In Search of Shingle Street

A couple of years ago whilst in a bookshop in Aldeburgh, I saw a black and white postcard of a row of coastguard cottages called simply “Shingle Street”. It looked a desolate and mysterious place and one I simply had to try to find…

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The moody black and white postcard of the mysterious Shingle Street

I asked the shopkeeper where Shingle Street was …together we checked an OS map and found it marked just south of Orford.


Tranquil waters of the river Ore at Orford Quay

I like a quest and so set off driving through the Rendlesham Forest, an area full of mysterious happenings and reports of UFO sightings…

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Spooky forest!

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A helpful sign for flying saucers!

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No little green men encountered today!

…and through narrow country lanes and past the HM Prison Hollesley Bay whose notable former “residents” include Jeffrey Archer and Andy Coulson! The prison is still known locally and indeed signposted as Hollesley Bay Colony and once it had the largest prison farm in the British prison system and the oldest established stud for the Suffolk Punch horse in the world. Today only a small landholding remains and the horses were sold to the Suffolk Punch Trust who maintain this rare breed locally.

Arriving at Shingle Street in the late afternoon the sun was shining and the beach was the colour of golden honey set off by sky and sea of the deepest blue…


This small coastal hamlet was originally a home for fishermen and river pilots from the nearby River Ore. Today the row of coastguard cottages that featured on the postcard, still stand overlooking the beach, some of them now holiday rental cottages.


The first habitation of Shingle Street occurred in the early 1800s at the time that the Martello Towers were built along this part of the Suffolk coast. The houses were built by fishermen from driftwood in this isolated community which had no roads only a track along the coast towards Bawdsey.

Shingle Street is certainly a remote and atmospheric place and one shrouded in mystery and rumours…


In May 1940 the civilian population of the hamlet were given a few days notice to evacuate their homes on government orders in preparation for the construction of coastal defences which would include deadly minefields. Following the war, stories began to circulate about strange happenings that had allegedly happened at Shingle Street including sea defences made from pipes filled with flammable liquids, burnt bodies washing ashore and even a story of a failed German invasion!

Rumours and speculation were so rife that in 1992, after press publicity, questions were raised in the House of Commons and classified wartime official documents were approved for early release.. they disclosed no mention of an attempted invasion. The rumours and conspiracy theories rumble on today and have been the subject of speculative books and TV programmes. What is known was that the pub, the Lifeboat Inn and some of the buildings were damaged by the RAF as they were used as targets for experimental bombing.

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The Lifeboat Inn (the two storey building on the left) 


The beach at Shingle Street is listed as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) for its flora and fauna and as I walked across the shingle towards the sea I passed by clumps of yellow horned poppy, sea kale and mallow clinging on to the pebbles for survival.


The tides and the fast currents on this part of the coast have sculpted the pebbles into remarkable curves

Turning back towards the coastguard cottages, I noticed a white line amongst the shingle…


…on closer inspection it was a line of shells, mainly bleached white whelk shells, running in a line from the sea to the houses!

Occasionally the line was punctuated by a circle…


or heart shape…!


This beautiful and unusual hand made shell line ran for some 200 yards! I met a couple who were as intrigued as I was and we discussed what its origin was and why it was there. A lady walking her dog passed by and we asked if she knew why it was there and who had made it. She replied that she thought it was “pointless and hadn’t people got anything better to do with their time?” We thought it was wonderful and marvelled at the time and creativity that had gone into arranging it.  In fact we added to it and replaced a few shells which had got blown out of line by the wind or by errant walkers or excited dogs!

After some research I later managed to find out the story behind the shell line.

In 2005 two women Els Bottema and Lida Kindersley who had been childhood friends spent a week at Shingle Street as they had both been through a year of serious illness.


On their first walk along the beach they picked up some white shells and sitting down to rest, they arranged them around a plant. From that day, on each daily walk they added more shells to the growing line and it became a symbol of their slow day by day and shell by shell recovery from their illnesses. The line gradually grew from the sea’s edge to the coastguard house.

Twice a year Els, a ceramicist based in Holland and Lida, a letter cutter at the Kindersley Workshop in Cambridge, spend a week at Shingle Street repairing the line and note that other people have added to it in their absence. A wonderful story about a wonderfully creative piece of land art!

With dusk falling I returned to the car parked near the Martello Tower which is also now  holiday rental property albeit an unusual one!

Another day I will return to walk further down the coast to discover more Martello Towers, and admire this area of unspoilt wilderness and hopefully fulfill another “quest”…to find Bawdsey Harbour… a picture of which I had seen in a holiday brochure.

So in the best story telling tradition…to be continued..!









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Arun to Adur…a walk along the south coast

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You might be forgiven for thinking that this sunny beach photograph was taken in some exotic location abroad, it is in fact on the south coast of England, in West Sussex and to be more precise, it is the beach at Worthing!

Worthing has had its fair share of bad press in the past and was often dubbed “God’s Waiting Room” due to the number of its elderly residents. More recently the town even got a mention at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year show in a self deprecating joke made by the winner Andy Murray when he said he was as “dull as a wet weekend in Worthing”! The town’s official epithet is actually “Sunny Worthing”!


A windy but sunny weekend in Worthing!

We stay with friends in Worthing several times a year, and whilst it has its fair share of elderly residents it is an attractive seaside town which is definitely becoming more hip and less hip replacement!

Brighton some 15 miles to the east has become “London on Sea” but with its property prices booming in recent years, people have begun to head westwards along the coast in search of places to live.

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Brighton and Hove in the distance

Worthing with its wealth of regency properties and its fast regular train services into London, is fast becoming a popular and a much sought after town in which to live, a fact picked up by The Guardian which listed Worthing as now being the 10th most unaffordable place to buy property in England!

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From the Regency bow fronted grand residences of Liverpool Terrace…

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…to the houses with flint knapped walls popular in Sussex

Looking more closely at Worthing and its near neighbours along the coastline reveal some unusual surprises! Tomatoes, literary greats, pioneers of cinema and flight all feature in this area’s past!  All will be revealed on this journey…


Worthing whilst having all the usual high street shops has some interesting independent retailers. It also has a Pizza restaurant in a place where Jane Austen lodged!

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It is thought that she stayed at Stanford Cottage during the autumn of 1805 and  that she found inspiration for some of the scenes and characters for her novel Sanditon whilst staying in the town.

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A mural inside the restaurant reminds diners that Jane was here! I wonder if she had a favourite table..?

Another writer attracted to Worthing was Harold Pinter whose first wife Vivien Merchant lived in Ambrose Place and this was where Pinter wrote The Homecoming in the 1960’s.

Oscar Wilde was here too! In the summer of 1894 he wrote The Importance of Being Earnest whilst staying in a turreted late Victorian villa called Esplanade House.

DSCF3671 copyAlthough Esplanade House has long since gone, a blue plaque marks the site on a block of flats.

Percy Bysshe Shelley was also a visitor, another blue plaque marks the spot where two of his earliest works including The Necessity of Atheism were printed.


(c) Worthing Museum and Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

(c) Worthing Museum and Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

“Shelley and Miss Philips at Warwick Street Printery” by Charles Alfred Morris now hangs in Worthing Art Gallery


Every seaside resort needs a pier but unfortunately many of these beautiful structures are falling into disrepair. Worthing Pier however is looking good today and it is a great place for a sunny stroll or a very bracing walk, depending on the weather!

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At 960 feet in length it was designed by Sir Robert Rawlinson; opening in 1862 it was the thirteenth pier to be built in Britain. Successful from the start, the pier had a pavilion built at the southern end and a landing stage for paddle steamers the best known of which was the Worthing Belle which regularly ran trips to Brighton.


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View from the southern end of the pier

Disaster struck on Easter Monday in 1913 when strong gales battered the pier and washed away the boardwalk leaving the pavilion stranded at the southern end. Repaired and reopened again by 1914, it was hit by a further disaster in 1933 when fire destroyed much of the pavilion. Once again it was repaired and refurbished with an amusement arcade, and a windshield running the entire length of the pier added. I can personally vouch for the effectiveness of this glass shield on a windy day!

