious infant, hell bent on discovering where a forbidden object has gone certainly helps you see their investigative ingenuity in full force. A few weeks ago I heard a child development expert describe a typical two year old. “Their job,” she said, “is to find out how everything in the world works.”

This observation came back to me in a different guise as I listened to Natascha Biebow at a recent SCBWI masterclass on developing characters. “Observe the world around you,” she said, “and think about what motivates children to do what they are doing”. The world of children is mostly determined by what is happening to them “in the moment” and if we watch we can often find great starting points for writing a really satisfying story.

Just WHO is your character? Continue reading


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The streets of London: Ghost Signs #3. Bermondsey and Borough

This post is a bit of a mash-up really. It combines two of my favourite things here at Chez L’abeille: walking around London and spotting ghost signs.

What, I hear you ask, actually IS a ghost sign? Well let me tell you. According to Mr Ghost Signs himself, Sam Roberts, it is a “painted sign, fading on walls.” Should you wish to read Sam’s academic research and argument for this definition look here. I’m happy to accept the word of someone who has done an immense amount of research and what’s more is very happy to walk you round and show you. I’ve followed Sam and his work on ghost signs for quite a while, more recently on twitter and through contributions to an earlier crowd sourced flickr album, where ghost sign hunters around the planet shared their passion. He also leads walks in London so a few weeks ago I signed up to follow him in real life and headed over to Bermondsey Street to meet up outside No 55.

Chadwick Road ghost signI’ve actually got a couple of ghost signs near me. The best one is the marvellous Cutts and Co. Printing Office sign on the corner of Chadwick Road, but there’s also a completely washed out expanse of white paint high up on another wall in Bellenden Road. I’d not given this one much attention but after spending a few hours walking around Borough and Bermondsey with Sam I’d learned a thing or two. This seemingly pointless expanse of whitewash has scalloped corners. This means it was once a sign! There’s nothing left but white paint so I can go no further with it but wherever you look around London those fading painted signs are lurking, sometimes where you least expect them.

It was a pretty grim day with a cold easterly wind so walking was quite a good idea and stopping for a long time was freezing which meant our small band of hunters went a quite a pace. Having spent years working in and around the Borough I thought I knew most of the signs, but it turned out there were some surprises in store. I’m not sure how I ever missed the Bermondsey Wire Works but there it was, as big as a Victorian warehouse facade!

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