Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Great Gilbert Scott!

A number of years ago, when wandering along the Euston Road in London, I came across the then abandoned Victorian Gothic extravagance of the former Midland Grand Hotel, which fronted on to the St Pancras railway station. The original hotel, with its red brick spires and sweeping curved driveway up to the station, was designed by George Gilbert Scott and opened between 1873 and 1876. It ceased to be a hotel in 1935 and was used as railway offices until the 1980s, when it was shut down.

Today, it is hard to imagine a time when such a massive structure in such a prominent location could have been, effectively, abandoned, but this is what happened to the Midland Grand Hotel. In common with the nearby Kings Cross Station (which I have written about previously), the area appears to have been simply left to fall apart, and it was commonly known, when I was young, as almost a no-go area, famous more for prostitution and drugs than for its architecture, or as a desirable location in its own right.

When I walked past the building fifteen or so years ago, it was a sorry sight. Its windows were grimy and its original entrance was fenced off. Litter and dust collected on the wire fence and in its steps, whisked along by the wind-tunnel that is the Euston Road, and it was far from inviting. I was surprised, therefore, to see that a gate in the fence by the entrance was open, with a small sign inviting visitors to enter and explore. Always a fan of abandoned buildings, I looked around me, because despite the sign inviting me to do so, it still felt a little illicit, and walked in. I seem to remember a bored security guard sitting inside the front door, but other than that I was free to explore some of the ground floor rooms.

The building felt sad and unloved, with peeling paint, strip neon lighting, and damage caused by water leaks. One room, which I have since learned was originally the Coffee Lounge, had been stripped what I imagined to have been 1960s-era suspended ceiling, installed when it was an office. This had left a "tide mark" on the walls under the ceiling tiles, which had been painted more recently, and the old hotel walls above, which were of a different colour. Above it all was the original ceiling, still with grand moulded plasterwork, but punctured all over by holes from the installation of the suspended ceiling.

One of the most famous elements of the Midland Grand Hotel, even in its dilapidation, was the Grand Staircase. A striking feature of cast iron, with red and gold walls, it had been used in numerous films (such as Ian McKellan's Richard III) and music videos and, probably thanks to set dressing, was still recognisably that of a luxury hotel (even if it also had a hint of steampunk, with its mesh of industrial ironwork and faux Gothic stone).

I revisited the hotel again recently, as I was early for another appointment. It has been extensively refurbished and developed since I last visited, and it reopened in 2011 as the 5 star St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel London. The old entrance lobby (the new lobby is up the ramp, in what used to be the taxi rank) has been turned into a bar, from whose gloriously Victorian painted ceiling hang bells. As I walked back in, it was pleasant to feel life in the old building again, although I found the bar a little cramped, without feeling cosy. I usually like to sit in hotel bars and write, but I did not feel particularly inclined to do so here.

I walked past the Coffee Lounge, which is now the Gilbert Scott dining room, and registered how mightily it had been improved. Nevertheless, I felt a little sorry that this room, with its curved walls and windows looking out on the city, was not more of a public space, as I imagine it might have been originally, but at least it is being used. The Grand Staircase is as gloriously crazy as it was, but now with a deep pile carpet. Since the lobby has been moved, there feels like less of a logical connection between it and the rest of the hotel, as it was originally designed, and I did not feel inclined to sit here either, but perhaps the experience is different for those who stay and use the rest of the hotel's amenities.

I left the hotel feeling pleased that it had been salvaged from its state of ignominious abandonment, but slightly disappointed not to have felt more welcome, although perhaps that is partly a fault of the original design (in its first incarnation, after all, it only survived as a hotel for about 60 years). The architectural style is not to everybody's taste, which is one of the reasons it was been abandoned for so long, but thanks to creative thinking and massive investment, it now has another life, one that it playing its part in revitalising the wider area.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Long way up

There are days, walking in the hills of the Lake District, when you wonder what on Earth you are doing. Perhaps you have slept badly; for example, a 2 am heavy downpour of rain may have drummed with thunderous intensity on your tent, waking you and keeping you awake for some time. Other times, perhaps you are not as fit as you were, or had thought that you were, and the relentless trudging almost directly uphill, begins to feel like a Sisyphean task. Then there's the weather. As I have pointed out to people on a lot of occasions, there is a reason why there are a lot of lakes in the Lake District; in my experience, I think that I have had more good weather days than bad when walking in the Lakes, but that does not detract from the fact that it can rain a lot.

