Chez l'abeille

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

The Streets of London: The Ghosts of Stoke Newington.

Not that kind of ghost – although according to Sam Roberts, aka Mr Ghost Signs, it has been known for people to take part in his walks expecting to see half visible glimpses of things past. Actually, they wouldn’t be that wrong really – but these are a different kind of ghost.

In the days of late 19th Century through to the mid-20th Century as businesses grew, advertising began to emerge in the form of painted signage. These old, fading signs can still be glimpsed in the high streets of our London villages and Stoke Newington is full of great examples.

I was lucky enough to get a spot on Sam’s last ever Stoke Newington guided walk – he’s hanging up his walking shoes for now, but if you want to follow in his own ghostly footsteps, the tour can be accessed via a rather good app. It’s highly recommended, and you can also download the sister walk around Bankside and Borough. If you want a peek into that then check out this post!

So here are a few of my favourites from the walk on a rather grey, damp day in early April.

The Westminster Gazette/ Army Club sign was the first on we saw, just up the hill from Stoke Newington train station.  Both this sign and the other nearby on at Willow Cottages are both examples of what Sam calls a palimpsest – different signs painted over each other. As they age the layers of paint fade and disappear at different rates allowing the signs underneath to come through. Westminster Gazette is also above a current newsagent, suggesting that this may have been the purpose of the business for some time.

Heading back down the hill we found the next cluster.

At the start of the walk we were warned to “use our wing mirrors!” Sam wasn’t wrong…walking along the streets the signs can be tucked in all sorts of spaces. originally they would have been placed in full view of shoppers and also up high to be visible from the train lines. With the continued rebuilding that occurs, many are now truncated or hidden from full view, as was the case of the Yates and Sons, dyers sign, which seems to have a door built right in the middle!

The furthest point down the High Street took us to one of the most spectacular of the existing signs: Cakebread Robey on Tyssen road. Sam’s research indicates there are at least three layers in this sign, all for the same firm. Again white paint was used to cover up existing signage and the lighter top coats are fade first. In 2016 A “light capsules” project developed projections of the signs which gave them a semblance of their former magnificence. I wasn’t able to get to this event, but there are pictures on the Ghost signs website if you want to see them.

Heading back and along Stoke Newington Church Street we came to the final cluster.

My favourite ghost sign of the whole walk was saved until last. I’ve just started reusing my original fountain pen, which saw me through O levels, A levels AND my degree…from the days when having a decent pen was an important element of your school pencil-case! I also remember having fountain pens which came with a built in lever to ensure maximum filling, which probably had enough tiny parts to make mending them a specialist trade.

A couple of hours is plenty of time to complete the walk which includes several other signs not shown here – for the full experience you’ll just have to go and find those ghosts for yourself.

©Chez l’abeille  2018

1666 and all that.

There’s always something to commemorate in London and we always seem to be able to do things in some style. Most recently this has been the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London, documented so comprehensively by writers of the time, notably the extensive diarist, Samuel Pepys:

“I made myself ready presently, and walked to the Tower; and there got up upon one of the high places, . . .and there I did see the houses at the end of the bridge all on fire, and an infinite great fire on this and the other side . . . of the bridge. . .”

Samuel Pepys 2nd September 1666

Having been to one Fire Garden, I definitely wanted to go and see another flaming, after- dark art installation. It was rather wet and drizzly, but the flames leapt and warmed us as we wandered around the Tate Modern grounds. The illuminated vests hanging amongst the silver birches were weird and compelling in equal measures.

As a primary teacher I have spent many years helping young children craft their own 2d and 3d models of London in 1666, so one of the installations that I wanted to see was the huge wooden model of the city, before it was destroyed by fire. I didn’t have time to go and watch it burn later that evening but luckily for us all, it was filmed!


So yet another triumphant collective of history and art combined to make London the exciting city we know it is!

©Chez l’abeille  2016

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I went to market and I bought…

So, anyone who’s a regular Chez l’abeille reader may have noted the slight absence of anything new on the blog for the whole of August. Normally I aim to give you at least two new updates a month but you know… August, travel, intermittent wi-fi…so the next few posts are going to be all about my rather fabulous summer travels.

First up is France. I hadn’t actually planned to head over to France this summer but when Mardi called in to say she and Neil were heading over to stay in their bijoux pied à terre in Nérac, I was straight onto the european train timetable and booking annual leave.

View from the bridge of the old town

View from the bridge of the old town

We’ve been around this area of France before so the holiday was much more  a home stay. This suited me fine as it’s been a long old year in the world of education and I was  totally ready for a complete sit down with more than a cup of tea in front of me!

One of our favourite pastimes is visiting the weekly markets – which given every hameau, village, ville and cité in France has one, makes it very much a daily occurrence. The market in Nérac is always a busy one, full of pretty much anything you might need. As well as the usual bread, cheese, fruit and veg, our haul of goods from several markets this year included a panama hat and an oil cloth for the kitchen table!

Here then are some of the delights from the market in Nérac.

