Monday, 20 February 2017

Southwark Cathedral

London Bridge 
Thursday February 9 2017

Yes Southwark cathedral is not strictly a museum but a place of worship. However as it has guide books, shops and a café, and enough things to look at and note, for today it shall count as a museum, and it certainly took up more of our time than the Golden Hinde from where we had come to warm ourselves up.
Compared to Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s this is little visited and so apart from the vergers, we had it to ourselves. The first experience that delighted us was underfoot – next to the Cathedral there is a Millennium annexe housing the ‘facilities’ including toilets and meeting rooms joined by a covered corridor (officially titled Lancelot’s Link) paved with slabs – one for each parish church in the significantly large diocese of Southwark – it stretches from Thames Ditton to Thamesmead and right down to Gatwick; the northern edge being the Thames of course.

The cathedral traces its origins back to pre-Norman times when it was probably a convent later replaced by a monastic foundation linked to the Bishop of Winchester (the remains of whose palace can be seen along Clink Street). And yes, the monks started a hospital nearby too – St Thomas’s. The church was called St Mary Overie (over the river) and later St Saviour’s after the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The proximity to London Bridge, for long enough the only river crossing,   gave the church added prominence.  The local population lacked the wealth and status of those north of the river and the church, eventually raised to cathedral status as late as 1905, reflected this ‘social divide’.

The first ‘exhibit’ is displayed along the passageway and shows the different finds discovered during works under the current building – these are mainly from the Roman era where this part of London would have been on the main route to and from the coast, but also include the early foundations of the first buildings.
Our interior photos are poor but for the tourist rather than the worshipper the main sights are the memorials – like all great churches there are tombs for local worthies or previous church dignitaries and we have always enjoyed the Tudor habit of depicting the family along the front of the sarcophagus. There are also side chapels (in Catholic Cathedrals  usually dedicated to Mary and other important saints) of which the most interesting is dedicated to John Harvard, who was baptized here and emigrated after completing his education in England. 
He is generally seen as the founder of Harvard University though in fact it is more likely he bequeathed his substantial library.  

An American paid for the Harvard memorial, which includes the rather florid Tabernacle  designed by Pugin .
Other smaller chapels are behind the altar (the retro-choir) and are the oldest part of the building, save the foundations.

Most of the windows suffered war-time damage and so there is a range of more modern replacements – the most recent for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012 and others celebrating ‘local heroes’ Shakespeare and Chaucer who would have been familiar with the area and its then places of worship.  Chaucer’s pilgrims of course were heading off to Canterbury to commemorate St Thomas a Becket. Shakespeare’s brother was apparently buried in St Saviour’s (as it was till 1905) but the ‘tomb’ and effigy definitely depict William S. with various plays recalled in the window above.

Also comparatively recent is a memorial to the 51 people who died when the Marchioness sunk in the Thames nearby.

The small graveyard and herb garden recall this was once a monastery and still offer a (slightly) quieter place to retreat from the hubbub of Borough Market.

Southwark appears NOT to have a local museum, which is shame as it has a rich heritage, so to some extent visiting the Cathedral compensates for this lack.  

Saturday, 11 February 2017

The Golden Hinde II

St. Mary Overies Dock, Cathedral Street  SE1 9DE
Thursday February 9 2017

Apologies for the week’s delay but we were out and about celebrating a significant birthday.
Back to the river, though this time on a freezing cold day where it kept trying to sleet.
This had a serious impact on our ability to take photos and to write as ‘our tiny hands were frozen’ so such information as I have is salvaged from the leaflet and memory... The Golden Hinde seems to specialise in group visits, and small ones at that by which I mean a small number of people who are small in stature.

The reason for this is, though billed a galleon, this replica, built in the US in 1973, is actually very compact – what’s more below deck the head space is VERY restricted. (I went round the gun deck on my knees as being probably the safest option…)  There would have been quite a few boys on board and those who survived being lashed to the cross-trees could have helped out.. 

