Monthly Archives: July 2014

Castle for climbing

Former Green Lanes Pumping Station, now the Castle Climbing Centre, Stoke Newington, London

Former Green Lanes Pumping Station, now the Castle Climbing Centre, Stoke Newington, London

The flat plain of Stoke Newington is the last place anyone would expect to find a castle.

The strange-looking folly at the junction of Green Lanes and Manor Road was built as a water-supply pumping station in 1852-6 by William Chadwell Mylne (1781-1863), the Surveyor of the New River Company from 1810 to 1861, at a cost of £81,500.

The elaborate architectural treatment by Robert William Billings (1813-1874) is said to have been a response to the complaints of local residents in what was then an entirely rural area.

Though the cluster of turrets and buttresses is picturesque, every feature has a function:  the taller of the two towers, 150 feet high, was the boiler-house chimney;  the other tower contained the water-tank and the smaller turret provided staircase access to the roof.  The buttresses housed the three flywheels of the two engines, Lion and Lioness.

The steam engines were replaced by 1936 by a combination of diesel engines and electric pumps, which operated until 1971.

Demolition proposals led to a local outcry, and the building was listed Grade II* but remained unused until 1994 when planning permission was given to turn it into the Castle Climbing Centre [http://www.castle-climbing.co.uk/the-centre], which opened the following year.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Survivals & Revivals:  past views of English architecture, please click here.

Sir John Brown’s church

All Saints' Church, Ellesmere Road, Sheffield (1976)

All Saints’ Church, Ellesmere Road, Sheffield (1976)

My local community magazine, the Burngreave Messenger (Issue 112, June 2014), recently included an article by Elizabeth and Gordon Shaw about the Cornerstone, a stone-built community centre on the corner of Carwood Road and Grimesthorpe Road on the hill above Sheffield’s industrial east end.

The article proudly commemorates the continuous 127-year history of what was originally the meeting hall (1887) for the now vanished All Saints’ Church, Brightside, founded in 1869 by the steel magnate John Brown (1816-1896, Sir John Brown from 1867).

It’s good that this modest building is still used and valued, but it’s a great pity Sir John’s great church was demolished in 1978:  http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/3824154.

Like his neighbour and rival, Mark Firth, John Brown rose from humble origins in the Sheffield cutlery trade:  his successive breakthroughs were inventing the conical spring railway-buffer, which he eventually included in his coat of arms, manufacturing railway rails from Bessemer steel and rolling armour plate to clad ships of the Royal Navy.

On the hill above his works Sir John erected a magnificent Gothic church designed by Flockton & Abbott with a spire that could be seen from miles around.  When the original budget of £5,000 proved inadequate he flatly refused to accept a contribution from the Church Extension Society:  the final cost was £12,000.

This huge, cruciform parish church would have served as a small cathedral.  It inevitably became unsupportable as the surrounding housing was cleared.

It and the neighbouring Petre Street Methodist Chapel were replaced by a diminutive Local Eceumenical Partnership building, St Peter’s Ellesmere, which has a token spire:  http://www.burngreavemessenger.org/community/belief-in-burngreave/st-peters-ellesmere.

When All Saints’ came down the eight bells were rescued and passed on to the 1911 Austen & Paley church of St Anne, Worksop.  The war-memorials were transferred to St George’s, Portobello, which itself closed in 1981 and is now used by Sheffield University for lectures and student accommodation.

All Saints’ is the biggest single architectural loss, as a historic building and as a landmark, in the Lower Don Valley, the site of Sheffield’s heavy steel industry, a place with little beauty and a tremendous story to tell.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Survivals & Revivals:  past views of English architecture, please click here.

Mark Firth’s monument

Sheffield General Cemetery:  Mark Firth monument

Sheffield General Cemetery: Mark Firth monument

Mark Firth (1819-1880) was a significant figure in the life of Victorian Sheffield.  His father had been head smelter of the long-established steel manufacturer Sanderson Brothers, but Mark and his brother Thomas Jnr set up their own works in 1842 and ten years later moved to Savile Street, where the Sheffield & Rotherham Railway entered the town along the flat flood-plain of the Don Valley.

Their Norfolk Works quickly built a reputation for building armaments:  indeed, a veritable arms race took place on Savile Street, as Sir John Brown’s Atlas Works next door developed armour plate to resist the Firth company’s shells.  Though John Brown & Co acquired a majority shareholding in Thomas Firth & Sons in 1902, the two companies operated independently until 1930 when they became Thomas Firth & John Brown, commonly known as Firth Brown Ltd.

Mark Firth and Sir John Brown were also domestic neighbours in Ranmoor, up on the western hills away from the smoke and dirt of Sheffield’s east end:  Mark Firth lived at Oakbrook (c1860) and Sir John lived next door at Endcliffe Hall (1863-5).

