The flower pot on the windowsill

London Flower lovers badge etc

Despite recent heavy winds my polypropylene and tubular aluminium “grow house” has been remarkably resilient providing shelter to plants before their move onto the allotment and giving vegetable and herb seedlings a chance to toughen up enough to stand a chance against the slugs.  This morning however, my complacency (And neglect to secure said structure to the fence as advised!) was shattered.  Rain had succeeded where wind alone failed,  and I woke to discover my grow house face down on top of a jumble of plants and seedlings.

On closer, and wet, inspection the damage wasn’t as bad as it first looked but it took me back with a jolt to a windy summer day in the early 1960s when I awoke to my first horticultural disaster.  The clay pot of nasturtiums I had been painstakingly tending on my second floor bedroom windowsill lay shattered far below in the basement ‘area’ of the printers shop above which we lived .

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In the days when I was a pupil there, William Tyndale Junior School in Islington wasn’t known for its imaginative  curriculum (Though it had its moments later in the more radical 1970s.), so the advent of the London Flower Lovers’ League bulbs and seeds in Spring and Summer was really quite exciting.

The summer seeds were nasturtiums and candytuft.  My mother complained that the nasturtiums got blackly, but I preferred their bright colours and trailing flowers to the more sedate pink candytuft and always hoped that my small brown envelope would have nasturtium seeds in it.  Oddly, I don’t remember growing the bulbs (always daffodils) though I proudly pasted this  certificate into my scrapbook!

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Some time ago, I looked up the London Flower Lovers League and was delighted to see that  it still exists, though since 1974 it has been called The London Children’s Flower Society. I read the 2014 Annual Report online and was pleased to note that my old primary school still takes part and earned a Silver Medal Award in the daffodil and hyacinth class.

Alice K Street, whose printed signature appeared on all the certificates, founded the Society in 1945 in order to provide London children with an opportunity for gardening in the grey post-war years. She ran the League from her own home in Orpington until her death in 1966, and started with the very modest idea of a daffodil competition, open to all the school children of London.  The bulbs would be grown in pots, if necessary on a window ledge, as mine were, or standing in any space available where there was enough light. The bulbs, and later seeds, were accompanied by short, simply-worded instructions for growing them.

The bulb competition still exists, but now the Society offers a wider range of seeds – flower and vegetable – in standard sized packets – no more tiny brown envelopes containing only ten or 12 seeds. It also has categories for perennial plants and whole school gardens with prizes as well as certificates.  Alice K Street’s name lives on in trophies awarded to schools, but surely she should be better known?

London Flower lovers badge etc

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The man behind the Mallard, but not a duck in sight

 

img_0674-2King’s Cross was quiet yesterday morning as I waited for the York train to become ready to board. Had it not been, I probably would have missed the recent addition of a statue honouring the engineer Sir Nigel Gresley by Hazel Reeves.  The bronze of the statue blends in with the bronze of the brickwork that forms its backdrop. The statue was unveiled on April 5th, the 75th anniversary of  Gresley’s death and is sited a few yards from the Kings Cross office in which he worked for London & North Eastern Railway (LNER).

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No plaque is yet in place and a typed sheet of A4 in a plastic wallet stuck to the wall nearby is the only written acknowledgement of the locomotive engineer who gave us those famous steam locomotives the Flying Scotsman and the Mallard. 

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The Closest reference to a duck!

Reeves original conception was for Sir Nigel to be accompanied by a duck – a reference both to the fastest steam locomotive in the world (Mallard achieved 126 mph) and his hobby of breeding water fowl in the moat of Salisbury Hall, his Hertfordshire home. Sadly, this witty and human touch didn’t meet with universal acclaim. Two of Sir Nigel’s grandsons felt that the addition of a duck would be “demeaning” and the dispute split the trustees of the Gresley Society Trust, three of whom resigned.
According to press reports, when the statue was unveiled last week by members of the Gresley family and Network Rail Chair, Sir Peter Hendy, there was a protest by the pro-duck lobby with several yellow rubber ducks in evidence. No ducks remained yesterday. No doubt they have decamped to the nearby Regent’s Canal or perhaps they caught the eye of Trim, Matthew Flinders’ statuary cat, from nearby Euston Station!

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Some London Cats

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Laura Ford Cats 1 & 2

I recently stumbled across Camden-based, Laura Ford’s 2012 work Cats 1&2.  Situated at the end of Bishopsgate, appropriately close to the junction of Leadenhall Street with Whittington Avenue, these two anxious and distracted larger-than-life size cats are part of a series called Days of Judgement. Ford was inspired by Masaccio’s fresco, The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden in the Brancacci Chapel in Florence, but instead of Adam and Eve, she gives us these tall, thin, distracted and abject creatures.

