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.

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The Secret Gardens of Spitalfields

I love walking around Spitalfields in East London, along its cobbled streets admiring the wonderful Georgian terraced houses, so when I read about the opportunity to visit some of these houses’ hidden gardens, I just had to make the journey!


These few remaining streets of Georgian townhouses are all that are left after widespread demolition in the 1960s and 1970s. Originally they were the homes of silk merchants and weavers, many of them of Huguenot origin, who fled their homelands due to religious persecution.

Typically the houses had four storeys and a garret. The ground floor was traditionally  used for business purposes, with the kitchens and servants accommodated in the basement.


A bobbin hangs outside a house…a lasting reminder of its silk weaving former occupants


An example of Spitalfields Silk…detail of a Court dress in the Museum of London

The upper floors provided the living quarters and have high ceilings. On the top floor, the garret rooms where the weavers worked, feature large windows which lit the silk looms.


For just one day several local residents had generously opened their gardens as part of the National Garden Scheme Open Gardens 2015 raising funds for charity.



As most of the gardens are so small, visitors were allowed in a few at a time…I wasn’t quite the first in the queue on this overcast Saturday morning in June!

It was wonderful to go behind the grand front doors, passing through panelled halls and  tastefully decorated rooms painted in traditional colours…like a Farrow and Ball paint chart come to life! To be able to access the tiny private gardens if only for a short while was a delight to absorb their atmosphere, meet and chat to their creators and revel in the history of this remarkable time capsule.


The first thing that struck me was the attention to detail and the lavish care and attention that the makers of these gardens had taken. As a Garden Designer many clients complain that these days garden plots are so small, but in Spitalfields today it was inspirational to see just what could be done with a very small space.


A beautiful grouping of different greens and not a slug in sight near the Hostas!


Lots of containers featured in the gardens

Given the nature of the terraced houses all garden materials, compost, pots, plants and trees all have to be brought through the house!



Lush foliage of ivy and climbing hydrangeas adorn the tall walls of the Georgian townhouses, providing vertical accents and added interest.


In tiny gardens, and some of these smaller even than a Chelsea Flower show garden, every surface vertical or horizontal is used to good effect.


Soleirolia or ” Mind Your Own Business” plants thrive in these shady courtyard gardens…spreading in some cases to look like a small lawn!


Roses here must have a head for heights!


Close to the busy Commercial Street and the hubbub of Brick Lane and Spitalfields weekend markets just around the corner, these gardens were a little oasis away from the hustle and bustle of the outside world. With high walls surrounding them the gardens have their own microclimate and touches of the exotic were much in evidence!


A touch of the exotic!


Gardens can never have too many areas in which to sit and relax!



Apart from the temperature this could be Italy!


Or Marrakech!



A mirror fixed to the wall adds another dimension.

Even though the gardens are small, some owners had divided up the space available to make mini garden rooms.



The renovation of these historic houses often reveal old features which can be repurposed!


An old cooking range becomes a stand for plants!

The renovation of one house was unusual using the basement levels for an impressive water feature!


From the house looking out…


and from the garden looking in!

After lunch at SOS at the nearby Spitalfields Market back to investigate more gardens…

One of the open gardens was a commercial property with the stableyard and coach house not an immediately obvious place for a garden!


Once inside though the ingenuity and creativity became obvious! Artificial grass used to good effect too!


Scaffolding, planks and old grey metal school waste paper bins provided the staging and containers


Planted up with flowers and vegetables!


Not an inch of space wasted…even the stairs come in for the floral treatment!

Speaking with the person responsible for maintaining this garden it was clear that constant attention and watering is essential…as was a good pair of stepladders I would imagine! It was good to hear that he sourced his plants from the nearby Columbia Road Sunday flower market. It dawned on me that living in this built up area of the city presented its own challenges when it comes to obtaining and transporting plants and composts, with no DIY store or garden centres close at hand.

The last stop of the day was The Town House 5 Fournier Street a gallery and shop selling antiques and more importantly teas, coffees and cakes in its basement café!


The garden here was full of the open day visitors and I met up again some people I had spoken to earlier in the day whilst we compared our thoughts on the gardens we had seen over a cup of coffee.



