Category Archives: Life-enhancing experiences

Providential curry

Former Providence Place Congregational Chapel, Cleckheaton, West Yorkshire

Former Providence Place Congregational Chapel, Cleckheaton, West Yorkshire

When my curry-loving mate Richard and I go to Bradford to meet my friend Mohammed he usually takes us to one of the many curry houses in inner-city Bradford, but on our last meeting we set off on a mystery tour to Cleckheaton.

Our destination was Aakash, which claims to be the largest curry house in the world.

It occupies the former Providence Place Congregational Chapel of 1857-1859, a gigantic temple of nonconformity designed by the prestigious Bradford practice of Henry Francis Lockwood and William Mawson, who built much that is fine in the Bradford area in the mid-nineteenth century including St George’s Hall (1851-52), the Wool Exchange (1864-7), the City Hall (1869-73), and almost every building in Saltaire (1851-76).

Providence Chapel cost about £9,000, an impressive sum that sounds considerable until it’s compared with the £16,000 that Sir Titus Salt spent on the Congregational Church in Saltaire.  At the time you could get a modest but respectable Gothic parish church for around £4,000.

For their money, Cleckheaton Congregationalists were given seating for 1,500 and a grandeur that would flatter a municipal town hall.  Its ashlar façade has a giant portico of five unfluted Corinthian columns supporting a pediment containing a roundel, surrounded by carved foliage, with the inscription “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will to all men”.  In front are cast-iron gates and lamp standards.

Listed Grade II*, the chapel was described in Nikolaus Pevsner’s Buildings of England as “amazingly pompous for a religious building”.

It closed in 1991 when the remaining congregation combined with the amalgamated Spendborough Group of United Reformed Churches at Grove, Gomersal, and it became an Indian restaurant founded by a former taxi-rank owner, Mohammad Iqbal Tabassum.

It was named Aakash, the Urdu word for “sky”, and the coffered ceiling was painted with clouds.

The box pews inevitably went and the rake of the gallery floor was levelled, but the organ and the pulpit, described by a reviewer at the time as “skip-sized”, remained as a “lookout post” for the restaurant manager.

Sometime before 2008 it closed and reopened under new management.  Perhaps that was when the pulpit was replaced by a series of staircases linking the main floor with the gallery.  The organ pipes remain, heavily painted, but the organ has gone.

The buffet-style curry is as splendid as the surroundings:  http://aakashrestaurant.co.uk.

The simple life

Stoneywell, Ulverscroft, Leicestershire

Stoneywell, Ulverscroft, Leicestershire

I’ve known, ever since the days when I ran country-house tours for Nottingham University, that the people who manage National Trust property contribute to its atmosphere.

So, on my first visit to the recently acquired Stoneywell, just outside Leicester, the warmth of the welcome was striking even on a chilly autumn afternoon.

There’s literally nowhere to park at this property, so visitors are greeted with a minibus at the car-park down the lane.  There is a shop in the stables, and a modest café in the old laundry which is warmed by the original copper.

Strolling in the garden, a survival of the ancient Charnwood Forest, it’s difficult to remember that the outer suburbs of Leicester are only a couple of miles away to the east, and the M1 motorway is barely half a mile to the west.

The house itself is an overgrown cottage, hunched into the hillside rather like an upmarket hobbit house.  It’s built of local materials, and grows organically from the hillside on which it stands, so that its three floors in fact have six different levels on a zig-zag ground plan.

It’s a hugely significant building, commissioned by Sydney Gimson (1860-1938), son of the founder of a Leicester engineering company that built steam engines and other machinery.  It was completed in 1899.

Sydney Gimson bought enough land in Charnwood Forest to provide plots for his older half-brother, Mentor, and his younger sister, Margaret.

He commissioned his younger brother Ernest Gimson (1864-1919) to design Stoneywell, and employed the architect Detmar Blow (1867-1939) as clerk of works.