The original ship is famed for being the vessel in which Francis Drake circumnavigated the globe, the first Englishman to do so.   One’s first and most lasting impression is how brave and skilled those sailors and navigators must have been to set forth in so small a vessel, with a modest crew – at most 30 people – on a largely unknown journey. Peril at sea is timeless and universal but today’s seafarers have a wealth of navigational tools at their disposal, not to mention good back up and rescue services.   Drake’s expedition also had another motive – namely to ‘explore’ what territories and goodies the Spanish had acquired and reward the secret sponsor, Elizabeth 1, with some of the ‘spoils’.  We noted that no-one referred to Sir Francis (as he became on completing this voyage) as a pirate, but rather a ‘privateer’.   But when you realise he brought back enough ‘treasure’ to pay off the national Debt, which Elizabeth’s father Henry VIII had cheerfully racked up (where are you now Sir Francis?) then you can understand how important this voyage was to England and history.

Drake’s cabin was the first sheltered part of the ship we visited though it was so dark it was hard to see, and even harder to photograph. A several-armed candelabra was his only form of lighting, which on board a pitching ship is dangerous.  You emerge just by the impressive wheel – a modern addition to aid steering – and the rack of belaying pins – devices designed to hold a rope steady whilst winding in. We crossed over the maindeck to the foredeck and fo’c’sle (forecastle) from where there would have been look-outs to search for land or enemies around. Although the decks are much lower than most ships the steps are in fact quite negotiable. We descended from the front and found ourselves on the gun deck with its very limited headspace – apparently so designed to give the ship greater stability – there were 14 closely packed small cannons known as minions with a 300 yard (less in metres) range. The lucky sailors got to sleep here in shifts probably on the damp floor or slung in hammocks.

(In the summer we had visited the Portsmouth Dockyard with the absolutely brilliant Mary Rose  exhibition/experience. The Mary Rose may have been magnificent and about four times the size of the Golden Hide but obviously not very sea worthy as she got no further than Portsmouth harbour before she sank – so perhaps small was beautiful after all.)   
You can go lower still into the hold which would originally have been full of ballast to keep the ship down and upright in the water. Actually there is more space here than amongst the guns and just enough light to read the information boards about rigging and shipbuilding and caulking.

Backup to the main deck where there is also the Great Cabin for dining and Drake’s officers. As  there was a school party expected at 11 we were keen to leave them enough space to move around and stepped ashore admiring both the lion at the stern and the Golden Hinde figurehead, the hind being the heraldic emblem of Sir Christopher Hatton (Elizabeth’s Lord Chancellor who had a house … and garden near Holborn). The ship also displays Hatton’s motto to acknowledge that he had largely sponsored the ship and voyage.

This is a small scale visit on all levels but one that left me with extreme respect and admiration for the Renaissance and Tudor age mariners who risked so much to put England on the map and make the country and themselves richer. This ship was undoubtedly well built and seaworthy but still feels like an accident waiting to happen..

As   we badly needed to warm up we headed into Southwark cathedral, which will be a later blog entry..       

Monday, 30 January 2017

The National Gallery 4

Thursday 26 January 2017

Linda and I being, as you know, completists, made one further trip to the great National Gallery, in order to finish our exploration of the collection. As has happened on each of our visits, we were amazed at the number of splendid pictures that 'we' own.  
We went straight to the rooms coloured green on the map (18th century and beyond) and were instantly immersed in Goyas, including the Duke of Wellington, looking strangely un-commanding.

There were lots of Guardis, too. but it was the Longhi of Venetians in masks examining a rhino which caught our attention, before we moved on to a room full of Canalettos (or should that be Canaletti?)

The Stone mason's yard was interesting because of the women workers, though one seems merely to be scolding the children.  Perhaps women were employed to do sanding and washing and brought the children along to save child minding costs.