Quirky parrot light in the basement café

A look around the shop resulted in an impulse purchase of a print of one of Paul Bommer’s works… “My Cat Jeoffry” an evocative poem by Christopher Smart penned in 1759…a lasting reminder of the day


I have used some images of Paul’s tiles in recent articles and on speaking to Charlie de Wet one of the organisers of the Huguenot Summer Festival running this year, Paul has produced some tiles for an event that will feature in the festival.

As I walked back to Liverpool Street Station through the busy Saturday afternoon crowds I realised how the hidden gardens that I had been lucky to experience were a much needed antidote to living in such a busy City. I am grateful that their owners allowed access to their idiosyncratic private places which they clearly devote much love and effort to maintaining and so obviously enjoy. Thanks once again for sharing them with the wider public.

It was also a privilege to see inside these remarkable restored houses in the context of their time capsule streets. I hope that other parts of the area such as the Liberty of Norton Folgate are preserved and through public pressure can manage to resist the current threats from British Land to sacrifice more of the historic Georgian buildings for the sake of yet more high rise glass and steel office blocks. such as those at the end of the street below.

If they go they have gone forever…


Glass and steel dominate and overshadow the domestic scale of the rest of the street


Posted in Huguenots, London, London Gardens, Spitalfields, Spitalfields Gardens | Tagged , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

Flower Power

IMG_2086Time has flown by this Spring and the Chelsea Flower Show has been and gone! This year for the first time in ten years I haven’t visited the show.

When tickets went on sale late last year I decided to give it a miss for 2015 as I had started to feel that the Main Avenue show gardens, whilst beautiful and well executed, were “playing it safe” in order to win the coveted RHS medals.

To me in design terms, few gardens stood out as being different and challenging in recent years and the plants used seemed to be the same old favourites that everybody knows and loves. However I read a newspaper report this morning that said the show this year was less repetitive than in previous years and that the show gardens were more varied. I will be watching the recorded highlights of the show later to see what I missed…

As it turned out, for this years Chelsea week I had to travel to the South West to visit an ailing relative and so have missed most of the coverage in the press. I have also missed the crowds on Main Avenue, the scrum to see the Artisan Gardens and the squawking of the Parakeets accompanied by the bouts of sneezing from visitors brought on by the pollen from the London Plane trees!

So back home in rural Worcestershire after a tiring week, I decided to take a walk around my own modest garden to see what had grown whilst I was away…


My own tiny rural garden seen from above

IMG_2085White allium and lupins at their peak



Oriental poppies in bud

The fabulous long flowering and scented Eastgrove Blue Violas are looking stunning.


I first saw these lovely large flowered perennial violas at Eastgrove Cottage Garden, Worcestershire and bought a plant many years ago which has since died. Sadly, the garden no longer opens but I managed to source a replacement plant from Woottens of Wenhaston in Suffolk a couple of years ago since when it has thrived.


Anthriscus sylvestris “Ravenswing” a ubiquitous plant in Chelsea show gardens seems to have reverted more to green rather than black foliage in my garden!


I really like the leaves of Alchemilla mollis or Lady’s Mantle particularly after rain!


and on the giant leaves of the Hosta…before the slugs find them!


The wallflowers are coming to an end now which is a mixed blessing. Whilst they have been beautiful there will now be more room for other plants…did I mention that I garden with a shoe horn..?


Another Lupin, this one a tree lupin which I bought from Plant World in Devon some years ago…the flowers were described as chocolate coloured…more like lilac and lemon to me but it combines well with the dark purple Clematis recta “Purpurea”.

The eagle eyed reader may have spotted the deliberately planted “weed” in the foreground…White Rosebay Willowherb or Chamaenerion angustifolium ‘Album’ to give it is official name! It seeds freely but I like it!


Perennial stocks demand a place in my garden for their fragrance and the way in which the white blooms “sing out” when dusk falls


Luzula nivea or Snowy Woodrush is a great foil for other plants


Mespilus germanica or the Common Medlar is just beginning to flower. I have never managed to make Medlar Jelly which apparently is a good accompaniment to roast meat. The thing is you have to let the fruits “blet” i.e. go soft but not rotten…somehow I don’t fancy them then!


