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 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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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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The Streets of London: Postman’s Park.

For years I have listened to Robert Elms on BBC Radio London. His knowledge of things both London and arcane in equal measures is legendary. Many times I heard about Postman’s Park, but had no real clue as to where it was hidden.

So, there I was one day, getting a bit lost whilst trying to get to the Museum of London when I accidentally stumbled across it and of course I had to stop and look!

Postman's Park, St Martin's Le-Grand, London EC1A

Postman’s Park, St Martin’s Le-Grand, London EC1A

This tiny garden in a churchyard acquired the name because postal workers at the old General Post Office would use it as a lunch spot. It also houses one of the most unusual memorials I have seen – the Watts memorial, built in 1900 by Victorian painter and philanthropist GF Watts to mark Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee year.

G.F Watts's memorial to heroic self sacrifice

G.F Watts’s memorial to heroic self sacrifice

The Doulton plaques are lovely and tell each story so clearly. The small acts of heroism also give us an insight into how dangerous life in Victorian London must have been – but don’t be fooled into thinking they are all from the 19th Century.

Here are a few I chose because they link to bits of London I live or work in or were just interesting. I shall let them speak for themselves.

©Chez l’abeille  2016

Postman’s Park information can be found here


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In which I go to Brussels (but fail to notice world events)

Brussels: centre of the EU and scourge of UK market stall holders (when is a pound not a pound? When it’s a kilo). It’s the word on everyone’s lips after our Prime Minister, David Cameron, went there at half term and returned waving a bit of paper saying  peace in our time saying “here’s a few things I’ve agreed so please can we stay together”.

Alternatively it’s the rather lovely Belgian town I also visited at half term, whilst completely failing to notice major world events taking place just down the street. I have no real view yet on how I will vote in the upcoming Brexit referendum but I do quite like Brussels!

I really didn’t know much about the place before I went there and I certainly had no idea that it is such a treasure trove of Art Nouveau architecture and art. After some speed reading on arrival, a visit to the Horta Museum was swiftly identified as a must see and I can honestly say it is one of the most magnificent buildings I have ever been in. From the entrance hall to the glassed over stairwell roof it is a symphony of sycamore and lyrical curves in every room. Unfortunately photography is not permitted inside so here’s some exterior shots to whet your appetites!

I kept tripping over and falling off pavements whilst I was there – not, I might add, from too much beer (which was plentiful and delicious) but because so much beauty was above our heads. Continue reading


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The Streets of London: The Parkland Walk

Somewhere in my Cornish childhood, I remember wandering and playing in a beech wood. Beech masts crunched underfoot, cool green moss covered the ancient tree trunks and sunlight dappled the woodland floor. Arching ferns and spikey bracken made hiding places for insects, small creatures and me. It was the epitome of woods: a magical, mystical, special place to be.

The Spriggon on the Parkland Walk

The Spriggon on the Parkland Walk

Surprisingly, even in the middle of this mad metropolis there are woodland places where we can escape from London life. Secret ways and hidden woods are there for the finding if you know where to look.

One such place, The Parkland Walk started out as a Victorian railway line. Now it is an urban woodland walk that goes from Finsbury Park, taking in Queen’s Wood and Highgate Wood as you slowly ascend to the dizzy heights of Alexandra Palace Park.

On a brisk wintery Sunday afternoon a friend and I joined a group of ramblers, The Capital Walkers. Our meeting point was amongst the mayhem of the Arsenal vs. Burnley FC FA Cup match day so Finsbury Park Station was awash with hopeful Arsenal fans, all heading to the match. Heading off in the opposite direction through the banter and banners we managed to make our way into the calm space of Finsbury Park itself.

It was a spectacularly muddy pathway out of Finsbury Park and onto the Parkland walk proper, so there was quite a bit of tiptoing, splashing and sidestepping as the rather large group manoeuvred itself around the deeper puddles. As the path widened we gradually settled into a comfortable formation and strode purposefully off towards Ally Pally. Continue reading