I started to think about the other London cat statues I know, all of whom serve either to emphasise their human companion’s humanity or serve as a memorial to the humans with whom they are connected.

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Image ©PAUL FARMER and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Hodge, Dr Johnson’s  “very fine cat indeed”, portrayed in Jon Bickley’s 1997 statue with one of the oysters he favoured, gazes out in a very proprietorially feline attitude across Gough Square from his position on a copy of Johnson’s famous dictionary. He is also at good height for visitors to the Square to stroke or drape an arm round.

IMG_1531Trim, Matthew Flinders seagoing”close companion” looks as though he has his own interests but seems content to stay close by in the busyness of the Euston Station concourse.

 

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Image by By Jim Linwood (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Image by By Jim Linwood (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

These two Bloomsbury cats were indeed real and local. Humphry, on top, used to live in Queen Square (the statue, that is) but was relocated to the Alf Barrett children’s playground in nearby Old Gloucester Street.  Humphrey, the real cat, lived at the Mary Ward Adult Education Centre the Square. He was named after Humphry Ward, husband of the centre’s founder Mary Augusta (Mrs Humphry) Ward, the Victorian social reformer and novelist.  Humphry is the first and only sculpture completed by Marcia Solway who attended sculpture classes at the Centre and lived nearby. Sadly, Marcia died of epilepsy aged only 34 in 1992. The statue was donated by her mother Carole Solway.

Sam, portrayed jumping down from a wall in a corner of Queen Square, lived with a active local resident Patricia Penn (Penny).  Penny was a nurse,  actively engaged in the local residents association and a campaigner for the preservation of the area’s historic buildings.  The sculpture by John Fuller, was erected in 2002 and funded by local people to commemorate Penny’s life.  The current version is mark two as the original was stolen in 2007. However, Sam won’t be able to jump down from the wall this time as the new sculpture is fixed to the brickwork with steel rods!

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Image by Stephen Craven [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The cat in the Salter family grouping at Bermondsey returned  to the embankment wall in 2014 after a spell in protective custody with Southwark Council. Although daughter Joyce and her pet cat were unharmed, the statue of her father, local GP and Labour MP, Dr Alfred Salter was stolen in 2011.  Happily, a fundraising campaign meant that sculptor Diane Gorvin, who created the original trio in 1991, was able to make a new statue of Alfred and  to complete the family grouping with a statue of Ada Salter.  Ada, who had been omitted from the original commission was the first Labour woman mayor in Britain and the  first female mayor in London. An ethical socialist, she successfully campaigned for improved housing and the greening of London through Deptford’s Beautification Committee.

You may like to read more about Trim and Matthew Flinders

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A visit to the Chelsea Physic Garden

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I enjoyed the best of the Easter Monday weather with a trip to the Chelsea Physic Garden yesterday afternoon.  After I don’t know how many years of good intentions, I finally got there and was rewarded with a gloriously sunny afternoon.  Many of the more tender plants were still warmly wrapped up in their winter layers of protective bubblewrap, but there were spring bulbs and green shoots poking through the bare earth.

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As children played hide-and-seek among the beds and glasshouses and adults enjoyed tea and very fine cakes from the cafe, it would have been easy to forget that this Garden is more than four hundred years old and not recreational.  The Chelsea Physic Garden was founded by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries in 1673 to train their apprentices to recognise and understand the healing properties of the medicinal plants that would be used in their professional lives.

As I walked around, I stopped to read an information board about Carl Linnaeus and the naming of plants when my eye was caught by the paragraph at the end.

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I remembered that Elizabeth Garrett (later Elizabeth Garrett Anderson) had obtained her licence to practice medicine in England through the Society of Apothecaries. In 1815, the Society of Apothecaries was granted the power to conduct examinations, licence and regulate medical practitioners – John Keats, the poet, had been one of the first to qualify in 1816.  So confident were the Society that no woman would seek a medical qualification that, unlike the other bodies able to grant medical qualifications, they did not even specify that women were to be excluded.  Instead of referring only to ‘men’, the regulations of the Society of Apothecaries referred to ‘persons’ and it was this provision that allowed Elizabeth Garrett to gain her licence in 1865. (A loophole that was closed a couple of years later on Valentine’s Day 1867!)

Elizabeth Garrett had been inspired to become a doctor by Elizabeth Blackwell, an English women who qualified as a doctor in America. So I was intrigued to learn of an earlier Elizabeth Blackwell, a Scottish artist and engraver who used the Chelsea Physic Garden to produce A Curious Herbal between 1737 and 1739.