Purple alliums match the colours in the stained glass panel which I bought from Heyhoe Designs at their Chelsea stand a few years ago

Meanwhile in the greenhouse…


The Agaves are looking good and can soon be released from their winter quarters now all danger from frost is past


Likewise the Aeonium arboretum “Schwarzkopf” is ready for its summer season outdoors and one of them has a huge flower spike!

IMG_2088Back outside…

Iris “Black Knight” which I bought a couple of weeks ago is just coming in to flower


The Geums which have been in bud for weeks, have finally decided to flower


The boxwood hedging is growing fast and will soon need clipping!


Pots feature heavily in my garden too…


Many gardeners have a friendly robin sitting on the handle of their spade whilst working in the garden…I have a friendly feline chum who visits to make sure that I am not cutting his favourite plants down!


His favoured spot is a clump of Stipa grasses which I can’t possibly cut down in the spring as he has made a nest in them!



Keeping a watchful eye on his catnip plants!

The trouble with walking around the garden after a week away is that not only have the  plants burgeoned, so have the weeds! So time to take up the trowel again and carry on gardening before I get back to the drawing board!


Posted in Chelsea Flower Show | 7 Comments

Feline Great!


Well, I bet James Bowen and his loyal ginger cat companion Bob are indeed “feline great” today as the fundraising campaign to assist the opening of Bob’s World Cat Café not only reached but exceeded its target.

The campaign reached its target of £125, 000 some days ago and closed this morning having totalled over £148,000 donated by cat lovers and James and Bob’s fans from all over the world.

10410987_849176535154161_9047470202994067003_nPeople wanting to support the scheme were given the choice of different “perks” including books, posters and mugs as well as visits to the café. Bob the suave wearer of very natty neckwear was even persuaded to donate a few of his “fan made” scarves to be put up for auction to help raise the funds required!

This is good news for London cat lovers as the café will not only provide a place for a coffee accompanied by cats, but it will also host seminars on animal care, veterinary advice and help with rehoming abused and stray cats.

The campaign hasn’t ended yet and there is still time if you wish to donate towards the costs of the café. See fundraising page at

It is now down to James and Bob and their team to secure a suitable property and to complete all the necessary administration to get the café up and running hopefully later this year…

In the meantime a big high five from Bob!


Posted in London Cats | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Metropolitan Moggies

IMG_1900They have been loved and loathed, feared and revered but since their introduction to these shores by the invading Roman armies there are now some 9 million pet cats in Britain! Cats are definitely here to stay!

Reading recently about the plans for a cat café in London by a Street Cat named Bob and his owner James Bowen (see my last post) led me to think about other famous London cats past and present, and whilst staying in London last month I went prowling around to try to locate some of them…

The first cat had to be London’s most famous folklore feline and its owner, Dick Whittington.  A legendary rags to riches story, much popularised since the 19th century in pantomimes, Dick left his poverty stricken home in the Forest of Dean to seek his fortune in London and thanks to the ratting abilities of his cat became a wealthy merchant and Lord Mayor of London.

NPG D24069,Sir Richard Whittington,by Renold or Reginold Elstrack (Elstracke)

There is much speculation about this story as his family were not that poor, they were in fact minor gentry and it has never been proved that he did actually have a cat! The legends that circulated are maybe based upon a Persian folk tale about an orphan boy who found fame and riches through his ratting cat!

Whatever the story he did become a wealthy merchant and four times Lord Mayor of London. He paid for many projects including the rebuilding of the Guildhall, a ward for unmarried mothers in St Thomas’ Hospital (within the sound of Bow Bells the traditional sign of a true cockney), drainage systems around Billingsgate and Cripplegate and one of the earliest gender segregated public toilets called Whittington’s Longhouse. Seating 128, it was cleansed by the Thames at high tide!

He also had his parish church St Michael Paternoster Royal rebuilt and extended and this is where within its precincts he was buried in 1423.