Recently, having returned to the Lakes to try and tick off some more of the Wainwrights, I had a full hand of the above irritations. I had slept badly, and as I trudged to the start of my walk, the valley was overcast, with the cloud sitting discouragingly low on the hills I was proposing to climb. Nevertheless, it had stopped raining, and I started my walk, determined to at least give it a go, before the weather and my own dozy sluggishness defeated me. Very soon, it turned from wet to warm, and I had to remove my rainproof jacket. Even then, it felt like walking in the tropics, and my glasses refused to stay on the bridge of my nose, but repeatedly slid down on a slick of sweat that poured off my reddening face.

Slowly but surely, I reached the top of Seathwaite Fell (a hill of around 600 metres in height). There, sitting by Sprinkling Tarn, I ate some lunch, and drank a small bottle of orange juice with indecent haste to try and quench my parch. Across the little body of water, I could make out the lower slopes of Great End; at 910 metres, the highest hill I was aiming for. I say "lower slopes", but I suppose I really mean "cliffs", and it was far from clear where the route I had picked out on a map actually led. Having fed, I headed towards the cliff wall, and scanned it again for a way up. Eventually, I made out The Band, a kind of breach in the hill's ramparts, which was supposed to lead to another path that would eventually climb up the hill.

I am not a walker who disdains the SatNav, and today I found mine particularly useful in confirming where on the bleak side of this hill I actually was. SatNav can only lead you so far, however, and I was fortunate, eventually, to pick out the subtlest hints of a pathway leading up the apparently otherwise unassailable rock. To the experienced walker, the polish on well-worn rocks and the occasional line of grit amongst the native rocks are all indicators that you have not lost you way, and I was relieved to follow them. Then they abruptly stopped at a twenty foot high wall. I looked up at it. There might, it occurred to me, if one was feeling adventurous, be just the barest hint of steps, but I was walking alone, and was wary about getting myself rock-bound; that terrifying sensation of being unable to go forward or back, without the risk of a fall and a breakage.

I retraced my route a little and scanned the rocks around me. No, I had followed the right route; this was it. I returned to face the mini-cliff and reevaluated the scariness. On reflection, it seemed slightly less terrifying, and before I knew it, I had scrambled up it, and onto the next stage of the climb. I am not normally a walker who enjoys scrambling, but as the climb progressed, I found myself enjoying the mental as well as the physical exertion. One of the greatest things about walking is its capacity for clearing the mind of everything but the essential. One cannot worry about deadlines and other work problems, when you are also at least partly focused on not dying, for the moment.

Eventually, the gradient lessened, and I finally took a moment to turn around and see where I was. For the last half hour or so, I had been climbing in the mist, so I was not expecting to see very much. It was with a tangible surge of emotion, then, that almost as I turned, the cloud lifted, and I found that I had an exceptionally glorious view all the way down to Derwent Water, about six miles away. I breathed deep of the clean mountain air, and grinned. This, I muttered to myself; this is why I do this.

Monday, 12 September 2016

I'm not afraid of any ghosts

God, but I love New York. Even before I visited it, I think that I had been building up to loving it, having been quietly indoctrinated by watching countless movie and television representations throughout my whole life. Nevertheless, I was dumbfounded by how much - and how hard - I fell for the city. Even now, over a year after my first visit, I feel an enormous sense of almost proprietary pride in the place, and a passionate longing to return to it, whenever I see something about it.

Perhaps, films aside, it has something to do with the truly international nature of the city, almost more than any other I have visited. An example of this was driven home to me, whilst wandering the galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, almost obscenely overstuffed with art from all over the world. My attention was drawn, in particular, to a bust of Caroline Campbell, Lady Ailesbury, created by her daughter, Anne Seymour Daimer, Britain's first famous woman sculptor. The sign beneath it noted that a copy existed in a church in England, and my girlfriend asked me if I knew it. I replied that, yes, I knew it. My parents had been married there, and it was where I had been Christened.

