Exploring London

The Historic Dockyard, Chatham, on the River Medway in Kent must surely be one of the most extraordinary places in the U.K. and, I’m ashamed to say, I scarcely knew it existed. It had been a Royal Naval Dockyard since Henry VIII’s time; the diarist, Samuel Pepys, in his capacity as Clerk of the King’s Ships visited regularly in the 1660s.  Charles Dickens’ father worked in the Cashiers’ Office here from 1817-22. At least I’d heard of the Dockyard’s famous ropewalk – over a quarter of a mile long, and still in operation. What’s more, the dockyard is only forty minutes by fast train from London, so I had no excuse not to visit.

H.M.S. Gannet (1878) in dry dock

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I’ve just collected a box containing nine books from the library of a ninety-three-year-old cultured and elegant lady I’d known for many years who died last year. She left a number of her books and runs of architectural magazines to various museums and institutions, and the rest were to be shared out among her many friends. A few months after the funeral, I got a book list of well over 1500 books – I could choose as many I liked and it was, more or less, first come, first served.

The experience of looking through the huge list, printed in minute 8pt, was a bit like exploring Aladdin’s cave, with dash of delving into a bran tub. All I had were the titles and author; I had no idea whether the book was large or small, paperback or hardback. They were divided into sections covering the Contessa’s areas of interest: Architecture, Italy, History (social and cultural), the Arts, European Royalty, etc. and a small selection of fiction.

THE ETRUSCANS: History and Treasures of an Ancient Civilization

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Sometimes, things go wrong in life. You lose people you love; someone close to you becomes ill – or you do; things don’t work out at work, and so on. Add a couple of small things, like your kitchen tap developing a persistent drip, or realizing that you still haven’t made that difficult phone call, and, suddenly, you are in a bad place.

This is when you need a personal oasis; a place that’s safe and quiet and not too far away; somewhere you can just be.

Moroccan rose bath oil and scented candle

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I just love exploring old factories, mills, dockyards, etc., places where people once worked. I find them very atmospheric, and it’s easy to imagine all sorts of skulduggery going on. So, when I had to chance to visit Three Mills, I jumped at it.

Tucked away in Bromley-by-Bow is one of London’s best kept secrets. Mentioned in Domesday Book, Three Mills has been milling for over a thousand years on a tidal stretch of the River Lea. The third mill, a windmill, was demolished in the mid nineteenth century, and what we have left is House Mill, an 18th century Miller’s House, a Custom House and the Clock Mill. We know that, in the 12th century, the mills were owned by the Cistercian abbey of Stratford Langthorne and, after the Reformation, they became privately owned but continued to mill grain from the surrounding area.

General view: Left: House Mill, Miller’s House, Custom House; right: Clock Mill; the river Lea (not visible) is behind the walls Continue reading

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Henry Wellcome was born in Philadelphia in the U.S.A. in 1853 and came to London in 1880. He made his fortune as a pharmaceutical entrepreneur and founded the Wellcome Trust in London which funds medical research. He was also an obsessive collector of things medical and his collection is wide-ranging, not to say eccentric, and includes a number of objects only tenuously connected with medicine.

Sir Henry Wellcome (1863-1936) by Hugh Goldwin Rivière. Born in America. Took British nationality in 1910. F.R.S. and knighted 1932.

Some early photographs of him in America show him with what looks like a travelling Cabinet of Curiosities and, certainly, this is impression one gets from the Wellcome Trust’s historical collection in London.

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Frederick, Prince of Wales (1707-1751), eldest son and heir of King George II, true to Hanoverian form, couldn’t stand his father. Unlike George II, who was something of a Philistine, Frederick loved music and the arts. So, naturally, when he commissioned a royal barge from the architect and painter, William Kent, not only was it designed in the newly-fashionable Rococo style, ornately carved and gilded with 24-carat gold leaf, it was faster and more eye-catchingly splendid than any barge his father owned. It was launched in 1732 and, as you can see, it certainly makes a statement. Note the huge Royal Standard.

Prince Frederick’s barge – expressly designed to annoy his father

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On a cold winter’s morning, in the 3rd century A.D., a centurion called Parnesius of the Ulpia Victrix stood on Hadrian’s wall and gazed at the bleak, heather-covered hillside to the barbarian north. This was not a posting he’d wanted, and he missed the olives and wine of his native Tuscany, but he had a job to do and he must make the best of things.

Mithras slaying the sacred bull, Ostia museum

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Kensal Green Cemetery is an extraordinary place with an astonishing variety of tombstones: Do you fancy ivy twining up crosses, you have it; angels dancing on the roof of a classical columned temple, you have that, too; there are severe Egyptian-style family vaults, as well as pointy Gothic shrines. Furthermore, it is gloriously egalitarian; royalty lies within a stone’s throw of self-made men, quack-doctors, artists, and incongruously modern gravestones with plastic flowers.

General View looking west towards the catacombs

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