Exploring London

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A day or so ago I visited the British Museum – the first time for months. Of course, I had to book a timed slot, wear a mask, make sure I used the hand gel and so on; and we were only allowed on the ground floor, so I had a choice of things Egyptian, Assyrian, Greek, or Middle-Eastern. I decided to take a look at the Parthenon Frieze. I was particularly interested in the south frieze reliefs depicting a sacred procession with priests leading heifers to be sacrificed. One relief in particular, shown below, is supposed to have inspired the poet, John Keats’ Ode to a Grecian Urn.

 

The south frieze with the heifer

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If you need inspiration for a novel, you could do a lot worse than visit your nearest stately home. The magnificent Kenwood House, built in the 1760s by Robert Adam for the Earl of Mansfield, is not too far from where I live. It struck me that what novelists sometimes need is not an in depth knowledge of a stately home’s architectural highlights but a record of some of the everyday objects which a heroine would come across.

Rear of Kenwood House, showing the Orangerie

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This week I’m going to look at how dolls’ houses reflect society and their home owners’ social aspirations.

According to the Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green, dolls’ houses weren’t originally made for children but for the education of young ladies. They were both instructional – the servants you will have and this is what they should be doing – and aspirational – your duty is to help your husband go up in the world and, for that, you need the right sort of home with the right sort of things in it.

 

Killer Cabinet House: photo courtesy of the V & A’s Museum of Childhood

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The story of Nathaniel Bentley, otherwise known as ‘Dirty Dick’ is a curious one. He was born in 1735, or thereabouts, into a well-to-do City of London merchant’s family. His father owned a successful hardware business with a house, a shop and a well-stocked warehouse in Leadenhall St in Bishopsgate, and he saw to it that his son was given a good education, as befitted his status as a gentleman. Mr Bentley, senior, died in 1760, when Nathaniel was about twenty-five-years old, leaving his son a successful business.

Nathaniel Bentley, also known as ‘Dirty Dick’

So far, so good.

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The Herb Garret, part of St Thomas’s Hospital which was founded in 1552 after the Reformation by King Henry VIII, (it had once been part of an Augustine Monastery) is one of the capital’s most unusual small museums. It is tucked away behind London Bridge station and not easy to find. You enter by a discreet wooden door, climb a steep spiral staircase, remember to duck your head at the top to avoid a low door frame, and eventually find yourself inside what looks like a large attic.

Dried opium poppies hand from the rafters

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By 1938, to many thinking people, the triumphant rise of Fascism in both Italy and Germany was an ominous portent of another war. To others, yes, the situation in Europe was worrying and Fascism was certainly on the rise but another war? Surely not.  Wasn’t the Great War supposed to be ‘The War that ended Wars?’

 

St Leonard’s Court, East Sheen

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‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive / But to be young was very Heaven!’

So wrote the poet, William Wordsworth, about his arrival in Paris in 1790 when he was young, in love, and an ardent supporter of the French Revolution. But Wordsworth’s words could equally describe being young in the 1960s, a similarly heady period when the old social mores were chucked out, and a revolutionary, youth-led counter culture in fashion, ideas, music, and much else, swept in.

Swinging London; note the new Post Office tower – with a slowly-revolving restaurant at the top

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Last week I visited the splendid global headquarters of the Institution of Civil Engineering (ICE) at 1, Great George Street, just off Parliament Square and within a stone’s throw of the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey and the Royal Courts of Justice. It is a huge Grade II listed building, designed by James Miller RSA, and built between 1910-1913, an era of huge (if unknowingly teetering on the cusp of collapse) Imperial self-confidence. There it stands in all its Imperial glory; a ‘monumental neo-classical design’ in Portland stone, and I have to say that it is extremely impressive – both outside and in.

The Institution of Civil Engineering (ICE)

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‘For they were young, and the Thames was old,

And this is the tale that the river told.’  Rudyard Kipling

The current exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands, Secret Rivers, is about the various rivers which once flowed openly into the Thames but which nowadays are largely hidden from view. The visitor follows the stories of, in particular, the Fleet, the Walbrook and the Westbourne, all now channelled underground.

We begin in the Bronze Age; metal-working is well established and people have settled down in tribes. This is a time when rivers are thought to be mysterious places which marked the transition between two elements, land and water, and, perhaps, between life and death. We can see this in the offerings found in the Thames, particularly near where the Walbrook flowed into the Thames.

This human skull, 1260-900 BC is one of the oldest objects found in the Thames and it is thought, from its condition, to have been put there deliberately

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