When war broke out in 1939 bringing with it the risk of possible invasion, in 1940 a 120 foot hole was deliberately blown in the pier’s decking to hinder an enemy attack. Repaired again after the war, it reopened in 1949 and is still popular today with a northern pavilion now the Pavilion theatre.

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Southern Pavilion note the glazed windshield on the left.

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Restored again a couple of years ago, there are some lovely Art Deco touches and a good cafe too in the southern pavilion!

The pier is also the venue for the “Worthing Birdman” a competition which involves human “birdmen or women” attempting to fly off the end of the pier into the sea for prize money! It first began in the 1970’s in Selsey but has since relocated to Bognor before moving to Worthing.

The Birdman, involves running off a 20 to 35 foot high elevated ramp at the southern end of the pier and attempting to “fly” the furthest distance. Divided into different classes including fancy dress, past winners have been the Pope, a squirrel, a skateboarding cow, and a naked man named John!


A hopeful competitor!

Over the road from the pier is an unusual building…The Dome. It is a unique example of an Edwardian style of leisure centre which offered many forms of entertainment all under one roof. Known as a Kursaal it was renamed the Dome at the start of the First World War because of the anti German feeling which prevailed at the time.


In its early days it had a dance floor and a roller rink and upstairs an Electric Theatre showing “the moving pictures”…Worthing was the first town in West Sussex where audiences paid to see films! The town’s first cinema venue was the Winter Hall, converted from a chapel, where films were shown from 1906 and for the price of 3d you could watch a romance, western or a documentary. The Kursaal’s new Electric Theatre opened in 1911 and for 9d you could watch the latest films in a comfortable upholstered tip up armchair!

The Dome remained open for film shows throughout WWI, and it was remodelled in 1921 with the ground floor transformed into a “luxurious picture house” with a grand staircase and ornamental panelling. Upstairs the Electric Theatre was converted to the Kings Ballroom with the fitting of a sprung dance floor.


The ornate foyer of the Dome today

The 1920’s were the Dome’s golden years but during the 1930’s and the following years  4 other cinemas had opened up and the Dome was forced through competition to show second run films and at cheaper prices. By 1987 the Dome was the only purpose built cinema in town the others having burnt down or been demolished and the town council took over the freehold.


The old projector today sits in the aptly named “Projectionists Bar!”

After years of different usages, and the threat of demolition, the Dome finally passed into the ownership of a Trust which still operates it today, showing all the latest films in two cinemas within the ornate and now Grade II listed building.

Along Marine Parade facing the sea stands a newly built apartment block in Art Deco style, on the site of the once famous Warnes Hotel built by George Warne in 1899.


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A blue plaque marks the first hotel garage!

In its heyday Warnes was the premier hotel in town and was patronised by the rich and famous among them King Edward VII, King George V, Winston Churchill and General Eisenhower. One surprising visitor was Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia. The Lion of Judah stayed for several months at Warnes in 1936 following his country’s defeat at the hands of Fascist Italy, before spending the next years of exile in Bath. The hotel closed in 1985  and finally burnt down in 1987.


Where would we be without Blue Plaques telling us about local history? 

Promenading along the seafront has always been a popular seaside pastime and if you turn and walk eastwards you can walk along the coastline until you reach Shoreham where the River Adur enters the sea. Heading west, you can walk the coastline until you reach   Littlehampton where the River Arun enters the sea.

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A helpful sign explains the history of promenading! I like the metal fish atop the sign!

The fish forms part of Worthing’s coat of arms along with a cornucopia. Together with its wavy blue sea, the emblem represents the three main industries of the town, fishing seaside tourism and market gardening.


The motto: “Ex terra copiam e mari salutem” is Latin for “From the land plenty and from the sea health”

Behind Worthing lie the South Downs giving the town protection from the cold northerly winds. Its climate and fertile soil were major factors in the development of the town’s market garden and glasshouse industry.

By the early 1890’s some 600 tons of fruit left Worthing each year, much of it bound for the markets in the Northern towns of Leeds, Birmingham. Manchester and Glasgow as well as Brighton and London.

Grapes, mushrooms, strawberries, melons, cucumbers and other vegetables were all grown in Worthing glasshouses which by 1904 covered some 81 acres. By 1904 there were 82 fruit growers and four special fruit trains left each week from Worthing station.


Hot house table grape production near Worthing. Much of the crops were destined for the Paris markets until protective export tariffs greatly reduced the price.

West Worthing station was built in the hope of attracting holidaymakers from the Midlands using a line that unfortunately was never built, but it had a large sidings which were opened for fruit traffic. During the First World War the growing of exotic fare was replaced with the growing of tomatoes and salad crops and by the time of the Second World War, tomatoes were the main crop. Many glasshouses moved outside of Worthing  where they still continue today.

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A view of Grand Avenue in 1927 leading from West Worthing station, showing the extensive glasshouses now gone and replaced by housing.

Our friends live just off Grand Avenue, which as its name suggests is quite grand, with its elegant wide road punctuated with wonderful mature pines and Holm Oaks

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Grand Avenue West Worthing today with its sculptural Corsican or Black Pine trees

A short walk down Grand Avenue and across the road the English Channel greets you!

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Lets walk the coast…firstly westwards… towards the small town of Littlehampton…

The seafront promenade behind the beach huts is wide, flat and cyclist friendly, but I like to walk along the shingle strand line.Being a beachcomber at heart, I can always find something of interest perhaps a shell, a piece of sea washed glass, an unusually shaped piece of flint or maybe even a fossil!

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I have seen these unusual concrete pillars along the top of the beach, placed at regular intervals, I think they may be some kind of marker used as a baseline for measuring coastal erosion, but I am not entirely sure…

Further along the coast you reach Goring, a small settlement which allegedly gave its name to Lord Goring one of Oscar Wilde’s characters in his play An Ideal Husband. It is also oddly home to a church with an unusual ceiling on which is a copy of the ceiling of the Sistine chapel! I have yet to visit the church to see this for myself!

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Goring is often known as Goring-by-Sea to differentiate it from its namesake in Oxfordshire, Goring-on-Thames and a little known fact about this settlement is that Pete Townshend of the Who recorded the sounds of the sea at Goring beach for inclusion on the classic rock album “Quadrophenia”!

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After the large grassy stretch of land backed by holm oaks, Ferring is the next port of call.

At Ferring brightly painted beach huts line the shore and there is a super little cafe, The Bluebird,  that we often visit when walking along here. After Ferring heading westwards lie the highly desirable residential areas of East Preston and Angmering, derived from the Saxon, meaning the people of “Angenmaer”, before reaching Rustington.

During WWI Rustington was home to an American air base and it is also notable for two air speed records.


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Air speed record location

Group Captain Teddy Donaldson flying a Gloster Meteor Star was the first man to exceed 1,000 km/h on 7th September 1946. This record was broken on 7th September 1953 by Squadron Leader Neville Duke flying a Hawker Hunter at a speed of 1170.9 km/h.

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A plaque makes the spot

On towards Lttlehampton… home to a unique cafe and Britain’s longest bench!

Thomas Heatherwick is one of my favourite designers. From his sculpture…


“B of the Bang” that was commissioned to mark the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester…

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…to his rolling footbridge in Paddington Basin…...

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…and more recently for the Olympic Cauldron for London 2012, his work never ceases to inspire me.

In Littlehampton Heatherwick designed an unusual cafe…

Opened in 2007, the East Beach Cafe is quite unique with its rusted metal exterior which seems to grow organically out of the beach.

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East Beach Cafe

The entire metal structure was fabricated in Littlehampton by just two men. Its raw weathered tough exterior made of four separate pieces of mild steel, rusted and coated in oil is well fitted to cope with the demands of the seaside location. The inside was sprayed with rigid insulating foam. Not only is it a great piece of architecture is also a great eating place too.

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Endways on, it always reminds me of toast in a rack!

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Inside is like a white cave…and is cosy whatever the weather!

Just along from the cafe there is another curious feature… Britain’s longest bench!

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Yes it is official!

At 324 metres long the bench begins in a metal shelter and from there it twists and winds its way along the seafront promenade until it ends in another metal shelter near the bandstand.

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Made from some 9,000 reclaimed hardwood slats the bench dips in and out of the ground…

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and snakes around lamp posts!