St Michael Paternoster Royal of Dick Whittington’s time was destroyed in the Great Fire and the baroque church on the site today was built by Sir Christopher Wren. It is also the Home Church of the Mission to Seafarers

I visited early on a Saturday morning and unfortunately the church was locked so I was unable to see the modern stained glass window commemorating Dick and his cat, although I did photograph it from the outside!

DSCF5686A reverse view of the stained glass cat!

I am grateful to Patrick from Purr ‘n’ Furr for allowing me to reproduce his photo of the window.


The window the right way round!

On to Hodge the beloved cat of Dr Samuel Johnson the English lexicographer.

Hodge can be found in a small courtyard outside Johnson’s house in Gough Square just off Fleet Street.


Hodge sitting appropriately on a dictionary with a pair of oyster shells

Johnson’s biographer Boswell observed their friendship…

“…I never shall forget the indulgence with which he treated Hodge…I recollect him one day scrambling up Johnson’s breast, apparently with much satisfaction, whilst my friend smiling and half whistling, rubbed down his back and pulled him by the tail, when I observed he was a fine cat, saying, “why yes, Sir, but I have had cats whom I liked better than this,” and then as if perceiving Hodge to be out of countenance, added, “but he is a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed…”James Boswell the Life of Samuel Johnson 1799


“A very fine cat indeed”

The statue by Jon Bickley was unveiled in 1997 and is at a convenient shoulder height for an average adult so it is ideal for putting ones arm around Hodge! Pennies are sometimes left in the upturned oyster shell as a good luck symbol by visitors and sometimes Hodge sports a very elegant ribbon around his neck.

Oysters in those days were plentiful and a cheap food for the poor and were much favoured by Hodge. Johnson thought that it was too degrading to send his servant Francis Barber to get them so would personally purchase them for Hodge.

In the days before tinned food cat meat was often sold by the “Cat Meat Seller”. Let us be clear this is food FOR cats not meat FROM cats! The Cat Meat Man was a common sight in London between the mid 1800’s and the 1930’s. The meat was often left over or diseased horsemeat and offal from the local abattoir, dyed in bright colours to distinguish it from meat for human consumption and for unscrupulous resale!


The sellers had a local regular neighbourhood round of the houses usually of well to do merchants, tradesmen and mechanics and it was said that cats in the area could distinguish one seller from another by the rendering of their song, which was sung to the tune of “Cherry Ripe” a song popular in the mid 1800’s

“…Cat’s-meat, cat’s-meat, meat I cry, On a skewer – come and buy! From Hyde Park to Wapping Wall all the year I cat’s meat bawl! Cat’s-meat, cat’s-meat, meat I cry, On a skewer – come and buy!…”

Social researcher and journalist, Henry Mayhew wrote about cat’s meat vendors in his record of London life, “London Labour and the London Poor”  in 1861

“…the carriers take the meat round town wherever their “walk” may lie. They sell it to the public at the rate of 2 and a half pence per pound, and  in small pieces on skewers at a farthing, a halfpenny and penny each…”

He noted that the sellers at this time wore a shiny hat, plush black waistcoat, blue apron and corduroy trousers with two or three spotted handkerchiefs around their necks.

The meat was chopped up on a little board on the back of their cart and threaded on the skewer which could be put through the letterboxes of regular customers!


Two eager customers look on longingly as their food is prepared

Thank goodness for tinned cat food today!

Diverting now to some cats featured in London architecture.

A few years ago I took a trip to Camden to find the former Carreras Cigarette Company factory situated in Mornington Crescent.

The vast factory was built between 1926 and 1928 on the large communal gardens of Mornington Crescent. The architects, M.E and O.H Collins and A.G Porri chose to use the Egyptian Revival style which had become very popular since the discovery of the Tutankhamen tomb by Howard Carter a few years earlier and this exotic style would become a frequent feature of this Art Deco period.

untitledThe building was the first factory in Britain to make use of pre-stressed concrete technology and incorporated a dust extraction and air conditioning plant. It opened to great fanfare with the streets being covered with sand to give a truly desert feel in front of the 168 metre long frontage, and cast members from a London production of Aida in ancient Egyptian costumes, formed a procession. A chariot race was also held nearby on the Hampstead Road! They certainly knew how to celebrate the opening of a new building back in the day!