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Scottish Elizabeth had trained as an artist and formed a love match with her cousin Alexander. Alexander and Elizabeth fled to London when it was discovered that he had been practising medicine under a bogus license. In London, Alexander re-invented himself as a printer; again ignoring the regulatory niceties that, for his new profession, required him to have served an apprenticeship and belong to a Guild. Faced by heavy fines and having spent all of Elizabeth’s dowry, Alexander ended up in debtors’ prison and Elizabeth needed to earn enough to support herself and her family.

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Illustration from A Curious Herbal

Learning that a new Herbal was required to describe plants being brought in from the New World, Elizabeth decided to combine her own artistic skills with her husband’s botanical knowledge. She moved to be closer to the Chelsea Physic Garden and set out to provide the illustrations for her Herbal, taking her drawings to Alexander in prison so that he could supply the correct names in Latin, Greek, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, and German.

Revenue from the first two editions of the book provided enough to secure Alexander’s release, but not to match his spending habits. Alexander ran away again. This time to Sweden where he got himself involved in a conspiracy at the Swedish Court which resulted in his being hanged in 1747 before his wife could join him. Elizabeth lived for another ten years and is buried in All Saints Church, Chelsea.

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Labyrinth of Light – two more weeks

IMG_0552There is good news for anyone who hasn’t yet had the chance to nip down to see this stunning installation outside St Giles Cripplegate at the Barbican. Originally planned to last just over the period of Lent, Jim Buchanan’s glorious projection of a labyrinth of light from the roof of the church onto the old churchyard below will now stay in place for the next couple of weeks.  So if you are in the area over the holiday period why not pop along one evening to enjoy it?

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The labyrinth’s creator Jim Buchanan is a landscape artist based in Dumfries, Scotland and he is one of the world’s leading creators of labyrinths.  Originally trained as a landscape architect,  Jim has a particular interest in creating ephemeral labyrinths. He  works internationally, using  earth, water, ice and fire as well as light projection.  This is the third time that Jim has created a light labyrinth for St Giles, but the first time it has been projected outside the church, where it now nestles into the space between the church and the City of London Girls’ School.

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London Labyrinths

Kings Cross Labyrinth

King’s Cross Labyrinth Mural, Varnishers Yard N1

Eagle-eyed readers may notice that a detail from this installation is pictured on my website.  Labyrinths have played quite a large part in my life since my partner developed a deep interest in all things labyrinthine some years ago. A quick glance round our living room reveals several labyrinth artefacts. On the mantelpiece alone I can see a small lace labyrinth, a photograph of a labyrinth made from sand on a beach and an invitation to a labyrinth gathering in Texas. Casting my eye around further, I spot the cover of the yellow paperback edition of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Dans le labyrinth, an A1-size conference poster about labyrinth initiatives hiding unsuccessfully behind a chair, and a wooden chest in the window bay that contains plastic and wood finger labyrinths, a small fabric labyrinth and other bits of labyrinth kit.

Much of the last few days have been spent checking the index to my partner’s forthcoming book about … (yes, of course it is about labyrinths!) and so much in need of fresh air and exercise I set out for a long walk, but the labyrinth doesn’t let me go…

Phillip O'Reilly Kings X labyrinth

King’s Cross Labyrinth mural detail

 

Tucked away in the Regent Quarter between Caledonian Road, York Way and Pentonville Road; Phillip O’Reilly’s ceramic installation can be found on the wall of Varnishers Yard. The glazed tiles that make up the seven metre by seven metre mural were hand made in the artist’s Peckham studio and use images of local industry, films, novels and plants. So if you peer closely you might just make out trains, barges and local parks.  The labyrinth is one of two Wall-Works commissioned from O’Reilly by P&O Estates.

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Fen Court

 

The labyrinth on Fen Court, just off Fenchurch Avenue in the City, aims to provide a space for quiet contemplation in the midst of the hustle and bustle of City life.  Fen Court is the site of the old graveyard of St Gabriel Fenchurch, destroyed by the Great Fire in 1666 and never rebuilt.

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Fen Court

 

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Fen Court, EC3

 

Unlike many of the City’s squares and gardens, Fen Court is often far from tranquil.  It is a busy thoroughfare with  several doors opening onto it and smokers from nearby offices making good use of a strategically placed ash tray. Only at the weekend is it possible to get clear sight of the 5-circuit paved path and for a pigeon to enjoy the space undisturbed by human feet.

The labyrinth in front of the entrance to The Warren Playground on Whitfield Street in Fitzrovia is also paved and not especially conspicuous.  Indeed I had stood on it more than once without realising that the pattern of the pavers at my feet was a labyrinth.

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The Warren Playground Labyrinth

 

As with Fen Court it is not ideally suited to the contemplative walker as it provides the link between road and playground, but it is a good size for children to race around its square seven-circuit path based on a medieval pattern.  Presumably the existence of a labyrinth and the name of the playground both play homage to nearby Warren Street.

