Tuesday, 12 September 2017

High above the High Street



There is a place that feels like it should not exist. Well, OK, I suppose there are many places that feel like they should not exit, but the one I am thinking of is the Roof Gardens high above Kensington High Street. I had been there several years before, for a work dinner, and at the time had been astonished by the place. A few months ago, whilst visiting the new Design Museum in Kensington, I decided to pay it another visit, and was not disappointed. To enter this strange world, you have to present yourself at a reception desk behind a door up a side street, and provide some ID. By and large, you don't have to book, and entrance is free. After signing in, you are pointed towards a lift lined with pictures of flamingos, and are sent to the top of the building.

When you emerge, you are in a somewhat anonymous corridor, but after wandering around a little, you emerge into the daylight where you may find yourself, miraculously, in a Spanish garden, a medieval courtyard, or an English woodland. All six stories up, beside a busy London thoroughfare. The unreality of the place brings to mind the original film Westworld, and from certain angles, you could easily be forgiven for believing you were in Grenada, or the grounds of a well-preserved Tudor mansion. Only the spire of St Mary Abbots church peeking out over the moorish colonnade, perhaps, gives the game away.

The gardens opened to the public in May 1938, having been built over the course of two. The original idea came from Trevor Bowen, the vice president of John Barker & Co., the original owners of the building on which the gardens sit. He hired the landscape architect Ralph Hancock to turn his idea into reality, which Hancock did to incredible effect. Appropriately enough, although they take a little finding, being hidden away in one corder of the woodland garden beside a quirky 1930s house, there are plaques to both gentlemen, commemorating their work.

The garden is not just an oasis of calm in a busy city, although it assuredly is this; it is also a miniature wildlife garden. Walking from the Tudor garden to the woodland, past natural-looking ponds (six floors up, remember) you are likely to come face to beak with the flamingos pictured in the lift, along with a variety of exotic ducks. On a bright, quiet, weekday morning, I walked around this delightful folly, which I had largely to myself, and felt like I had travelled to another world.

221B or not 221B, that is the question


Sherlock Holmes arouses fierce passions in some people, which may be regarded as unusual, given that he never actually existed. This existential hindrance has not, however, prevented thousands of people across the globe writing to the famous (fictional) sleuth for assistance, as evidenced by the book "Letters to Sherlock Holmes", and the presence of the Sherlock Holmes Museum on - where else? - Baker Street in London. Strictly speaking, and despite the number above the doorway to the contrary, this is not 221B Baker Street, but 239 Baker Street, although as with anything with its origins in fiction, we must allow quite a wide leeway for suspension of disbelief.

I thought of my visit to the Museum recently, having passed (for the millionth time) the Sherlock Homes pub in Northumberland Street near Charing Cross. For some reason, on this occasion, I decided to take a look inside, because I knew, and had known for many years, that the pub contains a replica of Holmes' apartment on the first floor. This was originally an exhibit for the 1951 Festival of Britain, put together by Marylebone Borough Library and the Abbey National, and I was pleased to see a small plaque outside the pub confirming it was still there. One might wonder why the Abbey National would have been involved in such an exhibit but, from the 1930s until 2005, the bank actually occupied 221B Baker Street, and had a full-time secretary to answer mail addressed to Sherlock Holmes.


The exhibit in the Sherlock Holmes pub is smaller than the Museum, being limited to one small room (above), although it does contain a wax bust of Holmes, bullet hole and all, which Holmes fans may recognise from The Adventure of the Empty House. It took me a long time, however, to spot the Turkish slipper beside the fireplace, containing tobacco, which is a detail of Holmes' consulting room that always caught my attention. The Museum also has a Turkish slipper and, to my delight, also has "VR" in bullet holes on the wall, as described in The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual. Nevertheless, the little exhibit reminded me of my visit to the Museum, a few years ago.

The Museum is an altogether odd place, although none the worse for that. My favourite part was the living room, where most of the stories begin, although in the upper rooms are eerily lifelike waxworks, including one of Professor James Moriarty, which are just realistic enough to make you wonder if they might be about to move. I have long enjoyed the Sherlock Holmes stories, and went through a period of reading the complete works (finally giving up towards the middle of the final book, when it became apparent that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's heart really wasn't in it any more). The Museum is filled with clues (appropriately enough) to many of the stories (including the "stuffed" head of the Hound of the Baskervilles), and one can spend a pleasant time wandering around the little house, trying to spot them.