For all the high culture, it is also hard when walking around the city, not to be distracted by the many many famous film locations one comes across. In the year that has seen a new Ghostbusters (brilliant, go see it), I was reminded of finding the iconic firehouse (more correctly known as Firehouse, Hook & Ladder Company 8) at 14 North Moore Street at its intersection with Varick Street in Tribeca. Like the film tragic that I am, I sought out the location and, later, 55 Central Park West (below), another key location from the original Ghostbusters was the line between real New York and film New York blurred that little bit more.

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Pinewood, wouldn't you?

I have just achieved something that I feel like I have been waiting a lifetime to do; visited Pinewood Studios, near Iver Heath to the west of London. I went to see the recording of a comedy for the BBC, but for me the real reason for going was to be allowed inside the studio gates and have a bit of a look around. Sadly, Pinewood Studios do not do tours, nor do they allow casual visitors; they provide facilities for visiting production companies, and are naturally protective of their clients' confidentiality and intellectual property. For that reason, there are plenty of signs prohibiting photography, and studio audiences are not permitted to wander at will around the streets.

I didn't care. Just being there was enough. I have been wanting to visit Pinewood since I was a child. An avid fan of James Bond from my early years, I was well aware that Pinewood was the spiritual home of the series, and as I grew older, I was delighted to discover that the S.P.E.C.T.R.E. training base in From Russia With Love was actually Heatherden Hall, the Victorian manor house in whose grounds Pinewood Studios developed. The car chase in Goldfinger, in which Sean Connery's Bond crashes his Aston Martin DB5 into a wall, was also filmed in the back alleys of Pinewood Studios; today, the location of his crash is named, appropriately enough, Goldfinger Avenue.

I arrived ludicrously early for the recording, something that was not lost on the friendly security guard whom I asked for directions, and after abandoning my car in the Visitor's car park, I went for a wander around the perimeter of the studio. Turning left out of the grand new entrance gate, pictured above, I walked north along Pinewood Road, and was pleased with my view of the latest incarnation of the famous Albert R. Broccoli 007 stage, one of the largest sound stages in the world. It was originally built in 1976 for The Spy Who Loved Me, to house an enormous Ken Adam set, and has been destroyed by fire twice; in 1984 and 2006, the current version being completed in 2007.

Off to the right, new sound stages are springing up, the Studios having finally been given the green light to expand. As I walked along the road, I could just make out tantalising glimpses of sets wrapped up in black plastic on the new backlot, but the extension has been developed with large earth bunds protecting the view from nosy gawkers, like me, and I could see very little.

Just before the road bent round to the left, I noticed a small wooden gateway, which I realised excitedly followed the western boundary of the original studios, and I went in. This turned out to be part of Black Park Nature Reserve which, owing to its location, has also featured in a number of films, including Goldfinger, where it doubled for Switzerland in the night time car chase. It has also been used to film the 2006 version of Casino Royale, as well as Batman, Sleepy Hollow, some of the Harry Potter films and Robin Hood.

From the delightful woodland path, I could see marquees bering signs reading "Crowd Make Up". Further on, tall red-brick sound stages loomed, away off to my left and, eventually, the enormous blue-screen that backs onto the large exterior water tank came into view, through the trees. Cutting through a path to Pinewood Road, I walked back up the road to the gate, past the original mock-Tudor studio entrance, which now appears to be a turning for the local bus. New houses have been built, across the road from the old gateway, in what has been named, perhaps inevitably, "Bond Close".

Later, after the recording, we were directed back to the car park, past the 007 Stage itself. The pleasant but no-nonsense stewards were keeping us on the walkways marked on the roadways, but it was tantalisingly close. After a brief internal struggle, after which I decided that I would kick myself if I did not at least try to make the most of this chance, I approached the nearest steward and asked if I could leave the path and touch the stage. She considered the question and, to her credit, did not openly mock me for asking. Eventually, she agreed, provided I did not take any photos. Thanking her, I sprinted across Broccoli Road and slapped my palm against the concrete of the 007 Stage; I had touched the Bond Stage. It was all I needed, and it made me very happy.