The former factory today

The entrance to the building was dominated by two 2.6 metre high bronze cat statues based on the Egyptian god Bastet


Carreras continued in business on the site until they merged with Rothmans of Pall Mall and transferred their operations to Basildon in 1959, moving one of the sentry cats to their factory there, the other being transferred to their Jamaican factory.

The building was converted to offices in the 1960’s and much of the Art Deco detailing was lost. Renamed Greater London House the features have now been restored and it is still used for offices and ironically giving its former usage as a cigarette factory it is the home of the British Heart Foundation!


The replica big cats still flank the entrance

Carreras were famous for their cigarette brands “Craven A” and “Black Cat”


Old Advertising Sign


The black cat logo can still be seen today


Egyptian detailing now restored



The building is truly a mecca for fans of Art Deco and of course cats!

Not far from Camden a big cat slumbers on the gravestone of his owner George Wombwell in Highgate West cemetery.


Described as a “menagerist”  Wombwell ran a travelling zoo during the late 18th and early 19th centuries and allegedly allowed his pet lion Nero to sleep at the foot of his bed!

Another of my favourite big cats in the city has to be the Coade stone lion near the London Eye which  gazes haughtily at the passing traffic on the south side of Westminster Bridge. Coade stone, developed by Eleanor Coade at her factory in nearby Lambeth was a type of high fired ceramic and was a popular medium for sculptures in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Thames river images (142)

This lion made at the Coade factory, was originally painted red and once crowned the parapet of the Lion Brewery beside the Hungerford Bridge

Probably London’s most iconic big cats, have to be the bronze lions at the foot of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square.


Landseer’s bronze lion

Sculpted by Edwin Landseer these bronze creatures occupy the space originally intended to house four stone lions which were the the work of Thomas Milne and were named “Vigilance” and “Determination” to reflect the qualities of the Admiral, and “Peace” and “War”.

These “reject” sculptures were bought by the northern industrialist and philanthropist, Titus Salt and sited near his vast factory in Saltaire in North Yorkshire…where they still reside today.


The stone lion named “Peace” in Saltaire…looks like he is enjoying an ice cream!

I digress so now back to smaller metropolitan moggies!

I had recently heard the story of Kaspar the cat who resides in the lobby of the Savoy Hotel and just had to check him out.

I walked off the busy Strand into Savoy Court which leads to the hotel and theatre.


Note the registration plate!

This is one of the few places in London where one drives on the right! This harks back to the days of horse drawn carriages when ladies would sit on the right behind the driver who could then open the rear door without alighting.

Although the driveway is private property, a special Act of Parliament gave permission to contravene National driving laws as guests and theatre goers could be dropped off by taxis outside the doors. After negotiating the small roundabout (which has a turning circle of 25 feet – the same legal turning circle today for all London taxis) cabs could then pick up fares on the way out!


The small roundabout with fountain outside the hotel doors

I passed by the Bentleys and the supercars offloading their wealthy guests and their mountains of luggage and then walked through the revolving doors of this famous luxury hotel. Built by impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte from the proceeds of his Gilbert and Sullivan operas it opened its doors in August 1889, and was the first of its kind to have electric lights, lifts and bathrooms with hot and cold running water in most of its rooms.

I asked the concierge where I might find Kaspar and there he was sitting handsomely on a highly polished table in the lobby!


Kaspar the Art Deco cat sculpture by Basil Ionides

The story of Kaspar began in 1898 when a diamond magnate, Woolf Joel had booked a table for dinner at the Savoy for 14 guests. At the last minute a guest cancelled and the other guests felt that it was unlucky to dine with only 13 people. Joel scoffed at his fellow diners superstitious beliefs and they all sat down to eat. A couple of weeks later Joel was shot dead.

Naturally the hotel’s management felt this was not good publicity and for almost 30 years asked a member of the hotel staff to join the tables of 13 diners.

Diners were unhappy about having a waiter sitting with them at dinner so in 1927 Basil Ionides created “Kaspar” a two foot high wooden black feline sculpture to act as the 14th guest at dinner!