©Chez l’abeille  2016


The Art of Observation

I bought my most recent camera, a Panasonic Lumix DMC GX7, in October before I headed off to Iceland. I wanted something that would take the pictures I could see and my long standing point and shoot just wasn’t cutting it any more. I thought I was fairly au fait with the workings of a SLR based camera, having used my beloved Pentax for years, but the ease of the totally automatic button has left me doing little more than, well, pointing and shooting.


The roof top gardener

So last Sunday morning I headed off through early morning London to meet my friend Kathy on the roof top of the Queen Elizabeth Hall. If you haven’t wandered up the yellow concrete stairs to this little urban oasis I heartily recommend it. Currently the South Bank Centre is running a series of Sunday photography workshops with photographer Ollie Smallwood – this was the reason for getting up early! Ollie has been photographing the garden and the team of volunteers who look after for a while now, which meant he was well placed to get the best out of our ideas.

The group was small so we had time to talk and share ideas, experiences and cameras, which ranged from mobile phones to high end digital SLRs! What I loved most was that we didn’t spend a lot of the 2 hours taking pictures, which might seem odd, but in the end made perfect sense.

Our first task was to walk around and simply look. We were encouraged to think carefuly about what we wanted to photograph before whipping our camera from pocket or bag. Freed from the view through a lense, I felt more able to focus and open to the nuances of the space around me and the endless possibilties for pictures there were.

“slow down and value each picture you take”

Continue reading

Seeing in black and white #2

Back out with the Pentax again – during my walk around Brick Lane some of the things I captured needed the full on colour of my digital camera but other images cried out for black and white film.

After the varied outcomes of the first roll and the mystery of the randomly unexposed frames, this time I had a few randomly over exposed frames…still working on that issue but so far no real clues. However, despite the fact that I now have to manage a viewfinder plus varifocals alongside the manual focus, I’m slowly rediscovering seeing the world in black and white, the feel of a manual camera, and the patience needed for slow photography!

©Chez l’abeille  2016




Seeing in black and white #1

36 years ago as a rather penniless student, I made one of the most expensive purchases I had ever made til then – my much loved Pentax ME SLR camera (special edition, brown body, not black). This little camera travelled the world with me and took thousands of photos over the years, until more modern digital cameras pushed it off pole position.

“Black and white are the colors of photography.” Robert Frank

Recently, on a whim I had it re-conditioned and have been testing it out. I have realised how used to instant pictures I have become. The art of slow photography; not wasting a shot, filling up a full roll of film and then patiently waiting for the results, good or bad, has become rather passé. These days we carry cameras on us permanently, taking pictures on our devices in a moment and instantly deciding to delete or keep. With a 35mm camera you set out to look for pictures. So camera in hand I have been taking odd shots over the past few weeks to see how it still works.

First up: Nunhead Cemetery again. My favourite gothic gloom and headless angels. The light was very low as it was damp and dusky when I went there, so they are a bit grainy, but I think this suits the subject matter.


Cornishman Charles Simmons’ grave Nunhead

Angel, Nunhead cemetery

Angel, Nunhead cemetery

Nunhead cemetery

Nunhead cemetery

The second foray was to Broadgate Circus in London for lunch. Here I was looking at the tones, structures and shapes of the buildings. Continue reading


The Afghan Girl

June 1985. Copies of the National Geographic magazine fell through the letter box with the usual heavy thud. Taking off the wrapper to reveal the familiar yellow edged cover, we first made acquaintance with “The Afghan Girl” – destined to become arguably one of the most recognizable faces of the 20th Century. Framed by her rust brown headscarf, those green eyes gazed steadily and intently, forcing us to look at her. She became an international sensation.

Afghan girl image Leake Street 2008

Afghan girl Leake Street 2008


Photographed in Peshawar by Steve McCurry in 1984, the unnamed girl was an orphaned Afghan refugee, living in a camp with her remaining family. “I didn’t think the photograph of the girl would be different from anything else I shot that day,” he recalls when talking about the image. However, in one of those magical moments in photography, the subject, light and timing all aligned in that Cartier Bresson style “decisive moment”. Such was the power of this photograph that it has become a universally recognised image or cultural reference point. In 2008 she was a key image in Banksy’s street art “Cans Festival”. Still no one knew her name.



The Afghan Girl by Steve McCurry - two images 1984

The Afghan Girl by Steve McCurry – two images 1984

Years later McCurry set out to find her. Against all odds he was able to track her down, living back in Afghanistan, a three day journey from their original meeting place.
She is no longer the same anonymous girl. Her name is Sharbat Gula. Married at 13, or maybe 16 – ages are not recorded in the mountains of Afghanistan, she has carried four children. Three now survive. Yet despite a life of extreme hardship the same spark of challenge remains in the pictures taken by McCurry when they finally met again.

Beetles + Huxley gallery in London are currently showing a dazzling collection of McCurry’s images, including his portrait of the Afghan Girl. There are actually two images, which was a surprise. The second, with her reddish brown shawl half covering her face was the original cover choice, but a last minute decision switched the images. Renewing our aquaintance with the original image thirty one years on, that piercing look still has the power to make us stop and look.

Steve McCurry at Beetles+Huxley runs until 19th March and is free.

©Chez l’abeille 2016