Next are several rooms of British artists: Zoffany, Lawrence, Hogarth explaining the ins and outs of 'Marriage a la Mode'. And of course, Stubbs, whose fabulous 'Whistlejacket' dominates one wall and fades out the other pictures hung there.

As we paused by Turner's Fighting Temeraire, we were interested to learn that it will feature (with a portrait of the artist as well) on £20 noted from 2020 onwards. Looking at other Turners, we felt that when he went into narrative (like 'Hero's farewell to Leander') he was less convincing.
One of the excellent freelancers who work here was talking to an impeccably behaved primary school class about 'Speed and Steam'. I restrained myself from contradicting her by pointing out that 20mph was really very fast to people used to horse and cart (it is the hare in the picture who is said to embody the speed)

We were delighted to see one picture by Joseph Wright of Derby: his remarkable painting of a demonstration of vacuum. And we enjoyed Hogarth's portrait of the Graham children, with baby Thomas (who did not live to see the completed picture) in his frock.

We skipped past a number of Lawrences and Raeburns of the upper classes to reach the Constables and then suddenly we were out of British art and (mostly) into France.

The British nation seems to own lots and lots of Monets, including his excellent portrayal of the Gare St Lazare, but we were also pleased to see the Pissarros of Sydenham and Upper Norwood.

Knowing the Bathers at Asnieres quite well we were interested in Theo van Rysselberghe's take on pointillism  in his Coastal Scene; and we loved the room with the various Vuillards in it, though the attendant said he thought the mantelpiece looked more like a coffin.  It is an unusual picture, in that it was bought for the National Gallery in 1917, while the artist was still alive.

 Linda and I share only a very limited liking for Pierre Auguste Renoir, and indeed for Gaugin, so we were able to make speedy progress to van Gogh, via a number of Cezannes.

 Getting back, as we did, to Pissarro, we wondered why his son, Felix was looking so moody: possibly just a seven year old not wanting to sit still.  Which reminds me to say that we did like the captioning, which often had bits of story as well as 'art' information.

Towards the end of our visit, we came to another lovely Pissarro. the 'Cote des Boeufs' of 1877 and were interested to read that it had been transferred from the Tate in 1950 when, presumably, the Tate decided to become either 'Britain' or 'Modern'

 We were very taken with George Bellows, about whom I knew nothing. and his portrayal of dock workers in the New York docks, and we also enjoyed a Klimt lady and a Matisse portrait.

There there were rather too many Degas for my liking, though we enjoyed the adolescent glare of his teenage cousin Elena Carafa.

All in all, and I know we have said this before, our visit reminded us that we should not need a 'project' before wandering in and looking at wonderful pictures.

Friday, 20 January 2017

Tower Bridge Experience

Tower Bridge
Thursday January 19  2017

For some reason (probably TFL) we thought the entrance to this ‘experience’/museum was on the South side of Tower Bridge but the start is actually at the base of the North Tower. Though very cold it was in fact a beautiful day so the camera had been working away capturing the full tourist experience from alongside the ‘Belfast’ (of which more later).

Tower Bridge is one of several maintained by the City of London aka the Corporation and hence is well emblazoned with the city’s crest and decorated with its limited palate – red and white.   It does cost but there are .reasonable reductions for the usual concessions

There is a clear trail to follow and a lift takes you to the top floor, which is a spacious lobby to the walkways. By way of introduction there is a collage of early film clips of ‘heavy traffic’ in London – because horse drawn vehicles take up so much space and are less disciplined than more modern vehicles the traffic shots round London’s pinch points – the Strand, Hyde Park Corner and the bridges – look every bit as busy as today. London needed a new bridge to relieve the strain elsewhere and also one that allowed tall ships as far up the Thames as possible. This was the brief and several proposals were made. The first filmed ‘lift’ was in 1903.