Legend has it that Kaspar was briefly catnapped during WWII and was flown to Singapore by mischievous airmen. Winston Churchill well known for his love of cats, and who often had Kaspar to dine with him, demanded his instant return.

Speaking to a member of the hotel staff I found out that Kaspar is still in gainful employment today and regularly joins dinner parties. He wears a white linen napkin tied around his neck and is served exactly the same food on the same china as all the other guests. Of course the person who made the dinner reservation has to pay for Kaspar’s meal too!


In 2013 the hotel’s River Restaurant was renamed Kaspar’s in honour of the mascot

On Sunday morning after a hearty breakfast at Smiths of Smithfield, a great place to start the day and also wait for the rain to stop, I set off to find a tiny cat in the church of St Bartholomew the Great.


Part of the main entrance remains recognisable by its half-timbered Tudor frontage


Approaching the gateway it is hard to believe the huge church exists at the end of the narrow passageway

Also known as Great St Barts in West Smithfield, this Anglican church and nearby St Barts Hospital was founded by Rahere in 1123 as an Augustinian Priory.


A sunnier view of St Barts on a previous visit…the Barbican looms in the background

The service had just ended as I stepped inside where the air was thick with the smell of incense which just seemed to add to the ambience of this ancient place of worship.

I was welcomed by the new verger who showed me a short video of the church before pointing out the small cat that I had come in search of.


Hard to spot and even harder to photograph this little stone cat corbel sits high up above the south transept

Cats don’t often feature in church architecture so this little chap is something of a mystery!

Remarkably parts of the church survived the Reformation and the Great Fire although very little of the early monastic buildings survive except the cloister which now houses a café.


Cloister window

The church has featured in many films and is probably most famous as the location for the fourth wedding in “Four Weddings and a Funeral”.


The oriel window overlooking the high altar was installed by the Prior in the early 16th century so that he could keep an eye on the monks…literally Big Brother was watching them!

Back outside after having spent a fascinating hour in this little gem of a church, I made my way through the narrow streets towards the Museum of London, pausing to admire the house once lived in by John Betjeman a former Poet Laureate. Given the proximity of St Barts and other city churches, it is no wonder his autobiography was entitled “Summoned by Bells”.


Blue Plaque marks Betjeman’s home in Cloth Court


Back alleyways of Smithfield


Another encounter with Dick depicted in the tiles on stairs leading to the Museum of London


and his cat scampering on ahead on the first floor landing!

Whilst researching other matters here today, guess what… I came across another cat!


Novelty jugs such as this one in the shape of cats were popular in Stuart London and used for cream, milk or wine. This one is an example of English tin glazed ware

After my visit to the Museum which is never complete without the purchase of at least a couple of books from their excellent shop, I headed off to Bloomsbury in search of Sam.

Not much is know about Sam but I had heard that he resides on a small brick wall in Queen Square. On my way up Old Gloucester Street, I passed by the Alf Barrett  children’s playground and spotted another cat…not Sam but “Humphry”!


Humphry sculpted in 1997 by Marcia Solway

Humphry the cat (1973 -1992) was a ginger tom who had lived at the Mary Ward Adult Education Centre situated at the corner of the road and his statue was originally sited on Queen Square. It was relocated in 2001 and is the only complete sculpture by Marcia Solway, an epilepsy sufferer who attended sculpture classes at the centre and the nearby National Hospital for Neurosurgery until her death aged 34.

These days children from the nearby Great Ormond Street Hospital visit the playground and apparently, Humphry is a great favourite.


Even the children’s ambulances feature cats!

Crossing into Queen Square I soon found Sam descending a wall in the south western corner of the park. Whilst little is known about him, Sam was owned by Patricia Penn (1914 – 1992) also known as Penny, a local cat loving resident who was an active fundraiser and campaigner in the area


Sam preparing to descend his wall set in the flower beds


Sam is clearly popular as like Hodge, he has amassed a few donated pennies! Pennies for Penny perhaps?

