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Discovering London

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Thursday, 31 March 2011

Icon Born in a London Stable

This plaque commemorates the fact that the first  Bentley car was built  here in a garage converted from a mews stable at Number 48 Chagford Street, Marylebone, London. 

It is a private plaque, businesses are not generally recognised under the "official" English Heritage scheme .

Bentley has become a byword for luxury, “extraordinary speed, exquisitely handcrafted and beautifully engineered” cars, but these are unlikely surroundings.

Before World War I W.O. Bentley was a successful competitive motorcyclist. During the war he made aircraft engines for the newly formed RAF. In 1919, with the war over ”W.O.” turned his attention to the dream of building a car that would satisfy his own “extraordinarily high expectations as a driver, as an engineer, as a competitor and as a gentleman”. He wanted  “A fast car, a good car, the best in its class.”

In October 1919 at his service shop in Chagford Street, he fired up the very first Bentley engine, the enormous, by the standards of the day, Bentley  3-litre.

He now just needed to build a car around it. In those days car makers just produced the chassis and engine, it was up to the customer to employ a coach maker to finish the vehicle. Rich purchasers also bought the very best coachwork.

A reviewer wrote “For the man who wants a true sporting type of light-bodied car for use on a Continental tour, the three-litre Bentley is undoubtedly the car par excellence.”.

After five Le Mans victories, the car became an icon of the motor industry and it all started here in Chagford Street.

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A Cottage with a Sinister Past

This is  the entrance to "Duck Keeper's Cottage" in St James's Park, London. Duck Keepers really did live here once but their story can wait for another post.

Today, I want to look at the negative role this  picturesque little cottage has played in changing ecosystems around the world.

The cottage was built as the club house of the Ornithological Society of London, they were responsible for looking after the all the exotic birds in St James’s Park. They had money but lacked expertise and made a poor job of it.

In 1867 The Acclimatisation Society of the United Kingdom,  merged with the Ornithological Society and together they began to share Society’s club house on Duck Island.

The Acclimatisation Society brought with them considerable expertise and experience in helping non-native species adapt to life in the UK. It seemed a match made in heaven.

It wasn’t.

The Acclimatisation Society had sister organisations in France, America, Australia and New Zealand. They all shared a mission to transplant interesting new plants and animals across the globe. In terms of animals, "interesting" often meant tasty.

"Acclimatisation Dinners" were held on Duck Island. At one "Steamed Kangaroo" was served to members to help them judge whether it was worth introducing kangaroos to England, they decided not to.

But for a few brief years members of this global movement did achieve some "successful" acclimatisations. These were the people who brought Cane toads and Rabbits to Australia, both creatures that are major pests to this day, and to Britain they brought Japanese knotweed and Grey squirrels.The Grey squirrels drove out the native Reds and knotweed has caused more damage to buildings and structures than any other plant.

Another example of the eccentricity of the Society was the introduction of starlings to America.

A New York Member of the society, Eugene Schiffilin, thought it would be interesting for Americans to be able to see all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays. Starlings are mentioned in Henry IV, so with help from his friends in St James’s Park, he arranged a consignment of 100 starlings to be sent from London to New York and he released them in Central Park.

Today there are over 200 million starlings in the USA, they have driven many native birds to the brink of extinction and cause millions of Dollars worth of crop damage.

Each time I see people feeding Grey squirrels by the cottage, I smile. I doubt they realise that behind the "chocolate box" exterior lies a story of global environmental damage.

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Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Spitalfields in Modern Times

I was having a pint in the Ten Bells on Commercial Street, London, last night. I have always liked this atmospheric Victorian pub. The fantastic tiles are now to be complemented with a new painting. As I sipped my cider I watched the hanging of "Spitalfields in Modern Times"

This painting complements the tiled image of "Spitalfields in Olden Times" that has always been in the bar.

The witty new work, complete with Gilbert & George on either side of the picture, now needs to be varnished to make it look ceramic.

I will post another picture when the work is complete and try to find out a little about the artist.

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Before the Frog

Another William Reid Dick statue, this is his eagle on the 1923 RAF memorial on Victoria Embankment, London.

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Thomas Goode's Elephants

I mentioned the Aspinalls bronze elephant the other day. Nearby are two china ones in the showroom windows of Thomas Goode in South Audley Street, Mayfair, London.

These 7ft bone china elephants on display were designed by Goode and manufactured by the Minton Factory for the Great Exhibition in Paris in 1889. The cost? £6 million for the pair. Somehow I don't think they would ever really want to sell them.

One day I might photograph them from inside the shop but walking round their showrooms can be nerve wracking for a clumsy bloke like me. The thought of knocking something over when there are items priced upto £650K makes you very aware of every movement!