Both Gimson and Blow were devotees of the Arts & Crafts movement:  Detmar Blow believed that architects should get their hands dirty, which slowed things down and caused some irritation;  Ernest Gimson was closely associated with the Birmingham-born brothers Ernest and Sidney Barnsley, with whom he set up a workshop at Sapperton, Gloucestershire.

For two generations, until the 1950s, Stoneywell was a country retreat for the summer and Christmas, a place of adventure for the children of the family and their friends, and an opportunity to live a simpler life far removed from their town house and the engineering factory in nearby Leicester.

This much-loved place was too good to give up, and so passed down the family, on Sidney’s death in 1938 to his son Basil (who taught at Bedales School, where his uncle Ernest designed the library).

A fire destroyed the thatched roof in 1937 but most of the cottage and its contents survived and were restored, with a roof of local Swithland slate, by Basil’s brother Humphrey Gimson (1890-1982).

When Basil died in 1953, the house passed to his son Donald (born 1924) who gently modernised it for year-round living:  he sold it to the National Trust in 2012 and continues to make periodic visits.

Continuity of ownership means that this exquisite dwelling retains most of its original contents, with tables, chairs, beds and fittings designed and made by Ernest Gimson and the Barnsley brothers.

It’s a testament to the Arts & Crafts values that William Morris promoted through the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings and the Art Workers’ Guild.

The simple life is all well and good.  Janet Ashbee, wife of the architect Charles Robert Ashbee, writes that the artist Roger Fry tried the simple life but found it too complicated and had to give it up.

The Gimsons made it work, shinning up narrow staircases and a ladder to bed well into old age.

And now its beauty is accessible to everyone – provided they book a timed ticket to prevent overcrowding.

One man, one mester

Stan Shaw, spring-knife cutler, Kelham Island Industrial Museum, Sheffield (October 2017)

Stan Shaw, spring-knife cutler, Kelham Island Industrial Museum, Sheffield (October 2017)

My Sheffield’s Heritage tour-group were honoured to be introduced, by Mike, our guide from the Ken Hawley Collection, to Stan Shaw BEM, who at ninety-one is not exactly the last of Sheffield’s little mesters, simply because in his lifetime he has picked up the craft skills of perhaps a dozen of the specialised traditional Sheffield tradesmen.

Technically, he’s a spring-knife cutler:  all his hand-crafted knives have retractable, spring-loaded blades.

Stan tells his own story in a Sheffield Telegraph article dated March 24th 2016 [https://www.sheffieldtelegraph.co.uk/news/life-is-still-at-the-sharp-end-for-expert-sheffield-craftsman-in-his-90th-year-1-7813981]:

“When I got to be 14 years of age I wondered – because I’d never done metalwork or woodwork – what am I going to do for a living?  I went on to Rockingham Street and saw Ibbersons and knocked on the door and said, ‘Can I have a job, Mr Ibberson?’

“I went upstairs to see him, in a little ante-room, and there were all the knives in glass cases.  I said, ‘I want to make them’.  I don’t know why I said it – I’d never used tools in my life – so he sent for his head cutler and said, ‘This lad wants to make knives.  Will you have him?’

“So I started with him the following morning.  I took to it like a duck to water, like it was made for me.”

 Over the decades he gained the expertise to make high-quality, decorative, practical knives that command premium prices, and since he went self-employed in 1987 he has never looked back.

The old hand-craft skills will die with Stan, because he’s consistently declined to take on the paperwork encumbrances that come with apprentices.  He explains in a 2006 interview [http://www.mylearning.org/metalwork-in-sheffield-/p-833] how modern machine-made knives lack the quality he achieves:

“I was taught the proper way with a skilled man.  You’ve got to have somebody teach the proper way and there are a lot of people trying to learn themselves but they can’t.  They try and make as good a job as they can but they’re limited so there is only one way to learn and that is with skilled people who’ve learnt it from his father and his father before him.”

To buy one of Stan’s knives, stamped “Stan Shaw, Sheffield”, you wouldn’t get much change out of £2,000, and you’d have to collect it – wherever in the world you live – because he doesn’t trust them to the post.