My last cat to track down was south of the Thames and was a favourite pet cat of the Salter family. Dr Salter, a 20th century reformer along with Ada his wife did much to alleviate poverty in the local area.

The scuptures by Diane Gorvin were first installed in 1991 and featured Dr Salter, his daughter Joyce and their pet cat sited next to the Thames on Bermondsey Wall East. Unfortunately in 2011, Dr Salter’s statue was stolen by metal thieves and the girl and cat were taken into the care of Southwark Council. They have been recently been reinstalled and reunited along with a new sculpture of Mrs Salter. I plan to write a more full account of the Salters in a future article.


 The cat ready to pounce, now back in his former home on the wall of the Thames

One London cat that must get a mention is Mr Pussy, the sleek black muse and companion of The Gentle Author, of Spitalfields Life. It was The Gentle Author’s daily blog posts about the life and lives of the people of the area which encouraged me to begin writing my own articles. IMG_1936

Many thanks to the Gentle Author for permission to use this lovely photo of Mr Pussy relaxing at home with his spring flower arrangements

Although I have never been fortunate enough to meet Mr Pussy “in the fur” so to speak, I feel that I know him very well through the carefully observed articles about him that his owner occasionally writes.

I came across many real life cats whilst tracking down the more celebrated Metropolitan Moggies, so here are a selection of these unsung felines!


A sleek cat having a wash and brush up at the Clerks House next to St Leonards Church Shoreditch


Not a real life cat but one who presided over the former pottery behind Columbia Road


Gilbert Laxeiro the fluffy white cat who lives at the Laxeiro Spanish restaurant on Columbia Road even has his own Facebook Page!

DSCF5554Another white cat living happily aboard a Dutch barge on Greenland Dock

London bikeathon 021Ham Common cat on sentry duty!

DSCF5557Enjoying the spring sunshine, Deptford!

DSCF5378Halt who goes there?

Finally I went to find possibly London’s smallest sculpture which given its subject should be of great interest to most cats…MICE!


In Philpot Street in the shadow of the new “walkie talkie” high rise office block, on a building which now houses a coffee shop, is a tiny sculpture of two mice and a piece of cheese!

Probably unnoticed by most of the café patrons and passers by, the sculpture picked out in brown and yellow is tiny and not very easy to photograph.


There are many urban myths about the sculpture and its provenance. The most commonly held belief is that they are there as a memorial to two builders who were working high up on scaffolding. During their lunch break a fight broke out when one accused the other of nibbling his cheese sandwich! It seems that as a result both the builders fell to their deaths from the building. Later it became apparent that mice had been the culprits all along! Maybe they should have had a cat on the building site..?

Since writing and researching this piece I have discovered several more moggies in the metropolis which will be the focus for another journey and maybe a future article.

In the meantime, I will leave you with a photo of my feline friend, who although actually living next door, spends much of his day curled up in my kitchen or lazing in my garden.

That’s cats for you!




Posted in London, London Cats, Public Sculpture | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Bob…a London Cat

A few weeks ago I received an email from a crowd funding group alerting me to a new campaign to open a Cat Café.

Bobs World Cat Café is the brainchild of James Bowen former Big Issue seller and popular busker in Covent Garden, and his constant furry ginger companion “Street Cat Bob”, who has become a star in his own right featuring in several best selling books.


The books tell of James’s story and his friendship with Bob.

“I was homeless and struggling with substance abuse before I met a little ginger stray tom cat, whom I have named Bob, who has helped me realise that there are more things in life to focus on than drugs. He helped me overcome addiction, by being a loyal and compassionate companion, and giving me something other than myself to look after. He has simply become my best friend, and has looked after me just as much as I have him.”….James Bowen


James and Bob

The cat café which will be called Bob’s World is aiming to open in the North London and will be populated with cats that have been rescued, providing “a home for homeless, abused or unwanted cats” as well as a place for “other like-minded individuals to come in and have tea, coffee and refreshments whilst being surrounded by cats”.

To read more about the campaign and donate towards its fundraising go to

I have published this in advance of my next blog on London cats in order to highlight Bob’s campaign which closes in mid April.

Posted in London | Tagged | 2 Comments