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Tuesday, 29 March 2011

The Best Pubs in London - A Sam Smiths Map

For me Sam Smiths run the best pubs in London. All of them feel authentic, restorations are always sympathetic. Many such as Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, The Princess Louise and The Cittie of Yorke will be familiar, less well known gems include The Gazebo and The Angel in Bermondsey. All in all there are 37 treats (well currently 35 that I know of) waiting to be enjoyed.

·     None have music or TV. The prices are exceptionally good, under £2.50 for a pint They also  serve decent and reasonable food with some veggie options.

·     All beers are produced by the brewery and are made without any additives and are suitable for vegans. They also produce fully organic beers. All other drinks and snacks are Sam Smith brands too. You cannot buy a Coke or a Jack Daniels!

Sam Smiths  never advertise. They do not even put their name on their pub signs or publish a list of the pubs they own. This gives them a “hidden gem” allure. 

James Gretton has done a fantastic job tracking them all down and producing a map to help spotters. 

This will make it so much easier to complete my "set", thank you!

(A couple of notes, The Cardinal is currently closed for a refurb and the George & Vulture is more of a restaurant than a pub.)

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London Pride by Noel Coward

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Hyde Park London - Birthplace of Modern Cinema?

The Royal Parks say on their website that “The world's first moving pictures were filmed near Apsley Gate, Hyde Park Corner, London,  one morning in January 1889 by a British inventor, William Friese-Greene.”

Friese-Greene did indeed use his invention, a camera that could take a jumpy 10 frames per second in the South East corner of the park in 1889. He even wrote to Edison when he was granted a patent on his camera, to say “beat you to it” so to speak. But Friese Greene wasn’t great at follow through, instead of working to perfect his system he simultaneously began work on a two completely different systems one in colour and even more astonishingly one in 3D.

The film he used in Hyde Park could only be developed onto paper so it is difficult to see how he could have ever projected the images he took, though some claim that he did. Perhaps it is fair to say that his system proved to be an evolutionary dead end and did not really contribute to the development of cinema but we can still recognise him as the man who took the very first moving images.

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Pet Cemetery in Hyde Park

The little pet cemetery at Victoria Gate in Hyde Park, London, didn’t so much officially open in 1880 but rather it evolved from then, following one particular burial. 

Prince George, the Duke of Cambridge, was at the time not only Commander in Chief of the British Army  but also the Ranger of Hyde Park.

Prince George was a colourful Royal who had an invalid marriage with an actress, Louisa Fairbrother. When his wife (Mrs Fitzgeorge, as she was now known) lost her favourite dog,  George used his position and instructed  the gate-keeper a Mr.Windbridge, to give the dog a decent burial in the garden of his lodge. (The dog was also called Prince!) The idea caught on in society circles and within 25 years, Mr.Windbridge's  garden had been almost completely filled with the graves of over 300 various upper class pets, dogs, cats, birds, and even a monkey.

A lack of space and changing tastes during  the First World War made the cemetery less fashionable. Only a tiny handful of burials have taken place there since 1915 the last being a regimental mascot in 1967.

The cemetery can only properly be viewed by appointment now but it is still possible to glimpse the little headstones and their inscriptions through the railings.

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The Real Pongo Lived Here Too!

2011 is the 40th anniversary of the release of  Disney's animated 101 Dalmatians.

Dodie Smith, author of the original book, One Hundred and One Dalmatians lived here at Number 19, Dorset Square London. This is the private plaque provided by St Marylebone Society, a local history and conservation organisation.

Her flat at number 19 was decorated in fashionable monochrome with white carpets and black curtains, she joked ‘All I need now is a Dalmatian.’ . Her husband was wondering what to buy her as a birthday present and was inspired by this remark to purchase "Pongo" for her 38th birthday.

Later a friend, admiring Pongo's fine fur, remarked that ‘He would make a nice fur coat,’ and Dodie had her inspiration.

As we celebrate the film, let's not forget the charms of the original book. The book really concentrates on  dog behaviour and psychology and is very wittily written to appeal to parents as much as to children and of course in the book, Pongo is never married to Perdita, his constant companion is Missis! A quick read and an amusing one.

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Elephant in Curzon Street

This fantastic little bronze elephant can be found outside Aspinalls Gambling Club in Curzon Street, Mayfair London. The club was founded in 1962 by the late John Aspinall, a colourful and sometimes controversial figure, who had a great passion for wildlife and who set up two animal parks in Kent, Howletts and Port Lympne. Profits from the club still support the parks' work in protecting and breeding endangered species.

The elephants left ear has been polished by members rubbing it for luck on their way into the club!