The bench was inspired by many different ideas including one from a local junior school whose pupils wanted a place where they could all sit together. Studio Weave the architects designed the bench and some of the slats have personalised messages from the public including one inscribed as a marriage proposal!

DSCF2197 copySome of the slats are pastel coloured adding to the seaside theme and echoing the beach huts further along the coast

The seafront promenade ends where the River Arun meets the sea at the harbour, but just inland across the wide green lawns is a small street with a local grocery shop with an unusual claim to fame. The late British comic actor, Ronnie Barker used to live around the corner from this small shop and it was apparently the inspiration for his programme “Open all Hours”

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As the sign in the window testifies! Also around the corner is Granville Road…perhaps also the inspiration of  David Jason’s characters name..?

At the harbour and the River Arun, my journey westwards ends…now back to Worthing to head along the coast in the opposite direction, eastwards…to the River Adur

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On a calm sunny day the sea can look quite tropical…it can also be a wild and windy place too…

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Worthing beaches today are clean and the ozone filled air feels positively healthy…it apparently wasn’t always the case! On the beach near the pier is an information board describing the menace of Worthing’s seaweed..!

About 5 miles off Worthing’s coast there is a range of underwater chalk cliffs called the “Worthing Lumps” with some at 10 feet high, they are one of the best examples of undersea chalk cliffs and are designated a Marine Site of Nature Conservation. In addition there is a large seaweed zone which is believed to be responsible for the towns marine menace!

Excessive seaweed deposits began piling up on the beach in the Victorian period but whilst many old postcards show families enjoying the beach surrounded by it, others complained of the smells when it began to decompose. Along with primitive sewage methods and the discarded fish guts left by the local fishermen, it wasn’t the attractive seaside venue that the town was trying to promote!

Even fifty years ago if you had walked along the beach you would have been confronted with piles of seaweed up to 8 or 9 feet high, full of pesky flies which would infest the town and began to affect the values of seafront properties.


Bulldozers tackle the seaweed menace near the pier!

Many methods were tried over the years to rid the town of its smelly menace. In the 1930’s the council encouraged farmers to cart it way for use as a fertiliser but then began charging them 12 shillings and 6 pence a load, so that effort soon fizzled out! Later attempts were to try to bulldoze it out to sea, transporting it along the beach and dumping it close to the boundary with Lancing in the hope that the tides there would help wash it way. That didn’t work and the Lancing residents weren’t too happy either!

Somehow the tide turned (no pun intended) and the town today is virtually free of its  unwelcome marine visitor although I understand that the Town Council monitors the situation on a daily basis…


I pass some more unusual seating along the seafront heading eastwards…

IMG_0934I hope that the tide hadn’t washed these large pebbles in! 

Leaving the town behind, the promenade continues towards the small village of Lancing. I have already mentioned that Oscar Wilde wrote The Importance of Being Earnest whilst staying in Worthing, however the play’s working title was “Lady Lancing”.

The shingle beach has a few remaining boats from Worthing’s once thriving in shore fishing fleet, and on certain days you can buy their catch straight from the fisherman.

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Lancing College is an independent school which lies some way inland on the other side of the A27, but it is worthy of inclusion as its chapel is visible from not only the coast but for miles around. Built in the English Gothic style of the 14th century it was actually built in 1868. It is an impressive looking place.


Lancing College Chapel 

Past alumni of the school include the novelists Tom Sharpe, Evelyn Waugh and lyricist Tim Rice.

The coastal village of Lancing became a popular seaside resort in the mid 19th century with the gentry favouring its secluded atmosphere. The coast road is still today lined with guest houses.

After passing by more beach huts and chalets, an unusual wetland area is reached…

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Widewater Lagoon is a landlocked brackish lagoon with special nature conservation status

Hidden from the road by houses, the lagoon is best seen from the raised seafront path. This saline environment is an ideal home or a stopping off point for a wide diversity of birds and other wildlife. On the day I visited, the lagoon was full of colourful plants and flowers that thrive in this salty, shingle landscape, and the pools were full of birdlife, I saw oystercatchers, swans, herons and a couple of Little Egrets were a bonus!

It is hard to discern when Lancing ends and Shoreham or Shoreham-by-Sea as it is sometimes known, begins. Dating back to pre Roman times the town’s name is of Old English origin and the port and town were established towards the end of the 11th Century by the Normans. With the growth of nearby Brighton, Hove and Worthing and the arrival of the railways, Shoreham grew as a Victorian sea port and still today has several shipyards in commercial operation.

Shoreham beach is a shingle spit built up over many millennia by longshore drift and  the mouth of the River Adur has moved over the centuries. The river’s mouth was defined by Shoreham Fort or Redoubt built in 1857 to defend the town from the possible threat of French invasion.


An aerial view of the fort

Some fort terminology is called for here! The fort’s ground plan is that of a “lunette”, a type of rectangular half moon with earthen ramparts on which guns were mounted. The rear part comprised a defensible barrack block and it is surrounded by a ditch which carried a “Carnot” wall along the bottom. At its three corners are covered bastions or passageways called “Caponiers” which can be accessed from within the fort whilst still being under cover from fire.

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The earthern ramparts with Carnot wall are still reasonably intact

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The covered bastion or Caponier

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The fort was used for a period of some 49 years and again was utilized during WWII with a battery of six inch guns. Their concrete emplacements are all that remain today.

During 1913 Shoreham fort took on a different role…it became a film studio! Early cinema pioneers were not unusual in this area, as in 1898 an American, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson had arrived in Worthing and shot several short films of typical seaside scenes with his magic “Black Box” camera.

A scenic artist, Francis Lyndhurst (and incidentally, grandfather to actor Nicholas Lyndhurst, probably best known as Rodney in “Only Fools and Horses”), brought his film company Sunny South Films, to Shoreham. Utilising the pure smog free air and the clear quality of the light, the fort was the ideal location and in addition the high walls and ramparts cut down wind on the canvas backdrops and it was secure to keep people out.


The film studio inside the fort

The first film made by Lyndhurst’s company was called “A Showman’s Dream” and starred Will Evans, a music hall star and local Shoreham beach resident. Many film staff rented bungalows along the beach front and along Old Fort Road and this area soon attracted music hall stars and others in the industry. The area became known as “Bungalow Town” and in addition to the houses, many redundant railway carriages from the nearby Lancing railway carriage works were sold off and dragged across the river to be located along the beach to house this new community.




Hauling a railway carriage to its new home in Shoreham

In 1915 with the growing confidence in movie making, Lyndhurst launched a grander enterprise along the beach called Sealight Film Productions and a glasshouse studio was built in 1916.


The Glasshouse studios operated using only artificial light as electricity was not available!

The Great War intervened and also financial difficulties hit Lyndhurst’s studios.  Filming began again at the glasshouse in 1920 with the arrival of the Progress Film Company under producer Sidney Morgan, who produced the first film of Little Dorrit.

Last year the town was again back in use as a film location for a BBC series “Cuffs” which used the beach and part of the Civic Centre to stage their police drama.

Another Shoreham landmark is the airport, also a popular film location for period dramas such as Poirot. Officially known as Brighton City Airport, the terminal building is a must see place for fans of Art Deco with its original 1930s styled interiors and white concrete facade…it also has a great restaurant “The Hummingbird” which is open to all!


The flying ground was established in 1910 and in July 1911 it was the starting point for the first recorded cargo flight, when a monoplane flew a box of Osram light bulbs to nearby Hove! By 1914 the Royal Flying Corps had arrived at Shoreham and following the war, the land had reverted back to its former use as grazing land.

In 1925 the airfield was home to the Gnat Aero Company and by 1930 the municipal authorities of Brighton, Hove and Worthing formed a joint committee to establish Shoreham as the airport for the three towns.

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The plaque marks the opening of the airport…

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…whilst a Sepecat Jaguar aircraft guards its gate!

The aircraft sadly no longer flies, but I must, and so head back to Worthing…

Thank you for accompanying me on this coastal ramble of about 12 or so miles along this fascinating stretch of the West Sussex coastline. If you are ever in this area don’t forget to visit Worthing and its environs…it’s well worth it!