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Ealing nostaligic

I have a minor addiction to film studios. I think that it might have begun when I was taken around Universal Studios in Hollywood, as a child, although having said that, by then I had already had bursts of obsession about Charlie Chaplin and the early days of Hollywood, so I may already have got the bug.

I'm not sure what it is that I find so fascinating; perhaps it is the sense of anticipation at what might come out of them. Possibly, it is the amazing skills of the artists who build sets, create special effects, or perform in these modern cathedral-sized spaces, or maybe even it's the last ember of a childlike fantasy that I might, if they did but know it, have something to offer the film makers inside. Whatever it is, if I am near a film studio, I cannot resist the urge to go and have a look (usually at not very much, given tight security).

Nowadays, however, I do occasionally find myself wandering around the backlots of Pinewood and Shepperton, thanks to the magic of Google Streetview. As regular readers will know, I also thoroughly enjoyed visiting the Warner Bros. Studio Tour, even if I am one of those pedantic people who knows and is still slightly bothered by the fact that the sets that you walk around are not actually in the real studios where the Harry Potter movies were filmed. Instead, just to spoil the magic slightly (although, to be fair to the Tour, they do not pretend otherwise), they are in a specially built venue next door. The "real" Leavesden Studios, where the films were actually made, is tantalisingly over the fence next to the car park.

So it was with gentle satisfaction, then, that I found myself outside Ealing Studios in West London, recently, the origin of some of my favourite old films, and one that is still, pleasingly, a site for the production of movies. The old entrance, above, is symbolic of the pocket-sized studios; on the face of it grand but, behind the white paster facade, very much make do and mend.

Ealing Studios are synonymous with a roughly six year run of glorious British films, which include such classics as Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), Passport to Pimlico (1949), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953), and The Ladykillers (1955), although they have actually been making films on the site, in one form or another, for 114 years. I grew up watching the famous "Ealing Comedies", and others of around the same era, having been introduced to them by my late father, who was as much of a film enthusiast in his day, as I am now.

I wandered along a public alleyway, between the studios and a BT building, and I was pleased to see that the small backlot, such as it is, was filled with movie trailers. I steered guiltily clear of the security guard in his box, but sneaked a few surreptitious photos. Peering over walls and fences, I took in the pile of old props and, at the back of the studios, the rickety-looking 1930s buildings, and could imagine being transported back to the time when British cinema great such as Alec Guinness, Joan Greenwood, Peter Sellers,  Dennis Price, and Alastair Sim would have been regular performers there.

Nowadays, far from being tied to its past, alongside its historic sound stages, Ealing Studios is also home to the cutting edge of cinema, in the form of Andy Serkis' studio and production company, The Imaginarium. The Imaginarium specialises in motion capture technology for film, television and video games (including for the most recent Star Wars film). Peering nosily into one of the windows on the first floor of the old entrance, I realised with a start that I must actually have been looking into Mr Serkis' office; a carved wooden gorilla perched on the windowsill being one of the clues (Andy Serkis performed, via motion capture, the title role in 2005's King Kong). Maybe, one day, I'll get to have a proper look around some studios, but for now I'm happy to indulge my addiction from afar.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Hidden glory

There are times when small moments of wonder surpass more demonstrative spectacle. An example of just such a moment is to be found in the tiny church of All Saints' in Tudely in Kent. From outside, it is not particularly different from many other churches in Britain, with its squat brick tower and porch. Inside, however, it is hard not to be moved by the thing that makes it stand out from the rest, indeed from any other church in the world, and that is its stained glass windows, all of which were created by Marc Chagall.

The Chagall windows began in 1967 with the east window, pictured above, which was commissioned by Sir Henry and Lady d'Avigdor-Goldsmid as a memorial to their daughter, Sarah, who had died in a sailing accident in 1963, at the age of 21. This background is reflected in both the colour and the imagery of the window, above which is a horse, which some have identified as symbolic of freedom or love. Although the reason for the window's creation is tragic, the colour of the window and the way in which the eye is drawn upwards, creates a strongly uplifting feeling, in keeping with many of Chagall's other works.