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Dung Beetles in a Royal Park

These enormous bronze Dung Beetles are by Wendy Taylor CBE 1999. They stand outside the Millennium Conservation Building at London Zoo in Regent's Park. She has produced a lot of public sculpture in London but this is my favourite piece.The inherent humour of both the subject and the heroic scale, highlight the vital ecological role played by dung beetles in a way that can be appreciated by all.

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Sunday, 27 March 2011

K2 Uncovered!

With the main gates of the Royal Academy in Piccadilly closed against protestors, there was a rare chance to have a clear view of this significant phone box.

This is Giles Gilbert Scott’s wooden prototype of  his classic K2 design. The very one that won the 1924 competition organised by the General Post Office &  Royal Fine Arts Commission.  It is the forerunner of all those familiar red phone boxes.

Normally with the RA gates open,  this little listed building is hidden, although it does still work and is unusually clean. 

The other RA phone box, which stands opposite and to the east, is a regular production version of the K2.

For in-depth information on all telephone box related matters see:


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Down With This Sort of Thing!

Spotted in Grosvenor Place yesterday evening.

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Saturday, 26 March 2011

Burlington Bertie

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Friday, 25 March 2011

61 Curzon Street Squatters - HQ for a London riot?

I was walking around Mayfair today and spotted this.

An unusual sight in this moneyed and very privileged part of town!

As I got nearer I saw the door covered with these posters.

Later in the day a new banner had been unfurled.

There were a few leaflets by the door, I picked one up and scanned it.

The text of the leaflet says "You may choose to sit down for a while and hold a ‘People’s Assembly’. Or leave the official route to do something more interesting. Many actions will occur at 11 minutes past 2.00 pm. Act then — or whenever you have the opportunity" 
I do hope that whatever actions are planned, or evolve, from the atmosphere at 2.11pm, they do not involve damaging people or places.

The press release issued by the occupants  is more moderate in tone.

""The BSHQ is not affiliated to any organisation. We have squatted the building at 61 Curzon Street legally to support the anti-cuts demonstration on the 26th of March.

We feel that at a time when the government's cuts are threatening increasing numbers of people with homelessness, the upcoming attack on squatters rights is inhumane. The BSHQ is a good example of why the squatting law should not be changed. This building has been empty for a number of years; we are maintaining it, cleaning it and providing a free place to stay for people who need it, especially participants of the demonstration on the 26th.

We have a "Safer Spaces" policy which aims to create a positive environment free from sexism, racism, homophobia and other forms of oppressive behaviour. Illegal drugs are not allowed and alcohol consumption is limited to a designated area.

We have chosen the name 'The Big Society HQ" as a joke, because David Cameron's concept of "The Big Society" IS a joke: it has no substance. This is what real self-organised community empowerment looks like!"
The property already has an Interim Possession Order on the door from Hamlins solicitors, stating that the hearing to re-claim possession of the property will begin March 30th at 10am.

Tomorrow the Trades Union Congress have a massive 'March for the Alternative' protest from Victoria Embankment to Hyde Park concerning the government cuts.

Many people have become disillusioned with huge protest movements over the years that never seem to achieve any substantial change.

A number of different actions and occupations will also be held around London throughout the day."

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Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Free Champagne?

I have been told that the new Searcy's Champagne Bar at One New Change in the City of London will be offering FREE Champagne all day for their launch on the 30th March. Well worth a look even if we end up needing to buy a glass or two; the view of St Paul's Cathedral is the best I know of.

There are also Boris Anrep mosaics and Charles Wheeler sculptures to admire on the wonderful  roof-top terrace.

Some more details about the location.

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Royal Wedding Cakes Through The Ages

An odd exhibition caught my eye.

Between the  22nd and 25th April Tate & Lyle are sponsoring an exhibition of "Royal Wedding Cakes Through the Ages" it is being held at Wellington Arch, Hyde Park Corner, London, all this of course in celebration of the wedding of Prince William to Kate Middleton on April 29th.

Entrance to the Wellington Arch will be free during the exhibition so a family of four can enjoy the  cakes and the famous views over Buckingham Palace’s gardens whilst saving around £12. You probably know that Tate & Lyle hold the royal warrant for the provision of sugar to the Queen and yes there will be an opportunity to buy a "Limited Edition" pack of their Commemorative Royal Wedding Icing Sugar!

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Boy and Frog

The other day I was asked if I knew the location of the statue "Boy and Frog" in Westminster, London. I had a feeling I had seen it before, in Queen Mary's Gardens in Regent's Park, near to the cafe, but wanted to double check.

After a few searches on Google et al, I had confirmed the location but could not find an image. With the sun shining today I went off to take my own photo. It seemed a shame that William Reid Dick's little 1936 masterpiece was not represented on the web, so here is a first attempt at capturing it.

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