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A Blogger’s Year

It is that post Christmas/pre New Year time for reflection, a chance to look back over my blogs from the last twelve months and to begin to think about next year’s posts…

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It has a been a full year and I have visited lot of places, some old, some new, some great gardens, interesting houses, galleries and museums.


Coleton Fishacre in Devon is an old favourite of mine!


Poppies at Garden House Buckland Monochorum Devon


Curvaceous walls at the Garden House

I have walked for miles along the Thames path and through the streets of London and found history lurking around every corner.


Deserted street in the City


Unusual angles…the Shard and Southwark Cathedral

I have walked in the countryside and have found quaint sleepy villages, had the privilege of seeing some great views and of savouring some spectacular scenery.


Herefordshire countryside in Spring


Walking up on the South Downs 

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Sussex woodland floor; a carpet of bluebells


Still waters in Suffolk 

I have found the quirky and surreal in the commonplace…I have so much to write about and share with you all!


An unusual hanging basket outside a Cornish fire station!


Sussex flint walls with added false teeth!


Bespectacled gargoyle! Chichester Cathedral 

So to 2016…I think my first post next year will feature the Big Pit at Blaenafon in Wales. Given that Kellingley Colliery in Yorkshire, England’s last working deep coal mine closed for ever last week, it seems appropriate and a fitting epitaph to this once great industry, now lost forever.

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The Big Pit Blaenafon Wales

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I visit friends in West Worthing quite often and I have accumulated so many photographs of this part of Sussex that it seems time to put them together, so that may be my second post of 2016…

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Windy seafront Worthing

I have a long overdue walk to write about…North Greenwich to Shad Thames…that was quite a walk but one packed full of interest at every turn!

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The Dome from the Emirates Air Line

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St Peter the great statue at Deptford creek

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Limehouse from the South Bank…spot the Gormley figure walking on water!

Last September I was again in Southwold for a week’s holiday and my visits to Suffolk will be the subject of future blogs, including one on the Napoleonic Martello Towers which are a feature of the coastline.


Southwold Panorama


Martello Tower Suffolk

Also a trip to the coastal village of Bardsey will feature with its strange man made Pulhamite cliff gardens.



I may write a piece on the sculptures of Antony Gormley, as this year I encountered two of his figures which were commissioned to celebrate 50 Years of the Landmark Trust.


I have still not written about the Nicholas Hawksmoor churches in London, nor about Postmans Park and George Watts…so perhaps these will finally get written, plus of course a few others from places I plan to visit…

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Hawksmoor’s smallest and only City church, St Mary Woolnoth


A quiet corner of Postmans Park

I have posted some 16 blogs this year and I have received some great comments not only from family and friends, but also from complete strangers from around the world. I am touched that these people have come across my words and images online and have been kind enough to take a moment to connect with me.

My blogs have also put me in touch with other bloggers who now regularly correspond with me. Some of my new, virtual friends include…

Dan the very knowledgable and helpful Frustrated Gardener who gardens in London and Kent

David of A London Inheritance who revisits the places from his father’s archive photos and brings them up to date

Isobel a London Blue Badge tourist guide and owner of an adorable ginger cat called Master Bosun who has his own Instagram presence!

Vivienne who explores the beauty in the flora and fauna of her local patch in North London

The enigma that is TheLadyTravels with her expert eye for the quirky and surreal

As a result of my writing this year it has also been my good fortune  to meet The Gentle Author of Spitalfields Life  at the Hands Around Norton Folgate event in July.


I also met the talented artist Paul Bommer whose exhibition I visited in the Autumn and whose Huguenot tiled wall plaque was unveiled in Hanbury Street this year.


At the Spitalfields Open Gardens event I met Nigel the expert behind The Spitalfields Gardener

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Finally last month I met up with Candy the chronicler of Bradshaw’s London and gardener extraordinaire! and at the Sky Garden 20 Fenchurch Street.


Now I have written my new year  “to do” list, the enormity of actually writing, researching and compiling these articles dawns…! I wish I could write a quick blog but I can’t, but I will begin the journey soon and hope that you will join me for the ride…


In the meantime, a Very Happy New Year to you all.

Posted in 20 Fenchurch Street London, Architecture, Huguenots, London, London Gardens, Paul Bommer, Sky Garden, Spitalfields, Spitalfields Gardens, Suffolk, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 15 Comments

Sky Garden

On a cold and decidedly windy grey November afternoon, we made our way to the City to meet up with a fellow blogger and her husband to visit the new “Sky Garden” at the top of one of London’s latest sky scraping office blocks.


The northern elevation of my target as seen from Bishopsgate


The old and the new…


20 Fenchurch Street is the real name of the office block but as is usual with London skyscrapers it has a nickname…in this case the “walkie-talkie  building”… which describes it unusual shape.

With its uppermost floors bulging out, like a filing cabinet with the top drawers slightly open, it is an odd sight when looking up at them from below. This top heavy design was in part intended to maximise floor space on the upper levels where rental costs are higher and views are better than lower down.



Designed by Uruguayan architect Rafael Vinoly, the building is 160 metres or 525 feet high, and currently is the fifth tallest building in the city of London, after Heron Tower, The Cheesegrater, Tower 42 and the Gherkin.

Opening in Spring 2015, the building soon had its nickname revised to the “walkie-scorchie” when it was found that reflective beams of light from its facade had begun to melt cars parked in nearby streets! Vertical fins were swiftly affixed to the building to rectify this issue.

20 Fenchurch Street continues to attract controversy culminating in the award of the Carbuncle Cup for 2015! This tongue in cheek alternative to the Stirling Prize is awarded annually by Building Design magazine to the ugliest building in the UK completed in the last year.


Close up of the facade


The entrance to the sky garden is on Philpot Lane and a huge green wall lines the access steps.IMG_0935

The Guild church of St Margaret Pattens close by 20 Fenchurch Street looks tiny compared to its new neighbour!

This is yet another City church destroyed in the Great Fire and rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren and is notable for its 200 foot spire often referred to as Wren’s only true spire, designed in a medieval style. The Church ceased to be a parish church in the 1950’s and became one of the City’s Guild Churches, its name referring to the livery company the Worshipful Company of Pattenmakers. Pattens were wooden soled overshoes later soled with raised iron rings that enabled people to walk around London without muddying their feet!

On to the Sky Garden…remarkably public access is free and timed tickets must be booked in advance online a few weeks before your intended visit.

Once inside you can stay as long as you like, and there is a coffee shop and cocktail bar and comfy sofas with pink blankets…it just gets better!


I had our tickets at the ready and we went through all the usual airport style searches before entering the lift and pressing the button for floor 35. The lift was very smooth, silent and speedy, but my ears popped at about floor 25!

On exiting the lift and turning right across the concourse I was drawn towards the viewing platform and unusually for me, I was lost for words! Whilst I knew that the views would be good, nothing had quite prepared me for the 360 degree views out over the city. The outside deck was cantilevered out and you could seen directly below into the Lilliputian world of the Great Wen!


Panoramic Views



The first thing that drew my eye was the Shard…visible in most parts of London and standing at 309.6 metres or 1,016 feet high that isn’t really surprising! Currently the 87th tallest building in the world, at the time of its completion it was the tallest habitable building in the European Union.


Renzo Piano’s neo-futurist glass Shard

My eye was then drawn to try to pick out key landmarks…


The diminutive HMS Belfast wouldn’t be out of place in a bath tub!


The Tower of London like a child’s fort!


Canary Wharf in the distance and the curve of the river


Wren’s Monument overshadowed by a red crane.

Having visited the Monument… the views from the sky garden are much better and you don’t have to climb a narrow winding staircase of 311 steps and back down! However you don’t get a certificate!


Looking west…St Pauls and the Old Bailey with One New Change in the foreground


Looking east along the outdoor viewing deck and a tiny Tower Bridge


Looking down onto roof tops and into familiar streets


The BT or Post Office Tower in the distance. London’s tallest building at 177 metres high when it was completed in 1964


Tate Modern the former Bankside Power Station designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott and five river bridges

We climbed the stairs to view the garden.