After this brief introductory film, the screen surrounded by some random Victorian artefacts to give you the period feel (the smell of old wood, iron and oil is enough to make you realise this is not a new structure), you are encouraged to set off along the East walkway, where between the multiple metal struts there are extensive views down the river, and as this is the ‘last bridge’ for the time being, the view is clear – the river also widens considerably from this point.
The walkways are the exhibition space – to the right are WORLD BRIDGES, so a collection of large colour photos of the world’s iconic bridges, old and new, and their vital statistics.  We had fun spotting those we had visited and I am sure it is an added attraction for their many foreign visitors. To the left are small illustrated fact boards about the planning & structure and material of the bridge and its context – trade and commerce round the pool and docks of London.

As we said two weeks ago in the Maths Gallery, architects would be nowhere without their structural engineers and both are fully honoured here. Interestingly the engineer was J Wolfe Barry, son of the Charles Barry who designed the Houses of Parliament. We imagined the twin tower design was chosen to honour the Tower of London on the neighbouring bank. The bridge joins the south London borough of Southwark and the north east Tower Hamlets. The City’s architect was Sir Horace Jones who in fact died before completion and there were five contractors involved. The towers are actually steel structures, clad in bricks and then Portland Stone, and the upper walkways are in part to brace the lower sections though also supposed to offer pedestrians an alternative crossing when the bridge was open – however this option never proved very popular and they were closed in 1910. Once the walkways were in place construction could start on the bascules which arrived in 12 metre sections.

One of the information boards that caught our attention was the use of Thameside as ‘beaches’. The King was very keen that London’s poor children should be offered a beach experience and this tradition continued until someone realised that the swimming was dangerous because of poor water quality!

The views from up here ate stupendous and well worth the admission price alone, but of course the selling point is the glass walkways.  A small section of the walkway is heavy duty glass and therefore you can look straight down on the river or passing traffic – it is a vertiginous feeling and though we coped it was quite a relief to have the solid floor again. According to one of the very pleasant staff, who are all well informed about the exhibits, a previous school party had done hand stands and back flips along the glass walkway.

Reaching the other end there is the equivalent lobby and film screen, this time with a computer simulation of the construction process. The tour then takes you back along    the west facing walkway, where the Bridge and Information boards continue. The view this way takes in the next three bridges or so and much of London’s famous skyline – old and new plus excellent views of the Tower and the Pool of London. Jo had been working on the ‘Belfast’ when the ship was towed away to be refitted, and she remembered how the five little tugs had manoeuvred her under the walkway with the radar mast only just fitting beneath – it was a very slow operation. Somewhat to our surprise the bridge opens 3 times a day on average as even as Londoners it’s quite rare to catch it!

Still enjoying the views we completed the walkway, a bit more blasĂ© about the glass floor second time around; you are then turned back to the south tower from where you are encouraged to walk down the impressive metal stairways. A recent addition to enliven your descent is various relief plastic plaques reminding you of London’s riverside buildings – we were somewhat surprised to see ‘City Hall’ the Mayor’s HQ referred to as the Armadillo ?

Back down at street level the trail leads into the engine rooms complete with that warm slightly oily metallic smell.  As far as we understood it the bascules – the two opening halves of the bridge worked through a counter-balance – still work on hydraulic (water) power but presumably electrically driven whereas back in the day you were looking at steam power. This is the same kind of machinery and doubtless gives the same kind of joy to its enthusiasts as steam trains. The boilers are bigger (very handsome black cast iron) and were heated by coal brought along the river and tipped from a chain of handy trugs. When the water is hot enough it turns to steam which powers the pistons – there is even a complicated (when I say complicated it means I don’t really understand it) system of power storage as of course the bridge is opened on demand and is not in constant use as the pistons driving a train engine would be.
The machinery has been beautifully preserved and presented and the information boards are multi-lingual and easy to follow.  There are even small scale models at the end which you can operate.

The exit is of course via the gift shop which offered a range of models of the bridge to build, though interestingly not the Lego one. The museum attraction is understandably popular with tourists as the views and walk are worth the price alone, but there is enough easily digested information to detain a visitor who wants a little more history and context.