And he has a four-year waiting list.

The only clients who don’t have to wait are his grandchildren, to whom he gives knives on their birthdays and Christmas.

No doubt family members, like such other clients as HM Queen Elizabeth II, the Duke of York and President George H W Bush, have to hand over a coin in return, to prevent the friendship being cut.

The best available account of Stan’s life and work is a downloadable illustrated booklet Stan Shaw and the Art of the Pocket Knife (2016) by the Sheffield industrial historian Geoffrey Tweedale [http://contrib2.wkfinetools.com/tweedaleG/stanShaw/0_img/TWEEDALE-Stan%20Shaw-(12-12-2016).pdf] – an example of a craftsman in words writing about a craftsman in steel, silver, brass, wood, bone, stag-horn, buffalo-horn, abalone, tortoiseshell and mother-of-pearl.

Christmas in a T-shirt: St Maarten

Methodist Church, Philipsburg, Sint Maarten

Methodist Church, Philipsburg, Sint Maarten

When my friend Jenny and I cruised the eastern Caribbean in 2011, one of our stops was in the tiny town of Philipsburg in the divided island which is the Dutch Sint Maarten in the south and the French St Martin in the north.

I’d have liked to explore both halves of this fascinating place, which was named by Christopher Columbus and has been divided since the Treaty of Concordia of 1648.

But when you’re on a cruise you can’t afford to miss the boat.

So Jenny and I settled for refreshing cool drinks at the Fire House [https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Restaurant_Review-g147347-d2618585-Reviews-Firehouse_Bar_and_Restaurant-Philipsburg_Sint_Maarten_St_Maarten_St_Martin.html], a shrine for emergency workers on holiday.

It sits on the Boardwalk, overlooking the beach and the beach-umbrellas.

But even the sunny, unassuming Philipsburg has history connections I can recognise.

One block in from the Boardwalk, on the Voorstraat [Front Street], stands Philipsburg Methodist Church, which at the time was celebrating its 160th anniversary.

I’m used to nonconformist churches in Britain having annual anniversary festivals, but I wasn’t expecting to see one in the Caribbean.

In fact, there seems to have been a Methodist presence on St Maarten since the mid-eighteenth century.

There has been a chapel on Voorstraat since 1851, hence the anniversary, though the present building, with its tile-hung façade, slim porch and stubby little tower, is a reconstruction of 1957.

There are images of its galleried interior at http://filipdemuinck-kristelpardon.blogspot.co.uk/2013/01/the-methodist-church-of-philipsburg-st.html.

I wrote this article, and last year’s article on Martinique, before the Caribbean suffered significant hurricane damage in 2017.

Following Pevsner’s footsteps

Wentworth Woodhouse, West Wing, Long Gallery

Wentworth Woodhouse, West Wing, Long Gallery

I’ve known Ruth Harman for a long time, ever since she worked in Sheffield Archives and patiently tutored me when I knew even less about historical research than I do now.

Latterly she went on to co-write, with John Minnis, the Pevsner City Guide for Sheffield (Yale University Press 2004):  https://www.amazon.co.uk/Sheffield-Pevsner-City-Guides-Architectural/dp/0300105851/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1509034870&sr=8-1&keywords=Pevsner+City+Guide+Sheffield.

In recent years I’ve occasionally encountered her, notepad in hand, investigating historic buildings across the former West Riding in preparation for her edition of Pevsner’s Buildings of England:  West Riding:  Sheffield and the South (Yale University Press 2017):  https://www.amazon.co.uk/Yorkshire-West-Riding-Sheffield-Architectural/dp/0300224680/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1509032022&sr=8-1&keywords=Pevsner+West+Riding+South.

It’s apparent that you turn up all sorts of strange facts when you revise a Pevsner:  Ruth once proudly told me that she’d found a lighthouse in the landlocked West Riding:  http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/1971566.

I was privileged to attend the launch of Ruth’s book at Wentworth Woodhouse in September, and it was only when I handled a copy that I realised the scale of her achievement.  Sir Nikolaus Pevsner himself, in 1959, covered the whole of the West Riding in 610 pages;  a revision by Enid Radcliffe seven years later added forty-two more pages.