The Sky Garden is marketed as the “Capital’s highest public garden”and was designed by the landscapers Gillespies. My blogging friend, also a keen gardener, and I discussed the planting which given the fact that it was completed only in January was already quite established.


The stairs rise up alongside themed planting borders reminiscent of a mountain slope. The plants seemed to be mainly mediterranean species with lavenders and rosemary edging the steps. Some Echiums native of the Canary Islands will be quite spectacular when they produce flower heads several feet high and the Strelizia plants or bird of paradise were already in flower.


Higher up the stairs the planting took on a more South African theme with Agapanthus and Kniphofia and higher still the planting was predominantly fig trees, tree ferns and cycads.


Little seating areas surrounded by greenery created welcome private enclaves within this huge public space


Jurassic park…perhaps the highest tree ferns in London

Looking west we noticed some of the city’s other roof gardens…


The Coq d’Argent restaurant and garden on the top of N0 1 Poultry, with its distinctive pink and yellow limestone clad building


The elegant parterres on the roof of Rothschild’s HQ


The roof garden atop Cannon Street Railway Building

Now on the final top floor the views from the windows looked northwards.


Tower 42, The Cheesegrater and the Gherkin all in a row looking at this new neighbour.

My regular readers will know that I am very fond of Spitalfields and it was remarkable to be able to see Hawksmoor’s Christ Church on the corner of Fournier Street and Commercial Street in the distance!


Ten past three by the Christ Church clock…and the Town House Gallery with its lights shining on a grey afternoon…a bit late for tea according to Rupert Brooke so we settled for a cup of coffee instead!


Coming back down the stairs on the eastern side to the coffee shop with the best view in London!





Dusk approaches across the city



Posted in 20 Fenchurch Street London, Architecture, London, Plants, Sir Christopher Wren, Sky Garden, Spitalfields | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 15 Comments

Round and Round the Gherkin

The purpose of my visit today was to visit an exhibition at the Town House in Fournier Street, but as it was a beautifully warm sunny October day, I decided to check out a few places on my to do list whilst in the City before heading off to Spitalfields.


My exhibition invitation

Making my way from St Paul’s tube station, I went in search of the garden of a church which I had recently read about in the Londonist. The Church of St Vedast-alias-Foster can be found in Foster Lane, but a stones throw away from its considerably bigger brother St Paul’s. Partially damaged in the Great Fire of 1666 St Vedast was rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren with some help from Nicholas Hawksmoor. The church today is responsible for 13 other neighbouring parishes whose churches have been lost through fire, war or development.

The unusual name Vedast derives from a French saint and has been corrupted over time by way of Vastes, Fastes, Fauster to the Foster of today. Only one other church in Tathwell Lincolnshire is dedicated to him in this country.

I assumed the church and its gardens would be open today it being a Sunday, but on arrival the noticeboard informed me otherwise! Oh well another time perhaps…

I decided to stroll down Cheapside and as I passed by St Mary Le Bow its famous “oranges and lemons” bells were pealing. I turned up King Street to call into the Guildhall which was looking stunning on this sunny morning…


On reaching the door I found it seemed to be locked in spite of the sign clearly stating it should be open! A couple of other would be visitors turned up and seemed surprised to be unable to gain entry and finally a security officer opened the door to inform the waiting crowd that there had been a power cut so the building was unable to open! First a closed church and now the Guildhall too!

My journey however was not wasted as I did manage to see the sculpture of Dick Whittington and his cat in one of the arches near the entrance. I wrote about cats of London in one of my earlier posts and hadn’t included this significant memorial to London’s most famous Lord Mayor and his legendary feline chum.


His cat is certainly very happy at his master’s feet!


On leaving the courtyard I couldn’t help but notice the curved arc of black bricks in the pavement which mark the line of the Roman amphitheatre which lies deep below the Guildhall.


Lost for centuries the original walls were rediscovered in 1988 by archaeologists working on the site of the Guildhall’s new art gallery .


Who would believe that below this art gallery lies a section of Roman London!


The remains of the Roman Amphitheatre


The site is now a protected monument and the remains are atmospherically displayed below the gallery and are well worth a visit.

Back down Lothbury and towards the Bank of England I headed. Sundays in the city are always wonderful with no crowds and little traffic, the downside is there aren’t too many coffee shops open either!

As I walked along Bishopsgate I noticed a large bell lying on the pavement…well actually two bells fused together in silence!


Bells II by Kris Martin  

Unfortunately whilst I thought I had photographed this sculpture, when returning home it appeared that somehow I hadn’t!  So both of the bell photos reproduced here are courtesy of my fellow blogger The LadyTravels

London Sculpture in the City 2015 Bells II Kris Martin, 99 Bishopgate, end

A closer look revealed that it was one of several pieces sited as part of the Sculpture in the City Trail.

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I decided to follow the trail!

Crossing over Bishopsgate I headed towards Leadenhall Street to find the two tall skinny cats dressed in human clothing pacing around their plinth!


Days of Judgement – Cats 1 & 2 by Laura Ford 


They seemed a bit worried or deep in thought…!

On towards Leadenhall Market… its name originating from the leaden roofed mansion of the Neville family where in the 14th century merchants sold butter and cheese.


The ornate entrance to the market today dates from 1881 and was designed by Sir Horace Jones who also designed Tower Bridge and Smithfield Market.

I had to look up to find the next sculpture.


Ghost by Adam Chodzko

Now suspended from the ornate roof trusses in the market, since 2010 this kayak has travelled along the River Medway in Kent, the River Tamar in Devon, through The Olympic Park, London, and along the Tyne in Newcastle.


I love the vibrant colours of the shop fronts and the market’s Victorian detailing 

Out of the market in search of the next sculpture I couldn’t help but notice this sham facade next to the Lloyds Building


The old and the new!

What is it about the Lloyds building that I find so fascinating? Every time I pass by this iconic building I can always find a different angle to photograph!



The Lloyds Building built between 1978 and 1986 was designed by Richard Rogers. It is sometimes known as the “inside-outside building” as all its service shafts, ducting and lifts are on the outside so as to to maximise the space within. A real example of out of the box thinking! A mere 25 years after its completion, it was the youngest building to achieve Grade I listed building status.


Also great reflections of it in the Willis office building opposite in Lime Street

Next to the front door of Lloyds in Lime Street, I found the next sculpture…


Old DNA by Folkert de Jong The Dutch artist created this from a 3D scan of a suit of armour belonging to Henry VIII

Well it was here that my sculpture search went a bit awry! The next sculpture I was looking for was Rays by Xavier Veilhan which according to the trail map was just nearby!  I walked around for ages searching for it and thought perhaps that the sculpture had been removed for repairs… either that or the sculpture was actually these shiny black benches around the Willis building!


Little did I realise that had I looked up to the top of the white post, I would have seen the sculpture, well above head height!

My thanks yet again to TheLadyTravels for her generosity in letting me reproduce her photos of this sculpture.


How could I have missed this..?

London Sculpture in the City 2015 Rays Xavier Veilhan Fenchurch Avenue, black and white

Rays (London) by Xavier Veilhan Both of the above two photos are courtesy of TheLadyTravels 

After my mystifying disappearing sculpture experience, and having negotiated my way through and round the nearby building works, I reached the next sculpture on the trail.


‘O my friends, there are no friends’ by Sigalit Landau

These pairs of bronze shoes tied together with ordinary laces were first shown at the Venice Biennale in 2011 and this is the first time that the work has been displayed in the UK.


These boots certainly aren’t made for walking!

DSCF8449The old and the new…St Helen’s Square on the corner of St Mary Axe

Next stop…30 St Mary Axe, previously known as the Swiss Re building, today it is fondly known as the The Gherkin. Designed by Norman Foster and completed in 2003, it is built on the site of the former site of the Baltic Exchange which was badly damaged in 1992 by an IRA bomb. Today it is as iconic a landmark as Tower Bridge and The Shard, and its distinctive shape means that it can be seen from some 20 miles away!

London 354 copy

Whilst the building is curved, strangely there is only one piece of curved glass in its construction and that is the lens at the top!

The sculpture trail listed 4 pieces around its base. The first one I found was the last sculpture to be installed and is enormous, by the famous Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.