Not too far from the Museum, if you are in the mood, is 187 North Gower Street, which is the location for 221B Baker Street in the BBC's recent series Sherlock. It is also, as a blue plaque testifies, the former home of Giuseppe Mazzini (1805 - 1872), an Italian politician, journalist and activist for the unification of Italy. If you have seen the programme, and this is news to you, that is because the blue plaque is hidden behind set decoration (a distinctive round light). With the success of Sherlock and the CBS show Elementary, both of which reimagine the detective in the modern world, there seems to be no likelihood of interest in the original resident of 221B Baker Street ending soon.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Iceland ahoy!


It was early Sunday morning in Reykjavík, and peering slightly blearily out of the apartment window, for I had not slept well for over 48 hours,  I was immediately cheered a little by the sight of a beautiful sunrise. I had until early afternoon to explore this pretty little city by myself, before getting the bus back to the airport, and I resolved to get out as soon as possible, to see as much as I could. It is lovely to travel with company, but there is something special about being able to follow one's own whims and just wander about aimlessly, that can be extremely pleasant. I had few places that I definitely wanted to see, and was happy to just look around, but before doing anything I needed a coffee.

Something that struck me about the little bit of Iceland that I visited was the high density of American visitors. Siting in a café on Bankastræti, a little later that morning and having dumped my bags with the nearby tourist information office, I looked around at my fellow patrons. Even at this early hour, there appeared to be one or two native Icelanders, but six or seven Americans. The day before, when visiting the Blue Lagoon, Americans had again made up a vast majority of bathers. Of these, a large number appeared to be too squeamish to follow the hygiene instructions about showering naked, or even at all, before entering the water. I have nothing against Americans (and love New York dearly) but some of the Americans in the café this morning, particular the younger, more excitable ones, were more than a little annoying. Two American girls, for example, appeared to find almost everything extremely funny, a situation that was made worse by the fact that one of the girls had a loud shrill laugh that sounded almost exactly like a swannee whistle.

A little fortified by coffee and a cinnamon bun, and keen t be on my own, I wandered out again into the cold morning. There had recently been a fall of snow, and I turned up the hood of my jacket against the cold, as I walked up a slippy path to visit a great statue of Ingólfur Arnarson, one of the founders of Reykjavík. Down by the waterfront, the glorious Harpa concert hall was looking particularly spectacular in the bright sunlight, and I decided to potter over to have a look, which proved easier said than done, on pavements as slippery as an ice rink. Opened in 2011, Harpa's glass facade reflects the sky and, at night, as I had first seen it a couple of nights before, a light display that dances across the panels resembles the northern lights (which, disappointingly, I had not seen).

Further along the waterfront, I paused at the Sólfarið (Sun Voyager) sculpture, shown above, by Jón Gunnar Árnason, although I found myself getting irritated by people who were standing around the work of art. The Sólfarið sits on a plinth that just out into the water, and was surrounded by visitors who were ignoring it and taking pictures of the view, and seemed not to notice or care that they were getting in everybody else's pictures of the sculpture. I started to wonder whether people were behaving unusually rudely, or if, in my sleep-deprived state, I was just being unreasonably judgmental.

Putting the waterfront behind me, I walked back into the city and up the hill to one of the places that I had been anxious to visit: Hallgrímskirkja, the largest church, and one of the tallest buildings, in Iceland. I arrived just as the doors to the viewing platform were closing, but contented myself with looking at it from outside. Looking both natural and space age (construction began in the 1940s, but was not completed until the 1980s), it is an undeniably iconic structure, and one that towers over the city, being visible from many places.


After this, I wandered back into the city streets and had more coffee. I peered into a few shops, as ever finding myself most happy in a couple of lovely bookshops (in one, I bought a CD by Ólafur Arnalds, an Icelandic composer whose work I have loved for some time; in the other, along with another coffee, I bought a pair of socks). After I while, I began to realise that I was exhausted, but just walking and walking, possibly powered by too much caffeine, and that I would soon have to make my way back to the collection point for the bus to the airport. I had enjoyed my visit, but resolved to return, someday, and hopefully to explore more widely, and on substantially more sleep.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Finding the 100 Acre Wood in the Big Apple


Ever since I was a child, I have loved the stories of Winnie the Pooh, the hapless yet courageous bear of very little brain, and his friends. I grew up reading Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner, and having them read to me, and like many people, the stories are so familiar to me that I feel a personal attachment to them (although I have never taken to the Disney films of their adventures; to me, they are a pale imitation of the original). I still consider the ending of The House at Pooh Corner to be one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful conclusions to a book ever written.