It is said that Chagall was reluctant to accept the task of creating the memorial window, but that when he visited for its installation, he said of the little church, 'It's magnificent. I will do them all.'  The rest of the church's windows were installed in 1985, the year of Chagall's death, and now the church is open to everybody to marvel at them. Apart from the rarity of an entire church with windows by such a prominent artist, and their undeniable beauty, the fact that they remain in the space for which they were designed, with all of the meaning that goes with that, renders them truly magical.

At Tudely, because the church is so small, the majority of the windows are at eye level and one can stand close to them. This means that it is possible to become completely immersed in them, to be bathed in their colours, and to see the hand of the artist. When transplanted into the sometimes antiseptic environment of an art gallery, some otherwise great art can lose its spark, and it is easy to forget the context for which they were created. Here, the work still feels powerful and relevant, and it is a joy to behold.

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

The Life Aquatic

As the lazy afternoon drifted by, we came at last to the almost deserted beach, and I could feel my heart lift. The pebble shore curved away round the little bay, lapped by gentle waves, and the jade green sea rippled seductively in front of us. It had been many years, several decades indeed, since I had been to Corfu, and I had been concerned that it would not be possible to find a beach that was not bordered and disfigured by the garish and noisy trappings of tourism. And yet, here was one that felt as it if might have come straight out of Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals, a book that has long been one of my favourites.

This beach was bounded by a little-used road, with only a couple of quiet tavernas set along it at a discrete distance from each other, both of which seemed to exist in a drowsy parallel universe, from a time long gone by. As I walked slowly into the crystal clear water, gently acclimatising myself to what felt like the cold, but which probably only felt that way in contrast with the warmth of the day, I glanced down into it. Already I could see the darting flashes of small fish, and I sighed through my snorkel in contentment, as I let myself slip into the sea.

Finally submerged, I floated for a while, entranced by the underwater soap operas being performed before me. I thrilled at the neon vividness of the ornate wrasse, as it shot between the larger pebbles, and I floated after small schools of annular sea bream, their almost translucent iridescent bodies flexing beneath where I hung in the sea above them. After a while, my submerged ears became accustomed to the clicking of the little sea bream, and I watched as they snapped at each other and other passing fish (including me). On one occasion, two little fish performed a strange ballet, swooping away from each other, before turning, dashing back, and locking mouths, with an audible snap, a performance they repeated again and again. I could not tell if they were flirting or fighting but, after watching them for a while, I thought that I should give them some privacy, and I drifted on.

A small red ragworm floated free of its tiny pebble cave, where I had seen it crawl a little earlier, and I held myself back as it was attacked by the little fish around me. It twisted and turned, as if suspended in mid-air, its centipede-like feet flailing, before it finally made its way back to the sea bed. There, presumably feeling immensely relieved after its ordeal, it wriggled itself between stones for safety and did not reemerge. A tiger-striped comber, not much bigger than my index finger, saw me, turned and swam back to the shade of an overhanging pebble, and its disguise blended it perfectly into its sanctuary. Another little fish, with brown frills like a flamenco dancer, looked up at me, and we stared at each other for a while. Slowly, it opened its tiny mouth, either in amazement, or as if it thought that it was a much larger creature, and might attack me. To spare it the embarrassment, should it attempt the feat and fail, I turned politely and swam away.

As the sun arced around the bay, and disappeared behind towering grey thunder clouds, it felt like the time had come to move on for the day. I emerged from the sea, feeling that familiar sea-salt tingle on my skin, which brought back memories of my childhood, learning to swim in the sea off the coast of Devon. Driving back along the coastal road, we spotted a sign pointing to the Durrell White House, and I turned off to see it. The house is more overlooked by other houses than it was when Lawrence and Nancy Durrell made it their home in the 1930s, but sitting on the rocks beside the terrace, it was not hard to imagine how it might have felt when they were there. Across the little bay of Kalami, and away beyond the headland dotted with olive and cypress trees, a fork of lightning split the sky, followed some time later by a far off rumble of thunder. It was time to go.