Forever by Ai Weiwei

This grouping of stainless steel bikes refers to the “Forever ” brand of bicycles that have been mass produced since the 1940’s in Shanghai.


Some of the bike’s wheels also spun round!


DSCF8472Several people were walking around this installation and one man I spoke to said his brother had tried to count how many bikes there were! 


…how many bicycles in Beijing…not as many as there were perhaps..?

I could have spent ages photographing this sculpture but I had three more to find nearby…


Red Atlas by Ekkehard Altenburger  this sculpture leans gently against the wall held firm by its sheer weight!

Close by I found this most enchanting group! Despite their size these bronze sculptures have a very powerful prescence!


Carson, Emma, Takashi, Zezi and Nia by Tomoaki Suzuki

Lets meet them in turn!











Japanese artist Tomoaki Suzuki has created painstakingly detailed portraits of these diverse urban youths at about one third of their actual size!


From the trail map there appeared to be another sculpture at the base of the Gherkin…but could I find it? I walked round and round searching for it and also asked some passers by clutching clipboards if they knew where it was. They didn’t! They were busy doing a city treasure hunt against the clock and had no time to discuss sculptures!

So out onto Bury Street and into Camomile Street and back into St Mary Axe I walked searching…in fact I think I did three complete circuits of the Gherkin…until I heard a faint sound like a tune played by an ice cream van! I followed the sound and hidden behind a tree and a walkway the elusive sculpture came into view!

DSCF8499 Organisms of Control # by Keita Miyazaki

This sculpture fuses old car parts combined with jingles that are played in the Tokyo public transport system and thank goodness it did else I would never have found it tucked away!

Crossing back over to St Helens the next sculpture was not hard to see!


Charity by Damien Hirst

Charity is a 22 feet high bronze sculpture and is based upon The Spastics Society’s (whose now more PC name is Scope) charity collection boxes which were commonly placed outside shops and chemists in the 1960’s and 70’s.


This version by Hirst shows the collecting box has been vandalised, the money box door is ajar it contents emptied and the remaining coins lying on the ground next to a giant crowbar.

In front of Charity is another sculpture…

DSCF8510Breakout II by Bruce Beasley 

This sculpture of intersecting cuboid forms originates in digital 3D design software the shapes later cast into solid bronze.

Just around the corner in front of St Helen’s Church I found the next sculpture…


Broken Pillar #12 by Shan Hur

This site specific installation was adapted to the surroundings of this ancient church and shows a large vase breaking out of a stone pillar.


Back out onto Bishopsgate and on to the final sculpture  of the trail, sited in St Botolphs-without-Bishopsgate Gardens.




Altar by Kris Martin

Based upon the multi panelled 15th century Ghent altarpiece by Van Eyck, Martin’s sculpture is a metal replica of the frame through which we we can refocus our attention on the familiar cityscape. Oh and the pigeons liked it too!

My sculpture trail was complete…now why had I come to the City today?

Oh yes… off towards Spitalfields for the exhibition! On my way I passed by the elegant building that was the London Fruit and Wool Exchange in Brushfield Street, which used to look like this…

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and now looks like this…Boris strikes again!


This fine building built in 1929 along with the Gun Pub next door and a bank on the corner of Commercial Road, are to be “redeveloped” despite widespread protest from the Council, locals and conservation groups.

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The boarded up Gun Pub

The London Fruit and Wool Exchange (LFWE) became famous during WWII as its basement housed “Mickeys Shelter” the biggest air raid shelter in the East End, run by Mickey Davis. The shelter a received the gift of a canteen from Marks and Spencer which at the height of the Blitz, could serve 5,000 people a night.


The exterior of the LFWE was carefully repaired and cleaned by Norman Foster and Partners as part of the Spitalfields Market redevelopment opposite and prior to the demolition crews moving on site this year, its interior was largely unaltered with its purpose designed auction rooms.


The Auction rooms in session

Sadly, despite the opposition and campaigns to try to save the LFWE, London’s Mayor has yet again intervened ignoring local council and local peoples views. All that will soon be left of this historic building will be its elegant facade simply tacked on to a new and much taller building behind changing the vista of this street forever…

Such mayoral interventions seem to be the norm these days where Boris is concerned, witness Norton Folgate and the Bishopsgate Goodsyard schemes, both of which he has called in, the latter even before local councils had a chance to express an opinion! Democracy in action…not!

On to Fournier Street to the Town House Gallery for artist Paul Bommer’s Magic Lantern Exhibition…


Town House Fournier Street


On arrival I found the Paul with his partner, Nick, sitting having tea in the tiny little garden behind the shop. I had never met Paul before, but having corresponded with him on several occasions, we began chatting about his work as though we had known each other for ages! Paul’s carefully executed and detailed artwork always makes me smile and I love the vibrant colours he uses.


I particularly liked the print of Father Thames seen behind Paul here. Thanks to Vav Bastos for letting me reproduce his photo of the smiling artist!


So much so that I just had to buy it! 

Old Father Thames strides confidently down the river, bullrushes in his hair and trident in hand…and the details of his “tattoos” are wonderful as they depict aspects, people and places of the river from its source to the sea.


All manner of Thameside history is here, from mudlarking finds, to landmark buildings and lost tributaries to famous people and riverine wildlife!


I really liked the Green Man too…spot the cat and the spider!…Christmas is coming but have got a spare wall!


South Coasting

This jolly sunny seaside piece is so full of life and is Paul’s homage to Edward Bawden’s illustrations in Dell Leigh’s East Coasting. I particularly like the small details such as the seagull stealing a fish, the crab pinching the man and stealing his hat, and the alligator with Mr Punch’s sausages!


Crabs and Shannocks depict the names and faces of real-life fishermen from Cromer and Sheringham, shannock refers to a resident of Sheringham. Apparently their jumpers known as “ganseys” were knitted in a distinctive pattern so as to identify their origin if they were drowned and washed ashore!

For more information and to see lots more of Paul’s work do check out his online store

I said my goodbyes and left Paul sketching away in a large black notebook in the garden…more ideas for future works I expect! After a mooch around Spitalfields market which was by now closing up for the day, I began to retrace my steps back to St Paul’s.

I decided to have a meal before setting off back home to Worcestershire and was quite pleased to sit down after pounding the city pavements.

Footnote: There is a nifty device on an iPhone which measures how many steps you walk so I decided to check it out. I had apparently taken 19,049 steps today… equating to 9 miles…no wonder it was a relief to sit down!

Posted in Architecture, East End, London, Paul Bommer, Public Sculpture, Sculpture Trail, Spitalfields | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Birmingham’s Back to Backs…a journey through time

On a wet November afternoon, I paid a visit with my family to the “Birmingham Back to Backs” in the heart of the City.


The Back to Backs, also known as Court 15 at 50 -54 Inge Street and 55-63 Hurst Street Birmingham 

Now run and managed by the National Trust, they are the last surviving court of back to back houses in Birmingham and are an example of thousands of similar houses that were built across the country to accommodate the rapidly increasing population of Britain’s expanding industrial towns and cities.

A back to back house is literally just that, one house facing the street and one built directly behind it backing onto a courtyard, with just 4 inches of wall in between.


This tiny corner plot situated near to the city centre where Chinatown and the wholesale markets district exist today, would have accommodated over 400 people in cramped and crowded living conditions in the 19th century.

These houses were fortunate in that they were saved from demolition because the front buildings were occupied by shops with long leases. In 1988 they were granted Grade II listed building status and the buildings were researched and recorded, before being restored by the Birmingham Conservation Trust.

Now restored each of the four houses is decorated and furnished in different eras, 1850s, late 1800s, 1930s and 1970s.

Our tour guide Wesley was indeed a tour de force and spoke for over an hour and a half about the families who lived in each of the houses over the years. As a child he himself had lived in similar back to back courts and his personal recollections and anecdotes brought to life the houses and the impoverished living conditions of their former occupants.

The first house was occupied in the 1850s by a Jewish family named Levy whose family came from Eastern Europe. Mr Levy was an outworker for the clock and watch industry specialising in clock hands, examples of which are on display.


Fizzing tallow candles add to the experience of the Levy family home. Note the table set for Shabbat dinner on Friday


The bedroom complete with half tester bed…the occupants of this house were quite well off!