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Warren Street tile motif

 

The tiling on the Victoria Line platforms of Warren Street station depicts a warren.  Not the single twisting, turning, though essentially unimpeded path of the labyrinth, but the tricks and dead ends of a maze – designed to confound. I’ve always enjoyed the bold pattern and bright colours of these tiles, but the link is erroneous as Warren Street takes it’s name from Anne Warren, wife of Charles Fitzroy, first Baron Southampton who laid out Warren Street’s houses in 1799.

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Labyrinth at Warren Street

 

Though of course there is a labyrinth on this as on all tube stations – part of Labyrinth, Mark Wallinger’s artwork celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Tube with 270 individual vitreous enamel artworks echoing the Tube’s roundel logo.

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Labyrinth of Light – St Giles Cripplegate

 

Not all labyrinths are permanent, nor can all be seen during the day.  One of London most impressive labyrinths of the last few weeks has been landscape artist, Jim Buchanan’s stunning Labyrinth of Light cast onto the ground in front of St Giles Cripplegate and overlooked by the Barbican Centre across the water.

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Installing the light labyrinth

The pattern is projected from the roof of St Giles Cripplegate each evening between dusk and about 10pm. But if you want to see it you need to hurry, as the installation is only for Lent and will finish on Wednesday 23rd March.

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Matthew Flinders – the man who named Australia

Matthew Flinders statue euston

Mark Richards’ bronze statue of Matthew Flinders has been on the concourse of Euston station for almost two years but seldom gets the attention it deserves. Much of the time it is almost hidden among  passengers waiting  for trains who hardly notice what they rest their coffee cup on or where they perch to eat a sandwich and send a text message.  The modern traveller’s concentration on our contemporary tools of navigation and communication is mirrored  by the statue.  Matthew Flinders looks down, dividers in hand, concentrating only on his charts and making calculations with the tools of his own time.

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Later in the evening, when the crowds have died away and the rubbish has been cleared, Captain Flinders and Trim, his feline companion, are still hard at work. But now we can see what the work is. The chart is Australia. Although Flinders is not well known in his native country, his name (and that of his cat) are household words in Australia.

Matthew Flinders was a Lincolnshire lad, born on 16th March 1774. He went to sea with the Navy at 15, sailed with Captain Bligh to Tahiti and became a passionate and talented cartographer.  Flinders made three voyages to the Southern Ocean.  On the second, with his friend and colleague George Bass, he discovered that Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) was a separate island rather than part of the mainland.  On the third he became the first person to circumnavigate the Australia and to identify it as a continent. In fact we owe the name Australia to Matthew Flinders who was the first to apply it specifically to the continent and who popularised it in his book Voyage to Terra Australis. 

Returning home from his final voyage, Flinders became caught up in the wars between France and England, was arrested as a spy and detained in Ile de France (Mauritius) for more than six years.

Flinders Plaque Fitzroy Street

52 Fitzroy Street

During this time he was able to make notes for Voyage to Terra Australis and on his return in 1810 he settled in London, renting rooms in Soho and Fitzrovia to afford the access to the Admiralty and to his patron Sir Joseph Banks that he needed in order to complete his book and an atlas of his maps.  London was expensive; he did not receive the promotion he hoped for and was living on half pay.  His health was poor and he lived only another four years, just long enough to see publication of his book and dying at the age of forty.

Books seem to have played a large part in Matthew Flinders’ life, and he clearly made time for fiction.  As a boy, he had been inspired to seek a Naval career after reading the adventures of Robinson Crusoe. Trim the cat was named after Uncle Toby’s manservant in Tristram Shandy on account of his ‘great fidelity and affection’. Trim was a ship’s cat born in the South Seas.  He circumnavigated Australia, survived shipwreck and was the subject of a biographical tribute written by Flinders when he was detained in Mauritius.

But what are Flinders and Trim doing on Euston Station?  Sadly, the answer relates to  Matthew Flinders’ death.  When Flinders died he was buried at St James Church, Hampstead Road, London. When the burial ground was closed to burials in the mid-nineteenth century and later opened as a public garden, part of the land was lost to the development of the railway.  It is said that Matthew Flinders’ final resting place may lie beneath what is now platforms 12-15 of Euston Station.

Something of Matthew Flinders’ flair and methodological approach seems to have passed down the generations. Matthew’s only child Anne, was the mother of Flinders Petrie, the pioneering Egyptologist whose extensive collection of Egyptian antiquities now resides a stone’s throw from Euston in UCL’s Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology. Petrie’s  brain (and head), deposited with the Royal College of Surgeons  in nearby Lincoln’s Inn Fields, were reputedly brought back by his widow in a hatbox from Jerusalem where his body is buried.

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