The true story behind Pooh and Christopher Robin is reasonably well known (and is shortly to be the subject of a new film, Goodbye Christopher Robin); in the 1920s, writer AA Milne wrote the tales based around his son, Christopher Robin Milne, and his toys, and his charming poems and adventures soon became world famous. The real 100 Acre Wood, where the stories are set, is Ashdown Forest in East Sussex, was also somewhere I was taken several times as a child, and have visited again as an adult. Even today, the locations from the books are all accessible, and most are immediately recognisable.

For me, the 100 Acre Wood remains an Enchanted Place, and the characters in the books are so fundamental a part of my childhood, that the realisation that, on my first visit to New York, I had walked within just a few feet of their current home without going to see them was a sad one. Returning to New York last December, however, I rectified this omission, and the experience was as moving and as magical as I could have hoped.

How the New York Public Library come to be the curators of some of English literature's most famous toys has, over the years, been a sometimes acrimonious one, and I have no desire to revisit the debate. When I visited them, in their own glass case in the New York Public Library Children's Center, they had only recently returned, having been beautifully restored. I had seen earlier pictures of the toys, and the patchwork nature of earlier restoration was all too painfully apparent. Now, the toys look like themselves, by which I mean that they look like the illustrations by EH Shepard (with the exception of Pooh, whose fictional likeness was based on Growler, the teddy bear owned by Shepard's own young son Graham), and my heart filled with joy at being in their presence.

My favourite of the animals from the stores was always Eeyore, the eternally pessimistic, gloomy grey donkey. My affection for him might be down to a beautiful audiobook of the stories that I owned as a child, read by Lionel Jeffries. Jeffries gave Eeyore a lugubrious baratone voice of noble desolation, making the donkey sound like a long-suffering yet ultimately self-aware observer of the actions of the other animals. In New York, I was delightfully surprised to discover that Eeyore, the real physical Eeyore, actually has a smile on his face. This is not immediately obvious, because of the downward tilt of his head, which doubtlessly suggests dejection, but if you peek up at him, you will find that, underneath it all, Eeyore is actually happy. This made me happier still.

Before I left New York, I visited the toys one more time, to bid them farewell. I feel pleased that I got to meet them, and that they are in the hands of people who have treated them to the very best of care, bringing them back to life, so they can be adored by more generations of fans.

Friday, 28 April 2017

Concen-Tate


Many years ago, I watched as an abandoned power station in the middle of London was transformed into the Tate Modern, a shiny new gallery of contemporary art. For several consecutive summers towards the end of the 1990s, I was working practically next door, and year by year I could see the immense changes that were taking place both within and outside the enormous old brick building, as it transitioned from one use to another. At the time, it was the most obvious, but by no means the first, act of regeneration along the Southbank, and on this stretch of Bankside in general. The original building, constructed in two stages between 1947 and 1963, was designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, famously the architect of several other British design icons, such as the red phone box and the Battersea Power Station, and its revamp was designed by Herzog & de Meuron.

There used to be enormous earth bunds between the building and the river, which in the summer served as miniature amphitheatres, in which outdoor Shakespeare performances were held. These earthworks were eventually removed, to make way for grass lawns, which inevitably could not stand up to the enormous use of the gallery visitors, quickly becoming scrubby mud patches. The Tate Modern development followed the opening of Shakespeare's Globe and, at around the same time, the Millennium Bridge across the Thames was constructed. The Tate Modern opened on 11 May 2000, the old chimney initially topped with a light-box, which changed colour.

The Millennium  Bridge opened on 10 June 2000, but closed again for modifications on 12 June 2000, owing to its now infamous "wobbliness", caused by a resonant structural response. After remedial works to install motion dampers, to stop the sway caused by pedestrians, it finally reopened on 22 February 2002. To this day, some people who are unfamiliar with London, and who want to make a snide point about modern architecture, seem to like to refer to it as the "wobbly bridge", despite the fact that it has not had a significant recurrence of its initial design flaw since reopening.

Looking back, on a period of time that is now almost 20 years ago, it is hard not to feel a little nostalgic for the sense of optimism and forward thinking. I remember many happy times spent in the Founders Arms pub, a glass box on the edge of the river, which was also extended at around the same time, but all things change, and time moves on. For the Tate Modern, the most recent example of this is the "Switch House" extension, which has now opened behind the original power station building (again designed by Herzog & de Meuron), from whose viewing gallery one can have, for free, one of the best views of London.

Now, sitting in the Member's Room, on the eighth floor of the new extension, I'm feeling nostalgic, but looking out at a view of the Thames and across to the West End that would have been completely impossible twenty years ago. Despite its changes, this stretch of Bankside remains one of my favourite parts of London, even if I no longer feel that I belong to it, or it to me, quite as much as half a lifetime ago.

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.