The children’s bedroom was shared with Mr Levy’s workshop under the eaves


Next to the children’s beds is Mr Levy’s workbench sited by the window to maximise the light, 


Bedroom fires were very rarely lit


Beginning in the 16th century Birmingham was transformed from a small market town to an industrial city and due to its central location, good transport links and natural resources, it grew rapidly.

Birmingham gained a worldwide reputation as a powerhouse of manufacturing and invention and Matthew Boulton and James Watt with other members of the Lunar Society who met at nearby Soho House were at the forefront of pioneering technologies and commerce.

Birmingham became known as the “City of a Thousand Trades” and the “Toyshop of Europe”. The Jewellery Quarter was the home to the production of pens, medals, and coins, cap badges, pins and metal toys as well as jewellery.

Even today the “Quarter” still produces over 40% of the handmade jewellery in the UK and is home to the worlds largest Assay Office, which hallmarks around 12 million items a year. The assay mark for Birmingham is the anchor and our guide explained its origin. Matthew Boulton was staying at the Crown and Anchor Tavern in London’s Strand when who should adopt which hallmark symbol was discussed…it appears that it was determined by the toss of a coin and Birmingham landed the anchor whilst Sheffield adopted the Crown.

The second house on the tour was occupied by the Oldfield family and their lodging tenants in the late 1800’s.

The Oldfields were glassworkers and produced glass eyes for dolls, stuffed animals and even humans!



A case full of glass eyes!


Lodgers were commonplace in these houses as they helped to pay the rent. Four people in one bed was not unusual and a flimsy bedsheet was the only privacy afforded to a female lodger in a room full of men


A black lead range the only source of domestic heating, for cooking and hot water


A “rag rug” at the hearth made out of remnants of cloth from the ragbag

Our guide explained that when the Back to Backs were built there was no running water available and all water had to be drawn from a well situated near the Bull Ring about a quarter of a mile away. This was usually the job of the children. Water would be brought back by bucket and the only hot water available would be that boiled in a kettle on the range.


The tin bath sits outside the bay window

Cleanliness was minimal with the tin bath brought indoors once a week, placed by the fire and filled with hot water boiled on the range. The father of the house would have the first bath and then the rest of the family followed in turn using the same water. It is thought that the expression “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater” originates from this practise!

Likewise sanitation was basic with communal toilets in the courtyard shared by all the residents. These privies were not a place to visit during the night hence the number of chamber pots hidden under the beds!


The Brewhouse in the courtyard

The brewhouse was a building used by all the families in the court for washing laundry. Often run by a self appointed woman, our guide said that you dared not miss your turn! It was also the place which would be used to brew beer and the “copper” washtub under which a small fire heated the water could swiftly be commandeered by one of the men wanting to brew up!


The copper in the brewhouse

Naturally disease was prevalent in these courts with so many people living in squalid and overcrowded conditions. Joseph Chamberlain (father of Neville) became Birmingham’s Mayor in 1873 and it was his lifelong ambition to improve the lives of working people. Under his leadership the City became an international model for municipal socialism and during his tenure clean water and gas was supplied to many people, public board schools were built and slum clearances were begun.

The third house on the tour moves forward to the 1930s, a period of high unemployment and recession. Its occupants were Henry Mitchell and his wife and four children.


A savings money box supplied by the Birmingham Municipal Bank where money can be put in but only the bank can unlock it!


A stone hot water bottle on the bed provided some comfort… and a stick by the bed for protection… to kill cockroaches that would crawl over the ceiling!


Faded floral wallpaper gives some cheerful decoration

Before visiting the final house on the tour, we were allowed through the 4 inch walls which divided the back to backs, to see a room overlooking the street which was rented out unfurnished by the City Council. Amazingly, it was still lived in until the 1960s.



The last house and into the 1970s!

George Saunders emigrated to England in 1958 from St Kitts in the West Indies. As a tailor he sought work but the racial prejudices existing at that time made life in the city very harsh for George. Eventually he opened his own bespoke tailors shop in 1977 and continued trading until 2001.


A box of George’s patterns remain in an upstairs bedroom, which judging by the wallpaper, once belonged to a child.


Close up of the cowboy wallpaper now made fashionable again by Cath Kidson


Brown paper patterns for his suits still hang on the walls by an old sewing machine


Wire mannequins are stacked up on the stairwell


The shop front still retains all of George’s cloth samples and telephone!

George built a thriving business in this shop with clients including the wardrobe department of the Hippodrome theatre next door, as well as some more unlikely clients! In his time he had made military uniforms for both Colonel Gaddafi and Idi Amin from this shop!



Our guide pointed out that George had worked with the trust to preserve his shop with all his tailoring paraphernalia. Sadly only two weeks ago George had died and there was an obituary posted up in the front window as the last occupant of the Back to Backs.

Exiting through the gift shop we returned to present day Birmingham having had an eye opening tour of some 200 years of Birmingham’s social history. Access is by guided tours only see National Trust website for more information.

Oh and finally if you are looking for a somewhere unusual to stay, you can now book one of the Back to Back houses for your stay in the City… and no…you don’t have to use the outside toilet!

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Will Giles

My love of tropical and exotic plants stems from a day over ten years ago now, when as a design student, I attended a days workshop run by Will Giles at the Cotswold Wildlife Park to explore ways to use tropical plants in planting designs.


Will on the right in one of his trademark exotic shirts, with Tim Miles Head Gardner at Cotswold Wildlife Park

I later bought both of Will’s books which have been a great source of reference over the years and are now quite well thumbed, and I have twice visited his own garden…so it came as a great shock when I heard that Will had died earlier this month after a battle with cancer.


An illustrator by profession, his artistic background stood him in good stead when designing and creating his own exotic garden in the most unlikely of places, suburban Norwich!

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Nestled behind an insurance office a stones throw from Norwich football ground, arriving in his garden one was instantly transported to another world.

Will used hardy plants to give his garden year round structure, employing tender annuals and tropical specimens to create an exotic fantasy garden.

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Exotic specimens and ordinary garden favourites producing wild combinations!

The last time I visited the garden there was a new treehouse…

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Inside the treehouse!

Will had also created a new Italianate loggia and exotic garden…




and new walls with whimsical details!


and headless and armless statues

Even Will’s cats were exotic…


with quirky names like “Little Man” and “Dweezle McSqueezle”!

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For anyone like me with a love of exotic and tropical plants, Will’s garden was a must visit destination and well worth making the journey to Norfolk to see just what could grow in an English climate albeit with winter protection.

His garden, his expert advice, his planting combinations and his sense of fun in the garden have certainly inspired me and I am sure many others… he will be sadly missed.


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Blooming Marvellous


Whilst visiting my family in Cornwall this week, I decided to take a trip to the National Dahlia Collection at Varfell, near Penzance.

Situated on the South facing, fertile and well draining slopes overlooking Mounts Bay, the dahlia beds were looking stunning in the sunshine, despite the torrential rain the day before.


In the background St Michaels Mount the home of the St Levan family across Mounts Bay can be seen

I always think that Dahlias are a bit of a “Marmite” plant – you either love them or hate them, and I for one love them!


Bold and brazen they are not for the faint hearted!

Dahlias were very popular in the 1950’s and no late season horticultural show would be without some of these blooms arranged on the show bench for the judges scrutiny.


Falling out of favour for many years they do seem today to be making a comeback again, especially those with dark coloured foliage.



Lovely dark foliage contrasts well with the almost Day-Glo coloured blooms… but it is also a great foil for other plants 

There are probably more different forms of dahlia than there are adjectives to describe them, Decorative, Cactus, Waterlily, Pompon, Ball, Collerette, Dwarf, to name but a few of the 14 forms recognised. Here at the National Collection it is like a sweet shop with over 1600 varieties to choose from!


Originating from Mexico, where the Dahlia pinnata is their national flower, dahlias are a useful addition to any garden as they can be grown in most soils and situations. They also grow well in pots so are useful plants for the smaller garden, and flowering late into the season until the first frosts, they provide late season colour and interest.