Ruth’s 841 pages cover, in much more detail, only the southern half of the old West Riding, from the southern boundary of Sheffield to the outskirts of York, and from Blackshaw Head near Todmorden in the west to Adlingfleet, beyond Goole in the east.

(The equivalent volume for the northern half of the West Riding was published in 2009:  https://www.amazon.co.uk/Yorkshire-West-Riding-Architectural-Buildings/dp/0300126654/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1509032672&sr=1-1&keywords=Pevsner+West+Riding+North.)

The invitation to the book launch also gave me the opportunity of a conducted tour of Wentworth Woodhouse where, for the first time in all the years I’ve known the building, back to when it was a teacher-training college, I set foot in the formerly private West Wing, the so-called “Back Front”.

Judge not…

23 Forman Street, Nottingham

23 Forman Street, Nottingham

Photo:  Harriet Buckthorp

Diners at the Foreman Street, Nottingham, branch of Prezzo [https://www.prezzorestaurants.co.uk/restaurant/nottingham-forman-street/?s=Nottingham%20NG5,%20United%20Kingdom&lng=-1.1390802999999323&lat=53.00821670000001&f] are mostly unaware of the history of the site.

In the late nineteenth century 23 Foreman Street was a well-known brothel, distinguished as the scene of the demise of Sir Charles Henry Watkin Williams, a High Court judge who, according to a pointedly satirical memorial card, “departed this life suddenly at Mrs Salmands” on the evening of July 17th 1884 aged 55.

After dinner at the Judge’s Lodgings he had gone to visit a young lady called Nellie Banks at Mrs Salmands.  There is a factual account in Reynolds’s News, July 27th 1884.

The gangster ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser, in his compendium of criminality, Mad Frank’s Britain (Random House 2012), p 107, felicitously describes what happened:  “the old gentleman gave a sort of grunt and she thought he’d come, but he’d gone”.

By the time the police returned Sir Watkin Williams’ corpse to the Judge’s Lodgings too many people knew what had happened for the story to be concealed.

The borough coroner, Mr Arthur Brown, was clearly under considerable pressure to limit his inquiries, and he had to lean hard to make the inquest jury fulfil their oath to establish “when, where, how, and by what means” the judge had met his death.

It appeared that Sir Watkin suffered from aneurism of the aorta and, according to his doctor’s recommendation, he really should have been more careful.

Reynolds’s News reported the affair with a degree of circumspection, under a headline “DISCREDITABLE DEATH OF A JUDGE”, in an article more than a column in length that invited readers to use their imaginations.

The memorial-card broadsheet was altogether more succinct:

…in eight feet deep of solid earth

Sir Watkin Williams lies.

He lost his breath,

which caused his death,

‘twixt Nellie Blankey’s thighs.

Nellie Banks was an enterprising young lady.  My friend Stewart tracked her down in the Boston Guardian dated August 2nd 1884 where her name is meticulously rendered in inverted commas:

She was the housekeeper of a farmer at Butterwick who, in the early part of this year, absconded with a large sum of money and with [the] young lady in question made a trip to Paris.  He was on his return to this country apprehended as a fraudulent bankrupt aboard an Inman Line steamer as he and “Nelly” were about to emigrate to America.

She is described as aged 22, pale and slender and about five feet high.  She would have thrived in an age of reality TV and social media.

Nothing much remains of Mrs Salmand’s premises, but the story gives an entertaining twist to dining at Prezzo.

Hotel Adlon

Hotel Adlon Kempinski, Unter den Linden, Berlin

Hotel Adlon Kempinski, Unter den Linden, Berlin

I went into the Hotel Adlon Kempinski Berlin [https://www.kempinski.com/en/berlin/hotel-adlon] to use the restroom and stayed in the elegant lobby for a cup of coffee.

The atmosphere is all you’d expect of a five-star hotel – comfortable armchairs, attentive staff, piano music.  It’s obviously a modern building, but the saucer-dome with stained glass above the lobby is a strong hint that it harks back to an elegant predecessor:  https://www.forbes.com/sites/troymcmullen/2017/07/25/an-updated-hotel-adlon-kempinski-adds-glamour-to-its-history/#3ce177ae74db.

Indeed, the original Hotel Adlon was opened in 1907 after its proprietor, the restaurateur Lorenz Adlon (1849-1927), secured the backing of Kaiser Wilhelm II to bring to Berlin a rival to the new Ritz hotels of London and Paris.

The site Adlon chose was next to the Brandenburg Gate, surrounded by the British, French and American embassies and close to major German government buildings.

The Kaiser and his government contracted the hotel to reserve accommodation for visiting dignitaries, and the place became a magnet for the powerful, rich and famous.

Adlon was understandably a staunch monarchist, and after the Kaiser was deposed in 1918 refused to acknowledge that the central arch of the Brandenburg Gate was available to anyone other than royalty.  Twice he crossed the archway without looking and was knocked down:  the first time, in 1918, he survived;  the second time, in 1927, he was killed.

The hotel survived the Second World War, only to be burnt down by Red Army soldiers raiding the wine cellars on May 2nd 1945.  The owner-manager Louis Adlon, Lorenz’s son, was apparently shot by Soviet troops who were misled by a servant addressing him as “Generaldirektor“ into thinking him a military general.

The ruined building stood until 1952, with a makeshift hotel running in the former service wing until the 1970s.  This remnant was itself demolished in 1984.

The replacement hotel, which makes no attempt to reproduce the original but shares its style and proportions, opened in 1997:  http://www.ibtmworld.com/__novadocuments/381845?v=636390059715670000.

It was the location of the singer Michael Jackson’s ill-advised dangling his son out of an upstairs window in 2002.

A cup of coffee costs €7.50.  That includes a free pastry the size of a thimble.

Brandenburger Tor

Brandenburg Gate, Berlin, Germany

Brandenburg Gate, Berlin, Germany

I grew up with an image in my head of Berlin as a war-torn, divided, miserable city that, in the 1950s and 1960s, I was fairly unlikely to visit.

The dominant image of Berlin at that time was the Brandenburg Gate, battered by war, isolated by the obscenity of the Berlin Wall.

When the Wall came down in 1989 the most memorable images were those with the Brandenburg Gate in the background.

So on my first visit to Berlin, late in life, the Brandenburg Gate was my first priority, from which unfolded my explorations of this vibrant, lively city.

Designed by Carl Gotthard Langhans (1732-1808), it was built 1788-91, its six columns providing five arches, the outer two on each side for the public and the larger central arch reserved entirely for the king.

Its original function was to mark a customs post on the road from Berlin to the city of Brandenburg.

Napoleon, when he invaded in 1804, made a point of marching through the central arch, and took the Quadriga, Johann Gottfried Schadow’s sculpture of a chariot with four horses, back to Paris.

When the Prussian army occupied Paris in 1814, the Quadriga duly returned to its proper place, and the Gate was redesignated as a triumphal arch and the goddess driving the carriage, originally Eirene, goddess of peace, was kitted out with an Iron Cross and a Prussian eagle and became Victory.

Through the early twentieth century the Gate was part of a busy thoroughfare, connecting Unter den Linden in the east with the leafy parkland of the Tiergarten to the west.

After the war, the wrecked buildings surrounding the Pariser Platz, immediately to the east of the Gate, were flattened, and when the Wall was built in 1961 it became a sad, isolated symbol of the Cold War divisions.

Now the Brandenburg Gate is splendidly restored and the Pariser Platz is bordered by new buildings.

And, as I discovered, it’s virtually impossible to photograph without a foreground of selfie-takers.

Dig in the park

Firth Park bandstand dig, Sheffield, July 6th 2017

Firth Park bandstand dig, Sheffield, July 6th 2017

When I took my friends John and Lynn for a post-prandial walk in the park we came upon a deserted trench, surrounded by security fencing.

We were intrigued to see brickwork exposed, and I surmised that it would have some connection with the bandstand that I knew stood on the park from the Edwardian period until it was demolished in the 1970s.

Sure enough, when I saw activity a couple of days later and walked across to ask what was going on I discovered it was Dig it!, a project led by Dr Katherine Fennelly, Lecturer in Heritage at the University of Lincoln, and Colin Merrony from the Department of Archaeology at Sheffield, a happy combination of academic investigation and outreach to encourage local school and college students to take an interest in the fascination of archaeology and to think about taking the opportunity to study at university:  https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/archaeology/news/digit_2017-1.714348.

Teenagers are likely to take notice when they see young people a few years older than they are – in this case Sheffield University students Ceiridwen Blakesley and David Inglis – enjoying themselves with hands-on work that also requires serious thinking.

By the end of the two-week dig the team had determined the dimensions of the octagonal bandstand from its remaining foundations, and had decided that the brick-lined compartment in the centre was a furniture store accessed by a trap-door in the wooden floor of the bandstand.

The exercise will be all the more valuable if, sometime in the next five years, some kid from a north Sheffield school decides they want to train their mind and expand their career by going to university, whatever they choose to study.

And I trust the Department of Archaeology will continue to Dig It! – after all, in archaeology as in show business, you’re only as good as your last dig.

The Victorian Society South Yorkshire Group has a meeting that includes a talk by Kathy Clark of Historic England on Bandstands on Thursday November 23rd 2017 at 7.30pm at the Friends Meeting House, St James’ Street, Sheffield, S1 2EW.  There is a charge of £5.00.

 

 

Niagara by bus

London Transport RM1102, operated by Double Deck Tours, Niagara Falls, Ontario (2001)

London Transport RM1102, operated by Double Deck Tours, Niagara Falls, Ontario (2001)

My explorations on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls were enlivened by the opportunity to travel by London Transport Routemaster bus:  http://www.doubledecktours.com.

The outside temperature in late July was pushing 100°F (37.8°C) and the nearest a Routemaster goes to air-conditioning is to open the top-deck quarter-drop windows and the rear emergency-exit window and hope for a through-draught.

There’s no better way to survey the passing scene than the top deck of a bus, and Niagara-based Double Deck Tours have a sizeable fleet of around twenty Routemasters:  http://www.old-bus-photos.co.uk/wp-content/themes/Old-Bus-Photos/galleries/double_deck_toures/double_deck_tours.php.

The red double-deck London bus qualifies for the over-used expression “icon”.  Alongside the San Francisco cable-car and the trams of Melbourne and Hong Kong, it’s instantly recognisable – and unlike rail-borne icons – easily exportable.

London still has heritage Routemasters running tourists across the West End, though they were removed from ordinary services in 2005.

It’s possible to ride on genuine London buses in many parts of the world:  my introduction to Christchurch, New Zealand, a few days before the 2011 earthquake, was on a Routemaster that took the steep and sharply curved Mount Pleasant Road without complaint:  http://www.mikehigginbottominterestingtimes.co.uk/?p=1228.

Apart from their nostalgia appeal, the Routemaster has the advantage of being an extremely robust, well-designed vehicle with extraordinary longevity, attributable to the maintenance programme which amounted to a full rebuild every five years at the London Transport works at Aldenham.

The Routemaster was an improvement on its predecessor, the RT.  It’s regrettable that when the traditional two-man-operated, open-platform Routemaster was superseded by off-the-shelf vehicles from commercial manufacturers, none of them have lasted so well.

Like the High Speed Train, the Routemaster stands as unbeatable British design that wasn’t directly followed up.

Nearly half of the 2,876 Routemasters built between 1954 and 1968 are still in existence, and there’s no difficulty in obtaining spares.  Indeed, Routemaster owners have an association to call on for assistance and rallies can attract over a hundred vehicles from far and wide:  http://routemaster.org.uk/pages/diamondjubilee.