Mark Firth enlarged Oakbrook in 1875 when he entertained the Prince and Princess of Wales (latterly King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra) on their visit to open the 36-acre Firth Park, his gift to the city at Page Hall, just over the hill from the Don Valley.

Mark Firth dominated civic life in the years before Sheffield became a city:  indeed, some of his munificence may have made civic status a possibility.  He served as Master Cutler in 1867 and Mayor in 1874.  As well as Firth Park his name is linked to Firth College, opened in 1879, which ultimately became Sheffield University, and the thirty-six Firth Almshouses at Hangingwater, near to his Ranmoor home.

A modest and devout member of the Methodist New Connexion, he retained his links with his working-class roots to the end of his life.  Travelling daily by carriage from Oakbrook back to the works on Savile Street, he lunched on pies cooked by his foreman’s wife.  He was at the Works when he suffered a fatal stroke.

When he died the whole of Sheffield shut up shop for the day, and the funeral procession from Oakbrook stretched two miles to his grave in the General Cemetery, where his monument is now restored and listed Grade II.

The Firth Almshouses continue to operate as a registered charity [http://www.sheffieldhelpyourself.org.uk/full_search_new.asp?group=17923], and Oakbrook has been part of Notre Dame High School since 1919:  http://www.notredame-high.org.uk/index.php/information/item/161-history-of-notre-dame.

Wetherspoon’s historic buildings: Palladium Theatre, Llandudno

Palladium Theatre, Llandudno

Palladium Theatre, Llandudno

J D Wetherspoon is a pub-chain which specialises in cheap food and drink in warm but often cavernous surroundings.  Its pubs are open from early morning to late at night:  you can get breakfast, lunch and dinner there, and it won’t cost an arm and a leg.

The company was founded by a New Zealand-educated entrepreneur called Tim Martin, who named it after a teacher who said he’d never be a success.

This highly successful enterprise has a fine record in rescuing buildings in distress, one of which is the Palladium Theatre, Llandudno, a 1920 cine-variety theatre by Arthur Hewitt of Great Yarmouth.

According to the Theatres Trust it was probably designed before the First World War soon after Hewitt’s surviving Great Yarmouth buildings, the Gem Cinema (1908, latterly the Windmill Cinema) and the Empire Theatre (1911).

The Llandudno Palladium has an imposing classical façade with twin domed towers and an elaborate thousand-seat interior with two balconies, four boxes beside the proscenium and a further three at the rear of the dress circle.  The stage area covers a width of 55 feet and a depth of 32 feet behind a 31-foot-wide proscenium.  There were eight dressing rooms for artistes and a café with a 25-foot-diameter circular foyer for patrons.

Almost all of this survived conversion to cinema use, twinning to accommodate bingo in the stalls in 1972, several subsequent changes of ownership and eventual closure in 1999.

In 2001 J D Wetherspoon took it over and converted it into a sumptuous pub venue, restoring the auditorium and filling the commodious stage area with a viewing gallery, from where you can admire the theatricality of it all on your way to the loo.

Mrs Ronnie

Polesden Lacey, Surrey:  detail

Polesden Lacey, Surrey: detail

Polesden Lacey is one of the National Trust’s most popular country houses, an idyllic place to visit, rich in the atmosphere of the age of Edwardian entertaining, and a commemoration of a gifted hostess.

Margaret Greville was the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy Edinburgh brewer, William McEwan, and a boarding-house landlady, Helen Anderson.  Her parents married when she was twenty-one and, carefully screening her origins, she rose without trace in English society to become the valued confidante of three kings, Edward VII, George V and George VI.  (The Prince of Wales, briefly King Edward VIII, thought her a “bore”, which she seems to have regarded as no great loss.)

A vital step in her ascent was her loving, childless marriage to Ronald Greville. They commissioned Charles Mewès and Arthur Davis, the architects of the Ritz Hotel, to redesign Polesden Lacey in 1906 but Ronald Greville died two years later.

As “Mrs Ronnie”, she entertained at Polesden Lacey and in London, travelled the world, and seemed to know almost everyone of significance in English high society.

Siân Evans’ biography, entitled Mrs Ronnie:  the society hostess who collected kings (National Trust 2013) shows how Margaret Greville used her father’s wealth and her husband’s status to impress the highest in the land.

She endeared herself to King Edward VII while he was still Prince of Wales:  she provided varied, interesting company, the standard of luxury to which he was accustomed, and consummate discretion:  “I don’t follow people into their bedrooms,” she said.  “It’s what they do outside them that’s important.”

After her father’s death in 1913, recognising that she had no family member to whom she could bequeath her substantial wealth, she intimated to King George V and Queen Mary that she would leave her estate to one of their descendants, with a presumption that it should go to their second son, then known as Prince Albert.

This may indicate why the prince brought his bride to Polesden Lacey for part of their honeymoon in 1923:  the thought may have crossed their royal minds that one day all this would be theirs.

Mrs Ronnie lived until 1942, sitting through the Blitz in her penthouse at the Dorchester, teasing her friends who cowered in the basement.  She was buried in the garden at Polesden Lacey near to the house.

Her will revealed that she had left Polesden Lacey to the National Trust, and among her many bequests she willed “with all my loving thoughts all my jewels and jewellery” to Queen Elizabeth.  The Queen took this surprise philosophically, writing to the King, “I am not sure that this isn’t a very good idea because it is a very difficult place to keep up, terribly expensive I believe and needing a millionaire owner”.

Among many other bequests, large and small, Mrs Ronnie left £20,000 to Princess Margaret and £10,000 to Osbert Sitwell.

Her net estate amounted to £1,505,120 5s 10d.

Never forget

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

There are two sites in Cambodia which every visitor should experience.  Without them it’s not possible even to begin to imagine the evil of the Khmer Rouge, the genocidal regime that eviscerated the nation between 1975 and 1979.

The first shock at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in the capital, Phnom Penh, is that the buildings are a standard 1960s high school, four three-storey blocks of classrooms with open corridors and concrete staircases.

This was the Chao Ponhea Yat High School, converted in 1975 by the Khmer Rouge into the notorious Security Prison 21 (S-21), in which as many as twenty thousand people were incarcerated and tortured before being transported to the “Killing Fields”, the Choeung Ek extermination centre. 

Toul Sleng was one of perhaps 150 such sites across Cambodia.

When the Khmer Rouge fled in 1979 they left in place the last fourteen people to be tortured to death in the centre.  The lowest estimate of the victims is seventeen thousand, and there were twelve known survivors, two of whom are still living. 

The site is presented largely as found, with the graves of the fourteen final victims set in a dignified enclosure.  The classrooms remain, as they once were, classrooms, some still with blackboards. 

Some contain the rusty iron beds that were the instruments of interrogation, with photographs on the wall of each room as found.

In one block the classrooms were partitioned into tiny cells, hardly big enough to lie down in, built of clumsy brick on the ground floor and timber on the first;  on the top floor prisoners were simply stacked, side by side, head to toe, in chains.

Other rooms are filled with displays of the mugshots which were routinely taken of terrified victims on arrival, male and female, all ages but many of them hardly more than school-age, [http://chgs.umn.edu/museum/exhibitions/cambodian/s21.html] together with other gruesome images of the centre in operation.

Alongside the Choeung Ek Memorial [http://www.lonelyplanet.com/cambodia/phnom-penh/sights/museums-galleries/killing-fields-choeung-ek], which I didn’t have the chance to see, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum exists to remind future generations of horrors that must not be forgotten, for fear they may be repeated:  http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Attraction_Review-g293940-d324063-Reviews-Tuol_Sleng_Genocide_Museum-Phnom_Penh.html.

Tuol Sleng means “Hill of the Poisonous Trees” or “Strychnine Mountain”:  http://www.edwebproject.org/sideshow/khmeryears/s21.html.

 

Underground warfare

Cu Chi Tunnels, Vietnam

Cu Chi Tunnels, Vietnam

It’s hard for a modern tourist in Vietnam to imagine the horrors of war that happened in such a beautiful country – not one war, but three, against France (1946-1954), America (1965-1975) and China (February-March 1979).

It’s important for a Western visitor to adjust away from the conventional mind-set of films such as Platoon (1986) and Full Metal Jacket (1987) and even Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), in which the Americans are the “white hats” and the Viet Cong are the villains.

The Củ Chi Tunnels tourist site lies 1½ hours’ drive from the centre of Saigon, yet this labyrinth of tunnels stretches for at least 75 miles and connects with the Saigon River.

On the ground at Củ Chi it makes more sense to take the local viewpoint, “Why are these bastards bombing my village?”  The ingenuity and the endurance of the six thousand Viet Cong guerrillas are astonishing:  the site shows the contrivances to hide access and ventilation to the tunnels, and the fiendishly clever man-traps that were devised to deter American troops on the ground.

A man demonstrates the manufacture of sandals from American truck tyres, deliberately designed with the brand-name upside down, to persuade troops that the footprints went in the opposite direction to the way the wearer was walking.

There is a below-ground kitchen which emits no smoke to its surroundings.

And we were invited to sample the typical Viet Cong diet of cassava (customarily used as cattle feed in Vietnam) and thin, unappetising tea.

I declined the invitation to traverse a short stretch of tunnel, suitably enlarged for Western tourists:  I decided that crawling on all fours in a claustrophobic space in 30°C temperatures wasn’t necessary to appreciate the rigours of fighting the Americans.

But I’m glad I’ve stood on the ground where these things happened, felt the steamy heat, and seen a sanitised but realistic display of artefacts that connect to the reality of war.