DSCF8090Dahlias come in all shapes, sizes and colours 

Whilst lacking fragrance Dahlias are great flowers for attracting pollinating insects as witnessed today. Happily for the gardener the lack of scent is compensated for by the wild colour variations of the plants. The whole spectrum with the exception of blues can be found in the Dahlia’s various forms.

The origin of the name is a matter for debate, but it is widely accepted that it stems from Anders Dahl, a student of the famous  Swedish botanist and taxonomist Carl Linnaeus in the late 18th century when the plant was first introduced to Europe.


Butterflies like them too!


I met up with one of the staff who was working in the borders measuring the heights of the plants in order to classify them. I asked what a particularly large plant in the border was and he explained that it was a Tree Dahlia… Dahlia imperialis, which can grow to several metres in height but even here in the mild south west is unlikely to flower well.


Head and shoulders above the rest… a Tree Dahlia!

At the National Collection most of the propagation is done by cuttings in the early spring. I have always done it by lifting tubers after the frosts have cut the foliage down, then kept them frost free over winter, before splitting and planting them up when the first shoots emerge in the spring. However the cutting method sounds easy so I will give it a try next year.




So if you are a fan of Dahlias and you find yourself in the far south west of Cornwall, then do call in to the National Collection to see the amazing different varieties on display.



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A Taste of the Tropics in Surrey

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Whilst driving down to Sussex a couple of weeks ago, I decided to take a break from the monotony of traffic on the M25 and make a quick detour for some horticultural therapy at the Royal Horticultural Society’s Wisley garden.

Situated just a few minutes drive from the motorway, the Wisley garden is a perfect place for a whole day out, but as a member of the RHS with free admission, and having visited many times over recent years, I thought that a quick trip to the tea rooms and a look around the greenhouses for a taste of the tropics was the order of the day!

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An impressive feat of glasshouse engineering!

Once inside the glasshouses I was transported to a tropical wonderland!

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A contrast of colours

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Big banana leaves…


and fabulous tree trunks!



Echeveria ‘Afterglow’ a very succulent succulent!


A startlingly red Hibiscus!


More big leaves…

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The cannas were at their peak of perfection and I found a couple of varieties that I hadn’t seen before.


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Canna Orange Punch

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A wonderful whorling cactus

And speaking of wonderland, to celebrate 150 years of the timeless children’s book and a real favourite of mine, Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” the RHS were running workshop activities for children in the glasshouses and throughout the gardens.


The White Rabbit is suspended from the ceiling…


…whilst the Cheshire cat sits grinning in the vegetable bed

Also around the gardens some beautiful bronze sculptures and water features were on loan from Robert James Ltd and creatively sited amongst the flower borders.


The Mad Hatter serves tea!


So too does the Mad March Hare…


onto the head of the unsuspecting dormouse!


Whilst the dapper Dodo looks on sagely!

I took a quick look at the prairie style glasshouse borders which were looking quite good but it was maybe a little to early for their full late summer glory, which I have captured in previous visits…



The grasses give movement to the borders and form a great backdrop


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Steely coloured eryngiums add contrast

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The full layered effect…a view across the borders from the Fruit Mount

After a coffee stop at the restaurant, I wandered back along the grass borders to make my way out. This area is always changing and each time I visit I see new and exciting planting combinations.


The grass borders


Eucomis and Agapanthus vie for the viewers attention


More prairie plants…here Coneflowers mingled with the grasses


And “just grasses” very sculptural in their own right

I walked back through the walled garden for a final touch of the tropics before leaving and was not dissapointed!

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Backlit Gunnera leaf


Cyperus papyrus planted in the black pond giving wonderful reflections



Pseudopanax ferox or Toothed Lancewood from New Zealand is happy with its fern and hosta neighbours here in Surrey!

DSCF7700The Bromeliad, Fascicularia bicolor planted into the trunk of a palm tree make an interesting combination that I have not seen before


Dianella is used in the walled garden as an edging plant…and at just the right time to see its stunning purple berries

After my enjoyable and inspiring detour it was time to head back to the motorway and continue my journey… not before an obligatory visit to the gift shop with its wonderful selection of books and gifts.

Always a satisfying albeit, possibly expensive, end to any of my visits to RHS Wisley!


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Lending a Hand to Save Norton Folgate

I don’t normally participate in direct action, but when I read about the Spitalfields Trust Campaign to Save Norton Folgate calling for people to demonstrate against the proposals to demolish some 72% of buildings within a Conservation Area in East London…I felt I just had to make the journey to join in. DSCF5721

I don’t live here but this area fascinates me and I often visit when in London. Norton Folgate is a former medieval Liberty which sat at the boundary of the City of London and as such was an autonomous entity governed by its own residents. Today with its beautiful Georgian houses once occupied by Huguenot silk weavers still lining its cobbled streets, it is like a time capsule of history, and the thought that the developers, British Land, could consider such widespread destruction of it made me go along last Sunday afternoon to “Join Hands to Save Norton Folgate”

I attended a public meeting back in March this year and then wrote to Tower Hamlets Council to register my objection to the loss of this historic community’s character and identity. I learned that the developers, British Land, planned to replace many of the existing buildings sited within the designated Conservation Area, with a high rise glass and steel corporate plaza. Some 70% of the site could have concrete basements dug out up to 8 metres deep for services, jeopardising the foundations of nearby homes.


Not an after the blitz image but a graphic showing the widespread destruction of the ancient community proposed by British Land.

They propose to demolish many buildings with only some of the facades retained to be stuck onto the new buildings. Such an approach has already been used in a nearby development!!!


A sham facade in another street in Spitalfields pinned to a new building like a piece of theatrical scenery!

In response The Spitalfields Trust engaged architects to draw up alternative proposals that would keep the existing buildings and add new ones of a similar scale in keeping with the local historical styles. These would provide housing and small business units which could deliver much needed jobs for local people.


I arrived at around 2.00pm just as the banner was being strung up across Elder Street and already a long line of people were queuing to register…will enough people attend to make a human chain to surround the buildings that are under threat was the main topic of conversation.

We were each given a map of the area under threat around which we would form the chain…


People of all ages, from all walks of life, locals and some like myself from farther afield came to make their voices heard…and some even brought along their pets!


Floyd the Bassett Hound ready to join paws!

At around 2.30 the assembled masses were asked find a place and to join hands in an attempt to encircle the entire site under threat.


Whilst waiting for the 3.00pm deadline with some friends I had lost touch with for many years, I also met up with the architectural historian Dan Cruickshank, whilst further down the line was The Gentle Author well known to many as the writer of the daily Spitalfields Life blog, two of the leading lights behind the day’s event.

Dan Cruickshank a local resident is no stranger when it comes to campaigning in Elder Street. Today’s protest is the second battle against the march of British Land, as back in 1977 he and others from the Spitalfields Trust squatted in empty Georgian properties and campaigned long and hard assisted by amongst others, Sir John Betjeman, to save the area from demolition.


I also talked with complete strangers and discussed the threat to the area of these current plans.

Some residents feared that they would never see daylight again in their back gardens if the high rise tower office blocks (for as yet unknown tenants) were constructed. Some people came from other Conservation Areas and concerned that if this can be done here then what is the use of CA status. Some were discussing other radical building development plans in the neighbourhood including the demolition of the London Fruit and Wool Exchange and a massive new scheme in Shoreditch based upon the Bishopsgate Goodsyard.


At 3.00pm the sun came out and the atmosphere became celebratory when a huge cheer went up as it became apparent that the site was totally encircled! A photographer then walked the length of the human chain to capture for posterity, this brief moment of collective action.

The following Tuesday, Tower Hamlets Council met to discuss the proposed plans from British Land and unanimously rejected them! This is great news for the campaigners and it is good that the members have listened to the voices of the many petitioners and people who joined hands to protest.

I fear that whilst this significant victory has been achieved, appeals will still be lodged with the Secretary of State and the Mayors Office. After all, British Land have been active in the area for the past 40 years and I don’t think they will be happy to just fade into the background. I, along with many others, will continue to monitor proposals for this unique and historic gem in East London and hope that the decision makers will continue to take note of the depth of feeling unleashed by the joining of hands to save Norton Folgate.

Posted in East End, London, Spitalfields | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments